THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 100
Switching up the schedule of publication in part because I had to (busy week last week) and to honor what is the 100th edition of the newsletter. It's been an erratic and enlightening, but fun ride putting this together week after week. I still strive to stay on top of it more than I have been, to get consistent in scheduling and content. But, you know, I'm human. And I'm not really getting paid to do this, a few premium subscriptions notwithstanding.
To honor the milestone, I'm bringing back an interview format that I have long loved doing, about which more below. And, I'll be choosing one of the regular subscribers to get a prize package of physical media chosen by me. This is something I do every month for the premium folks, but I'm going to expand it to all y'all as a thank you for reading and supporting this little endeavor. I'll reach out to the winner in a day or two and announce who it is in this Friday's newsletter. (If you'd like to be exempted from this, let me know.)
Work has been slow to come but things are picking up a bit. I'll have some stuff to share with you next time around. Until then... let's get to the good stuff. Read on.
A handful of years ago, I was watching a clip of Leonard Cohen lip-syncing "Hallelujah" on what I think is Italian television. As you'll see if you click on that link, it's a strange performance involving a cast of dozens and staged in an unusual, almost Muppet Show opening-like fashion. I desperately wanted to ask Cohen about it. That's when I hit on what still feels like a winning idea: to take the interview concept of The Wire's Invisible Jukebox and AV Club's Random Roles and apply it to YouTube clips. Get a bunch together and ask an artist about them, using each one as a jumping off point into different points of their career. I've gotten the chance to bring this idea to fruition a few times for Willamette Week (here's a great one I did with Aimee Mann) and adapted it for a brief run at Magnet (here's one on a Cursive video). But though I haven't been able to sell many publications on this concept, I still love it and wanted to resurrect it for my newsletter. And I can think of few better candidates for this interview than the great Grant-Lee Phillips.
The 58-year-old singer-songwriter is a grinder, plying his craft wherever doors will open to him. And thanks to his perceptive lyrics that plumb the heart's desires and the sociopolitical landscape and a quavering tenor that cuts right to the core of a melody, Phillips has been awarded many opportunities to showcase his rare talent and built an impressive fan base over the course of a multi-decade career. He first came to the attention of the wider world as the leader of Grant Lee Buffalo, a powerful rock trio that released four strong albums in the ’90s. Since that group split up, he's maintained a fantastic solo career, amassing a dozen solo recordings including the recently released All That You Can Dream, an album made during the pandemic with Phillips and his collaborators working from their respective homes. And, for the first time in a long time, Phillips wrote much of the material at his home in Nashville rather than carving out time to work while on tour. The finished full-length is as strong as anything in his discography, marked as it is by a gentle quality that makes some of the harder truths he spells out in songs like "Peace Is A Delicate Thing" and "Rats In A Barrel" a little easier to absorb.
I was lucky enough to spend an hour on Zoom with Phillips to talk about some video highlights from throughout his career, such as his work as Stars Hollow's resident troubadour on Gilmore Girls, his band's contribution to the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, and a clip of him performing a classic ’80s song at a tour date in Australia.
Do you enjoy the work of making videos?
Part of me does, yeah. Many, many years ago when MTV was just a burgeoning thing, in the very early ’80s, I was so excited about the marriage of music and visuals. I thought maybe I wanted to be a film director. I knew I loved music, but I also was really involved with visual art. That was the thing that led me to Los Angeles back in ’83 or so. I enrolled in a film school. I attended for about year while I worked a pretty tough day job. Eventually, I decided to throw all my energy into making it work with the band. But that was a real driving force creatively. I think even it comes to writing lyrics and thinking of music, it's still a very visual process. Describing imagery and painting a scene with words. I think they're very closely related things. So when the opportunity comes along to create something that would enhance or be a kind of companion piece to a song, I get very excited about that. That said, the resources are so often limited these days, and I've also come to realize that it can be a nice tool for introducing the song to a person who might not be inclined to sit down and listen. But if something grabs their eye, they might listen a little bit closer. That's what these little companion pieces are.
You mentioning the ’80s and the early days of MTV is a great lead-in to my next question. You've seen and experience so many of the changes and upheavals in the music industry since you were signed to Slash in the early ’90s. How has it been to navigate those waters? You have a nice foundational fan base, but it's still so much harder to sell records these days.
