Wednesday, October 30, 2013

INTERVIEW: Sam Phillips

Posessing a voice that is equal parts haunting and expressive and a songwriting acumen that encompasses the entirety of 20th-century song, Sam Phillips has carved out a comfortable niche for herself in the post-pop musical landscape.  Upon the release of her stunning new collection, "Push Any Button", Sam spoke with me about the inspiration for the new record, her foray into visual artwork and her desire not to dwell on the past.

“Push Any Button”, for lack of a better word, is a very “sweet” album – you sound like you are in a very good place and it pulls melodically from classic pop and pre-rock traditions.  What inspired its creation?  Were the sonic choices you made a reaction to the Nonesuch records, which were a bit more spartan? 

Push Any Button was inspired by my online digital art and music project called Long Play that I did a few years ago.  I wrote and recorded a lot of material in a short amount of time so the production was sparse and done on the fly.  I wanted to take my time writing and recording the songs for Push Any Button. My aim was to make each song a record you would find on an old jukebox.. But with a modern twist.

It’s obvious from both a songwriting and production standpoint that you put a lot of craft into your work.   What is your songwriting process like?  Has producing your own work impacted the way you express yourself?

Song writing is still a mysterious process for me.  Anything can set it off-- a feeling, an old building, wearing my husband's shirt, a melody in my head, a phrase.  Someone asked me where his daughter could take song writing lessons recently.  While I am sure there are people who try to teach it, I think it is something you have to learn by doing... Really by listening.

You were an early adopter of crowd sourcing, creating your own website for the funding and release of "The Long Play" series. Can you talk a little bit about how that experience was?  What were some of the benefits and drawbacks to that model for you?

I loved doing Long Play.  The only drawback was that it wasn't physical.  At some point I hope to release a physical copy of the art and music.

You have a history of working with Amy Sherman-Palladino on her TV series…how do you approach composing for someone else’s vision?

When I began making music for Gilmore Girls, Amy asked if I would use my voice in the score.  Because the show had a lot of dialog, I couldn't use words, so I used melody to express the emotion needed for each spot.  It was different from songwriting in that the pieces of music were tiny and the emotional mood/range was limited to the specifics of the show. 

Your collage work is quite stunning and yet very playful– what creative itch does working in that medium scratch?   Whose work inspires your own?

I loved working with old album covers and vintage images to make new record jackets for the vinyl edition of Push Any Button.  It connected the album to an appreciation for the old record business, while commenting on the brokenness of it in a lighthearted, scrappy way. One of my favorite artists is Chris Burden.

You’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of “Martinis and Bikinis”, which was a critical and commercial watershed for you (and, full disclosure, is one of my favorite albums).  How do you view that album now with the comfort of distance?  Is nostalgia something that matters for you artistically?

Though there were some amazing performances by the musicians on Martinis And Bikinis, I prefer the albums that I did for Nonesuch and some of the more stripped down recordings I am making now.  I like to keep moving forward. 

What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?  Who continues to inspire you musically?

I love great melodies and  I am not a snob about it.  It can be a chorus from a pop song, a classical piece by Rodrigo, a standard from the 40's or a guitar line from a rockabilly record.

What’s next on tap for you?

In addition to writing songs and scoring for film and TV, I am putting together more visual art and will be doing more live shows next year.

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