Zara Phillips’ therapeutic journey through music and prose

Zara Phillips interview

MICHAEL J. STAHL

ZARA H. PHILLIPS

Singer-songwriter, adoption advocate and author Zara H. Phillips recounts in her memoir, “Somebody’s Daughter: A Moving Journey of Discovery, Recovery and Adoption,” a painful and poignant journey of understanding and coping with the impact of adoption, searching for her birth parents, confronting addiction and recovery and dealing with reactions to sharing her experiences.

She explains in the book: “When one tells the truth about their own story, others will be involved who may have strong feelings about it. I tried to explain to the people I had close relationships with that the focus of this story is mine, that it is written from the inner journey of the adoptee. It caused some very difficult, hard conversations.”

Phillips will be among the talented participants in the third annual Montclair Literary Festival, taking place March 20-24 at various Montclair venues. A Montclair resident since 2005, she will appear March 20 at 7 p.m. at the United Way Building auditorium with fellow singer-songwriters Richard Thompson and Warren Zanes, who are also Montclair residents. The three will take turns reading from their books and then will play a few of their songs. Thompson will read from “Beeswing,” a memoir of his life and career from 1967 to 1975, and Zanes will read from his bestselling “Petty: The Biography,” about Tom Petty. Phillips will showcase new songs composed about recent events, including the death of her birth father in January, and read from “Somebody’s Daughter.”

This trio released a video in 2018 (see below) for Phillips’ song with the same title as her book; the song uses a haunting beat and guitar to guide her painful story of longing, isolation and addiction. She sings:

No fairytale begins for me
No mother’s milk, no warm embrace
I was searching even then
Searching names and searching faces
All my life I’ve walked this desert …
Had to learn to read the wind

The chorus repeats:

To you I’m nothing and nobody
But I’m somebody’s daughter.

MICHAEL J. STAHL

Zara H. Phillips and Richard Thompson.

Phillips met Zanes when they performed at Montclair’s First Night New Year’s Eve celebration in 2012. She introduced her partner, Thompson, to Montclair, where he moved about one year ago, occasionally helping Phillips develop new material and enjoying the creative community that embraces them both. One of his songs — “Do All These Tears Belong to You,” from his latest album, Thirteen Rivers — focuses on adoption, according to Phillips.

She joined me in my home for this interview, one block from the home where she spent many years raising her three children.

Phillips said that writing her memoir was “difficult because I have to keep focus on myself, have to protect other people. I wouldn’t go into too much details, but I had to be the main voice. People get threatened. I revealed so much in this book, but I also shifted timelines around.”

When she writes songs, it goes “very quickly,” she said. “It’s therapeutic for me and often the best songs come really fast.” She says she writes best when she is at “either extreme” of emotion — either at peace or in the midst of a struggle.

Phillips writes and performs with an emotional honesty that will resonate with many and spark debate with others. Having lost both of her fathers within less than one year, she said “another hell of being adopted is you have the pain of losing four parents and with your birth parents, you lose them twice … I’m writing some new songs to tell the story of Vittorio (her birth father) dying. Life keeps changing. And there’s a couple of songs that Richard is helping me on. He helped me with the song, ‘Somebody’s Daughter.’ That’s what I do with my grief. I write songs.”

Phillips added that Thompson has been very supportive of her musical career, and has booked her to perform backing vocals at Fairport Convention’s annual Cropredy festival in England this summer. She was reminded years ago by a friend that her song “You, Me and Us” (which appears on her album of the same title), written while waiting to pick up her kids at Bradford elementary school in Montclair, had a similar name to Thompson’s album You? Me? Us?

At the time, Phillips dismissed any concerns and said, “I’m never going to meet him and I am no one famous. I’ll play it at small gigs.” But sometimes a promising relationship can flourish during a period of incredible loss. While she met Thompson several years ago, he moved to the same town where she lives during the time frame when she lost two dads and a close friend, photographer Andrew R. Cohen.

In the beautiful “You, Me and Us,” she sang: “It’s you and me and them and us/And years and days, the tides, the rush/And some will stay and some will leave/Falling, falling away.”

Born and raised in London, Phillips moved to Los Angeles in the 1990s to develop her musical career, after successfully performing as a backing vocalist for bands and artists, including Boomtown Rats’ Bob Geldof, the creator of Live Aid, when he recorded his 1986 solo album Deep in the Heart of Nowhere. In addition to touring with Geldof, Phillips worked with U.K. artists Matt Bianco, Nick Kamen, David Essex and John Illsley (of Dire Straits). She has performed solo, and recorded the albums When the Rain Stops (digitally released in 2006) and You, Me & Us (digitally released in 2011). The latter features the stirring “I’m Legit,” co-written with legendary rapper Darryl McDaniels of Run-D.M.C.

McDaniels learned of his adoption at age 35, when he was writing his autobiography. Together, both artists share their pain and longing in this song. Phillips asks if her birth mother remembers her and looks for her “the way I look for you.” McDaniels cries out, “I just wanna know my history/Why are these secrets kept from me?/I’m living my life on Chapter Two/I wanna start on Page One like you all do.”

The cover of Zara H. Phillips’ memoir, “Somebody’s Daughter: A Moving Journey of Discovery, Recovery and Adoption.”

They also released a video for“I’m Legit” (see below), hoping for it to connect with other adoptees and stir up discussion about the need for open access to birth records.

Phillips described her birth mother as “an unmarried 17-year old woman who got pregnant by a man she barely knew.” She was adopted in 1965 along with her brother Gary (who is a few years older), and her parents provided a stable home in some ways. Her father was a solicitor and later a district judge and her mother stayed at home to care for her family.

