Sam Phillips has been a Christian rock star, an acid-pop tunesmith, an acoustic troubadour, and scorer of the Gilmore Girls. Wherever she goes, excellent melodies and penetrating words are her companions. Phillips’ most recent offerings are five digital EPs and an actual physical thing called Solid State from her web-based music and art installation, Long Play. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is raising a daughter with her former husband T Bone Burnett. We spoke on the telephone and again over lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Phillips enjoys the salads and the people-watching.
Q: So, I’ve been thinking a lot about midlife.
A: The first thing I think of when I hear that word, I don’t know if you saw Carrie Fisher’s “Postcards from Edge,” is one line where the mother character, the Debbie Reynolds character, says she’s middle-aged, and Carrie Fisher says, “Oh, mom, you’re not middle-aged. I’m middle-aged. How many 140 year old people do you know?” It was so funny because it’s so true. I see them all the time in L.A. These broads who can be 70, 80 years old and they’re just getting to middle age. It’s a mental state. I read a horrible book a few years ago that a friend had given to me and I’m blanking on the name and the author, I think on purpose. It basically said, just give up. You’re old. You’re 40 and hey, it’s great you don’t have to think about those annoying things like men and living life. And I thought, whoa, no, I have a 12-year-old daughter, and we’re all wondering, how do you do this? How do you navigate the second half? There are things I want to learn so my daughter can have an example. So I can leave some sort of trail.
Q: Has the way you make things changed over time?
A: I had a big shift, and maybe this puts me into midlife earlier than most people, when I had my little girl about 13 years ago. I couldn’t write at all for that entire year. In a way I think absence makes the heart grow fonder. I was dying to write once I had her and we got on our way as a little family. I kind of went back to square one. Before, I hadn’t played a lot of guitar on my records and T Bone and I had more heavily produced the albums. We took a long time. But I did an about face. I even, and this sounds odd, stopped playing guitar with a pick. I started playing with my hand so that I could create the rhythms I wanted. The pick was always a hindrance, getting between me and the guitar, because I started out playing classical guitar with my fingers. I went back to that, and also stripped down the kind of music I was making. I was making pop music, and then I signed with Nonesuch out of New York and started making albums that – T Bone called them severe. And they have evolved into some other thing. It marked a time when I began to stand on my abilities as a guitar player, however slim those were. I wanted to start from the ground up. I’m having a hard time describing this because I haven’t really put it into words.
Q: Are you familiar with the idea of Beginner’s Mind?
A: I know it’s a wonderful concept. When you have a certain amount of disappointment by the time you’ve hit the middle of life, that may be one of the things that cuts creativity. You get cynical or discouraged. Not to get sidetracked, but someone who would be wonderful to talk to would be my ex-husband T Bone about this. He started early on but didn’t start having the run of his life until about 1993-94, when he was in his mid-’40s. He just didn’t give up. He took a sock in the stomach but kept going and kept believing. He’s one of the most remarkable people I know. It’s weird to feel this way about your ex-husband but he’s one of my heroes. The way I’ve seen him proceed in his life, with belief and love and kindness and commitment to his work, with all the crazy things that happen when commerce and art have to live together.
Q: Yeah, we also live in this incredibly youth-centric culture and it seems that can’t help but have an impact as we grow older.
A: I think that’s part of it too. Sometimes people lose their energy or nerve or heart. I’m still feeling the ground shake underneath me. I’m not all that settled on that. I’ve always felt a little removed from the culture, a little bit of a stranger, and very stubborn about going my own way musically. So I’ve been prepared for it all my life, in a way. Finding my own little corner and camping out. I’m not worried that a 21-year-old is going to take my place, because I’m writing things I couldn’t have written at 21, and couldn’t have written at 30. I think you have to live a certain amount of years to write certain things. I can’t really explain it to you. I just feel it to be true. I also feel like when I did make that turn after I had my daughter, I’m most proud of the songs I’ve written after she was born. I might add that I’m not touting the wonders of motherhood. That was a very, very hard time in my life, on my body, on my emotions. There was post-partum stuff, then my marriage broke up a few years later. But the songs came out of that rough time, and the shaky ground of wondering who am I. What value do I have? Now that I’m getting older, if you’re taking away a layer of youth and sex appeal, how do I move around in the world and relate to other people? All those meanderings, all those questions and complications, make fertile ground for writing songs.
Q: Tell me about The Long Play, your recent year-long art and music installation on the web. What did you set out to accomplish?
A: For a lot of reasons, including my own enjoyment and creativity, I wanted to push myself to write and get out five EPs and a record over the course of a year, while blogging a little bit, doing audio logs, video, some little art pieces. I was trying to get all the creative juices flowing and let people into my process, as far as that was entertaining. There were times when things didn’t get finished the way I wanted them to get finished, maybe a lyric wasn’t quite as good I wanted it to be, but I wanted to keep on going. I felt that setting that limit was important and I’m very pleased with how it’s gone. I actually have started another record that will be released at large next year. I did a lot of writing and recording, which I think I needed to do. When I ended my work with the “Gilmore Girls”, where you really had to work on deadline, I was used to that pace, even though we were doing tiny bits of music.
Q. Have your interests changed over time as a songwriter? Are you drawn to different topics?
A. I think in one sense I’ve always wanted to talk about the same things. When I was a teenager, instead of experimenting with drugs and sex I wanted to experiment with spirituality and religion. I completely worked through that, as I had a little bit of success in that area. [Phillips started out as a Christian artist]. It started feeling hollow and I was seeing a lot of hypocrisy and politics. I felt I needed to get out of that and start over, which I did, and I’m so glad, because I was able to salvage my spiritual life, as well. I think fundamentalism helped me, coming from a family that was a little dysfunctional, put some things together, but to continue on would have been unhealthy for me. That was a whole other thing. I’ve always loved pop music. At first, coming out of gospel music I was fascinated with so many different kinds of songwriters and lyrics and I really wanted to be funny, be clever, try all that out. As I got further and further and as I changed musically in the sense of production and how I wanted to arrange and perform the songs, I felt that everything needed to be more simple. It’s much more of a challenge to be able to say something simply. I strive for that. A lot of times I envy people who do stream-of-consciousness songs. I will write throwaways just to be not so uptight and hard on myself and severe. Just be dumb. I think there’s something important about that. But I’m not going to show that necessarily, and I made that decision with The Long Play not to put a lot of that stuff out. Before the Internet, I always thought a horrible fate would be for a camera to be on you 24/7. But people love that. Privacy is not an issue and to me that’s jail. I think also just discovering yourself and finding secrets and clues to your life and your path and what you love. We had to go on a hunt a little more. Maybe that’s a good thing they have access to things more easily. Maybe it’s not such a good thing.