Art And Commerce: A Q&A With Sam Phillips
If Sam Phillips did nothing but star in Die Hard 3 and share a name with a famous record exec, she would still be a cult figure. But that’s just trivia. The California native and ex-wife of T Bone Burnett is far more than that – she’s a songwriter and artist of the highest caliber.
Throughout her career, she’s been interested in doing things her own way, which lead to her recent and highly successful experiments in DIY digital music distribution. Her latest physical album, Solid State, compiles the best of her self-released songs from her site. We talked to Phillips about Solid State, her Christian music beginnings, her turn as a backup singer on The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight,” and what’s coming next.
How are you feeling about the new record?
Well, I don’t feel a whole lot, because I’m still writing for another record. The record we put out is a compilation of the web project that I did called “Long Play” which was five EPs and one full length album and art work and blogs and video logs and audio logs over the course of a year, actually a little over that. But it was about fifty songs, and I took the tracks that I liked best and made an album out of that. We put that out for people that you know, mxaybe didn’t want to go through fifty songs and didn’t want just digital only. We found that there were quite a few people that wanted a physical copy of it, so that’s what we did.
But I am continuing to work on and almost finished with an album that will come out next year.
And that’s Pretty Timebomb?
What’s that album going to be like?
A nostalgic sort of dream of being a pop star in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. It’s a sweet kind of album and I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know what compelled me to make it. It’s probably a bad idea, but everytime I listen to what I’ve done, it makes me really happy. So I figure, that must mean something and I should go ahead and put it out there.
These tracks were released digitally at first. Were you able to reach a percentage of your audience that you expected to doing digital only releases?
Yeah. This was a very intense project because of all the material. So, I wasn’t aiming for really anybody on the street. I was aiming for or trying to produce a lot of music for the people that were interested and you know, the people that have been listening faithfully for a long time. I really wanted to do something for them, because typically my albums have had three or four or five years in between. I’m slow at writing so I thought I would give myself this limitation, if you will, of having to do a lot of songs in a short amount of time. I hadn’t even done one song when I started, so it wasn’t like I had a bunch of songs ready to go. I invited the listeners with me on that journey and did some interviews with some of the musicians and we did a drum filled week. I put up some of my collages, I did some blogs. So it was kind of the whole process of the year long web project.
W will you go back to more stuff like that? Do you plan to do that or are you just going to do Pretty Timebomb as a regular thing?
I don’t know, I don’t think we can stick to one thing these days. I don’t think you can just sign a record contract and put out records anymore. I don’t think it’s that kind of world. There are all kinds of interesting things to do. I may be working on a book. There’s great freedom in releasing things digitally, but there are also limitations in that. Mostly the sound quality. Recently, I was listening to Bob Dylan’s mono box set, released on vinyl. T Bone Burnett and I were playing that and then he put on what you can buy on iTunes–the mp3. And I can’t even tell you what a difference the vinyl made. The mono vinyl was so much better than an mp3. So you can get your music out to more people, but you sacrifice quality. I know it’s greener, but I’m hoping there’s a room for a little bit of both. For vinyl, for digital and I hope to keep working in all different areas. I think that is the world that we live in, we’re a little fragmented at the moment.
What are some of the risks you took with your Long Play project?
Usually when I’m trying to write songs, I work hard on the lyrics and I work hard on the melodies too. I know there’s a sort of tendancy especially these days for people to think “I’m just gonna pick up a guitar and whatever comes out is good enough.” And I don’t feel that way. I feel like what I grew up listening to and some of the incredible, the heavy musicians and the heavy songwriters, I think that the bar is really high. And I’d probably never get up to that bar, so I’m always trying to get up there.
So the risk for the Long Play project was can I write good enough songs in a year? I think some good things came out of it. There’s some things I’m not as happy with, but that’s kind of what I signed on for and what all my subscribers signed on for. But ultimately, the funny part was that a whole new album really was inspired by that process. Which I’m very proud of and I think the songs are good. But it’s risky to do that in public. That might have been something that I could have done or should have done in private. But people seem to really like to be included and I think again for me, because I’ve never done that much material in a year’s time for my listeners, I think it was just an odd experience for all of us. Hopefully good. So far I’ve heard nothing but good things.
You worked on The Gilmore Girls show. What kind of stuff did you do for them?
I did the score for Gilmore Girls for seven years. So when Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator came to me, she said she wanted music that is going to be the music that is inside the mother and the daughter–the two main characters. She wanted it to be the music, or the voice inside their heads. Because the mother had the little girl when she was fifteen and so they are very close. And they listen to a lot of the same music, so we kind of had to take the music Amy wanted to pull from, some of her favorite music and let that set the musical tone for what would be inside the girls’ heads. It was a challenge for me, because she and her husband and the writers wrote such great dialogue and a lot of it and it was really fast. So I had to make sure that what I wrote was simple enough and made room for the dialogue. And that was tricky. It was an interesting thing.
