IT’S NOT ALL IN HER HEAD Sam Phillips

Subscription to
exclusive recordings: $52. Access to intriguing ancillary content: an internet
connection. Window into artist’s world: priceless.

 

BY STEVE KLINGE

 

Sam Phillips is at a transition point, yet again. Now
without a record label, she launched her own year-long subscription-based web
adventure, The Long Play. It’s the fourth phase of her unusual career. As Leslie
Phillips, she began in the early ‘80s recording well-received albums of
Christian music. Then, with the help of her soon-to-be (and now ex-) husband T
Bone Burnett, she turned to baroque and sometimes exuberant “omnipop.” Then,
beginning with 2001’s Fan Dance, she
stripped the gloss and most of the electric guitars; they were torch songs
dwelling on severe, direct emotions. Fan
Dance
was the first of a trio of albums for Nonesuch Records, the last of
which was 2008’s self-produced Don’t Need
Anything
.

 

In October of 2009, Phillips launched The Long Play. For
$52, patrons are promised five EPs, one full-length album, and access to a
website that Phillips curates as if it were an artist-in-residence program,
with the residence being wherever one’s computer provides the portal into
Phillips’ world. Aside from archiving the music as it becomes available, it
includes the Phone Booth (audio and / or video interviews Phillips conducts
with folks such as Joe Henry); a Photobooth, Scratchbook and Silent Movies (varieties
of Phillips artwork); Was It All In My Head (her musings / bloggings) and the
Drumfill of the Week (a ten or twenty second clip). It’s a window into the
working world of an artist. It’s an experiment in allowing access into a
creative process. It’s a business venture. It’s a bargain, for Sam Fans.

 

Artistically, the three EPs thus far have not been radical
departures from her Nonesuch years, although Phillips has used the short-form
to experiment. The series began last October with Hypnotists in Paris backed with strings from the Section Quartet.
In December came Cold Dark Night, a
set of Christmas tunes both traditional and original (with an eerie version of
“Away in the Manger”). Then for Valentine’s came Magic For Everybody, a set of conflicted love songs.

 

She’s working with a core of longtime collaborators-Jay
Bellerose on drums, Eric Gorfain on guitars and violins, Jennifer Condos on
bass-and most tracks are done live or with minimal overdubs (some of the
holiday EP was recorded live around a single microphone). But guests drop in,
too: Joe Henry sings on “Silent Night”; guitarist Greg Leisz helps out on the Magic EP.  The subscription budget in some ways dictates
the arrangements, and the goal is to be serious but informal. As she sings on
“Magic For Everybody,” “Don’t let perfect make you blind to this beautiful
world / Don’t erase your crooked line / Take your mistakes and come with me.”

 

As Phillips says, “We’re friends and we love to come and
record in our little space and either make food or go and have some great food,
because we’re all into food. So it becomes a club house and a group effort, you
know, the Long Play.”

 

In a conversation in early February, just before the release
of the third EP, Phillips was engaging and voluble. In contrast to the
desperate and often torturous sentiments of her songs, Phillips laughed readily
throughout a conversation about the goals and opportunities of the Long Play
and that touched on her work on the music for The Gilmore Girls and the use of her song “Reflecting Light” in Crazy Heart, the film with music
overseen by her ex-husband T Bone Burnett.

 

**

 

BLURT: How have you
dealt with the Long Play subscription commitment deadlines? Have they put you
under pressure or have they prompted you to be more creative?

PHILLIPS: It’s been a little bit of both. It’s been kind of
hard because instead of handing a recording in to a record company that you’re
contracted to, you start thinking, well, wait a minute, there’s Bruce and
there’s Jill and you have names and faces and you think, oh, they’re expecting
another EP-so there’s a little more pressure. And of course the schedule is
definitely very different for me because I’ve always taken a very long time
between records because I’ve always wanted to do the best that I could and make
it as good as I could. Sometimes you have to go through some trial and error on
that.

 

That comment could
trap you, couldn’t it? You say you always wanted to do the best that you could
and then took a long time, but now you’re pressuring yourself to do it more
quickly?

Exactly, yes. It may be good, it may be bad, to do it more
quickly. I learned that it was a good thing doing The Gilmore Girls TV show. Having music due every week during the season,
that was a challenge that was different for me, like completely opposite, doing
these tiny instrumental songs, things I had never done as a recording artist.
This is a little bit more in the middle. I don’t have to do music every week,
but I do have five EPs and a record to finish in a year. So far, so good. I
like that: I think it does push and challenge me in a good way

 

What opportunities do
you have now that you are operating without a record company?

