Grant-Lee Phillips – A self-remade man
“Deep down I think I knew that [Jubilee] was a swan song,” Phillips says. “From the moment Paul and I split, that was the beginning of the clearance sale. [The breakup] wasn’t without anxiety. You kind of have to tear yourself away from the things that you embrace. I had a major recasting in my life. It’s easy for me to lose sight of the fact that it’s a pretty wide world and you can close yourself off from options and experiences if you cling to that which is familiar. Creatively, that’s death.”
Phillips set about dismantling his life. He broke with Peters, came to a mutual parting of the ways with Reprise, split with his longtime manager, and began exploring musical avenues of varying levels of obscurity: He worked on a duo album with young L.A. pop svengali Jon Brion, scored a movie (the John Leguizamo/Wesley Snipes indie film Zig Zag), wrote music for the television fantasy/horror show “Witchblade”, played supporting dates for everyone from Brian Wilson to Aimee Mann, and dabbled in comedy and theater.
He eventually found himself back at L.A.’s famed Club Largo, a longtime haven for embittered singer-songwriters escaping either band or label trouble that had served as an early home for Grant Lee Buffalo. He played a number of solo shows, wrote a lot of songs, and pondered his options.
In a three-day binge in October 1999, Phillips recorded his first solo album, the all-acoustic Ladies’ Love Oracle. “I made an album not knowing I was making an album,” he says. “Maybe that’s the trick. That record feels very much like what happens when I’ve just written a song and I want to put it down on tape and it’s just starting to be born and it’s a foggy notion. I really like that notion where you’re there at the drawing board. That’s what it was like, but I was letting people in on it.”
Ladies’ Love Oracle is mournful, quiet, and intensely personal. It’s a testament to the awkwardness and rancor of the latter years of Grant Lee Buffalo that Phillips has played and sung everything on his solo records himself, an experience he says he’s unlikely to repeat. “I doubt that I will be longing to play every instrument on an album the next time around, you know? It’s a pain.”
Ladies’ Love Oracle was released without benefit of a proper label; Phillips sold it through his website (grantleephillips.com), at indie record stores, and at shows (including a raucous tour with kindred spirit Robyn Hitchcock).
Last fall, Phillips took a day job of sorts — on the network TV show “Gilmore Girls”. A peerless, “Northern Exposure”-like comedy/drama on which Phillips plays the television equivalent of Jonathan Richman’s wandering troubadour in There’s Something About Mary, “Gilmore Girls” also employs Carole King and Sam Phillips in varying capacities, making it perhaps a beacon for under-employed singer-songwriters everywhere. All involved will return for the show’s second season in October.
Buoyed by his mid-profile television gig and the modest success of Ladies’ Love Oracle, Phillips entered the studio with a proper producer (local stalwart Carmen Rizzo) to work on what would eventually become his first proper solo album, Mobilize. It’s a solid, sometimes spectacular offering that supplements the acoustic folk of Ladies’ Love Oracle with both full-blown rock touches and the occasional, if uncertainly derived, foray into the bleeps and loops of electronica.
Those used to the resolutely back-porch feel of Phillips’ past work will find the less organic moments on Mobilize jarring. “I was always interested in things with an induced sense of artifact, something that feels like it’s been around for a long while, maybe it’s been kicked around and sort of dragged through the gravel and the snow,” Phillips says.
“Grant Lee Buffalo had that same that thing about it, [that sort of] strange sepia tone. I became a little more fascinated with the idea of something that was brand spanking new and already decaying. I became obsessed with sounds that didn’t rely on that archaic thing. So there is a different feeling about it.”
Phillips’ past work has been endlessly described (by critics, and by Phillips himself) as both “sweeping” and “cinematic,” as if Phillips were a latter-day heir to Ennio Morricone instead of, more accurately, a weird admixture of Michael Stipe, Neil Young and Woody Guthrie. The first Grant Lee Buffalo records were praised for providing commentaries on culture and societal mores that were both incisive and vague, as if everyone was sure they were saying something important, but no one was sure what.
After the difficult personal excavations of Ladies’ Love Oracle, the new record is more reminiscent of those more worldly early records, with now-novel, third-person songs about metaphoric, out-of-control cabs (“See America”), journalists (“We All Get A Taste”), and beautiful losers (“Beautiful Dreamers”).
Months after finishing the record, Phillips was still fighting the urge to fiddle with it. “I’ve been trying to embrace my imperfections more, but I have some perfectionist tendencies I’m still trying to battle,” Phillips said in July. “Even right now, I’m still asking myself, ‘I wonder if there’s a way…maybe this record doesn’t need to come out in a few weeks. Maybe I can do a whole other record between now and then.”
Too late for that now: Mobilize was issued August 14 by Zoe Records, an imprint of Rounder. Ladies’ Love Oracle was never released for broad distribution, (though Rounder may reissue it eventually), and Phillips seemingly prefers to look at Mobilize as his first real solo album.
“I never wanted to put Ladies’ Love Oracle out as an [official] album. It exists as something to be rummaged for,” Phillips says. “I wanted to push it out like a bottle in a river, and it would find whoever it’s supposed to find. But it’s nice to know that Mobilize won’t be such a scavenger hunt. At the end of the day, you don’t want to make it too difficult for people to find.”
As for any future Grant Lee Buffalo reunions, “it’s not beyond possibility that I might find myself working with them in some capacity down the road,” says Phillips, in a tone that suggests it isn’t too likely. “I haven’t communicated with either one of them in a few years.”
In the meantime, Phillips will be taking to the road for the sort of no-frills tour best suited to 20-year-olds in D.I.Y. punk bands. “This will be the most stripped-down tour I’ve done since Grant Lee Buffalo opened for Bob Mould many years ago,” Phillips says cheerfully. “But it’ll be kind of cool, you know? Back to the vans.”
ND contributing editor Allison Stewart lives in New York City. Most of the time, she wishes she was somewhere else. And she likes dogs.