Sam Phillips – Blazing away
“Being a singer-songwriter,” says Sam Phillips, “is something I’ve never wanted to be.” At the risk of putting words in her mouth, there’s a parenthetical Phillips might well add to the end of that sentence: “Now more than ever.”
The troubling contradiction of the singer-songwriter that’s salient to Phillips is what she dubs the narcissistic confessional part. “I have a really hard time listening to songwriters [who] tell you so much that you don’t want to know that there’s no room [left] for you. As a writer, I’m always trying to leave room for the listener and the dream. I always want there to be unreality and reality.”
We’re talking over lunch at the venerable Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, chosen, at least in part, in wry contrast to the aesthetic of this magazine. What’s unpredicted is how the setting resonates with the aforementioned unreality/reality dichotomy. On the one hand, it’s a restaurant for the rich and famous, as evidenced by the fleet of ultra luxury cars in the valet line (it’s not every day you see a Maserati with temporary plates); on the other hand, the Polo Lounge turns out to be something of a neighborhood joint, at least at lunch time, where folks from nearby homes walk in for familiar faces and fare, not to see and be seen. While she’s not from the neighborhood, Phillips is a lifelong L.A. resident, and like the hotel’s neighbors, she doesn’t need to see a menu to know what to order. There’s comfort to be found in a McCarthy salad.
Our lunchtime conversation was prompted by the April 27 release of the emotionally charged A Boot And A Shoe, Phillips’ second album for Nonesuch Records after a period of extended inactivity that ensued from a parting of ways with Virgin, for whom she made four solo records between 1988 and 1996. The run peaked commercially and critically in 1994 with the smart, sophisticated and unabashedly Beatlesque Martinis & Bikinis, powered by songs such as “Baby I Can’t Please You” and “I Need Love”. It was one of those albums where everything worked, right down to the provocative cover photo of the photogenic Phillips in full repose, hand to forehead, on a bed from under which stick out three pair of men’s feet.
The album was the summit of a climb that saw Phillips launch her musical career as a Christian singer under her given name Leslie Phillips. In 1987, after garnering acclaim in the contemporary Christian music scene, she dropped Leslie in favor of Sam (a childhood nickname) and recorded her secular transition album, aptly titled The Turning, with the help of producer T Bone Burnett. Four years later he was her husband and producer, and Phillips was well on her way to a promising solo career with albums such as The Indescribable Wow and Cruel Intentions.
Martinis & Bikinis was her breakthrough, and she toured for several months in 1994, first with a full band to recreate the crafted sound of the album and later in a stripped-down trio: just her, Burnett and drummer Josh Labow. “My managers at the time were very unhappy with me,” she says, “because I wanted to go out with just electric guitar and drums and play smaller places. At that point in time in the record business, it was stupid, but it’s what I wanted to do. That was the beginning of the rumble toascale down and do something different in the studio. And here I am.”
But her desire to strip down to something else took a detour in the form of 1996’s Omnipop (It’s Only A Fleshwound Lambchop), the highly anticipated follow-up to Martinis & Bikinis. Far from stripped down, it’s an album that lost some of the hooks and charms of its predecessor; a kind of insular (down to its odd, pretentious title), some say overproduced set of songs that perhaps only the musicians involved could fully appreciate for its offbeat intent. Its handful of gems — “Animals On Wheels”, “Zero Zero Zero”, “Power World”, “Where Are You Taking Me?” — get lost in the sonic shuffle.
“As my friend put it so beautifully,” Phillips recounts of reactions to Omnipop, “‘Your new record is really hard to listen to.’ To which I replied, ‘So I’ve heard.’ There are moments I like, but I don’t love it as much as Martinis & Bikinis. But it was a particular time and what I was going through is right there. The music matches the chaos in my life. It is true to something.”
The album underwhelmed commercially and Phillips didn’t tour behind it at all. In fact, for all intents and purposes, she disappeared completely from the public eye. One good reason was the birth of her daughter, Simone, the mere mention of whom brings a gleam to Phillips’ eye. But beyond disconnecting with the record business by choice and circumstance following Omnipop, she also struggled with her craft.
“When I got pregnant, I couldn’t write a word,” she explains. “Not that it matters whether I ever put out records, but not being able to write was a terrifying experience for me and I still don’t know what that was, so I was really happy when something started coming sometime thereafter.”
What came was in many ways a natural progression from the minimal sounds Phillips was drawn to on the second tour for Martinis & Bikinis. But the new songs were even sparer, not a word one generally equated with Phillips’ records for Virgin. Now she was writing quiet, contemplative and impressionistic songs built on top of her own acoustic guitar playing.
More than five years removed from her last foray into the music industry (her only release between 1996 and 2001 was 1999’s Virgin retrospective Zero Zero Zero) it’s not surprising that Phillips turned introspective. “When I think [about] my life as a recording artist, my records,” she says, “even though I love them and they were my taste at the time, maybe it was more about hiding than coming out and playing guitar and being right there.”