It's been an ever changing world when it comes to being a professional musician, and it continues to evolve. It's the same in just about every kind of entertainment medium. I was just reading that Netflix has been really struggling lately. They created this whole new model, but for a number of reasons, a company like that is struggling. It's an interesting conversation wondering where all of this is going. On the other hand, we all have a lot more choices as to where we decide to put down our credit card — the things we watch and the things we listen to. But we have to do a lot more digging for them. So, how do we exist? Good question. Obviously touring is a part of it for me, as well. I'm in the middle of that. I spent a couple of weeks in April in Europe and I'm getting ready to go back east to start performing here in in the U.S. in a couple of days. And I've got shows lined up into the new year. I'll be back in Europe in December and January and on and on. All of it kind of accounts for something we call a career, I guess.
Speaking of new models, you recorded the majority of All That You Can Dream on your own with your collaborators joining in long distance and recording their parts at home. How was that experience of making a record in this way rather than gathering everyone together in a studio?
You know, it was really satisfying. And it gave me a sense of purpose. I think all of us were looking for that kind of connection. Just a small crew of people helped me with this, but everyone pulled their own. Jay Bellerose on drums. His wife Jennifer Condos who is a fantastic bass player and a great engineer as well. The two of them were holed up in Los Angeles. We have a long friendship and working relationship. I began to throw songs back and forth to them. The difference in that way of doing things compared to what we would do in a studio is that I would lay down the foundation of the song and they would build their parts around me. Rather than looking at the rhythm section as being the skeleton that we build upon. They are quite unique as musicians and have always had a way of taking the song into consideration and asking themselves, "What can I bring to this? What does it need? Should I remain on the bench for this one?" I've had songs that I've brought to Jay before and say, "What do you think? Do you want to play on this?" And he'd say, "I think it sounds done." A good musician knows when to lay out and sometimes they've insisted on laying out. I'm like, "Are you sure? You do like the song, right?" "Of course, we like it so much we're going to lay out." So I've come to trust that gut of theirs. But they would send the songs back to me and I would incorporate them and a couple of other friends. The great piano player Jamie Edwards who plays with Aimee Mann. Richard Dodd from a band called The Section. They're actually a string quartet. Eric Heywood, a pedal steel player who I worked with on the last record.
This was something that kind of developed some years ago, maybe in the early 2000s. I got involved in film scoring a bit. I had done some indie films and did some television scoring work. That process is one where it really pushes you to do as much as you can by yourself. The budget pushes you in that fashion. But also the flow of creating music where you write and then you, as quickly as you can, put it down, and things like drums, strings, and all that stuff comes later. The real meat of it is quite typically the piano or the guitar. So it didn't feel completely alien to me to work in this fashion. I've done similar things in the past working with a few other drummers like the great Bill Rieflin who has passed as of the last couple of years. We made a record like that — Strangelet. It was thrilling. For a great drummer, it allows them to approach it a little bit differently. They can think more in terms of arrangement. As though they were an orchestra percussionist in some ways. You don't have to hold it together and be the training wheels for the song. So I think it's probably a little bit liberating.
Do you think you'll continue working in that way or would rather be in the studio with your friends and seeing people face-to-face?
Oh, I love being in the studio, for sure. And I look forward to that. I think I'm one to kind of pivot from one mode to the next. The album before this, Jay and Jennifer and Eric, we went in and we cut a record in just a couple of days. All of it was very live. We added a few overdubs but it was quite live. And typically when I do that, then the next one might be a little more acoustic. Then the next one might be a little more something else. I like keeping it fresh for myself. But we'll see. There are good things to come from all of these methods for sure. I should mention: my buddy Dean Owens, he's a great Scottish singer and he's got a great record. He did some tracks with the fellas from Calexico and then sent me the song and I sang a vocal on it. That one's out in the world now as well. So great things can happen in that way that otherwise, with air travel, would be very, very expensive.
Gilmore Girls was one of the more high-profile jobs that you've had in your career. How was that for you? Did that open your music up to a new audience?
