Catching Up With... Sam Phillips

Music Features Sam Phillips
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Catching Up With... Sam Phillips

Before we ever printed a copy of Paste, I headed out to Los Angeles to interview Sam Phillips for Issue #1. Her then-husband T-Bone Burnett had offered us out-of-the-blue encouragement of our first website,, and she had agreed to an interview for a magazine that didn’t yet exist. Since then, she’s written music for The Gilmore Girls and released two more stellar records, most recently Don’t Do Anything. I caught back up with her on the day it hit stores.

Paste : Congratulations on a brand new album out today. This is the first time you've produced yourself. What led to that decision?
Phillips: It wasn't even a decision. I had so much fun on the road in 2004 with Jay and Patrick and Eric and Eric's band, the quartet, that all I wanted to do [was get back in the studio]. In fact, the day we got home from tour I picked up my guitar and wrote a song that’s not on this record but will be out in the next incarnation of album or group of songs—however we will release them from now on. I started writing right away because working with these musicians really inspired me, and I thought I just want to go in the studio and record what we're doing live. So we did that initially, and I decided to rework the record a little bit. It would have been out a year and a half or two years sooner. I did six more songs and kept six off which will be released eventually. Well, maybe these will be extra tracks; I'm not sure. Having a producer never really entered my mind because I just thought I knew I wanted Mike Presante to record it, and I knew I wanted Jay and Patrick and Eric to play. And I guess the surprise came when we did the six other songs and Eric stepped up to the plate and recorded and mixed them, which is not bad for a violinist. He actually played guitar on the record, and I actually played some percussion. Sometimes I like when it’s not a person’s first instrument because I feel like you get more of the person sometimes when they aren't experts at their instrument. You get a little more personality and I was very happy to mix it up and get some people to be doing some different things.

Paste : Well, that is something about this album; it does feel like it has personality. It feels a little bit more lo-fi than stuff you've done it the past, you've got fuzzy guitars on "No Explanation" and "Don't Do Anything," some odd percussion, echo-y piano. What were you going for when you were making this record? What direction did you think you might be heading?
Phillips: I wouldn’t have a direction other than to make the songs try to sound like I want them to sound like, for instance, “Don't Do Anything,” the title track—if you'd heard the first track we'd cut of that, you'd probably laugh...I didn't laugh I cringed. You know the musicians did the best they could, but I knew I had to go back to the drawing board, so I started out with just Jay the drummer and played it with him with an electric guitar, and in his mind it changed it completely. It gave it this whole other feel, and then Eric came up with a string arrangement to go on top. And then it came together, and this is what I watched him do, and this is him at his best, and I watched him pick up a guitar and change the direction of a song for the better, and I think that is what producing is: not settling for the first thing you hear, or if you feel like something is wrong keep pushing to make it right.

Paste : One of my favorites on the album is about Sister Rosetta. Now, is that about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and are you a fan of hers?
Phillips: I am a fan, but I think…Sister Rosetta…becomes a symbol of something in my mind. Because my grandmother, who was really strong--she becomes what the I Ching talks about as going on alone, being willing to go on alone when you feel people are against you morally or you have no choice. And she becomes, in that song, a symbol of strength and hope.

Paste : You have another song about an LA preacher from the ‘30s, “Come Down.” It almost feels like a little theme there, looking back at the religious history of L.A., with Sister Rosetta
Phillips: Well, its not exactly about Aimee Semple McPherson. It's the spirit of that, even though she was a preacher, there is a whole other way to look at her. Especially in LA history, she was really an entrepreneur. There was no Disneyland, there was no Universal Studios or even Hollywood Blvd as we know it today, or any of the touristy things we associate with LA in the 20s. She was one of the major tourist attractions in LA. I know this because my great-grandmother would have relatives come out and the first thing they wanted to do was go to Aimee's church. She did these theatrical productions of sermons with props on stage like cars and motorcycles and a big choir. It really was a show, and it was a free show. And it was a show in those days that meant something to people because it had a spiritual message to it, so it is kind of an interesting—she predated Walt Disney; she made her own spiritual Disneyland, but she also did a lot of good. She was one of first women to embrace unwed mothers and she would actually—she would take them into her home, find homes for them, find older women that were retired to baby-sit the children, found jobs for the women. In those days unwed mothers were really social outcasts. In this song, she is more of a symbol. I tried not to make anything literal, even the first one. No explanation. It was a passage taken right out of my journal when T-Bone and I were going through our break-up, but I would not have written the song—certainly not put it on the album—if I didn't think it went farther than that because every time I sang the line, “this is the break in us,” I think about our country, with everything that has happened with the war, the economy, the red and blue states, you know. It’s tough, and while I think this whole record is called Don't Do Anything, that is just a play on words; its not my motto. I think we have to do a lot, and one of first things is asking, “what does love require?” and sometimes the answer is not what you'd expect.

