"I'm feeling my way through the dark": Grant-Lee Phillips on writing songs as a reflection of life

The Nashville-via-California singer-songwriter on sense of place & influence of his dad's death on his new album

Published March 10, 2016 12:00AM (EST)

Grant-Lee Phillips (Denise Siegel)
Grant-Lee Phillips (Denise Siegel)

Grant-Lee Phillips' songwriting has always been distinguished by two things: its immense curiosity, and an intense yearning for connection. The musician has often used a historical backdrop to try to make sense of the past, present and future, or crafted ornate travelogues where the endgame is trying to conquer—or at least illuminate—the restlessness inherent in those who are always searching for life's elusive answers. Wrestling with the romance of emotional and physical displacement is what made the four albums Phillips released with '90s band Grant Lee Buffalo so appealing and enduring, and it's part of what's made his subsequent solo career so compelling.

In fact, the Nashville-via-California singer-songwriter's forthcoming new album, "The Narrows," might be his most accomplished work yet. Recorded at Dan Auerbach’s studio, the LP is both immediate-sounding and intimate: Standout "Smoke and Sparks" boasts fluid, gamboling acoustic guitars and shaded piano, while "Loaded Gun" is hot-rodding honky-tonk and "San Andreas Fault" is gentle, pedal steel-varnished folk. Another highlight, the whispering roots-rocker "No Mercy in July," features evocative bass from one-time Johnny Cash collaborator Dave Roe.

Back in February, before the Cleveland stop of his co-headlining tour with fellow singer-songwriter Steve Poltz, Phillips discussed how his move to Nashville and father's death influenced "The Narrows," as well as how his creative process has changed and evolved through the years. (And, of course, he also discussed reprising his role as the town troubadour on "Gilmore Girls.")

How has it been being in the Nashville music community? What has it been like for you as a musician?

It's been really inspiring. I recorded this new album in Nashville. Jerry Roe, the drummer, he grew up there: His grandfather was Jerry Reed, so he basically grew up around all of these country legends. He's a hard-hitting drummer. I had met him before moving out there, and he was the one who really introduced me to the team put together to make the record. [But] yeah, I'm still meeting folks. There are so many different songwriters and people who live outside of that country mainstream, who are really adventurous musicians. It's great. I find it really inspiring.

Have you done any songwriting for other artists yet? I know a lot of people do that.

The town is really big on co-writing and all that. Most of my efforts have remained on developing this album in particular. From time to time, I have found myself in one of those little rooms writing with other people. A guy named Graham Colton, who's actually from Oklahoma, he came to town and we did some writing together. And then my friend Donavon Frankenreiter covered that song on his new album. I wrote with Donavon for his record, too. I'm not necessarily plugged in to that same world. My focus is really all on putting out my own records and touring. But I'm open to it—I'm curious about it, how a guy like me fits into that kind of thing. It strikes me as being somewhat regimented. Songwriting works that way sometimes, but not always.

You've said that the through-lines and themes for your records tend to reveal themselves organically. After "The Narrows" was completed, what did you discover? What were the themes that stood out to you?

Like a lot of my songs, it's about navigating tough waters. Trying to keep your head above the water, and keeping the shore in sight. A lot of these songs are like that. They are moving away from one thing and towards the next, and maybe that destination is unknown at the time, but I'm still moving forward towards it. I'm feeling my way through the dark. Life is that way, and writing is like a reflection of that.

I left California after being there for all of my life, so that was a big one. It meant uprooting and going through the whole physical exhaustion of that choice. But it also represented some new adventure. [But] my family—my parents—they were still in California. And no sooner did I arrive in Nashville, maybe a month later or so, my dad—who had suffered bad health for a long time—his health plummeted, and he passed away in the latter part of 2013. That was also something that weighed heavily on my mind, something that I was processing at the same time.

The record opens up with "Tennessee Rain," it's kind of me looking towards something hopeful. Somewhere near the end, you hear a song like "San Andreas Fault," which is sort of my violent farewell to the place that I was born in. [Laughs.] It's a road record in that way. It's not exactly a "Road to Bali"—or "Easy Rider"—but it's my kind of travelogue.

I did notice that the songs used a sense of place or location—and what that means and how that influences people—maybe more prominently than some of your recent records.