Yeah, I think so. It was just a flukey thing. My understanding is that the creators of the show, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, they were fans of mine and Grant Lee Buffalo and would come out to shows and they were familiar with the records. They reached out to me and said, "Do you want to be on the show?" This was very early 2001 or something like that. It was a time where I was kind of breaking out and doing my first solo records. I was game for jumping into anything really. I did a lot of strange collaborations. I collaborated with Paul Oakenfold and Flaco Jiménez. Something happened in my world where it just went spinning in a fascinating direction, and Gilmore Girls was right there during that period. The next thing I know, it's kind of snowballed and here we are, so many years later, and it has this very devoted following. And yes, by all means, it introduced me to people that I don't think would ever have heard my music.
Were they pretty open to you picking the songs that you would perform in the show or were they pretty specific about what they wanted to hear in a particular scene?
A little bit of both. They would sometimes come forward and say, "Here's our vision. We want to have you play this particular song." And that was great. In the end, more often than not, the song that would pick would be one of my original songs. Every now and again, they would come up with a cover. I can think of a couple of those. "Be True To Your School." That kind of tied into a storyline that had to do with Rory going off to school or something. The interesting thing was that they would also come me and say, "We've got this scene. It's kind of a sad scene. It's following an emotional point where things take a melancholic turn. What do you think?" And they would describe the scene in detail and I would say, "What about this?" Very often it would just happen to fit hand in glove. They were incredibly generous to allow me to dialogue with them. Even up to the point where we came back and did this reunion show a couple of years ago. I got a call. "We're going to do a reunion and we're going to do different seasons of the year. You're going to be in the winter one. You're up on the gazebo and you're paying and the snow is coming down. What do you think? Any songs come to mind?" I said, "You know what? I wrote this song a few years ago called 'Winterglow.' It's basically a celebration of the season." And there you have it. It was just sort of waiting to happen. I think we're kindred spirits. I consider [the Palladinos] good friends. That was a joy to be a part of such a friendly group of people. And so creative.
Was it a comfortable thing for you to do some of the acting you did in the show?
I loved it. I had some experience when I was younger doing that kind of thing. I did local theater and I worked at a vaudeville melodrama revival house from the time I was barely 14 all the way through high school. Before that, I was a child magician. So I kind of grew up on the stage. It was really a delight to work those muscles. It's a really fast-paced funny show. It was an interesting thing to see how they put it all together. The choreography of all of it. There are really elaborate scenes that go on for several minutes at a time. It's a bit like making a record where you don't want to be the one who forgets what chord to go to. You don't want to be the weakest link. Boy, you talk about the pressure on people like Lauren Graham and Alexis to spit out the lines. Those scripts would come through my mailbox sometimes late the night before. I gotta be on set at five in the morning but you'd heard that thud like a giant phonebook landing in the mailbox. I only had a line or two so I'm going to freak myself out about remembering that one or two lines. But those actors had to bring that to life. It's just like music. I can't find the proper analogy. I'm a slow moving guitar player. That was more like Van Halen.
Was it a little daunting to be playing a quintessentially Australian song to a basically hometown audience?
Yeah. There's a lot of love for The Church in Australia. As there is everywhere that I've played that song. It was a good day for that song. My memories are that it was a really, really fun show. It was out in the open. It was the middle of the afternoon, daylight kind of pouring through and people drinking very tall beers and families. It was quite nice. That's the thing these days. I go on the road and I never know quite what to expect. I dreamt of one day playing the big sheds and playing those kind of places that Grant Lee Buffalo got to play, primarily as an opener. When it came to the big ones, there's a routine to it where one day bleeds into the one before. But in my level of venue, it's always interesting. I was in Paris last month and played some beautiful theaters. But I also know the next month, I could be playing somewhere where it's a broom closet or it's a furniture store that they made a little stage. I played in someone's backyard last week. So it keeps it interesting never knowing quite where you're going to turn up. Sometimes you get tricked. They tell you you're going to be at Royal Albert Hall, but it's "hyphen mop closet."
As you mentioned in that video, you recorded that song for your album of ’80s covers and you talked about maybe doing one of songs from the ’90s. Is that still something you want to try out?
