My first experience with Sam Phillips’ music is considerably roundabout. My sister loved her first three records, recorded for Christian label Word Inc., under her birth name Leslie. I had no problem with the albums but something never fully grabbed me either. It wasn’t until her phenomenal fourth record, The Turning (1987), that I was fully hooked. On that album, she expressed faith and hope but, in equal measure, she sang about freedom on many levels — freedom of expression, freedom from constraints that hold many of us down, and freedom to sound like nobody else in the world of CCM. It wasn’t long before she broke out.
Rechristening herself with her nickname Sam, she recorded The Indescribable Wow (1988) with a combination of 60’s “girl pop” harmonies and psych flair. Critics noticed instantly, but it wouldn’t be until “Baby I Can’t Please You” from 1994’s Martinis & Bikinis that the pop charts would finally catch up to her loyal and growing fandom and what they’d known for some time. Another change occurred on Fan Dance (2001) when she migrated to the Nonesuch label, offering a much more stripped-down, organic sort of sound. The hooks were still there, but the method of recording was much more intimate, and some would say darker in content.
This year, Sam Phillips went independent and started a year-long experiment called Long Play. For a one-time cost of $52, the purchaser would receive five digital EPs, one digital LP, outtakes, demos, liner notes, videos, the veritable whole she-bang. She has charted a career much different than her contemporaries and continues to make music that surprises, and Popdose was lucky to get a chance to speak with her about this particularly winding road she’s been on.
You’re midway through your subscription recordings. How has this experiment been so far, and do you see yourself continuing with the music subscription concept?
The way I approached the music subscription idea was to create a music and art installation that would be up for a year’s time. During the course of this year I have made 5 EPs and am finishing an album. Making the commitment to write and record this much music in a year has been a great experience, but I am not sure I will continue to make music at this pace. When musicians first started selling music through their websites, there was a lot of talk about working at it like a job, being your own marketing/sales person, etc. I have never looked at writing and recording music like that. I think it’s a calling. It’s a lot of work, but the objective is to put together a body of work, not to have a career. The creative process has its own cycle–like fruit trees in my back yard. They don’t make fruit every year all year round. The soil has to be fed, they have to rest, etc. I am very lucky to have a small group of people who wanted to listen to my music and who were willing to support my efforts this year. Next year, it may be different. I would like to go on the road and perform live. Playing live with musicians I love inspires more songs.
Is it easier or more difficult to write with the notion of pre-selling the project hanging overhead?
It is always easier for me to write more songs while I am writing, though I have been lucky to have been inspired out of the blue from time to time.
Has being, essentially, the label-head of your enterprise been the experience you thought it would be, easier or more difficult?
I love having the freedom to write, record, and release music as it is finished, but I am in no way a record company. There is still a need for people who love music, want to get the word out about music they love and who won’t take advantage of the recording artists or the general public. I know… I am a dreamer.
You’ve had very distinct phases in your career, and with each phase came a certain sound (for example: the Virgin albums had a 60’s pop-ish sound to them while the Nonesuch albums, for the most part, were stark and intimate. Was that an intentional move, or did you just naturally gravitate to different sounds with different experiences?
The records I made for Virgin and the first record for Nonesuch, Fan Dance, were made closely with T Bone Burnett. We always started with a yen to get the song across, then the musicians were cast, and nature took its course. We spent more time overdubbing and experimenting when we were making the recordings for Virgin. By the time I started recording for Nonesuch, both T Bone and I were tired of layers of production and wanted to strip it all back down. I became much more interested in singing and playing live with musicians and capturing that, rather than building a recording instrument by instrument, part by part. I have always been inspired by T Bone’s desire to grow as a producer and musician. Just when you think you understand where he’s going, he turns down a side road and you’re in
One of the songs from the new series of work, “Magic For Everybody”, blends those two sounds pretty seamlessly. The song starts with the acoustic guitar, much as would have been found on Fan Dance, then breaks out into a full band arrangement. Again, was this intentional as a way of pulling fans of both phases into the tent, or did it just come together that way?
I did the best I could with Magic For Everybody. With more production funds, I would have put brass bands and fireworks on that track because I foolishly believe in marching down the middle of the street like Shirley MacLaine in Sweet Charity with that sentiment. On the other hand, I have learned not to underestimate the charm of the understatement.
