Quirky, L.A. based soothsayer and chanteuse Sam Phillips is the kind of artist described as a musician’s musician. Her fans are a sophisticated bunch that are mysteriously drawn to her reflective voice, literate and insightful lyrics and her intimate musical arrangements. I caught up with Sam Phillips on her relatively quietly announced tour in support of her latest release, the critically acclaimed, Don’t Do Anything. Personable and refreshingly positive, Sam elucidated on her musical and spiritual odyssey through her very early years as a Christian rock artist, subsequent transformation into a secular progressive-left artist and her long time professional and personal relationship with her recently divorced ex-husband, the legendary producer, musician, and singer-songwriter T-Bone Burnett.
Don’t Do Anything is Sam Phillips’s 8th studio release since 1987 and her first since the release of 2004’s stripped-down masterpiece, A Boot and A Shoe. It is also Sam’s first self-produced album, but the notable absence long time collaborator and production genius T-Bone Burnett does not weaken the album. In fact, we find the return of darker arrangements, carpets of distorted guitar behind the acoustic facades of many songs, and a greater sense of lyrical freedom, while at the same time maintaining her signature minimalism. These are all things that Sam Phillips fans have come to expect from their beloved, odd, nightingale.
Sam, welcome to Portland.
Thank you, it’s been a long time. Well, actually, I was here in June but that was the first time in 12 years!
I heard that you were supposed to come a couple years back but it was canceled?
If we did I didn’t know about it. We were scratching our heads thinking we were in Seattle twice in 2004 and I don’t know what happened with Portland.
A lot of us shared tables at the show on Tuesday night…
Oh did you go to the show?
Yes, it was a great show. Thank you very much.
I really had a good time at the show.
So, I was sitting at a table with a lot of the friends of Lara Michell (of the Portland band Dirty Martini) the opening act, and one of the women made a confession. It was one of these Sam Phillips confessions that I have come to expect, “I’ve loved Sam for 20 years and this is the first time I have ever seen her play live. She was supposed to come to Portland a few years ago but they canceled the show. I am so happy to be here and I just found out she was going to be here by accident.”
Wow, that’s no good! Neither the canceled show nor the publicity, but I am so happy she came.
She was so happy. And I have to say, this is not a Gallup poll, but just from surveying the room and talking to people in the audience it seems like 60 – 70 % of the audience was some kind of artist or musician.
I guess that would be more common in Portland with the great arts scene here.
Maybe, but I’m wondering if it has something to do with you? If it is more common for people like that to follow you and to “get” you?
I don’t know. I seem to have met a lot of people who have a background like I had – sort of defected from fundamentalism. I was a little more involved with fundamentalism early on and the music was a little more piggy-backed on the counter culture (of fundamentalism) and not political like it is now. It’s not centered around the anti-abortion movement or a lot of these other odd things. It’s more socially active. You know I played in jails and half way houses when I was starting out? It makes me smile every time someone asks me how I got in the music business. (Mockingly) “Well I played for prostitutes on Hollywood Boulevard and you know in medium security prisons – you know that kind of thing.” (Laughs). You know it’s a great way to break into show business! And then I quit and started over again and changed my name. I don’t think I’d recommend any of that.
Well, being an idealist and wanting to change the world through music. I felt like the music changed me more than I changed the world. I think that was a good thing. That’s a good place to start – it’s the only way to really implement change. Change yourself first. Change your ideas.
A lot of people say that’s what your music does to them. That it changes them. It transforms them. They say that your music is powerful in that way.
Wow. I guess it can be and maybe that’s just the — I feel like I’m always trying to get at that thread of…I wouldn’t call it religion, religion, having been involved in the church, conjures up something else in me – it’s restrictive and judgmental and fear based, but there’s a thread in all the mystic areas of all the religions, not that I believe in every religion, that’s impossible, but I think that there is a thread in most religions whether it is Kabbalah or Christian mysticism or Sufi poetry. There are those areas where there are the radicals who are in the corner and they are the ones who stuck with the truth and stuck with love. The things that are supposed to be there when you have some sort of benevolent belief. I think they get lost in the power trip of religion. So if we’re talking about people being changed, I feel like I aspire to that and I’m after that all the time. And maybe that search or the longing for that is what I end up writing about and maybe people who listen to me are interested in that as well.
It’s part of your mission not only as an artist, but as Sam Phillips, to transcend that fundamentalism that held hostage the spiritual essence that you seek? So your exploration into fundamentalism ended up holding that spiritual essence captive and freeing yourself from that became an important part of your seeking?
