An artist on his own terms: Glen Phillips did that whole Top 40 thing, now he just wants to help

After very dark times and a personal reappraisal, the former Toad frontman has a new solo album and new priorities

By Annie Zaleski
Published November 22, 2016 12:00AM (EST)
Glen Phillips   (Ashtin Paige)
Glen Phillips (Ashtin Paige)

In the '90s, Toad the Wet Sprocket was a ubiquitous presence on MTV and radio, thanks to hits such as "Walk on the Ocean," "All I Want" and "Something's Always Wrong." The California band's popularity made sense: During a decade where sincerity and brutal honesty dominated music, the folk- and jangle-leaning quartet (known colloquially to fans as "Toad") tackled weighty emotional matters with nuance. After the band split up in the late '90s, vocalist Glen Phillips launched a stripped-down solo career that was equally introspective and never shied away from exploring the mind's darkest crevasses.

Phillips' latest solo album, "Swallowed by the New," ranks among his finest work. Production-wise, it's an immediate-sounding record with proud acoustic guitar and his empathetic vocals high in the mix. Additionally, "Swallowed by the New" has broad inspirations and rich (but tasteful) instrumental shading. Highly regarded artist Ruby Amanfu has contributed backing vocals on several songs (including the easygoing, Toad-reminiscent highlight "Baptistina" and the forceful, blues-gospel number "Held Up"), while the song "Leaving Oldtown"—a wrenching song about new beginnings that Phillips debuted on acoustic tours last year — has graceful string accents. The album centerpiece's, "Grief and Praise," meanwhile, finds comfort in closing a chapter, in the guise of a somber, hymn-folk atmosphere.

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Phillips spoke to Salon via phone, while biking around Nashville, Tennessee, and trying to hide from an impending rainstorm. The conversation turned philosophical, as he shared the concepts and authors that have shaped his perspective both on "Swallowed by the New" and in his personal life.

You actually made "Swallowed by the New" last year. Now that it's finally out, what kind of perspective do you have on the songs and the music?

I feel pretty happy about it, actually. I mean, it was a tumultuous couple of years. Two years ago my marriage ended. We'd been together 25 years, since I was 18. The first [post-separation] year was incredibly difficult. It was fighting to maintain a sense of gratitude, which I did not do consistently. [Laughs.] And maintain a sense of hope. I was really in the middle of it when the album was recorded. It's a certain kind of agony to lose your home, your life and your identity.

And the second year was really rebuilding. I met someone new, fell in love, made this record and got my life together. A change that big offers you a chance to either be defeated or [gives] you the chance to be born again in some way, to have a new life. And I feel like the album is definitely dealing with the heaviness of that period, but it's really oriented toward that rebirth and toward gratitude and toward making something positive out of change.

There's a few of the earliest songs that are really maybe more about being lonely or about being sad. And most of them are about showing up when things aren't easy, and most of them are about forgiveness and gratitude. So it's nice to be here, and I'm actually happier than I've been in a long, long time. And [I can] look at this process that I thought was devastation and see that it was actually a type of freedom that I didn't even know I was going to have.

I think the old saying goes, something happens [when] you didn't even know you needed it.

The first song on the album's called "Go," and it was inspired by a podcast I heard. The concept was lighthouses, in a romantic way. Most things basically say, "I love you; come closer." That's the message we want to hear. Lighthouses have this way of saying, "I love you; go over there." [Laughs.] "Go away. I'm concerned about your safety. Will you please go far away from me?"

You know, one of the big things I had to realize in the breakup of my marriage was what an act of love it was for my former wife to be able to say it was over and be brave enough to make that step. I'm maybe simpler in my loyalty, and I'm maybe more able to sit with something that isn't working when it isn't helping anybody — which isn't, I would say, a great trait. She was able to say, "We're not moving forward. This isn't good for either of us anymore," and be really clear that she wasn't making a wedge issue or pretending it was about something else.

I remember calling her in January of this year and thanking her profusely because we're both happier. Life still definitely has its ups and downs, but at some core level, I think, we both feel like we're better off now. I don't know — there's a lot of pressure, especially in divorce, to be a jerk about it and lay blame and not learn anything. [Laughs.] There are a lot of bad role models out there. I found myself avoiding divorced men as much as I could. [Laughs.] But there's also some really good role models out there, too.

