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Austin a cappela singer to perform at home after national TV stint

Dale Roe

Garland Phillips didn't grow up dreaming of singing for large crowds, but it kind of runs in the family.

Her dad Randy Phillips (pastor of PromiseLand West, a nondenominational Austin church) is a member of the longtime Christian vocal group Phillips, Craig and Dean, which has sold more than 2 million records and has the No. 6 song on Billboard's Christian music chart, "Revelation Song."

So, it's not really too surprising that his 21-year-old daughter became a member of Voices of Lee, a Christian a cappella group from Lee University in Tennessee, and wound up competing with the group on national television.

Phillips talked to me via telephone after a morning of classes while she sipped regular coffee from Starbucks — a power outage prevented her from getting her usual drink, a tall breve no-foam with whip latte. I was anxious to ask her about her group's performance on the NBC show "The Sing-Off," but first I had to find out about the name.

"My parents decided to name me (Garland) whether I was a boy or a girl, and I turned out to be a girl, so they just stuck with the name," she explained.

Those parents are bringing Voices of Lee to Westlake High School's Performing Arts Center, 4100 Westbank Drive, on Jan. 31 at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. The concerts will include comments from Pastor Phillips.

The group just celebrated its 15-year anniversary, capped by a reunion concert with past members and an appearance on NBC's "The Sing-Off," on which eight vocal groups competed against each other, "American Idol"-style, in competition for a $100,000 recording contract and a tour to promote the resulting album.

You might suspect that the group is what attracted Phillips to Lee University, but that's not the case. Although she sang in choir in high school at Hyde Park Baptist Church, Phillips says she has only been "singing consistently for about four years," and she hadn't even heard of Voices of Lee until after she had applied to the school and was accepted.

"It kind of just fell into my lap," she says. The group's director, Danny Murray, is friends with Phillips' father and told him that a spot was available. He urged Randy Phillips to ask his daughter to audition.

She joined the group in the summer of 2007 as a sophomore after transferring from a school in Chicago and toured with the group for several months before beginning classes in the fall. Phillips performs with the group as a second soprano, "right in the middle of the girl parts," she says.

In spite of the sometimes-grueling, 16-hour days, Phillips has only positive things to say about her group's appearance on "The Sing-Off." The co-ed Voices of Lee wound up in a respectable third place finish behind the all-male Beelzebubs from Medford, Mass., and Nota, an all-male group from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Nota will be singing at the church in March.

"To be around the celebrities that last night in the finale was pretty incredible," she says. The group got to sing with Natasha Bedingfield, which Phillips describes as "an absolute dream."

I wondered if a Christian group had the odds stacked against it in a decidedly secular competition. Voices of Lee, appearing mostly in churches, regularly performs big gospel numbers as well as Christmas and patriotic songs.

"None of the songs we sang (on the show) were really gospel kind of songs," she admits. But she says that the tunes the producers ended up choosing for the group, such as Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," were all inspirational in their own ways.

Fans of "The Sing-Off" can expect some of those numbers to become a regular part of the group's routine and performed at the upcoming Austin shows. "I'm not sure exactly what we'll be singing, but I know we will be singing stuff from that show," Phillips says.

Her brush with fame hasn't caused Phillips, a senior in Lee's health science program, to go Hollywood, and her career plans have not changed.

"I'm kind of interested in doing something medically," she says, "but I know music will always be a part of my life in some way."