Yeah, you know some kids did drugs or maybe some kids had sex really early in life – I never did those things but I was fascinated by religion and by books on positivism. There is this crazy book that I read when I was eight or nine about a woman who was running around all over the place giving lectures and anytime anything went wrong she would say, “Praise God anywhere!” or something like that. And when she would fall through a platform while she was speaking or the water main in the town would break, she would have this positive attitude and things would work out. It was kinda crazy and I remember thinking, “That’s weird, I wonder if that works?” So I just started to conduct little experiments in my life, in my little world of grammar school or junior high and high school and I would go to things like Pentecostal revivals when they came to the local civic auditorium where I grew up. I would just go to check it out because I wanted to see what would happen. I remember that all the ladies had beehive hairdos and this was in the ’70s – way past the beehive era – and you would hear these hollers at the back of the auditorium and some lady would come down the auditorium doing this kind of dance (starts mocking and shuffling her feet). You know this weird frantic thrash dance only it was this lady with a beehive with her hands held up like this (raises towards the heavens) and they would whoop and holler. I would ask them what kind of religion it was and if you have to wear your hair like that. Is that part of it? That really threw her. She just looked at me strange and answered, “Well, no…” I could see it was a real eye opener for her, wait a minute, everybody else has beehive hair. She had a hard time explaining to me what it was really about. There were all sorts of things like that I was really interested in. Even to the point of curiosity about what the occult people think! What do the Mormons think? I didn’t know any Buddhists at the time, I just sort of found out about that later. But I was definitely interested in not only religion but the spiritual aspect of life.The invisible part of life that I felt from the beginning existed. That something beyond us existed. Whether it’s just that we are bigger than we know and if we predict the future maybe that’s just a big part of us that we don’t know about or aren’t in contact with. Or maybe it’s some other force outside of us.
Those are kind of big questions for such a young person to ask. Was there a transformational event as a child that made you ask these questions or were you born that way?
No, there was nothing really. I guess I was just naturally interested the rituals. My mother and here family were Presbyterian – just a very sort of bland Protestant. My dad was an agnostic. He wasn’t really anything. They didn’t go to church all the time just sporadically. I wasn’t really raised in fundamentalism, I went through it on my own.
Part of your journey?
Part of my journey.
I notice while you’re telling your story that your young mind was very inquisitive. Always examining those events and questioning those events for meaning. The beehive, is it required? Is there a conduit to God in there? I see that you’re examining all of these things around you and calling them into question comes through in your music. How does that factor into your songwriting? Did that drive the writing for the new album?
Yeah, maybe. I feel like the last couple of records were a little…at the time I was going through my divorce (from T-Bone Burnett) and it was very painful for me. I didn’t have a typical marriage and it has not been a typical divorce. It was very painful. T-Bone and I were very close. We really were together all the time. We made music together. To this day, not just because we have a child, but because we care for each other. There will always be a connection that I don’t think that either one of us really understands. I think it was all meant to be, but for a long time it was hard to process it and go through it. I wish I could have been more graceful going through it. So I write some of that into lines in songs but they are not all about T-Bone. It’s not a break up record but I also noticed in his last record that there were a few little pointed lines. So like it or not it comes out. I feel like the last couple of records there has been that pain and heartbreak but also the thing that got me through, my oxygen, my food, was the power of metaphor. I would see it everywhere. I guess because I needed it so much. I don’t know if I was making it up but I would take so much comfort in it. I would be taking a walk and I’d see something and feel some sort of comfort and then go to write songs. Like in “One Day Late” (Boot and A Shoe) taking the line from the I-Ching about how there is good but just like the stars, you can’t see it during the day, but they are there and when it’s dark you can see these beautiful lights. So something as simple as that is what got me through that really painful time. I have always had that and I became much more aware of how important that is to me. So I don’t know, I don’t feel that I have been asking questions but maybe I have.
You mentioned suffering in the show the other night. You said something to the effect that we all have more than our fair share of suffering and that music is a way to exorcise that suffering. You take those metaphors, you plug them in, and then they are birthed as these songs and the music helps you and the music helps the people that are there listening. So we are all there for the same reason. Has your song writing been consistently driven by trying to exorcise those kinds of painful times or is that more new?
Yes, it’s been that way from the very beginning. My parents didn’t have the perfect marriage. Even then I wrote a song about their marriage and my dad found it on the piano and was horrified by it. Uh oh, watch out! Everything she goes through goes into a song! I think there is a lot of that. Music has definitely comforted me. I have found comfort in it during times of pain. It sounds trite but I hope that people felt something. That’s not necessarily my aim but it makes me really happy and I don’t think anything could be better than for somebody to be either inspired by a song or given a little comfort. When I first started on Virgin records I think because I had come out of fundamentalism that I was especially prickly. I wanted to get into social commentary a little bit more and point out what was wrong with the world. And also to work on trying to be a little more brainy or clever in the song writing and thank. Thank God, I think that has fallen away. It kind of got knocked off me throughout the years and that’s nice. Now at all times I am trying to simplify. Trying not to be clever. Trying to just get at the heart of the feel, the heart of the arrangement, the heart of the idea, and lyrically really trying to cut through to what is the heart of it. So that means not a whole lot of production, hopefully not a whole lot of silly words, and not a whole lot of long, long jams. Either live or on record.
Okay, I have three short questions left. Do we have time?
I’m not making a musical comparison but I read today that Joan Baez is just about to play NYC. It noted in the article that she is now 67 has been performing for 50 years. I figure that means you are just getting started.
Wow, well, I’m a late bloomer.
Where will we be going?