A record company would never do five EPs and an album in one
year because they would never have the set-up time. I don’t think Virgin or
Nonesuch or any company would have let me contribute to the album cover or do
the artwork myself, which I did on the last two EPs. Or being able to do the
little Phone Booths [with artists from other record labels] that I’ve done. And
the day after the earthquake happened in Haiti, I put up a notice hoping that
my subscribers would be okay with this, but I did take part of our subscription
money, the funds, and sent it to the Red Cross. So we’re not going to have horns
on that song, okay, that’s all right [laughs].
We need to be generous at a time when things are tough for everybody, let alone
so drastically tough in Haiti. I couldn’t have given to the Red Cross out of a
record company budget.

 

But mostly for me, it’s the scheduling and, in this time
when times are tough, to be able to be generous and to give away a track when I
want to, whether the record company agrees with that or not. I have control of
that, and that’s been fun. We gave away a few tracks last year just to get
ready for the Long Play. I’m happy that I can not only give people the five EPs
and an album in the end, but also slip in some goodies now and then.

 

It’s almost like the
early ‘60s thing when artists were churning out a couple of albums a year.

I don’t know if that was a terrible thing… It’s a challenge,
and I think it’s a great one. It forces me as a songwriter-this is part of the
selfish reason I wanted to do this project-it forces you to write a lot more.
Like I didn’t know the theme of this next EP [Magic For Everybody]. I thought for a moment maybe it was going to
be a country EP, but it didn’t turn out that way; it’s a little bit of
everything, which is nice, cause it’s just whatever songs come into being at
the time, that’s what’s gets put on the EP.

 

Did producing the
last record yourself prompt you to think that you could do this project on your
own?

I actually cut one version of the album and then decided to
go back and recut half of it. Even in that process I got a lot of confidence in
weeding through and assembling an album that I felt strongly about. I think
more and more I feel that it’s not necessarily about broadcast quality. I think
that the actors and movie stars and celebrities that we love are usually
flawed. They have big noses or they have weird chins. And that same aesthetic I
feel about music:  I want to hear the
squeaks and the rattles. The hem might be showing and the hair is all messed
up. I think that’s good. I like that about music: I want to hear more noise,
more the person coming through, not so much the machinery and digital gloss and
a lot of the things that are on records today. 

 

That ties in with the
sense of honesty that you’re known for: the songs go along with that
unvarnished directness with the content of the songs as well as the
performance. How much of that is craft and how much is keeping the first take
or live-take origin of the performance? 

I try to just do what sounds good. I try not to be locked
into a concept, even if I might start off with one. We just go in with the
attitude that we’re going to try this live and see if we get it. And if we
don’t, maybe I go back and redo the vocal or redo a track. I just try to make
the best version, the most charming version. With a live performance, sometimes
you don’t get one, and sometimes you get one that you couldn’t duplicate. We
had that happen on Sunday in the studio when Jay Bellerose first played on a
new song I threw at him, and he did a very eccentric part right off the bat,
and when we did a few more takes it was clear that he wasn’t going to do that
again. [laughs] He couldn’t have
imitated it; it was just odd. You learn to spot those and go with those, if
you’re brave enough or if that’s what you love or what sounds good. So, I guess
I just try to make it sound good to my taste. Like adding the salt to
something: ‘Salt to taste,’ or something like that.

 

Drumfill to taste?

Exactly: drumfill to taste. [laughs]

 

I’m curious about the
business side of the Long Play.  Is the
state of the music industry something that you and your musician friends sit
around and brainstorm?

No, no, but everybody is talking about it. I just felt it
[the Long Play] was a way to just keep going, to keep making music. For me, it
is less of a business model than an art and music installation on the web, or
an art project on the web. I have fans or listeners who have been listening to
me it seems like a very long time, anywhere from the last ten or twenty years.
I felt like I would like to do something generous for them, since they’ve been
with me for a long time. And also I was thinking of who I like, writers or
directors, of someone like Wes Anderson; I love his films, and I would love to
sign up by subscription to be privy to how he works and what he thinks of
certain things, his Phone Booths, if you will, him talking to actors. It was my
interest in that myself but also just wanting to keep working, to get the music
out, because I do strongly believe that in these financial times and with the
meltdown of the business, it’s important to be generous, it’s really important
to keep working, to be giving away tracks. I think that’s really important
because that attitude and that solidarity will get us through this slippery
slope that we’re on.

 

How will that get you
through if you’re giving things away? 
How will that help you survive economically as a musician?

Well, you know, you can always make a plate of spaghetti and
share it. [laughs] It’s a morale
booster. If we sit down and cry, we’re not going to get to the other side,
we’re not going to go very far. I think everybody feels like, well, nobody has
a lot of budget or money, so let’s just play music, because that’s what we do.
One of my old, old friends said one time, if you don’t love it enough to do it
for free, then you don’t love it. How will it help us survive? I don’t know.

 

This is me having faith. There is no concrete business plan,
and once the Long Play is over, there’s no guarantee what will happen, if
anything.