You have been known for, and fought for, your right as an artist to express yourself in the way you choose. While it has produced great songs over the years, has it been difficult to walk that line when so many others found it easier to sing the hit McTune being offered to them?
I have been unbelievably lucky to have been able to make the artistic choices I wanted to make. I didn’t get issued the necessary equipment at birth to become a pop star. I steered toward what I loved and what I loved was always off the main highway.
How personal is too personal? Have you ever written a song, or started a song, and then backed from it thinking, “You don’t need that information from me, frankly.”
Nothing is too personal if it is written well, written with wit and humility. I find a lot of confessional singer/songwriting too serious and pompous and as a result, uninteresting.
With this in mind, have you ever recorded and released something, then down the line said, “Oh no, I’ve said too much” and wished you could get a re-do? Or are you pragmatic about such things?
I always want to write better songs… stronger melodies and lyrics written with humor, honesty and humility. It does not come easily to me. I will be working at this the rest of my life.
You’ve popped up in unexpected places through the years, primarily as the musical “voice” of the series Gilmore Girls. How did that come about?
The show’s creator, Amy (Sherman), asked me to score the show when Carole King agreed to do the theme song, but not the score. That is a second place I am honored to be in.
That was a pretty steady gig for awhile. Was it easy to get used to or were you prepared, knowing TV shows don’t last forever?
I had no idea I was going to love working on the show so much. Gilmore Girls was a wonderful creation. I only wish Amy could go back and do a few more episodes or a movie to tie up the loose ends. She left the show one season before it went off the air and though everyone did a great job carrying on, it was a devastating loss.
The other place that surprised me was when you appeared as Jeremy Irons’ killer girlfriend in Die Hard With A Vengeance. How did that happen?
I am not sure how it happened, but it was a great experience. Watching the actors and crew was an education. Some of the most amazing people in this world work on films– in front of and behind the cameras.
Do people (old fans, the audience, even music reviewers) present you with unfair expectations? After all, you’ve done so much work, and that work has been so varied, do you find that pigeon-holes are being made for you? What is your philosophical approach then when you’re writing?
I want to write good songs. I would love to climb into a good songwriter pigeon-hole.
What is your writing regimen? Do you start with lyrics or with music, and does the work come fast or do you need to set the time and the space up to make it happen? I ask because, as I’ve been told in many interviews, some artists get inspiration everywhere, while others have to lock down and create the space where ideas will finally arrive.
I work in all those ways.
How important is the hook? You’ve had some big hooks in your career (off the top of my head, the chorus to “Lying”, the nine-note guitar line that threads the chorus of “Out Of Time” and basically all of “How To Dream”) – Have you come to the point where you hear it and know you have what will stick in the listener’s head, or is it still difficult to get there?
I am happy when I like a melody enough to repeat it. It is a thrill when other musicians play things you want to hear over and over again. I have never been good at professional songwriting. I aim at the target and always end up hitting something else.
Is digital delivery in music a good thing, a bad thing, or the same thing in different form?
Digital is green… sort of. We still have to have computers, hard drives, iPods, etc. I like the warmth of recordings that were recorded to tape and captured on vinyl. Digital isn’t about what sounds the best, it’s about what’s most convenient. Digital makes it easier to record, store and take music with us wherever we go. Some of my fondest memories are of sitting and listening to records, or music on tape in the studio.
What’s the role of art and expression in 2010? Is there a role? Is it for the artist to just make the presentation, and the listener/viewer has to fill in the spaces with their own interpretations, or is the artist required to bring that to the table?
The artist can’t really control the interpretations of the art he or she makes. I’ve found that the truly great stuff hits you on many levels and can inspire many interpretations over many years.
Finally, I had the privilege of writing a piece about one of my musical heroes earlier this year, Mark Heard. I bring out the High Noon compilation on a fairly frequent basis and get so depressed that the wider musical “world” never got to hear his work fairly. Could you tell me what it was like working with him?
Mark was really talented and had great musical ideas. He was quiet and funny. He had recording equipment in his house when everything was still analog. I remember singing background vocals in the bedroom with the robes and slippers and his cat while he engineered in the living room. He had a priceless collection of wacky demo tapes people had given him on the road which I wish I had copies of.
Thanks once again to Sam Phillips for speaking with us and to Howard Wuelfling for facilitating the interview. You can check out Sam Phillips’ Long Play at her site, www.SamPhillips.com.