Phil Vassar is an early riser and quite a punctual one. So give him two points to start with. He calls precisely at 8:30 a.m., just as scheduled. And even though he sounds like he's fighting an allergy, he's audibly cheerful as he chats about the ins and outs of his latest album, Prayer of a Common Man.
This is Vassar's first CD for Universal Records South, to which he signed last year after a seven-season run at Arista Records that yielded three studio albums and a greatest hits collection.
The separation from Arista was tough, Vassar admits. "Everybody at Arista -- they're my friends. [But leaving] wasn't on any harsh terms or anything [like that] at all."
Then there's the plus side of switching labels. "Sometimes, in our business," he observes, "particularly as an artist, it's probably good to shake it up a little bit and change things around. I've seen it do wonders for a lot of people. I've seen Vince Gill do well and Toby Keith. Some artists just sat there [at their original label] a little bit and then went somewhere else with renewed hope and vigor. ... It's a fresh start, a clean slate. It's a good thing, and I love it."
As befits a man who got his musical start in Nashville as a songwriter, Vassar wrote or co-wrote 10 of the 12 songs on Prayer, two of them with his former wife, Julie. The couple divorced last year, and Vassar acknowledges that their breakup echoes in the album.
"It was definitely a factor," he says. "A relationship gone bad can make you write about things, that's for sure. . . . One thing we could always do well was write together. She's an incredibly talented songwriter, and for some reason we were always able to do that together -- maybe better than most things."
Although the Virginia-born artist had several songs in hand for the new album, he didn't actually begin recording it until his contract with Universal Records South was firm. Nor had he yet settled on the album's "common man" concept when he started recording.
"It just sort of crept up on me," he explains. "As I was writing it, it took shape. The songs were written and things fit in. I said, 'Well, this works here, and this works there.' It was sort of like a puzzle that came together for me."
The upshot is a collection of lyrics that touches on everyday problems and the small joys that make them bearable. Nowhere is the tension between pain and joy more obvious than in "The World Is a Mess." He explains how the song evolved.
"I'd come home in the middle of a record and a divorce, and my kids, who are 4 and a-half and 9 and a-half, just kind of like to dance at nighttime. They like to turn the music up in the bedroom and dance and have fun. We do that, and we just have the best time. One morning, I went in to write with Tom Douglas, and I said, 'Hey, I have this idea for a song -- the world is a mess, I feel like dancing.' He just started laughing and said, 'I love it!' So we just sat and wrote it. We had a really good time. ... The cool thing about it is the way it changes tempos and changes feel."
Vassar's switch in record labels paired him for the first time with songwriter-producer Mark Wright. "Mark and I have been friends," he says, "and I've been a big fan of his work. For years and years, he's made great records. I'd call him about [Lee Ann Womack's] 'I Hope You Dance' or some Mark Chesnutt record that I just flipped out over and say, 'Man, you did it again.' I just couldn't wait to work with him -- and I've worked with some [great producers, like] Frank Rogers, Byron Gallimore and Dann Huff. I've loved all the producers I've worked with."
Wright and Vassar cut three more songs than are included in the album. "It was really hard to decide what not to put on the record," Vassar says. "A couple of the songs that I left off were songs I can't wait for folks to hear. But the reality is that you can only get about three -- sometimes four -- singles off a record. You don't want an album full of singles sitting there.
"Sometimes albums need certain songs -- a splash of this, like a painting. Some of my favorite songs on any album are not the singles. They're album cuts. So I think that's what you have to do -- splatter the thing with some album cuts you really love."
So does the now 43-year-old Vassar still drop in and rock out at fraternity parties as was his habit a few years back? "Not as much as I used to," he says with a chuckle "But we still like to go out and have a good time and keep it real out there on the road."
He's also cut back on pitching his songs to other artists. "I don't really push that as much as I did," he says. "But I can foresee the day when I do that because I've got a lot of songs sitting around that I think are definitely worthy. And you can't cut them all [yourself], you know."
In the meantime, Vassar continues to revel in the contours of the new album he's crafted. "From beginning to end, I'm just really crazy about the record," he says. "I put it on and listened to it on a long plane ride the other day, which is something I don't usually get to do. ... It's a roller coaster ride. I like that. It's not the same old merry-go-round."