That’s a good question! Somebody asked me what are you going to do without your foil, without T-Bone? I’ve written two albums about the pain of the divorce so now am I going to get happy and quit? I don’t know. I think every day is a new song. I do know that one of the things that I’ve been doing is working with visual arts. Doing little collages and doing these tour books that I put together myself. That has really helped me. Concentrating on the visual a little bit more and working in another medium. I can’t really draw, I’m not a graphic artist but funny little textures and phrases from old magazines like Madison Avenue are really inspiring and I think if anything, working with that kind of stuff is taking a different direction. But I don’t know, I love the musicians I work with so much that I want to continue to grow with them and to develop what we’ve got together live and what we’ve done on record. To keep going and to see where that leads. It would great to be around in 50 years. I would see myself as much more of a person like that (Baez) because I’ve never had a hit record and I’m not sure that I ever will, but I would love to ride it out and see where it goes if the ride isn’t finished. It doesn’t seem like it is.
Do you believe it’s not finished?
I hope not.
This interview isn’t going to be published until after the election so I want to give you the chance at prophecy.
Here is what I hope: I hope that Obama gets elected. I think he’s benevolent. I’ve never seen a candidate like him in my lifetime. I think he’s wonderful. I didn’t start out loving him, I’ve come to know him and have fallen completely in love with him and I think the speech he gave at the Democratic Convention was an all time American speech. I’m sure other people have said this but I think of him like a Lincoln. Not that there are many Lincolns running around or there is another Lincoln but that’s the politician and president I think of because he is a man for a certain time in America. He is even, and beautiful and benevolent. How corruptible is he? I don’t know. How much pressure is going to be put on the guy from every corner of the Earth? I don’t know. Will he make it? Can he change things? I don’t know. There are a lot of other people that have to be involved. I do hope that he wins and I do hope the Republican Party will reinvent itself for the good. I just think it’s worn it’s thing out. I think there was a time when the Republican Party had some good guys. I don’t know how long ago that was – a long, long time ago- but maybe there is hope for the health of American politics. Before Obama came along I had sadly fallen prey to cynicism and the whole campaign the Republicans ran this time did not undo any of that. But Obama’s campaign did, so I hope that a lot of change is in store and I don’t know what to do if lame McCain wins. I called him lame…that’s weird.
If Obama is a song, what song is he? And McCain?
Wow, McCain is a little song that I can’t really hear. It’s very tiny, it sounds very angry and it’s playing in a little transistor radio in a passing car. Obama is like one of the pieces of Rodrigo (Joaquín Rodrigo Vidre), one of those beautiful Spanish pieces, where you hear and feel the whole vista open up. And it’s really long (laughs) it’s like a half an hour long and it takes you through a lot of different changes.
People go to our website because they want to read about cinema, they want to read about music, and they want to read about food. I know you’re a connoisseur in all three of these categories so please tell our readers what you’re listening to, what you’re watching, and what are you eating with passion?
Whoah, I better start with the food and go backwards! Eating with passion…, oh wow, there is a restaurant in NYC called Il Buco and I just love this restaurant. It is maybe based on Italian food but it goes way beyond. And I have to say that I love Alice Waters because I love when she said, when she was working for a political candidate way back in the ’60s or ’70s, before she had a restaurant, I guess when that candidate didn’t win after the campaign she just said, “I’m going to make my own world,” and went into food and changed the world of food. And that’s why we have Il Buco. She’s definitely one of the people I admire and respect. You could definitely say she’s a role model for me. So I eat Il Buco whenever I can – we don’t have anything like it in L.A. But I’m an extremist, I’ll also eat seaweed or vegetables for healthy fun. I could live on Italian food. If you put me on an island and asked what kind of food do you want to eat for the rest of your life? I would choose Italian food. And watching…uh, this is really weird, Isabella Rosellini’s dad did this very weird movie about St. Francis right after the war (WW2) and there is just something very Joan of Arc about it. It’s weird because it’s very stilted, almost like a silent movie, almost like a very stilted play…
The one where they are building the church in the snow? It’s The Flowers of Saint Francis.
Yes, that’s it! And somebody gave me Shoot the Piano Player and I’m dying to see it. I haven’t watched that yet. And after that on the list is Man on a Wire, which I have heard is really beautiful. Because what I have seen lately is Gordon Matta Clark’s exhibit at MOCA in L.A. and that to me was better than any film I’ve seen. I don’t have time to describe him but he used to cut things out of buildings – he was a radical, crazy artist in the late ’60s. And then what am I listening to…I’ve been listening to Rodrigo again after a little break. Does it have to be new? There hasn’t been a lot of new lately. I love blues music. Some of the more obscure ones like Skip James. We watched a lot of the old footage of blues musicians from the Jazz festivals in Europe back in the ’50s and ’60s. We had a lot of those collections on the road in the bus. I guess in a funny way, I aspire to that kind of feel and that kind of simplicity. I know I have completely the wrong voice and the wrong make up for all that stuff but I love and identify with that music strongly because of it’s simplicity and how profound it is. How swinging, how rocking, Jimmie Reed can be! Is that okay?
I got so excited about the food question people never ask me about food!
It sounds like we could spend several hours talking about food.
Thank you Sam.
Thank you that was a really fun interview.