But there was trouble. Her father was distant and non-communicative and Phillips grew up feeling unwanted by him. She suffered from depression and low self-esteem at a young age and attributes these experiences, in part, to feeling rejected by her father and disconnected from her birth parents. Her brother’s trajectory involved heroin addiction, and she found herself taking other types of hard drugs, too.

“I couldn’t really cope, and when you are an addict, the drugs really help you cope with normal things, so you do it to live and to change the mood,” she says.

She was fortunate to accompany her brother to treatment when she was 19, and at age 22 got sober through a 12-step program. “There is a link between addiction and adoption. We are over-represented in treatment centers, prisons and institutions. Adoptees and foster kids are 5 percent more likely to attempt suicide than non-adoptees. In my case, would I have become addicted if I stayed with my birth mother? I don’t know. I was blessed to meet supportive people in my program — it’s a we thing. You can’t do it yourself.”

She added that it was difficult when she was touring, because of the temptations of alcohol and other drugs.

She explains in her book that when she lived in North London in the ’70s, she would hold her mother’s hand and look into the faces of women she passed, searching for someone who resembled her. Phillips explained that her mother initially offered to help her locate her birth mother, but quickly retracted, expressing concern that it would be too painful.

This theme of balancing her desire for identity with the complicated consequences on loved ones has been a challenge. Phillips said that our culture reinforces silence around the struggles of adoptees and discourages reconnecting with birth parents, and she grew weary of being told that “I should just be grateful that I wasn’t aborted or put in a children’s home.”

At age 20, desperate to make sense of her identity, she found her birth mother, who told her that her birth father was Italian but that she did not know his last name. She reconnected with her adoptive father when her adoptive mother died about 10 years ago, and gained a deeper understanding of his distant ways. In July 2016, she found her birth father, who was living in New Jersey, through the DNA testing service, AncestryDNA. She was delighted to see that he had some of her traits, including her green eyes and an open, energetic personality, and enjoyed developing a warm, loving relationship with him.

Sadly, she lost both her adoptive and birth father in the same year.

“I blow the myth of adoption because I’m talking about the real truth … and so many families only want to talk about, ‘Oh, how wonderful to take in an adopted child.’ (Adoptive parents) can love us. But there are attachment issues that come into this, too. I’m being honest and I talk about all this stuff all the time.”

She is also revising her one-woman 2013 play “Beneath My Father’s Sky,” which focuses on her relationship with her adoptive father and other family members. She explained that the premise for her song “Under the Same Sky,” featured in the show, was the notion that we are all connected by living under the same sky. Phillips writes:

I was not born of love, just a stolen moment.
Imaginary child, imaginary man,
When she went out that night her eyes were full of
Starlight, to welcome arms to bring her home again.
Do you think of me, do you ever wonder am I in your dreams …?

I’m standing. I’m waiting under the big sky.

Phillips’ need to connect with others is also a theme of her advocacy work. She has facilitated group discussions with teens at schools in Woodstock, N.Y., and Maine, using storytelling and music to help them express their feelings and share their experiences. She has visited schools with a high percentage of adoptees and found some students who are struggling.

“They are dealing with being relinquished by their mother. And you get these mixed stories. ‘Your mother loved you, but she gave me away.’ You get these mixed stories in your head it takes years to overcome. Adoptees struggle so much. Some adoptees are fine, but I’m interested in the kids that are struggling, that want to kill themselves, and one thing I always ask adoptive parents is, ‘What’s the least thing you understood before you entered into this?’ and they separately will say, ‘We never understood that our kid would have so much grief.’ And that’s what takes everybody by surprise and that’s what nobody wants to talk about.”

Phillips also gave voice to local and national artists as host of “Arts Up Close” on Montclair’s local TV channel 34, from 2013 to 2015. Meg Patrick, singer-songwriter and town resident, was one of the people who developed this show and hosted it from 2011 to 2013. “When I passed the torch over to Zara,” Patrick said, “she raised the bar immediately, taking the show from a very homespun vibe to a very polished vibe, due to her fresh vision and, in part, due to the fact that the township finally had a budget to invest in higher-quality camera equipment.”

ANDREW R. COHEN

A photo of Phillips by Andrew R. Cohen.

Patrick booked the music for the town’s 2012 First Night celebration, and said that a highlight of the event was booking Phillips and Zanes, as well as introducing Phillips to photographer Andrew R. Cohen, who died in 2018. The two were inseparable and could be seen walking around town collaborating on projects. Cohen helped Phillips create a visual story to many of her projects focusing on adoption, including serving as the photographer for her one-woman show.

“Andy was the first person to read my play and he accompanied me to the beach to take photos of me in chairs, representing my talks with my fathers in the play,” Phillips said.

She credits Cohen with not only providing support while she created her catalog of songs and prose, but also supporting her advocacy efforts.

“One of my main passions is to educate people about the adoption experience and about addiction, as well. I’ve gone into the inner workings of the mind of an adoptee, and I’m not saying every adoptee thinks like me, but I can absolutely tell you that I’m not alone because I’ve been to so many conferences and spoken at many events and there are many of us that feel the same way, from our generation where we come from the closed adoption.” (In closed adoptions, the birth parents relinquish contact with biological children and surrender his or her rights to adoptive parents).

Though opening up records and searching for birth parents is not desired by all adoptees or their parents, Phillips said her work with adoption groups enabled her to see “for the first time that I was talking to people who had experiences like me. There is more support now for parents struggling, and now we can talk about it way more.”

This winter she will work on a young adult novel, which will have a different focus than her prior books. She also looks forward to frequent visits to London, which, she said, still has a familiar feeling of home.

For information, visit zaraphillips.net.

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