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Headshot of songwriter Philip Bowen. April 6th, 2023

Catching up with LEAF/NewSong Competition Finalist Philip Bowen

Just about a year ago West Virginia native Philip Bowen performed as a finalist at the annual LEAF Performance and Songwriting Competition, produced by NewSong Music. While Bowen is perhaps best known for his TikToks (where he adds a fiddle part to pop songs from “Free Fallin’” to “Enter Sandman” to “Gangsta’s Paradise”) he stuck to acoustic guitar and original folk/Americana songs for the competition.

By the way, Bowen won TikTok’s Gamers Greatest Talent competition.

The LEAF event, in May of 2022, “Was actually one of the one of the first things [where I traveled] to go do all original stuff,” Bowen recalls. “I’m so glad like I did it when I did it, because it was a great experience. I got to meet lots of interesting people. To hear other people doing their songs, you get inspired by what they’re writing.” In fact, Bowen has kept in touch with fellow finalist Stephan Sylvester and the two have written songs together.

In a way, the LEAF competition kicked off a big year for Bowen, which included an interview by Rolling Stone on Twitch, performing at NPR’s Mountain Stage as part of the opening show for the program’s 40th season, co-writing in Nashville, and readying his own album for release. (And, since this interview, Bowen also teased social media viewers with a photo of himself at “America’s Got Talent.”)

New Music

Probably the biggest thing coming up for Bowen is the release of his new album — his debut solo project — due out this summer. “For me it was very important to record the entire album in Appalachia, generally, but specifically, but West Virginia,” he says. “I did all the studio work in West Virginia, and every session player (except for one pedal steel player from Nashville) was talent from Appalachia.”

The record, Bowen says, is a mix of eclectic styles. “Most of it’s very Americana and dealing with country vibes. And then a couple more jazzy, bluesy tunes on there.” He adds, “It was a very cool experience. I’m really excited to have it done. It almost feels like I ran a marathon.”

But backing up to last year — a month or so after LEAF, Bowen had some songwriters reaching out to him. One of those experience of co-writing over Zoom led to an opportunity to play at Nashville’s iconic Bluebird Café. Usually, a songwriter must, “jump through a million hoops,” to land a gig at the Bluebird, Bowen says. “It was a well-known thing that I got invited to come and do, versus having to go the open mic route and do all these auditions for it. I got invited to come and I got to play like, seven songs on center stage. It was just a really fun night.”

Mountain Stage

The Mountain Stage booking came out of Bowen’s connection to West Virginia — though he and his family are currently based in Michigan. A job offer in 2014 brought him north.

But, “Growing up in West Virginia, and being from the region, I had known about Mountain Stage my whole life,” Bowen says. He had heard that friends in West Virginia were sending his music to the producers of Mountain Stage, which was flattering, but, “I just was not expecting too much from it and I didn’t want to cold call them and force my stuff on them.”

Instead, while speaking to a local media outlet, “I mentioned on this TV interview that it would just be a dream come true to do Mountain Stage. It would be such an honor to do it,” Bowen recalls. A few weeks later, Bowen was visiting his parents in West Virginia for the holidays when he received an email from Mountain Stage host Larry Groce saying he wanted someone local for the opening show of the 40th season. The date was just a few weeks away, but Bowen didn’t bother to check his calendar for conflicts. “I was like, ‘Oh, 100%’,” he says.

The whole experience was unbelievable, Bowen says. “I got to sing with Kathy Mattea. I think each person has about a 25-minute set. So, it was a true joy, and it was sold out. The whole evening was a really wonderful experience and to be able to do that in my hometown — it was just the coolest, most surreal experience.”

Rolling Stone

But Bowen’s big year didn’t stop there. Before Covid, Bowen says, he had plans to play coffee shops and other small gigs in the Detroit area to work his way into that music scene. When everything shut down, he turned to online platforms to share his music. “And that really changed my whole life because of the audience it ended up giving me,” he says. “I had said yes to a couple things from Twitch — they reached out to me maybe a year before that and offered to include me in this Artists Collective thing they were doing because they wanted more music streamers to use their platform.”

He continues, “It was a collaborative thing. I got to meet some people who were doing what I was doing. And I got a couple of front-page opportunities through that on Twitch. And then this person from Twitch corporate reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, I just wanna let you know, Rolling Stone is doing this series on singer-songwriters. They said most of them are published, major-label supported songwriters. But I think that if it’s okay with you, I want to put you forward for it.”

Bowen says he didn’t get his hopes up, but he also thought, “What can it hurt?” Three weeks later, Bowen received a message from Rolling Stone’s editorial staff asking if he was available on a particular date.

The week of the Rolling Stone interview, Bowen was in Nashville for a songwriters workshop. He left a day early and drove home so he could do the online interview from his home studio. “I got home and this massive snowstorm come through Michigan, like no power, no internet,” Bowen says. Because he couldn’t change the date and time of the interview, Bowen’s family stepped into help, scrambling to find a place with electricity.

“I drove to this random warehouse in Detroit where my brother knew somebody,” Bowen remembers. “We hung a black tablecloth on the wall. And then I just started setting everything up to make it look like I was in a studio. Literally, I plugged in the last thing 45 seconds before my soundcheck.” The risk paid off: “It was total chaos. But it was just a miracle that it happened.”