But a funny thing happened on the way to making The Turning (1987), which would be Phillips' last album as Leslie, and the swan song for Myrrh. The label ingeniously connected Phillips with T Bone Burnett, who had recently begun to gain a name for himself as a producer, especially after helping Los Lobos break through commercially with their 1984 album How Will the Wolf Survive?
The Turning was easily her best album to date, and it led to Phillips' romantic and longtime working relationship with Burnett (they were married 1989-2004).
Her next album, The Indescribable Wow, came out on Virgin Records in 1988 under the name Sam Phillips, and saw her changing from a Christian singer to more of a traditional singer/songwriter.
Phillips continues to be one of the most acclaimed pop songwriters in her chosen genre. In addition to her solo music - to which she takes a very DIY, hands-on approach - Phillips has also delved into the world of TV music scoring, most notably on the series Bunheads.
Although Phillips left the Christian music industry, spirituality has never completely left her music. She continues to write about life with a distinctly moral perspective.
Sam Phillips: It's shorter. It's little mini songs, which I like because I've always written short songs. It's not all that different.
I've only worked with one person in television, Amy Sherman-Palladino, who I love – and she writes wonderful dialogue at a very fast pace, so my challenge for writing for Amy and her shows is to simplify my melodies or to make space for the dialogue. That's one of the biggest challenges, which is really fun.
Songfacts: Is it easier or harder? I'm guessing it's easier to write these kinds of songs than it is for your own albums.
Phillips: It's faster because I'm not dealing with lyrics. My songs are slower because lyrics take more time for me. But it's not easier all the time because I think music for picture is one of the most wonderful things one can do. When it works, it's very powerful, but it's not that easy to get the music to speak with the pictures. It's constantly challenging and there are always different kinds of music that is needed, so I really like it. It keeps me on my toes and I feel like it's helped me as a songwriter.
Songfacts:I read that your new album, Push Any Button, is one where you wanted to put yourself in the '50s and '60s musical period. Were there particular artists that you hand in mind when you were trying to place yourself in that era?
Phillips: No. That was really part of what I was doing, too. I was just pulling sort of impressionistically; sort of my impression of that era. Nobody specific. And not even trying to cop all the sounds because I have a lot of friends who are very technically oriented in terms of using this amp, and this microphone; using this tape machine, this board. You know, people who are very gear specific. It wasn't even that. It wasn't necessarily about the sounds and about getting that retro. It was more creating a feeling of a melody. It was more in the writing and the performance than it was in the technical recording. It was really trying to immerse myself in a dream world.
Songfacts: There's one song, "You Know I Won't," that sounds to me like a Sun Records recording and sort of pseudo-rockabilly. Here you've taken on the name Sam Phillips, which I'm sure has gotten you confused with another Sam Phillips, and now it sounds like you could have actually recorded it for the Sam Phillips. Did that ever cross your mind?
Phillips: I've been to Sun Records and I've met Sam Phillips' son, but not the late great Sam Philips. But no, that never crossed my mind. One of the first records I heard when I was three years old was "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" by The Beatles, which was skiffle and their version of rockabilly. That has always inspired me, so it was really just my take on something in that era.
Songfacts: Did T Bone Burnett introduce you to any music that you had not been exposed to from that era?
Phillips: Oh, yes, a lot. A lot of country and blues because I grew up listening to more jazz. My parents' era of jazz and Broadway musicals. You know, show tunes and then pop music. When I met T Bone, he definitely became a great influence and a great inspiration by exposing me to a lot of the things that he grew up with.
He saw James Brown live back in the day and wonderful country and blues artists, in particular, Jimmy Reed, who I love so much. But a lot of the country artists as well. So yeah, it was a huge influence.
Songfacts: There are a few songs I wanted to get your thoughts about. One of the songs that's been going through my mind a lot is "Baby I Can't Please You," which I think was directed at Rush Limbaugh. Is that right?
It's not specifically about Rush Limbaugh, but it might be about what's wrong with Rush Limbaugh. But that might also be what's wrong with somebody else who's liberal. I try to make them a little bit more human than specific in that sense, so that "Baby I Can't Please You" is a broader concept. It could be in a love relationship. It could be in a political relationship. Hopefully there are many levels you can take any of my songs on. That is always my aim.
Songfacts: I was reading an article about a group called Cold War Kids, and they all met at Biola University [an evangelical school in California formerly known as the Bible Institute Of Los Angeles].
Phillips: Oh Really?
