If you can spare three dollars and 50 cents, you can buy chips and salsa at the small cafe next door to the Jefferson Theater. Rummage around in your backseat for a couple more quarters and you can upgrade to the fish taco. Feeling adventurous? Take the risk and trade a Lincoln and three George’s for Cinema Taco’s sweet potato burrito. They can’t promise you will love it, but they do promise to trade you plenty of spicy Mexican calories in return for your cash.
When Scott Tiernan walked through the Cinema Taco doors five years ago, no such promise was made for his appetite. He traded two years of labor for the chance to somehow get connected with the Jefferson Theater. “I told myself, it doesn’t matter if I have to take out trash. As long as I am around these people and around this kind of environment, it will be good for me as a musician.”
Contrary to the fanciful vision audiences may have of the musician’s lifestyle, Scott Tiernan of Philip St. lives into his melodic calling in ways that require him to practice radical patience and discipline. From working at Cinema Taco to taking a year-long music hiatus to invest in his marriage, Scott understands the perseverance it takes to identify as a musician. “I’m going to do this and I’m going to do it well,” Scott stated, even if “it” is a mundane task like stuffing corn tortillas with cheese. “If you can’t be trusted with the little things, then you aren’t going to be trusted with the big things.”
With a Hefty bag in hand, Scott left the back doors of Cinema Taco one afternoon and, instead of returning immediately to his post, took a desvío through the Jefferson Theater doors. “No one else was in the venue and I remember thinking, someday I’m going to play on that stage,” Scott said. But for the time being, he was to serve nachos and burritos to the best of his ability.
Two years later, Scott opened for Parachute on the Jefferson Theater stage. A couple weeks after that, his name was printed on Donavan Frankenreiter’s ticket, also performing one evening at the Jefferson. “I wrote these songs at 18 and I heard it in my head—all these different sounds and the instrumentation—but I never got to perform that or hear that back. When I heard it for the first time performing on that stage with a full band, I was like, ‘this is all coming true! This is happening!’ It just gives me so much energy.”
But the stage is not a place for Scott or his band, Philip St., to proclaim themselves to the world. “It’s not for the fame and glory.” Instead Scott can“reach a lot of people on that stage. My music can be heard by a lot of people who need to hear it.”
In a society that frequently promotes satisfaction over discipline and glorifies pride more than humility, the words and rhythms that fill a room with Philip St. on stage share the fabric of a different world. “The song ‘Storybook’ is about this awesome and beautiful girl who is such a light and that is the epitome of a woman—this beautiful soul and beautiful person who influences wherever she goes and is such a light to everybody around her. That’s the type of person that any girl can aspire to be,” Scott explained. The song, written by Scott himself, describes his wife, whose work as co-owner of the consignment store Darling affords her the opportunity to not only run a business but also counsel and care for women shopping in her boutique.
“I want to write about how awesome marriage is. As tough as things may be, there is always something to be grateful for,” Scott said, reflecting on the time he spent writing “25 to Life.” The lyrics, accompanied by a straightforward melody, tell the story of Scott’s happily married parents, and offer him opportunities to play the role of his father, embracing the hard work it takes to care for his wife well. “When you hear ‘25 to life’ you think of somebody being in prison so it’s a hat off to that. The bridge is, ‘if this were a jury I’d want to be convicted cause I’m begging 25 to life.’ In other words, it’s not just 25 years of marriage, but I’m hoping for the rest of our life. It’s that celebration of marriage because you definitely don’t hear that these days.”
Scott’s originals are not the kind of flim-flam, hakuna matata lyrics that many artists swing to in their desire to avoid the hardships of reality. Rather than avoiding the experience of life’s downpours, his music is a tool that allows both himself and his listeners the opportunity to redirect their focus from the darkness of the clouds to their wide spectrum of colors and distinct shapes.
“Everybody understands fear; everybody understands that you can either make a decision based on hope or based out of fear,” Scott says. “And it’s not easy. I get scared all the time, worrying about if I want to send my music to this person or that person because they might say no or they might not like it. But this is what I’m called to do.” Scott’s bold loyalty to an unseen future is one way he moves from a life of fear to assurance.
Scott has found that nurturing his resolution to “give something to this world” through music requires profound humility. “I realize that I need help with it,” he admits, which is why he embodies a player on the field, consulting with teammates in songwriting circles and seeking insight from coaches. “I have some friends that I respect and go to specifically, like Paul Zach. If I’m working on a song I’ll play it for somebody if they come over just to see how it works for them.”
Earlier this month, Philip St. celebrated the release of their first CD, Traveling Thru, which includes “25 to Life” and “Storybook,” as well as an Irish wedding tune titled “Pilgrim.” Inspired by a number of culturally specific hums and echoes, “Pilgrim” exemplifies the latest challenge for Scott and his band. “I’m wrestling with how many sounds I want to put in while staying true to the music. I don’t want to go overboard on production. How much is fun and cool when working with new sounds, but how much is too much?” Scott questions. But he remains confident in his role as author of the music. “I used to think these songs were personalities and I had to capture what that song was about, but then I realized that the song doesn’t have any power over me. If I do something wrong with it, I’m not killing the song. It’s all learning.”
To further balance his desire for developing new and creative sounds, Scott looks forward to collaborating with other talent. “I’m just some white boy who can play the guitar, but I love sounds of the world. I would love to make some sweet, soulful tunes and melodies, but I can’t do that on my own.”
On any given evening, friends rally within coffee shops and music venues to see Scott and the rest of the Philip St. band perform. With their natural goofiness and genuine energy, they never fail to excite the crowd, especially in smaller spaces that allow Scott to talk about his songs and the stories behind them. On Sunday morning, however, Scott steps into a different role—that of music leader of an Earlysville church. “I’m a natural born performer. I love making people happy and giving them a show, but when I’m worshipping and taking the spiritual responsibility of leading, I want to take people to a place of intimacy with God. It’s not about me; it’s not about my voice.” Instead of compartmentalizing his time at church from his time on stage, Scott is worshipful in both arenas, but with an acute sensitivity to the needs of both his congregation and a concert audience. “I’m not going to reach people at the Jefferson by closing my eyes and pretending like I’m not on stage, the way I would at church. I need to engage with them and put on a show,” Scott says. While consciously making decisions to project his words in each of these spaces, he points out that he has responsibility in both, a phrase that Scott has leaned on for the entirety of his music career: “to play songs that make you feel good and live the life you are made to live.”