 

Are you having faith
that your subscribers are keeping the songs and not file-sharing and spreading
them?

Well, actually, that wouldn’t be a terribly bad thing. They
have been very generous with me. When we first started the Long Play, we didn’t
put any music up. We just said, if you want to join it, we have a year for $52,
it’s basically a dollar a week, and they didn’t even listen to any music, and
they signed up. And that was great; they just said we’re just going to go in
for the ride. Whereas on iTunes you can listen to anything before you buy it.

 

[Ed. note: subsequent
to this interview, the Phillips camp announced that her newest EP
Magic For
Everybody would in fact be made available
via iTunes and other online digital retailers as of April 20.
]

 

Do you have a sense
of knowing who your subscribers are?

A little. We have a message board on the site, so people
communicate through that. They’ve been great. There are few more outspoken
people who I’ve known through some of the shows and tours. A few of the Long
Players know each other. It’s definitely a smaller circle, which was what it
was meant to be. I didn’t want to tax the general public with all this music.
It’s really for people who like my music and want to hear more, like an author
who you’d want to read all of their books. It’s that kind of a thing, rather
than, I’m going to get two million subscribers or get lots of hits on the
website.

 

So it’s work with the
audience you have rather than seek to build a broader audience?

Well, yeah, for now. I think that’s something that been
missing in music. Everyone goes for the big hit and the big audience. I know we
have to have a certain amount of listeners to survive, but if you start making
songs for the radio and for other people’s opinions and trends, instead of
sticking with your vision and what you have to say, I’m not comfortable with
that. Maybe when you’re young, you’re trying to figure out how to be
successful, but right now, that’s really not my aim.

 

Has the subscriber
base met your expectations?

I really had no expectations going in. Actually for doing no
press at all, just putting it up and going through my mailing list, I was very
pleased. And also, it is a higher price, it’s not one single for 99 cents and
there’s no physical copy either-some people really want a physical copy, still.
I think we’re doing very well, considering. We’ll see, once the word starts
getting out. I’ve just started doing some press on this. It’s all been very
grassroots. Rather than a business model, maybe I just thought that this is
something interesting and good to do because it is outside the box, and maybe
it will inspire somebody else to come up with a great model or come up with the
great thing that all of us would love to do. When it’s so wide open like this,
I think it’s important to be making music and to be making art and to be
pushing things around so that people see different ways of surviving and doing
things.

 

Is this occupying all
your time now? Are you doing other film work or anything?

No, I’ve really dedicated this year to the Long Play. I’ve
signed with a new publishing company [Notable Music], which is a big deal for
me because I’m usually very loyal about these things… I do think there are
interesting possibilities in the film world. I’ve been very lucky and had songs
in movies and television in the past, and now that’s become kind of the only
way you can survive as an artist. I hope that will change. I was very proud to
be included on the soundtrack to Crazy
Heart
, which I think is a really beautiful soundtrack, and to be included
in the film.

 

Was that T Bone’s
choice to include “Reflecting Light” in the film?

The story I got was that Jay Bellerose, my drummer who works
with T Bone a lot, and T Bone were in the studio and Scott [Cooper], the
director, said, “Does anyone know how to get ahold of Sam Phillips?” Of course,
Jay and T Bone look at each other and laugh, and said, yeah, I think so, we can
figure that out. I guess he really liked that song, but it ended up that it
almost came out of the film. They do these things by committee, and I think
somebody said, I think maybe it should be a sexier song there because it’s a
love scene. T Bone fought very hard, and I think he was right, because it’s
really a moment about the female character, her moment with this man, it’s not
just about sex. It’s more of a tender moment, I guess. It’s definitely out of
the [realm of the] rest of the kind of music and soundtrack; it really grabs
your attention that this sounds different from what you’ve been hearing.

 

Any hints about what
the new EP or what else is in store for the Long Play?

The new EP is called Magic
For Everybody
. There was a twisted Valentine theme in mind, not all the
songs are strictly that. Some of the songs are kinda of positive, kind of happy
because we’re in the doldrums of the beginning of the year, there’s all this
crazy weather, we’re not in spring yet. Sometimes you need a little shot in the
arm. It may be my favorite EP so far. And I’m very excited about the new record
and very excited to get that going; I’m hoping it will be one of my best.

 

Will the record be on
a label?

I would guess not, but that’s not out of the realm of
possibility. It will be released broadly, and we hope to do a whole physical
package of the Long Play if enough people are interested, maybe even vinyl, to
do something really nice for people. But we will do a physical CD and make it
available to anybody who wants to buy it, not just the Long Players.

 

It’s an exciting
project.

I’m excited as a songwriter to just have this many new songs
to put into my body of work.  I hope
there are no complaints; I hope I can maintain my standards.

 

 

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