Paste : So, is that your frame as you’re writing songs—always making them a little bit broader, a little bit more symbolic, than just a literal take on things?
Phillips: That is just the way I like to do it; maybe that's just the only way I know how to do it, and I guess that's what I think is important about writing songs. I don't have much patience for the singer/songwriter genre because I think it just, for some reason--it's gotten to the point where people think if something comes into their head and they put it into a song it’s good. That frustrates me because I think that it's lazy and it is a lack of craft. I mean it was OK when Bob Dylan did it because obviously there was a little bit more craft there. He makes it seem easy, but he is actually really good at songwriting. But maybe not everyone is so good at writing the first thing that comes into their heads; maybe what comes into people's heads is not that interesting.

Paste : Who would you look to as a master at the way you approach songwriting?
Phillips: I think there are many people who have written even just one good song. "She Loves You" is a really great song, and the lyrics aren't even that deep, but you feel it when you hear the song. And it’s the whole record, too. There is something about the intent that comes through, the human that comes through. I don't think anyone’s an expert at it. I think it just happens—it happens when it happens, it happens to people that are good songwriters and people that aren't good songwriters, which is a very cool thing

Paste : You're also kicking off a mini-tour today, but with some unusual venues.
Phillips: You can look at it a few different ways. I mean, I love independent bookstores as much as the next person. I know Borders is a chain—it’s a corporation—but I went into one around Christmas time and it was packed with all different sorts of people reading books, drinking coffee and hanging out, and I can't really be against that, and I think that Borders provides a cultural and social place in our society, almost like a library. It's a funny thing to do. I always wanted to play in a library, but I never really got clearance. I felt like this was a good opportunity to give people a free show and sign their CD if that's what they'd like. I hope I'll get to meet up with a lot of the people I've met through MySpace. Through technology I've really got in contact with a lot more of my listeners.

Paste : Are you going to be playing these shows by yourself, or are you bringing a band?
Phillips: We're doing an acoustic version. Eric is coming out with me with his Stroh violin, which is a crazy violin from the turn of the century that has its own amplification in the form a Victrola horn. The smallest amps in the world will make an appearance. We tried to make it bookstore size. We didn't want to leave the distortion out of the performance. That, with the PAs we may or may not have—it will be an interesting experiment in bookstore show business.

Paste : When does the tour start for the fall?
Phillips: We start right after Labor Day. We are waiting for a few things. My band has gone their separate ways. Jay Bellerose, my wonderful drummer, has gone off with Allison and Robert and T-Bone on that beautiful tour, and Patrick Warren has gone out with Tom Waits. I'll have to get in line here. I'm so excited to play with them again in the fall.

Paste : I'm excited to hear you're coming back out my way.
Phillips: Yeah, I think Atlanta will be in October or November. It’s been too long. Four years is a long time. But, you know, it takes as long as it takes to write and make the record you want to make. I mean this is an interesting time, too, because this may be the last physical CD I put out, the way things are going. I mean I remember the last vinyl I put out. Nothing sounds like vinyl. Nothing can compare to playing live. I'm waiting for people to improve the quality of digital sound. It will never sound like vinyl, though. Tell everyone thank you for putting those CDs out. When you pick up a copy of Paste, it feels like everyone is enthusiastic and genuinely cares about art. It's a rare thing. Making music is a compulsion. I can't help it. I don't know if that is a good thing or bad thing.