Sam Phillips: The Pretty Time Bomb of Push Any Button
When young Leslie Phillips first stepped into recording studios in the early 80’s to sing background with Contemporary Christian Artists Mark Heard and Randy Stonehill, neither the evangelical based Myrrh Records or the young singer had any idea where it could possibly lead her. It was at best a difficult road for background singers to rise from the studio shadows to the spotlight in mainstream pop, let alone in the relatively obscure world of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) of the early 80’s. Both Heard and Stonehill were among the most well-known in the field at the time, so the gig seemed like a good one.
Soon the path would lead her into the same kind of success in CCM as the artists she supported during those sessions. However, within a few years she moved beyond the limited world of religious music toward a trajectory path of an important contributor; a singer-songwriter and recording artist in alternative rock creating her own neo-psychedelic-pop niche.
Today, she is a veteran of a 25 year career that places her comfortably in the company of the best of the rock branch of Americana music, with a fine new release, Push Any Button as well as 2009’s digital download based Long Play and the resulting album, 2011’s Cameras in the Sky.
The change began with a now CCM classic album aptly titled, The Turning, produced by, T-Bone Burnett. It was a critically stylistic transition epitomized in a name switch from Leslie to Sam Phillips.
The name change was not a calculation designed to attract legions of roots music fans of the early Sun Records sound, although, it didn’t hurt. According to Phillips in a recent interview, the name came from her childhood. It was just a nickname she acquired that stuck. She adapted it to signal a dramatic change of direction from the safety net of the cloistered CCM world of artists to something a bit more dangerous. However, the name was revealing. Rather than cloaking herself behind a hipster persona, she opened the door to allow ‘Sam’ to come out and play. Then, she became more vulnerable and nuanced than the Christian stance she started with. She connected with that person she was during childhood. It allowed a child-like imagination to open and shine through in the best ways possible; it came out in her music and songwriting.
As a Contemporary Christian singer-songwriter, Phillips was untamed from the get-go. She appeared at the end of the genre’s most inventive period(roughly from 1969-1984), an era that has never been duplicated. So much so that in today’s mainstream of CCM, most names like Barry McGuire, Mark Heard, Larry Norman, Daniel Amos, Steve Taylor and 77’s have largely been forgotten. To survive in music commercially and artistically, it took change.
When Phillips first took the stage, it was impossible to mold and contain her into the wholesome image of the popular cross-over, Amy Grant. She was inaccurately dubbed, ‘the Christian Cyndi Lauper.’ While the dubious title may have come about because of her vocal quality and a very loose similarity in image, she was anything but the trendy pre-packaged pop star of the 80’s.
Her early albums as Leslie Phillips reveal an artist who was already in touch with her voice by the time her smokey vocal first breathed into a studio mic. Her first three albums, Beyond Saturday Night, Dancing with Danger and Black and White in a Grey World, were not gospel albums. Nor were they typical works marketed for evangelical Christian listeners. Rather they were filled with internal reflections, love songs, frustrations and lyrical insights that stood that represented progress as the genre began to artistically decline. Her voice and her approach was far too driven and her range both vocally and artistically, too broad to be held back for the commercial religious music of the time-even a pop one. And like some kind of musical miracle, she broke out.
It was between 1985 and 87 that she had a turning point which was chronicled in the pivotal album, The Turning. It was then she met T-Bone Burnett, who had been producing Tonio K at the time. In 1987, T-Bone was the well-established producer and former member of The Alpha Band and tour member of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. He had released a string of critically successful solo albums, including the classic, Proof Through The Night, but had not experienced the commercial success he would soon find with his production of the film soundtrack, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. Hearing her for the first time resulted in the Phillip’s album, The Turning.
The Phillips/Burnett collaboration on the pivotal album, The Turning, produced a landmark in the CCM genre. It was an album that worked from the inside out rather than using a musical sledgehammer to tell the audience about God. It was all of what Burnett had promised in the ingenuity of his solo work only with the elastic and dynamic voice of Sam Phillips. If her creative-side based in Christian music had provided her an anchor, The Turning, allowed Phillips to launch out to sea finding lyrical nuances and a new freedom for artistic expression. The collaboration would also produce a 14 year marriage and a string of critically successful albums.
The break-out from CCM to the world of Alternative Rock brought Phillips art to a new level. With the classic T-Bone Burnett produced Indescribable Wow, the two artists managed to capture late-60’s psychedelic aura anchored in a sweet pop sound with lyrics that were accessible and real. Her vocal performance on this and the subsequent albums, produced by Burnett, are filled with classical and pop textures layered over with Edith Piaf like soul on vocals and Chanteuse style arrangements. More than any other of his work, well-regarded as his legacy is, Burnett accomplished most in terms of ingenuity, imagination and studio artistry as a producer on the seven albums with Phillips including Cruel Inventions, Martinis and Bikinis and Fan Dance.
Even though they were divorced in 2004 and Burnett hasn’t produced an album for her since Boot and Shoe of that year, when asked if they would collaborate again in the future, Phillips laughed and said, “I’ve learned to never say never. An album with T-Bone is a possibility I’m open to.” She said, “After all, we still work together raising our beautiful daughter.”
During the years between 2000 and 2007, Phillips’ contributed the score and songs for the popular television drama The Gilmore Girls, about the quirky relationship between a mother and daughter. She attributes this to gaining new legion of fans.
Her short acting career was more of an anomaly than an intentional act to break into another art form. Her surprising appearance in Die Hard with a Vengeance marks Phillips’ only appearance in a feature film. She laughed and said it was perfect because she played a mute terrorist who helped Jeremy Irons’ character to get his revenge on Bruce Willis’ John McClane. When asked if her connection with her then husband, T-Bone Burnett, landed her the role, she laughed and said, “When they couldn’t get the actress they wanted, the director saw me on the cover of a magazine and thought I fit the part of a mute German terrorist.”
The release of Push Any Button reveals Phillips has lost none of her reflective and rooted psychedelic luster. From the opening track, “Pretty Time Bomb,” to the Piaf-inspired closing, “I Just Can’t See Straight,” we journey with her through the modern angst of an artist whose restless soul won’t keep her still for too long. On the dubiously titled, “All Over Me,” She sings,
“Soaked in a light I’ve waited all my life to see. It’s like walking through the starlight in the day time when your insides are brighter than the light. All the darkness is gone. I’m not holding on to anything.”
Then she explores darkness as she speaks to ghostly loves, lost connections and regrets on, “When I See You In Dreams.” All the while Phillips lays for us a sonic landscape of a Magical Mystery Tour-like world fused with the pop appeal of Jackie DeShannon and the lyrical sophistication of skilled, insightful abstract poet. When the listener feels as though everything is going in a certain directions, Phillips throws in a fiery and angry rocker like, “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You.”
It’s been a far leap from the young girl who first walked into the studio to work with evangelical Christian pop artists to the psychedelic, abstract pop-poetess she projects today. If her exit from world of gospel music suggests anything, it is certainly that the regenerative brand of Christian spirituality she experienced opened her up to a new freedom to explore all sides of the human conditions without the chains of religious dogma. This was buried deeper in the mix than most of her evangelical fans expected. As Push Any Button suggests, her explorations are still in midstream as an artist and as a human being. As her legacy confirms, she is among one of those rare singer-songwriters who has blazed her own trail and found her place among the timeless artists of her generation.
Sam Phillips will be appearing at Largo at the Coronet on 11/9/13 and 11/10/13.