I first heard "Leaving Oldtown" last year when you were touring acoustically. Hearing the studio version with the strings added in was a really nice surprise. How did you decide which of these songs was going to get kind of the additional instrumentation and the treatment?

I mean, it was a question of appropriateness. "Leaving Oldtown" was one of the earlier songs on the album. It was written from a songwriting group that [a musician named] Matt the Electrician was leading. So he would send out an email to a bunch of songwriters on a Wednesday, and then the next Wednesday we would all send him a song by that title.

I had told myself I wasn't going to write breakup songs. My friend invited me to join the group, and I thought, "Yeah, it's great; I'll have titles that don't have anything to do with me, so I'll be able to avoid writing breakup songs."

And then the titles were "Reconstructing the Diary," "Leaving Oldtown" and "My Criminal Career." [Laughs.] And those songs got me over the writer's block, but those are the most obvious breakup songs on the record. They enabled me to get to the later songs, which are I think maybe a little more universal.

["Leaving Oldtown"] felt to me like it needed to feel more like a musical number. You know, it's a little more cinematic and a little less pop song. And when we came in to record the record, that song just had this kind of older quality to it. It felt like a professionally written song as opposed to, you know, another thing I told everybody about my feelings. It's less folk and more, I don't know, more Brill Building. And so we went with that idea. It just felt like those strident strings outlining those melodies just made it work better.

The strings in general — there are just four or five songs that had 'em. But it was just bringing it out when it was appropriate. Paul [Bryan, the arranger,] was very much in support of having the album be understated, having as little as possible on it. But there is an emotional power to strings that we both believe in, and he's a really great, tasteful arranger, and so it felt so good to have that color when we wanted it.

I read in another interview you did recently that this is the first record where you were really thinking about your intent as you were writing it, about what the record needed to say. I was really intrigued by that. Obviously, you've written so many songs over the years and released so many records. Why now? Why did that come to the forefront now for you?

There's been a slow process and change on how I write since Toad. With Toad, it was always like [guitarist] Todd [Nichols] would write some music. I'd write some songs. I'd write some lyrics on his music, maybe add a bridge, and then we'd pick the best songs out of those. It was always kind of piecemeal. If we thought about a theme, it would be after we'd collected our favorite songs, and we'd retroactively see what it was about. And most of my solo albums have been the same.

Maybe eight years ago, I did more projects [than solo work]. I had this period where I did WPA with Sean and Sara Watkins; I did RemoteTreeChildren with my friend John Askew; I did Plover with Garrison Starr. [I also did] "The Secrets of the New Explorers" EP, which was this solo EP that I did with John Askew that's all about privatized space travel. So ["Swallowed by the New" is] not necessarily the first record I've done with intent.

I started doing projects, and then you got to ask what the project was. What did it mean? What did it want to say? And when Toad did [the 2013 LP] "New Constellation," I got to ask for the first time, "What is a Toad song? How is a Toad song different than a Glen solo song?" I write them both — what does it mean if I say it's a Glen song? I'm at least writing the words, if not all the music. What do I want to say? And so it was really cool looking at Toad songs in a different way.

But this album in particular, to have not just an idea of what its context was, but what it needed to be talking about. I knew I was deep in transition, and I wanted to unflinchingly look at what transition meant and what it meant to let a part of your life perish and welcome another part. The phrase "swallowed by the new" is directly about that. It's letting whatever may happen, happen.

The album to me all comes down to the song "Grief and Praise." That's the most important song on the record for me. That song was written as we were recording the record, I wrote that on the third day of tracking.

I had read Martin Prechtel's book, "The Smell of Rain on Dust." And there's a talk he has on YouTube called "Grief and Praise." And he talks about this Mayan concept that apparently grief and praise are the same word. They are both about love in the face of inevitable loss. So the grief is praising things that you love and have lost, and praise is grieving things that you love and will lose.

It's hard to talk about some of this without sounding morbid because I don't feel like it's ultimately morbid. But some of the spiritual practice that I've been most involved in, in the last two years, is essentially like practicing death and really reckoning that, knowing that you are mortal.

