The ghost of pop

Sam Phillips on Christian music and classic porn, working with T-Bone and her quietly successful comeback release.

By Ken Foster
Published June 12, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

"It's been a little crazy around here," singer/songwriter Sam Phillips reports from her Los Angeles home. "Mostly because of that tornado that I live with, T-Bone. He's been having quite a time." T-Bone, of course, is T-Bone Burnett, who picked up the Grammy for producer of the year for his work putting together the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack; he also produced his wife's Nonesuch debut, "Fan Dance." Released last year, the disc marked Phillips' return after a five-year absence from recording. Including 12 eclectic, stripped-down compositions, "Fan Dance" is an album of post-millennial campfire songs. In spite of glowing reviews and appearances on many year-end lists, Phillips may once again be underappreciated by the public.

No matter. She'd rather talk about her hubby's Grammy success. "That was very strange," she says, adding that a night out at the Grammys is far from where they usually find themselves. "I remember feeling at one point that I was being assaulted, sort of pinned to my seat by all of this crazy show business, and then all of a sudden, Dr. Ralph Stanley is singing 'O Death.' The last thing I expected was that that establishment would recognize T-Bone. And all those people are able to buy houses now." Phillips' voice can briefly be heard on the "O Brother" disc as well, though she insists it was a matter of simply filling in a missing voice at the last moment. "The funny thing is that it's probably the only gold record I'll ever receive."

Phillips seems more than happy to sit along the sidelines these days, still shaky about her place in the business of music after a disastrous, though critically acclaimed, five-album run with Virgin in the '90s. Sam Phillips is one of those mysteriously obscure talents who everyone has heard, though mostly without realizing it. "I Need Love," her almost hit from 1994, has appeared in a number of movies, from Bertolucci's "Stealing Beauty" to the teen flick "Down to You," and for the past few years it has been featured in Ralph Lauren's perfume ads -- the kind of thing some people might have avoided for fear of accusations of selling out. "There was an illness in the family," she says of the deal. "It's something that I'm still ambivalent about, but it was something that I couldn't pass up, because I needed the money to help this family member.

"I've always been a ghost in pop music," she adds, "and sometimes I hear rumors that people have heard my records. Being a pop star has never appealed to me, and I didn't know if I was going to make another record after the Virgin experience. And then having a little girl. Certainly I didn't expect anyone to be interested in putting it out. Perhaps I should raise my goals here, but I am just happy that 'Fan Dance' came out; I was really happy that we made the record, and that it was released."

From her first album, "The Indescribable Wow," in 1988, Sam Phillips (with Burnett at the helm) forged a loyal following among pop music geeks and critics, but radio never quite knew what to make of her. She followed with two more acclaimed discs, peaking with 1994's "Martinis & Bikinis."

"Record companies were still under the impression that they were in the same business as radio," she explains now, sounding more bemused than bitter. "They are two very different businesses. Radio picks their music based on what will sell advertising. They threw things at radio and whatever stuck, that's what they went with. There was no idea of how to promote things at a grass-roots level. I always thought the way to make a single was to make something that I wasn't already hearing on the radio. But that's not the way to get things on the radio." She describes attending a marketing research session, where 20-second samples of 100 songs were played for a roomful of people collected on their way home from work. "You better be either No. 1 or 100 or you're not going to get much from them."

Asked whether her five-year retirement was intentional, Phillips explains, "In show business, all you need to do is not pursue it to 'quit.' By the time we finished 'Omnipop,' everyone at Virgin had jumped ship, except maybe Nancy Berry. And we all know that story," Phillips says, laughing. "I didn't do anything for her. If she'd been attracted to me in some way, that would be a different story." But Phillips admits that the failure of "Omnipop" had its roots in the music itself. "I don't know what to think of that record," she says somewhat ruefully. "I mean, you make them and they are what they are. I wish I could have written some other songs to even it out a bit. I tried to make some jokes, but when you are in pain, the pain sort of draws all the attention to itself. I've always been drawn to art that points beyond to some other thing, to longing or meaning. But 'Omnipop' seemed to be throbbing with pain. I wouldn't want to be remembered by it, let's put it that way."

"Martinis & Bikinis" sold over 100,000 copies. "Omnipop" took in about a quarter of that. Even more puzzling to some was Phillips' final Virgin release, a best-of compilation sardonically titled "Zero Zero Zero." Rather than pick the actual best or most popular songs, she teamed up with Burnett to piece together an entirely new disc, combining new versions of old tracks with odd interludes and new songs, including the prescient "Disappearing Act." "We decided, let's make a record of it, supposing that all of the other records go away, which had been the case at various times. Let's put together something that would make up a listenable record in its own right. It was a darker tone than if we'd just put together everything as it was."

