Billy Breathes

Originally Performed ByPhish
Appears On
VocalsTrey (lead), Mike, Page (backing)
Phish Debut1995-09-27
Last Played2021-10-15
Current Gap101 song history staff
Last Update2020-11-19


“Billy Breathes” marked a milestone in the development of the Phish catalog. In the mid-90s Phish sought to broaden their stylistic palette and tackle a significant musical challenge by developing more mellow, ballad-style original material to round out their rotation.

“Billy Breathes” stands out in this regard, especially considering the rest of the songs on the album that bears its name. All other songs have either been jamming vehicles (“Free,” “Taste,” “Character Zero,” and “Theme From the Bottom”) or were written after “Billy’s” 9/27/95 debut (see, for example, “Swept Away,” “Steep,” and “Talk”). While other ballads came before it (notably “Fast Enough for You”), “Billy” stands as a turning point in the band’s songwriting, as post-“Billy” ballads became more common.

”Billy Breathes” studio from Billy Breathes

When Billy Breathes (the album) was released prior to the fall 1996 tour, many fans tabbed the title song as the best song on the album, and some consider it the best piece of studio work in Phish’s catalog to date. The studio version saw the band nail the difficult, intricate harmonies so crucial to the song’s chorus. The brief instrumental interlude was augmented with additional instrumentation and a breathtaking guitar solo that seemed to catapult the emotional level of the song to new heights. 

“Billy Breathes” was in modest to heavy rotation from its debut through 2000, with its greatest frequency in 1995 and 1997. "Billy" has been flat-out scarce since then, with only two performances after the hiatus (7/7/03 Phoenix and 7/23/03 Deer Creek), and a small handful since the band returned to the stage in 2009, including 7/30/09 Red Rocks; 6/18/10 Hartford (with a -> out of “Light”); 6/15/12 at Atlantic City’s Bader Field; 7/30/14 Portsmouth, VA; 07/21/17 and 12/30/18 at Madison Square Garden; and 6/22/19 out of "What's the Use?" at Merriweather.

”Billy Breathes” – 6/18/10, Hartford, CT

Outside of Phish, “Billy Breathes” was offered as a duet with Trey on acoustic guitar and vocals and Peter Kater on piano during the annual Tibet House benefit at New York’s Carnegie Hall on 2/22/99. Trey also performed the song solo, on piano, during the TAB Trio’s inaugural May, 1999 tour. Be sure to check out the first performance on 5/8/99 in Madison, WI that Trey interrupted to tell a story about Neil Young. The next time the song would be played outside of Phish was nineteen years later on Trey’s 12/10/18 acoustic show in Eugene, Oregon, this time on acoustic guitar like the solo debut.

Trey reveals in the 2019 documentary Between Me and My Mind that he wrote the song about the phenomenon of the gift of life after he was so mesmerized by the birth and breath of his newborn daughter Eliza, whose nickname as a baby was "Billy." At a Trey acoustic show on 10/21/19 in Eau Clarie, Wisconsin, after “Billy Breathes,” he describes how the following song, “Strange Design,” was written a few days before she was born, in contrast to “Billy Breathes” written a few days after.

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