There's a guy named Stephen Jenkinson who's a palliative care specialist in Canada. He wrote a book called "Die Wise." He talks about knowing that you will die. Which really means feeling it, right? And people talk sometimes about how inspiring, let's say, cancer survivors are, people who've had a brush with death. They come back twice as alive because they know they can't take anything for granted. And so there's a question of like, "How do we wake up to our lives without having to skid so close to losing everything?"

And there's something about, you know, once again losing [a] marriage, losing identity as a husband, losing an identity as a provider. You know, I lost my identity a while ago as a pop star. I was this kid, and all of a sudden I did really well, and I thought I was amazing. And the reason I was doing so well was because I was special. And then I found, like so many other people, that it wasn't gonna last forever, and that it wasn't because I was so special. It was because I was really lucky and because I worked hard. But mostly because I was really lucky.

I had to readjust. And I think I did a bad job of it, after the band broke up [in the late '90s], readjusting to that reality. I really wanted to be that special. And I had another opportunity to reckon [with] my expectations and to practice death when I was divorced. Everything about my identity, everything that I thought was immovable in my life, was gone. You know, I didn't ever question that my home would be my home, and then it wasn't my home anymore.

This happens to everybody, right? We get sick; we die; there's a recession; we lose our job. People we love near us die; our identities shift and change. And so it's nothing special to me; it's nothing personal. But to actually go through that [reality readjustment] process again — and get to do it better, get to do it with more gratitude, get to do it and take it as an opportunity instead of just loss — that's been the process I've gone through [after my divorce]."

For me, once again, that's why "Grief and Praise" is the most important song. That's the song where I thank my children, where I thank my ex-wife. The bridge of that song is the idea of the well of sorrow being connected to the same aquifer that joy comes from. Joy and sorrow are linked. And this idea that if you love anything deeply, you need to be prepared for heartache because not everything lasts as long as you do. The hardest lesson I think to learn after something like a divorce — or something like the loss of your home or a death of somebody you love — is to be brave enough to love anything again.

David Whyte, he's a poet and very inspirational speaker, and he talks about how the most persistent falsehood that we tell ourselves is that it's possible to love without heartache. He says you only need to, like, look at your children for an example of something, that merely by growing healthy and happy, will completely devastate your heart.

That's true.

There's all this work at avoiding heartache. And actually the key is to not avoid heartache. That's the brave thing: If you love and you become vulnerable and you open yourself up again, you're inviting heartache. For every bit of joy you're inviting, you're also inviting heartache and just let that be OK and let that not shut you down and let that not make you less brave.

That, for me, is the lesson I'm learning. After the band broke up, and I couldn't get a record deal, I let the music industry break my heart. I took it personally, and I let it affect the music I made. I let it affect my attitude towards my career. I did everything I could to sabotage my career, because on the one hand, all I wanted was to do well again. And on the other hand, I couldn't bear the thought of setting myself up for another heartbreak. And so I sabotaged my career pretty thoroughly. [Laughs.]

This is the first record I've made I think since [2005's] "Winter Pays for Summer" [for which] I've actually been willing to put my heart on the line a little more. Maybe when I talk about intent part of it is I think this record's important. I think it's worth people's hearing. It could be not for everybody. Some people — when they're down, they need to hear a happy song. And I totally get that. And this record is pretty heavy. [Laughs.] But it's also really hopeful.

And I think for the people that this record is important to — and already the early feedback [is from] mostly people who've just had someone die or they've had a big breakup. Those are the letters that I get about “Grief and Praise.” letters I get about "Grief and Praise." It's for people who've gone through something really big in their life. I'm glad that it's there for them. I realize it's not going to be everybody's medicine, but it's going to work for some people really well.

I think by concentrating on what the album means and what it meant to me and what I hope it can do in service to other people, it kind of doesn't matter what it does commercially. It's gong to serve in its own way, and I get to think of it as being about that. And I get to not worry about the industry part of it. Commercially, it's not like I'm going to get back on Top 40 with this record. I know that. But hopefully I'll get to be there for somebody who needs me.

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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