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‘Music kind of pours out of me.’ UNG professor warrants acclaim in UK Songwriting Contest
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Phillip Mitchell, an English professor at University of North Georgia, won the 2021 UK Songwriting Contest's open category with his original song, "Run With a Torch." Photo courtesy Phillip Mitchell

Phillip Mitchell found his muse early in life.

At 5 or 6 years old, the University of North Georgia associate English professor turned two boomboxes into a multitrack recorder, layering his keyboard and vocals with popcorn tins used for percussion.

“It’s just been a natural part of who I am since I was a kid,” he said.

Now at 42, his music — which he records professionally now — has received international acclaim via the 2021 UK Songwriting Contest, winning the competition’s open category with his original “Run With a Torch.” 

“Music kind of pours out of me,” Mitchell said. “Particularly in the last couple of years, I’ve tried to move the cognitive side of the creative process aside and not be so self-conscious about music and let the muse sort of flow.”

The sentiments of “Run With a Torch” reflect Mitchell’s own aspirations of having a foothold in the music industry.

“I’ve always had a dream of doing something with my music and getting it out there, but it’s difficult because I’m not a really big fan of self-promotion — and I think a lot of artists struggle with that,” he said. “So I had this idea: I’m going to keep doing it, I’m going to keep writing and keep trying to pursue this dream and out of those things is where the song was born.”

Composed near the onset of the pandemic, Mitchell said he didn’t pen the lyrics with only himself in mind.

“I think it’s a universal sentiment, to keep going,” he said. “I was definitely in that frame of mind (of) trying to find hope and look toward something that was better. I felt a lot more determination, for some reason, to write during the pandemic — maybe as solace, maybe it was a kind of comfort.”

According to Mitchell, his oeuvre doesn’t contain anything with a sound or style quite like “Run With a Torch.”

“It’s bizarre, it’s not even the one I thought was going to win; I thought it was going to be ‘I’m Not Doing Well,’” he said, describing a lovelorn, Frank Sinatra-style ballad that placed among the competition’s retro category finalists.

Partial to the “Great American Songbook” style of songwriting — which is tangible throughout “Run With a Torch” — Mitchell is also a “really big fan” of composers like George Gershwin, Gordon Jenkins, Chet Baker, Oscar Peterson and Cole Porter.

“I really like melody,” he said.

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Phillip Mitchell, an English professor at University of North Georgia, won the 2021 UK Songwriting Contest's open category with his original song, "Run With a Torch." Photo courtesy Phillip Mitchell

Raised in Dalton and Chatsworth, Mitchell said music was an integral part of the fabric of his childhood. His mother had a predilection for pop and Motown sound and sang in the church choir and his father was prone to pick up the guitar “every now and then,” though neither of them were so deeply invested in music that it spurred Mitchell’s own pursuit.

“I don’t know where that comes from; it’s a mystery to me,” he said. “I knew from a young age that I wanted to do artistic things.”

According to Mitchell, studying and teaching literature — which he does full-time on the UNG’s Blue Ridge campus — has helped him develop a “lyrical sensibility” as a songwriter.

“Knowing and studying poetry helps me develop a sense of rhythm and also a sense of image,” he said. “I think vision is really important when you’re writing a song. As I tell my creative writing students, you’ve got to translate the emotion you’re feeling without spelling it out directly.”

In addition to his submissions to the UK Songwriting Contest, which he’s entered since 2012, when he was earning a PhD in creative writing from the University of Newcastle in England, Mitchell recently released a rock album under the pseudonym Jefferson Hyll, a nod to his former addresses in Jefferson, Georgia, and Copperhill, Tennessee — two periods that were pivotal to his artistic development. The name is purposely spelled to avoid confusion with the Kansas-based vineyard.

Mitchell is also the music director at Faith Presbyterian Church in Blue Ridge and often writes songs for the choir.

His love for multiple genres, he said, often spurs an internal tug of war

“They compete for my time — that’s probably the biggest conflict. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’m all of these things. Because if I don’t, I feel like I’m settling in one area of my life. I can’t sit still long enough, figuratively, in life to just focus on one thing.”

Mitchell feels he’s always been a step ahead of himself, owing to childhood ambition, though he said he didn’t reach his musical peak until about five years ago.

“If my 5-year-old self could appear here now, I feel like he would say, ‘It took you long enough,’” Mitchell said. “I wanted to be a star to be a star when I was little — I’m still obviously nowhere near that. I was really ambitious, so I was always ahead of myself growing up. I think it’s taken me a long time to realize, ‘These things can take time for some people.’”

In addition to a membership to the Guild of International Songwriters and Composers and international copyright of “Run With a Torch,” Mitchell was also awarded a six-month membership to a song pitching service and personal media promotions, which only select winners received. The contest will also be pitching Mitchell’s winning song to “business contacts with an eye toward sync licensing or a publishing deal.”

Mitchell’s music can be heard on SoundCloud.