I don't know. It's possible. That one my wife suggested that concept to me. She knows that when I sit around and change the strings on my guitar, I'll play "The Killing Moon" for her, and we'll sing a Psychedelic Furs song to ourselves. I don't know what the next round would be. I can see different types of projects like that. There's a lot of weight when you have to write and record the album yourself. I think maybe I'm still enjoying the fact that the new one is complete and it's out in the world. So the idea of going back to work on another one is a little bit daunting. I feel like now is the time to go out in the world and play it live and see where that leads. That's usually what happens to me: I go out and tour and, while I'm out there, I wind up writing a few extra songs. Or I get a few started anyway.
That was mentioned in the press notes for the new album — that your process usually involves you finding the free time on the road when you can work on new material. How was it for you to be working in a different mode while you were sequestered at home.
It's a little bit of an adjustment. When you have a lot on your plate, you have a pretty full schedule, then you somehow are forced to carve out the time to tackle whatever it is that you need to get to. If you have unlimited time, sometimes you're less inclined to sit down and write. The touring schedule was kind of perfect for that. I'm away for a couple of weeks and I've got an hour or two to sit down in my hotel room and occupy myself, I wind up writing songs in that way. And it gives me something to do as well. But when I'm at home, I had a hard time to get one started. That's the hardest thing. Once I got the first song written, which I think was probably "Peace Is A Delicate Thing" — that was pretty early on in January or February — then I was off and running. When I began to send songs back and forth to Jay and Jennifer and I heard the potential, I got very excited. It takes adjusting. The way I like to hear things, I like to go and take a drive if I'm at home. Get out of the house. I'm more apt to go and sing to myself with the windows rolled down as I drive around. I like to listen to music in that fashion too, so I'm not directly scrutinizing it. I'm just enjoying it and listening to it out of my periphery. Does that apply to aural situations? Out of the corner of my ear?
This was an usual place to hear your voice. How did this come about?
That's another one of those things from that same period where, you know, a weird meteor flew over and along came Witchblade. That was such a strange thing. This fella who was a guitar tech who toured with Grant Lee Buffalo on the latter tours got involved with this production, and I think played a big role in introducing my songs to the creators of that show. They said, "We have this character, he's a musician, but the actor isn't really a vocalist. Would you help us out?" I came over somewhere in L.A., in the Valley somewhere, I heard it once or twice and I sang it and I left. Then I heard it playing back. I was like, "Yeah, this felt pretty good." It just one of those things. Just a momentary thing. At one point, I even went in later on and I was asked to audition for a character. Maybe it was that character, but they went with a professional if you can believe it. Although this was quite a fertile and surreal moment, it was also the age where to be a great musician, you had to have fantastic abs and you had to show them off. You had to have a window with French shutters that opened so that you could show off your abs.
Are you still getting a lot of requests for your music to be used in films or TV shows these days?
Yeah, it happens now and then. Sometimes as song that I wrote ages ago will get discovered. That does happen because they continue to reverberate. There was a song that my buddy Donavon Frankenreiter and I wrote for one of his albums. I don't do a lot of co-writing. I generally write on my own, and I have been asked to write for others, but we enjoy working together and he tours quite a bit. So when gets the wild hare to record, it's like, "Dude, I'm off the road for two weeks. You want to write some songs? I'm gonna record it! I'm gonna put it out!" So we wrote a song and it would up getting licensed for Hawaii Five-O, the new one, which kind of makes sense, Donavon being a surfer based in Hawaii, and the song's called "Big Wave." It's a great song. It's nice when a song has a little extra appreciation.
I chose this video because this found you working with the great Anton Corbijn. Since you have talked about your love of films and are involved in the visual aspect of releasing your music, I wonder how it was to work with someone on his level.
Well, at that time, Anton's most recent video right before we worked with him was "Heart Shaped Box." I was really struck with that one, but then I looked more deeply into his photography of bands like U2, Depeche Mode and on and on and on. He's fantastic. He's just such a treasure. I haven't seen him in a few years, especially since moving to Nashville, but we would get together in L.A. every now and then when he would come to town. When we first met Anton, I think it was in London and we sat down to talk with him. This sort of seven foot gentleman sits down, a lanky man from Amsterdam. "Anton, great to meet you. So you've heard the song?" "Oh, yes, yes." "So, what do you think? What's the concept?" "Birds." "Birds, right. That'd be great. That makes sense." So that's about as far as we got into it. Bird costumes and birds and like a big bird. And a couple weeks later, we're on the set with all these bird costumes. They built a giant bird cage for me to get inside of. That was a lot of fun. That's my memory.