But at the end, Amy wrote me the sweetest note and just said “thank you so much for the music, I felt like so many of the little cues were tiny masterpieces.” And that made me feel so good because a lot of music for television is dashed off because you don’t have a lot of time. I really tried to invest my heart and soul into it because I love the characters and I really do love the show.
Did you write it out in musical notation when you were scoring?
No, there’s no time, and really no point. We didn’t have a lot of string players coming in. We found that the emotional range of the show wasn’t really about a big score. It wasn’t about a lot of horns and strings. And Amy also wanted my voice which was kind of odd too, so I looked to the great Harry Nilsson. There was a show that he did way back in the early 70’s late 60’s called The Courtship of Eddie’s Father where he did a lot of background vocals and he sang the theme song. So I headed back there to that time and to the beautiful job that he did and modeled what I did sort of after that in a modern way.
One of the trends in the past ten years is singer-songwriters being discovered, or having their music played in shows like Gilmore Girls or in commercials. What’s your take on that?
Umm… well it’s definitely a shift because when I first signed a record contract and was coming up, it was really selling out to give your song to a commercial. Because your creativity and your message was now used to sell toothpaste, it was not a great, respectable thing. I don’t know how I feel about it. I think if you can choose carefully, I think that’s good.
There are a lot of young kids out there that are willing to just let their music go for free in anything just to get discovered. There are people that are willing to go on American Idol just to get discovered. I don’t know if that’s the way that I would go about things myself. But I’m a different artist and I think some people don’t care or just want to be famous no matter what. I’d love to see it be different. I think it’s a great thing to go out there and make music and have people connect to it, just through the music. But I do understand that music to picture is a really powerful thing and when your song is in a dramatic scene whether it’s television or movies, people can connect with that music in a way that they wouldn’t have without the visual. And that’s a great thing, that’s an amazing thing. That’s just a little different than selling toothpaste.
I remember in the 70’s hearing a song that Randy Newman had done that was a Talcolm powder commercial and I couldn’t listen to the song for a long, long time because that’s what I associated it with. I hated it because of that, it is a great song and years and years later I can hear it now, finally. But that could happen with anything. It’s very hard to hear “Stairway to Heaven” and really hear it. It’s just been played to death. Even though it’s a great song and Led Zeppelin is great, I never want to hear it again personally, ever in my life.
You sang backup on one of the great songs of the 90s, “One Headlight” by The Wallflowers. What do you remember about that time?
I remember that it was fast because I went in with the engineer who was recording it at the time. I don’t even think that T Bone or Jakob were in the studio, I think I just went in and cut it fast. One of the things we wanted to do was have distortion on it. I think we went in and put the distortion on after the fact. And both T Bone and Jakob liked that and they played it for the record company executive and one of the things he said when he listened to the mix was “Oh the background vocal is distorted, did you know that?” and they said “Yeah, we planned it that way.” And I always felt kind of bad about that, because it’s such an extraordinary song and I didn’t want to draw any attention away from that. But then T Bone and Jakob just said, no that’s the way we like it, that’s the way it’s going to be.
It’s funny that people were that uptight not that long ago, because now I don’t think anyone cares what’s distorted or about background vocals. But it was just funny at the time, because it’s just such a beautiful single, one of my favorite songs and I remember hearing the demos from The Wallflowers and T Bone and I having a conversation about it. He was just saying should I do this?
And I love Jakob as a songwriter. I had heard a song called “Other People’s Money” on the first Wallflowers album that I loved. And I just thought that he had a lot of guts to stand up and be a songwriter, considering who one of his relative is. And I always thought he had a lot of humor, and I love his songs.
You got your start making Christian pop music. How do you view that part of your discography now?
Well, I really started off wanting to change the world, and music was sort of a convenient way to do that and I had no idea that music was going to change me. And that really what needed changing was me. And that ultimately is what did change. So it was kind of a funny twist and I found out through that that I am an artist and a musician, but it really didn’t start out that way. I had other loves growing up. Dance, and drama. But I think it was a good discipline. I learned a lot of things about humanity and about spirituality and I learned a lot about that human judgmentalism, and “I’m right, you’re wrong” that kind of stuff that I think is in every religion, probably every group of humans.
It was good to go through, but it was very, very early on. I was 16 when I started writing songs and traveling around the country. But again, I think it was a very good education. Also, the politics were not the same in those days as they are now. It’s become a very political movement sadly. A lot of the fundamentalist Christianity. And it’s hard to separate the word Christianity from right-wing politics. Which I think is very sad, because I don’t think the two have very much to do with each other. I hope people will get back to the spirituality of it, as opposed to the political agendas and the power grabs and the fear and the judgmentalism.
Are there any contemporary singer-songwriters or artists that you’re particularly into right now?
There are always songs that I like. But you know sometimes with authors, there are authors that you want to read everything that they’ve ever done and I wouldn’t say that there are many of those, but I just don’t think there are many of those even in our century. But they probably say this in Nashville, that everybody has got at least one good song in them and that’s great. There are a lot of good songs out there.