Songwriter Interviews

Gilmore Girls Composer Sam Phillips

by Carl Wiser

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Gilmore Girls has made a triumphant return, revived on Netflix as A Year In The Life, with four movie-length episodes each spanning one of the four seasons. Its creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, is back at the helm along with most of the cast and crew that made Gilmore Girls one of the most successful and acclaimed shows during its initial run from 2000-2007. An unheralded but crucial contributor is Sam Phillips, who returned to score the music.

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.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): What is your approach to scoring Gilmore Girls, and how did it change for the reboot, which has some very long scenes driven by your music?

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.

Sam wasn't the first choice for Gilmore Girls composer: Carole King got the initial offer. King declined, but let Amy Sherman-Palladino use her song "Where You Lead" in the opening credits.
Songfacts: What were some of the most challenging Gilmore Girls scenes to score?

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.

The four new tracks on Human Contact Is Never Easy were recorded with much of the same crew Phillips used for A Day In The Life. On six of her albums, Phillips worked with T Bone Burnett, to whom she was married, but on this set she produced the tracks herself, using some of the top guns in Los Angeles. The result is a delightfully organic sound with monster percussion and some serious cello.
Songfacts: How did you create the Stomp-like percussive soundscape on "World On Sticks"?

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 was born "Leslie Phillips," and recorded under that name until 1988, when she issued her album The Indescribable Wow as "Sam Phillips." She's not the first Leslie to take a stage name: Taylor Dayne was born Leslie Wunderman.
Songfacts: Why did you call the project "Human Contact Is Never Easy"?

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.

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