When Sherman-Palladino hired her, Phillips was already an accomplished singer-songwriter and occasional actress (her most famous role: a mute villain in Die Hard with a Vengeance). She recorded in the Christian genre before expanding her range on the 1987 album The Turning, which found her exploring other styles and questioning her faith. Her subsequent work is an eclectic musical mix filled with rich textures and deep thoughts. By selecting Phillips instead of a member of the old guard from the insular world of scoring, Sherman-Palladino got a fresh, intimate sound (often with vocalizations) to complement her complex characters.
Phillips spent most of 2016 working on the new Gilmore Girls project, but managed to release Human Contact Is Never Easy, a collection of four new songs (which will also appear on an upcoming album in 2017), two live cuts and two standout tracks from her 2013 album Push Any Button: "Pretty Time Bomb" and "When I'm Alone." Here, she tells the stories behind some of those songs and talks about her work on Gilmore Girls.
Sam Phillips: The show's creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, asked me to sing on the score as the musical voice inside Rory and Lorelai's heads. I wrote little songs and kept the instrumentation simple: acoustic guitar, piano... sometimes bass and drums. The challenge is to weave music around the fast and funny dialogue, so that didn't change. I had more time to compose and record for A Year In The Life which is always a good thing.
Songfacts: What is your workflow for scoring a scene?
Phillips: I am a big fan of Gilmore Girls, so I love grabbing a cup of tea and watching the whole episode for fun first, then I find the spots for music and start writing. For A Year In The Life, I started recording music before they were finished filming so they would have music to edit to.
Songfacts: How did you feel about Rory's transformation, and how did you reflect this in your score?
Phillips: I thought the way Rory's life was unfolding in the new series was true to what a lot of people her age are going through. The score had to connect the series with the new episodes, so I put on my Gilmore hat and worked scene-to-scene with Amy's direction.
Phillips: The pilot and some of the early episodes were more difficult because we were figuring out what the sound of the score needed to be.
Songfacts: You also worked on Bunheads, another Amy Sherman-Palladino show. How did working on that compare with Gilmore Girls?
Phillips: Bunheads was fun with all the dance and musical scenes and because it was set on the coast. I got to do some surf music, which was so fun.
Phillips: "World On Sticks" is one of the first songs (there are more on my upcoming album) that was a collaboration with drummer Jay Bellerose. He recorded drum performances for me to write to.
So the answer is: I didn't create the stomp... Jay IS the stomp!
Songfacts: What inspired the lyrics to that song?
Phillips: I was thinking about humans and how brave they can be under the most impossible circumstances. Our civilization feels fragile right now, like we are on the high wire without a net.
Songfacts: "Candles and Stars" finds you emerging from a dark place. What led you to write that song?
Phillips: In the last few years I realized how much suffering I can put myself through in my mind. On the other side of that is clarity, stubborn optimism and faith in love.
Songfacts: Please describe how you write orchestral sections and get the desired performances from your musicians.
Phillips: Casting the right musician is no different from casting a movie. I am very lucky to work with such talented musicians who will listen to me and stay with me through the process of getting the performances I want. Eric Gorfain has been doing all my arrangements and he is great about letting me collaborate with him. He lets me jump in if there are ideas I have.
Songfacts: How did you get to the point of being "alone but not lonely"? [From "When I'm Alone," one of the live tracks originally on Push Any Button.]
Phillips: I started practicing yoga in 1991 and have just recently gotten around to the mediation part of it which is a great tool for dealing with grief or loneliness. Making music and art are the best ways for me to be alone but not lonely.
Phillips: That is a line from one of the songs on my upcoming album, and the title of the film of my performance at Largo in Los Angeles that we are finishing.
Songfacts: "If I Could Write" is a very important song for you. What were you feeling when you wrote it, and how has it changed for you?
Phillips: When you love someone, that love doesn't completely disappear when you break up. The hardest thing is to not kill that love because you are hurt, but to let it be and to let the hurt go. In other words, I like to reach for the almost impossible.
December 5, 2016.
Get Human Contact Is Never Easy for $6 at samphillips.com.
More Songwriter Interviews