I'm frequently moved by the new places that I see. Even with Grant Lee Buffalo, when we first went out on the road, we were driving across Texas for a few days, I wrote "Lone Star Song." A lot of it I trace back to when I was a kid, and I used to travel around with my grandma. My grandma, she would get a wild hair that we had to travel, and my parents would let me go off with her. She'd take me to Montana and Utah, all across that part of the country. My grandpa drove a big rig, so I would travel with him too. I developed that sense of romance for travel, and it does turn up in the songs from time to time. In this case, it's literally rooted in leaving California and moving to the Southeast.

You worked with drummer Jerry Roe and multi-instrumentalist Lex Price on the record. How did they influence the way the song on "The Narrows" unfolded when you went to record them?

They brought great sensitivity to the songs. They're able to give it some muscle when that's what it called for, and able to step back and just let the song be, as well, let the guitar and the voice be the centerpiece. That's kind of where I begin when I sit down to write, and actually how I perform so much these days. I tour solo acoustically so much, that has become my real baseline. I wouldn't say it's my comfort zone, because it's also a place where there's room to screw it up as well. But there's nothing to hide behind, in other words. And I have increasingly been drawn to that kind of record-making, where there's less and less between me and the song and the end result.

That sensitivity—and that sense of knowing when enough was enough. [Laughs.] And making that basic performance be the thing we were after. A little sprinkling, here and there, of overdubs. But not so much that I would've been prone to in the old days.

You get in the studio, and it's so easy to be like, "One more thing!" Knowing when to stop is such a gift, and such a talent.

It's true. And you can really build yourself a house of cards where, "C'mon, one more card. One more paper-thin wafer!" [Laughs.] It's quite easy for it to topple over, when someone else begins to take it all in. I'm learning about that more and more as I go, the whole "less is more" thing.

Jerry Roe's dad, Dave, who played bass with Johnny Cash, played on "No Mercy in July." Did you pump him for information? Did he have any good Johnny Cash stories? Talk about historic.

[Laughs.] I was delicate, but yeah, I would love to know some of what he has to convey. We chatted a bit, as I was getting my guitar set up—I played a few licks from "Wreck of the Old 97," just to let him know that I knew that lick. I don't know why. [Laughs.] That was a cool thing: He came in some months after our basic session. It was a cool thing to see Jerry and his dad, Dave, interact and perform on the same track together. And I love the idea of having that energy. My dad, his passing had a great deal to do with how this record turned out. I like the idea of having that energy [of] a father and a son playing on the album.

Did your dad's passing have a direct or indirect influence on "The Narrows"? How did it influence what you did?

My mom's from Oklahoma, my dad was from Arkansas. Although I was born in California, if you ever visit Stockton, which is very rural, you'll find the people there are a lot like those you would find in Oklahoma or Arkansas, because so many of them made that move in the '40s, '30s. When I went to Nashville, I felt very at home. There's something very familial about it. And, musically speaking, all of that stuff that they listened to affected me when I was growing up.

And so part of me has been on that continual quest to find the core of what my musical loves are, where the real raw nerve is, in terms of my inspiration. I like a lot of different types of music, but in some ways that dual desire to be in a place that felt at home—[and] where there was that musical legacy I was connected to—I felt like both of those things were fused in that move to Nashville.

As I look back, my desire to create the kind of music I do is some kind of yearning to have a connection with family as well. One could say, "Well, why don't you just stay in the town you grew up with, and have that literal connection?" The fact is, that wasn't in my cards. I had to go out into the world and find my voice this other way. I knew that from a very early age. I don't know: In some ways, I suppose music is a way of trying to stitch up a situation. [Laughs.]

It's a hard thing to articulate. But your question was, how did it impact the writing? My dad was sick for a long time. He was suffering from emphysema and other things. The man had to carry around an oxygen tank for the last 10, 15 years. And so it was kind of like you saw death coming like a slow-moving train, you know? I wasn't altogether shocked, [but] when that moment comes, it's still something you can't really prepare yourself for.

Some of the songs I had begun to write in anticipation. Like that song "Moccasin Creek," my dad was alive when I was still writing that song. And the idea behind it is kind of trying to go to that place where your ancestors have come from, your family, your grandfathers, grandmothers. But I never played it for him when he was still alive. I recorded it after he had passed. It takes on a deeper meaning in that light. Trying to touch that solid ground that connects you to where you came from. It's a bit like my interest in my ancestry, my Native American ancestry. Same thing.

That's what you said in the bio for the record, that you are back in the land of your ancestors, and there's as lot of inspiration there as well.