Paul was very sick. He had gone swimming in the ocean a day or two before off the coast of Santa Monica, which isn't known for its crystal clear waters. He was feeling horrible, but he was a trooper and got through the video. It wound up getting played and kind of became a fixture of that moment. And what do I mean by that? I mean that it would go on to become one of the most wonderfully ridiculed videos on Beavis and Butthead. That's kind of a source of pride there. I made Beavis and Butthead.
Making an appearance on late night TV here in America is still a pretty huge milestone for any band but back when this happened, it felt even more exciting to see a band like yours get a shot like this. Did it feel like a big deal?
Yes, I was very excited about it. Although around that time, maybe three minutes after we played Letterman, I began to hear like, "You know the new thing is the morning shows. You gotta get on the morning shows." Really? Why did they change it to that? Every now and then we'd be getting the nudge from the record company. You gotta be on set at 4:30 in the morning, getting into makeup at 5 and ready to rock and roll at 6 a.m. That was tough. But yeah, [Letterman] was a big deal. When you got on a TV show, they make you play the song about 17 times just to be sure that all the life is beaten out of it properly. Once the life beaten out, then they go, "Let's roll camera!" and they do it for reals. So it all becomes a sort of migraine blur. But it was so exciting. I think the performance came off well. I bought a cheap suit and got a bad haircut the day before for some reason. I wasn't nervous. I was trying to look presentable, I guess.
Did you get to interact with Letterman much?
No, I don't think most bands do.
It looks like he came around at the end to at least shake your hands.
Yeah, he walks over when the camera's on and we shook hands. You know, no one then... I take that back. There were a couple of people like when I did Kimmel a few years later, he leaned over and said, "We're really glad to have you. We have people we really like on the show. And your friend David Cross says hello." I thought, "Well, that was cool." And Conan, also very, very cool. He said like, "I love that guitar, and I love guitars." And we talked about guitars for a moment. That's always nice to have that connection. I have a feeling that Letterman was so bogged down and not in the best place, physically. Even at that point, he looked a bit grey. I think had to get his heart dealt with soon after that. But what a huge accomplishment to be on that show. That kind of stuff is kind of a wild fluke.
At the time Grant Lee Buffalo was connected to a major label, were you feeling any pressure from the powers that be to go all in on promotional pushes like this?
There is a high level of expectation. Our circumstance was interesting. It is uncommon for a band to be signed by a smaller label as were signed to Slash and they are in the Warner machine. Reprise / Warner. They also had deals overseas with Polygram / London Records and various other regional labels. We were this small indie band signed to Slash and yet, the moment you get this slightest degree of promise, then the stakes tend to go up. Then the budget goes up, and in very incrementally did. Not too much. But even at the point where it did, they do expect the band to, you know, pay off. We also toured a lot, and we had the opportunity to open for our heroes. We opened for R.E.M., and we played a lot of festivals. All of that is a fantastic thing. We did headline but we did more of it in Europe than we did in the U.S. In the U.S. we did a little less touring, and when we did, we did a lot of opening spots. Those things are kind of hard, in the hearts of the bookkeepers. It becomes harder to validated putting that band out on the road to just stay there for a couple of weeks. Most supporting acts, there's just no way they can keep up pace with the headliner and cross those miles you need to cross on a major U.S. tour or a European one or two.
I mean, there's a lot of money involved. It's very anxiety provoking. So I think by the time we got to Jubilee, there was definitely that kind of expectation that we would have our biggest record yet. I think in some ways it lived up to that in terms of radio play. That's a different beast as well. I think the most interesting side of Grant Lee Buffalo was probably what we did in terms of making records, and setting a mood and carrying you through an album. And being a real ferocious live band. All that kind of stuff is really important, too. But every bet becomes hedged on the single. What's your best three minutes. At that time, as well, they wouldn't even necessarily let that three minutes play over the radio. It was like, "Let's do call out response," to call people up and play a few seconds of a song over the phone. "What do you think? Did it rock your world?" Grant Lee Buffalo wasn't a band that was built for that kind of distillation. "You gotta have the hooks up front!" It's not an exciting place to be coming from, musically speaking. It makes for a formulaic kind of music, as did the monopoly that radio turned into where there was less and less of a voice for programmers who kept close to the ground and kept their ears peeled for new music and when they got excited about something, they wanted to share it. That's what happened with Grant Lee Buffalo at WFNX in Boston. They heard "Fuzzy" and they played it and played it. That's organic. The chances of that kind of thing happening these days, they're not very good. It happens sometimes through the Internet, but even that is gamed algorithmically. Labels are keen on that. Push the TikTok videos and all that stuff.
