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Opening for Dwight and Nicole on April 28th, 2017 at the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven || Photo Credit: Anthony Esposito

The Evolution of Phil daRosa

By Nick Macksood

June 2017

Martha’s Vineyard has a problem. According to many Island musicians, the recent venue drought has left artists puzzled. Certainly, there are bars like the Port Hunter in Edgartown, or the Ritz in Oak Bluffs that hold their own with five or six nights each week dedicated to supporting the Island’s musical scene. But to see the Dock Dances at the Wharf come to a close for the season, or the more recent decision to discontinue concerts and shows at Flatbread (now the Tin Hangar) has dealt yet another blow to the Island’s reputation as a haven for creative expression. Yet, however thin the market may be for a place for artists to showcase, Island musicians will continue to adapt, one of those musicians being Phil daRosa.

DaRosa, whose family owns and operates Martha’s Vineyard Printing in downtown Oak Bluffs, was born and raised on the Island. Growing up listening to the likes of Clapton or Hendrix that his father played around the house Phil—maybe surprisingly—picked up the trumpet in third grade before transitioning to strings. Guitar and bass is what he’s known for playing around the Island. And if you don’t recognize Phil as a musical fixture on the Island, then you have not been paying attention.

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Phil daRosa stands in front of the camera with a gentle confidence before a gig || Photo Credit: Anthony Esposito

DaRosa is a tinkerer. A Renaissance man, if you will. Many Islanders wear seasonal hats—and daRosa is no exception—but perhaps none more than musicians who find themselves sitting in with friends’ groups on any given night. Phil, however, takes the notion of flux and flings it into space. The staggering amount of enterprises with which he keeps himself busy merely leave one under the sheer, vertiginous realization that the rest of us are the laziest human beings on earth.

Self propelled musician; co-owner and sound engineer of The Print Shop recording studio; founder of TPS Productions; producer and booking manager of the MV Sound Series: “Basically, I’m running three businesses. And, truth be told, I’m considering starting another one. But I won’t even get into that!” daRosa chuckled.

But daRosa has not always been a dizzying presence on the Island. For years he lived in western Massachusetts. There, daRosa would finish school, start his first band, Bathtub Mary, and tour around New England. It wasn’t until around ten years ago, when Phil decided to return to the Island, that he realized he could make a living playing music.

“I do have a pretty wide range of musical tastes,” daRosa tells me at one point in our talk. The Islander had come home, and in between winters spent touring with bands around the country, daRosa would play around 60-plus shows during a season, soaking up a kaleidoscope of genres: Dukes County Love Affair; The Boogies; Kodacrome; Island Thunder; 2nd Power. In the midst of it all, daRosa would also release two solo albums of his own.

Better Days (2007), is a full-length album that showcases a quarter-lifetime of musical interest. Many of the tracks, with their bright, choppy upstrokes and round acoustics make for a recognizable, if not sometimes nostalgic, soundtrack to those familiar with the Island’s music scene. Indeed, Better Days was recorded during time daRosa spent away from the Vineyard, in Holyoke. Certain songs, however, offer a glimpse of what would come.

DaRosa’s second effort, 2010’s Away, takes the same virtuosity of genre Phil cultivated playing live shows and condenses it into a four track EP that stands out not only in its brevity but also in its electronic bent. Synthetic keyboards pump the beat through “Beneath Your Feet”, still comfortably mired in the self-sufficient, beach-bummy lyrics particular of Island life slowly meandering through the seasons. “It will turn around / with the night comes day,” daRosa sings, “We got everything right here / and that’s all we need.”


Phil playing alongside Elissa Pociask and Ryan Casey of Kodacrome at The Knitting Factory, NYC 2012 || Photo courtesy of Phil daRosa

The year 2012 brought daRosa and his longtime friend and collaborator Ryan Casey together to establish the Print Shop studio. During the process, daRosa joined Casey’s electronic duo, Kodacrome, with Elissa Pociask. When speaking of Casey, daRosa says, “he has certainly influenced me to incorporate more electronic elements into my music. The better I get at electronic production, the more fun it is, and the more I realize how many options there are.”

Kodacrome’s 2012 EP, Perla, recorded at the Print Shop, is perhaps the work that best explains daRosa’s decision to move in a more electronic direction for his next studio album (tentatively set to release fall of 2017.)

In the past, daRosa would construct songs by coming up with guitar riffs and then filling them in with melodies and lyrics to follow. His newer work attempts to drop the guitar and start composition from the piano, laying synthetic rhythms as foundations for analog instruments to fill in the space.

“Even lyrics,” he tells me, “I’ll throw down some music that’s halfway decent, then I’ll record a patch of vocals with no words. Basically just mumbles. But I’ll go back, figure out what works and then decide what those vocals sound like, what the words are. Even if I don’t bring a topic to mind when I’m writing, one will emerge anyway. It’s a little like the song writes itself.”

DaRosa sent a couple unfinished tracks to show me what he meant. “Faraday”, co-produced by Casey, is unlike anything daRosa has published before, and for that reason he is uncertain whether or not the new music deserves to be marketed under a different name. “It feels like an alter-ego at this point, you know? I’m working on this all alone, behind closed doors, nobody really knows about it yet.”

The faltering pulse of the opening verse of “Faraday” shifts into a free-fall chorus with the break-neck pace of electronica. The rhythm sounds urgent, and the spectral lyrics carry us along with little effort. DaRosa’s latest work is reminiscent of his previous albums in a way that distinguishes itself from much of the feet-in-the-sand stylings that saturate the Island’s summer music scene.

Phil at Featherstone

Singing and playing to a lively crowd on the outdoor stage for Musical Mondays at Featherstone Center for the Arts || Photo Credit: Anthony Esposito

“Faraday is almost a letter to Donald Trump,” daRosa says, a song meant both to interrogate him while also staying positive. The song’s orange-colored focal point wouldn’t be apparent had I not known beforehand. The song’s recurring question, “Do you dream in bricks of gold?” could trouble Islanders and summer wash-a-shores alike–anyone looking to turn a profit, even if it means erasing cultural history.

Venues may be disappearing as of late, but summer is quickly approaching and daRosa’s MV Sound Series has become a reliable stage both for local and regional acts looking to play their music. To that end, daRosa’s place among island musicians— although constantly evolving—has dug its roots here on Martha’s Vineyard. And it looks like he’s here to stay.