Born in Wales in 1969 and brought up in Warwickshire, Julian Philips studied music at Emmanuel College, Cambridge; his music has been performed at major festivals and venues including the BBC Proms, Tanglewood, Welsh National Opera, Glyndebourne and the Wigmore Hall, by artists including Gerald Finley, Dawn Upshaw, Sir Thomas Allen, the Vertavo String Quartet, the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra and the BBC orchestras. He has received numerous broadcasts, and his work has been the subject of a BBC Wales television documentary.

Philips has enjoyed a particular affinity with music for the voice and has received critical acclaim for his settings of e e cummings, Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson and Arthur Rimbaud among others: Fern Hill was featured in Dawn Upshaw's 1997 Wigmore Hall masterclass, while There is a morn by men unseen, premiered by Gerald Finley and Julius Drake, was commissioned for the Director's Festival Gala Concert at the Wigmore Hall in 2003. In addition to solo vocal works, Philips has written several works for choirs including Reach for Andromeda, a birthday tribute to Sir Michael Tippett, premiered by the Finzi Singers in 1995 and taken up by the BBC Singers.

Following the success of Philips' 1999 orchestral work Strange Seas, commissioned by the Britten Sinfonia, the BBC Proms commissioned a symphonic poem Out of Light, premièred at the Royal Albert Hall by the BBC NOW in 2001. Philips has recently worked on a full-length ballet based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses for English National Ballet. This was followed in 2007 by The Snow Queen, also for ENB, based on the music of Prokofiev; the ballet was toured again in 2010.

In 2007 Philips took up a position as the first ever composer in residence at Glyndebourne Opera. In the course of his residency, Philips has created new works for the chorus including Followers (2007). A one-act chamber opera, The Yellow Sofa, was  premiered in 2009, with a new full-length opera, The Knight Crew, commissioned for 2010.  Philips' opera for The Opera Group, Varjak Paw, premièred and toured in Autumn 2008.  He has enjoyed an artistic partnership with director Michael Grandage, with whom he has collaborated on productions including The Tempest, Richard III & Edward II.

Philips took up the post of Joint Head of Composition at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 2004. He has tutored at Cambridge University, and led innovative adult learning programmes at the Wigmore Hall and for the Orchestra of the Swan. In 2007 Philips was made Honorary Fellow of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.