I don't pay a great deal of attention to it, and I'm really grateful to have partnered with a label like Yep Roc. They're one of the last real artist-friendly, music-driven labels. That's the only way anything is going to sneak out. We felt like it was a coup that Grant Lee Buffalo got signed and we got to make the record we did. The era prior to that was a very closed system creatively speaking. The kind of corporate rock era of the ’80s. A lot of good stuff came out in the ’80s but it leaked out through the underground. We took note of it. The great stuff that happened in the ’90s, the roots went down deeper.
How did you get involved with this film?
That was Michael Stipe. Michael was a producer on that film. He's such a fan of the music of that glam period, Bowie and Bolan and Iggy. He became inolved with Velvet Goldmine, and I think it was his read on Grant Lee Buffalo that there was a kind of spiritual kinship in terms of that side of our music. Looking to songs like "Fuzzy" or "Jupiter and Teardrop". The earlier stuff, I guess, that was sort of T. Rex-y, Bowie-esque in some ways. He said, "Oh, that reminds me of Mott The Hoople." It's like, "Well, I wouldn't have thought that, but you know what, 'All The Young Dudes' is a Bowie song, so, yeah, I get that." It was one of those things that he and I had in common. So when that project came along, he asked if we wanted to be involved in it, and that came down to writing some songs and recording some songs. There was a small batch of them. One of them that never came out was one that Michael and I wrote together. A really good song. Our bass player Paul became involved in producing a big chunk of that soundtrack. He went over to the U.K. and worked with a lot of his heroes. I think that was a pretty exciting time for him. Sitting across from Bryan Ferry, like "How did this happen?"
it's a crazy good soundtrack.
I meet so many people now that love that soundtrack. I love the film. For me, Bowie was the conduit through whom I discovered Eno and Iggy Pop and so many other fascinating artists. I think, in some ways, people are drawn to that film because if you know anything about those characters, you're curious about a film like that naturally. But if not, that might be the conduit to discover this entire world of insanely unique characters.
In the note for this video, it says that the band was getting ready to play a show with you in Denmark. Do remember meeting them?
Oh goodness... That clip is from like, nine years ago, I think? My brain is a little bit jogged. Maybe I did. Let's say I did and I loved it.
This has to be the pinnacle of any songwriter to have someone want to cover one of your songs.
Oh, it's a huge, huge, huge honor. They did such a great job with it. I felt the love, as they say. They really brought it to life. There's several of them, as well, so that was pretty cool to hear it performed. We had to achieve that through layering. Double or triple-tracking my vocals. And when we would do it live, we would both sing on it, Paul and I. But they had one guy playing electric guitar and somebody else playing, i think, a bouzouki or something . It was pretty wild to hear their arrangement of it. That was wonderful. And just a huge honor. I hope they're doing good.
So what comes next for you? You've got some shows lined up through the end of this year. Anything else beyond that?
Yeah, more tour dates. I'll be out west a little later in the year, probably the fall. December finds me in the U.K. and then several tour dates coming up in the early part of next year. We've got a cool, special re-release of an album called Little Moon that's coming out. It's something that I recorded back in 2008-2009. That's gonna be really nice. And I feel like we're getting closer and closer to the point where we're going to see a special vinyl reissue of early Grant Lee Buffalo records, too.
Pretty alright, right? I like to think so. As I said, I'll be back again on Friday with a fresh interview with a pair of composers who just released recordings of their first operettas, some reviews, and hopefully some fun stuff. Thanks again for sticking with the winning team. Do no harm. Take no shit. Fuck Johnny Depp.
Artwork for this edition is from Kate Norris' exhibition Perception, on display at Catalyst Contemporary in Baltimore through June 18.