It's true. I mean, the name Grant Lee Buffalo is sort of a hint to my preoccupation with this subject matter. And there were songs that I wrote that may have not got as much attention back when I was with Grant Lee Buffalo that were also touching upon some of these same things that I revisit from time to time—native history and mythology. For me, it's all the same pursuit, trying to understand where we're going as a people, and what I come from as an individual. All of it. And music is such a good indicator of that. We don't really have a lot of recorded music—there are people who have recorded traditional music, but in general, songs tell you so much more about a civilization at a particular point in time than the history books would. They give you a glimpse into the subtext, some other kind of truth about a time.

That's what always keeps me interested in listening to records, time and time again. They reveal different things and you find different nuances, and at different times in your life, you resonate with things differently. It's a continual search.

Yeah, it is. That's the thing I love about what I do: I can be presented with new challenges in terms of how I go about it, how I write a song. That always happens. Every time I finish writing one record and I begin to make another one, I ask myself, "How did I do that? How do I do that again?" It's like someone goes through and changes all the locks, and you have to find a new way inside the building. [Laughs.] You gotta climb through the window, or through the crawlspace. There's a way, but you have to find some kind of new inroad to get yourself inspired.  And that's where it begins.

Grant Lee Buffalo's "Copperopolis" turns 20 years old this year, which blew my mind a little bit.


Right? Looking back now, with 20 years of hindsight, what are your thoughts on the songs on that record?

Now and then I run into people that tell me that's one of their favorite albums, if not their very favorite. That was an album we really fretted over. I know personally I did, as far as the writing. It wasn't an easy time, you know, to kind of figure out what we were supposed to do next, and [we were] really trying to be as adventurous as we could allow ourselves to be. There are a few songs on that I have rediscovered, like "Arousing Thunder." That is one I seem to play more and more.

I haven't gone back and listened to those early albums very much. Only when Grant Lee Buffalo went back out on the road and did a few reunion dates did I sit down and try to learn the songs again, because they had grown new limbs and branches as I played them by myself. It's a strange sensation to listen to my voice from 20 years ago. It's like I'm listening to a wax cylinder or some sort of angry elf. I can't really relate to it in the same way.

I don't know what happens, if we get different chemicals in our brains at a certain point, but I feel like I've got a different brain, in some ways. It feels more conscious, believe it or not. Maybe the writing process becomes a little more aware. It doesn't feel like one of those dreams where the steering wheel isn't working. That's how it was a lot when I was younger. I love that sensation, and maybe it's something that maybe it's a different way of approaching it that you only get when you're a younger writer.

I like being able to sit with a song and not force it, and know the rest of it will arrive eventually—or it won't. and if it doesn't, then I move on. There was a lot of anxiety that came with the creation of those early albums, the fear that this would be both the first and the last outing. I've got over that anxiety, and that's a really good feeling, to be able to enjoy this process. Or at least enjoy knowing it will, at some point, be done. [Laughs.]

I would have to imagine that in the '90s when you were writing songs, there was that whole other layer of major label pressure. The industry was so different. Just being in that pressure cooker environment seems like it would be a nightmare for creativity.

You're right—it probably had its pros and cons. I suppose if I would've waited a bit longer then maybe I would've put out a different record at a given time. Or maybe we would've made other choices. What kind of happens is, you got one album when your debut comes out, and then you go out and play it and play it to death onstage. A lot of routine can settle in. That's when it gets tough; that's when it seems like that creative machine gets very gunked up, when you're doing the same thing over and over again.

I was always fighting against that, but we had to do a lot of that kind of stuff, playing the same songs. You feel a little trapped in this thing of your own making. And you try to get a handle on it, like, "What is this band about?" Almost as soon as you've got a handle on it, it's become something else, because it's an entity as well. I don't know—it's kind of like when a crowd of people decides to rush for a fire escape. Bands sort of do the same thing, behave in ways that maybe the individuals wouldn't normally do, but as a group we do this other thing. [Laughs.] It's strange.

I feel like there's a psychological term for that. It's not exactly groupthink.

That is the great thing about a band: Everybody kind of stands back from it and beholds this phenomenon, like, "Look at what we can do! Each of us with our index finger pointed can lift a human off the ground! We can lift the Titanic off the ground if we all concentrate!" It really is amazing in that way. And I think we had a real magic with Grant Lee Buffalo when we came together with that intention. It was flashing before us so quickly that I don't think we could always take it in [or] enjoy it in the way that I wish we could've.

I like this pace of things here in the passenger seat of a Chevy Impala with Steve Poltz, down by the river in Cleveland, stopping at a Cracker Barrel now and then. [Laughs.] It's a nice pace. There's something very civil about it.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Grant Lee Buffalo Grant-lee Phillips Music Nashville Songwriting The Narrows