Liberated from Virgin constraints, Phillips accompanied Burnett on several projects, before they embarked on another form of collaboration: a baby girl named Simone. "Pregnancy was weirder than any drugs," she says, adding quickly, "Well, I haven't really taken any drugs. I couldn't write at all." As the birth approached, friends warned her, "You'll never read again after you have a baby." "But I just read everything I could get my hands on, and then I started writing songs again. I was reading Colette's 'Vagabond' and I identified with it so strongly. An anonymous show business person. She really gets show business and the pitfalls."

"How to Dream," another track from "Fan Dance," can be traced back to Henry Miller's "Time of the Assassins." "It's about being a writer." But regarding the origins of most of her songs, she says, "I really don't know where they come from. I do know that I was more disconnected at the time, and felt more disconnected and alienated from the world than I had ever felt, so it was definitely just listening to the stuff that was in my head, but not what was going on around me. That's not always been where I'm writing from."

Born Leslie Phillips, she was raised in California during the '60s and '70s, and began her musical career as part of the Christian music scene of the '80s. She then achieved a degree of notoriety and ire by leaving the movement and christening herself Sam (unaware that another musical Sam Phillips had come before her). She says of the fundamentalist movement at that time, "The most difficult thing about that, the reason I've always been hesitant to talk about it, is there's just no way to portray it. I mean, there's this movie called 'The Rapture,' where the actress is running around with a glazed look in her eye because she's become a Jesus freak. There are still really wonderful people that I know from that time. I wish I could describe it. I wish I could make a movie of what it was like at that time.

"Oddly enough, you know who captured the spirit of those times? When I saw 'Boogie Nights,' I thought about the Jesus movement of that time. There was an innocence, a sweetness to those times in general, and he captured that. And there was a beautiful, sweet time in the church, and the walls came down and because of the counterculture people were less judgmental, more open-minded. There was a lot of ..." she laughs recalling it, "folk music. Like any movement, the people who wanted to take charge ... it just grew into a nightmare.

"But I was fascinated with this metamorphosis, that you could completely change your life. Perhaps that's just American. I grew up at the end of the trail. People were coming out in droves, and still do, to make a new life. It still makes me smile when people say that. I'm grateful for all those experiences, because they shaped me probably in a really demented way. Not many people in pop music have come from that thing.

"It's really hard for me to listen to bands like Jars of Clay or Creed. I've seen some kind of weird clips on them and they are just frightening. It's so deluded. They get the stamp of approval from the Family Channel or whatever, and everyone just mindlessly assumes that they are good. I have always objected to the easy answers. That's insulting. That's not the way life is."

Phillips has grown impatient with the entire notion of the confessional singer/songwriter. She's more interested in opening up the song to the listener. "There are some songs," she says, careful not to name names, "when I hear them, I'm sure the singer feels better, but I don't feel better. I'd rather they kept it to themselves. I'm always trying to put something into words that I don't think there are words for. And I don't know why I want to do that. I'm trying to write big and I feel like there's a lot of clever. Unfortunately, I'm not as clever as those clever writers, or I'd probably be doing that too.

"If there's one person I think everyone should examine, I think it's Bob Dylan. And, if you look at his songs, do you really find out anything about him? The answer is no. I think most songwriters have this urge to confess and it's just ... off-putting. It's not done with any kind of art. There's no humor. It's so serious and not interesting. Dylan is always interesting, whether he's seemingly confessional or just dead simple, or when he really gets complicated. I think the bigger the song, the bigger you can make it, the more room, the more definitions might be able to be drawn from it, the better that it is."

With the release of "Fan Dance," Phillips had been looking forward to touring for the first time in nearly 10 years, but after 9/11 and the "O Brother" juggernaut, scheduling around Simone became too much of a challenge. There will be time for touring later, she hopes. "Nonesuch is on a different time schedule as well. They feel it's going to be around for a long time. And we're already talking about the next record."

And Phillips has no intention of doing anything differently than she did with "Fan Dance." "We just did that in the living room," she explains, sounding as if she's describing a neighborhood craft project. "Nobody was really a technician. You can hear their personalities in the playing. I don't ever want to make records any other way. Everyone was really quiet and in a circle. I really want to try to create a mood, a world for people to enter into, and that's difficult. But that's what I love about making a record. Especially when it happens and you don't know how or why these parts go together the way they do. You just stumble into these things. There's so little mystery in music. I'm just happy to leave it on the side of the road in hopes that somebody will find it and it will mean something to them. Of course, that's easy for me to say.

"I like records that go somewhere," she says. "My records are always kind of bumpy."

Ken Foster

Ken Foster Ken Foster is the author of a memoir, "The Dogs Who Found Me," and a collection of stories, "The Kind I'm Likely to Get." His most recent book is "I'm a Good Dog: Pit Bulls, America's Most Beautiful (and Misunderstood) Pet."

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