Songfacts: Yes. Obviously, they have spiritual backgrounds, yet their music is not particularly spiritual. I was reading how they had to deal with people assuming they had political perspectives - conservative Christian perspectives. The Pitchfork review read in a lot of political views that they didn't share. Since you have sort of a similar background, in the sense that you came out of the Christian subculture, did you have to deal with assumptions that people made about your politics that may not have been true, simply because they associated you with everybody else that was a part of that scene?
Phillips: Not so much the politics, but I think the very uncool factor of coming out of that scene, although there's a great tradition of a lot of people coming out of church. I think that it's interesting as a writer coming out of that very narrow-minded view. When I got a contract with the Christian recording company, you had to do many variations on one theme, so it was very limiting as a writer. As I grew up, and as my spirituality grew up, a lot of that was just no longer relevant, and I found people got very unhappy in that world when you didn't tell them what they wanted to hear.
I just felt I had gone in a different direction and it was best to just go by my nickname Sam and start over. Start from scratch. But also to underscore to my audience that I was very serious about the way I had grown out of and from that place. I didn't want to straddle two worlds. I wanted to make it very clear that I'd stopped one kind of music making, and started another. It does shape you.
I think there's an interesting discipline that comes from that world. Certainly, what I know of Biola University, it's quite strict. I'm not sure they had dancing or rock music. I'm not sure about all of that, but that's what I heard back in the day, so it would be an interesting discipline. I think so often when people start songwriting, they just have so much information to pull from, but it's interesting to start in a very narrow place and grow outward. I think it may be helpful to grow that way as a writer.
Songfacts: Do you think your spiritual beliefs still affect the way you write?
Phillips: Yes. Absolutely. There's a song on my new album, "No Time Like Now," it's a very simple lyric, but it's: "There's no time like now, there's no time like this time."
To me, that's one of the most basic spiritual principles; just staying in the moment and really living life to the fullest. In the moment and staying present. Being aware of what's going on around you. Don't get too far ahead of yourself and start worrying about things you have no control over. Don't get too far in the past and beat yourself up over things you might have done wrong. Those kinds of things, to me, don't even seem spiritual because they're so large.
Songfacts: I want to just kind of ask you about some of my favorite songs of yours. You're going to have to go back in time for this one, but I really like "Lying" from the Cruel Inventions album. And I'm just curious what inspired that song, if there were a series of events that really kind of inspired you to write that particular one?
Phillips: That's a long time ago . Well, it's just a different way of saying things that you want to say. "I'd be lying if I said this," you know. So just a different way to say something. It's a little provocative in that I said I don't want what I don't have and all the answers are enough. There were some philosophies going around and some self help that I didn't agree with, so I put that in a song.
It was a hodgepodge of that, but more of what the Tin Pan Alley writers call the classic laundry list song: you put a lot of different things in a list. That was an unusual way to say it: "I'd be lying if I said this, this, this, this, this, and this." So I guess that would be the craft part of it, the "behind the machine" part of it.
Songfacts: Well, I want to talk about a couple of songs that were inspired by strong women. The first one is "Sister Rosetta Goes before Us." Has Sister Rosetta Tharpe always been an inspiration to you, or was there something that you had read about her that caused you to write a song that talked about her?
Proficient at guitar from the tender age of six, Tharpe was an innovator known to rearrange familiar spirituals like "Down by the Riverside" and "Didn't It Rain," making them into up-tempo workouts. This is why she traveled so easily in the company of jazz and swing icons at the time like Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway.
Tharpe pushed the envelope a little too far, however, when she recorded some straight blues. It was one thing to rev up spirituals; it was quite another thing to track "worldly" blues songs.
But I thought the most interesting thing, the thing that I was really talking about in "Sister Rosetta Goes before us," was quoting her lyrics, "Up above my head, I hear music in the air, there's strange things happening every day." I was using her to talk about the things that we can't see that happen all around us - the inspiration, the good things that happen to us all the time, and where do those things come from? I think through music and art is how we get to ecstatic experiences. There are other ways, too, but I think for us the familiar ways are through music and art.
Songfacts: How did it feel to have Robert Plant record one of your songs? [Plant and Alison Krauss recorded "Rosetta" on their 2007 album Raising Sand, which won the Grammy for Album of the Year.]
Phillips: Well, it was also Alison Krauss who did a beautiful job. But I did have a conversation with Robert about Sister Rosetta. And what I didn't know is that she had actually asked him to go on tour with her way back when. I may have this wrong, but it sounded like before Led Zeppelin. So I thought that was interesting. He thought she was quite a character.
He's really inspiring in the sense that he knows so much about music, so much about blues and country and roots music. I was really impressed with him and how he loves music so much. It was really wonderful to talk to him about that.
She also played some of her sermons and some of the music that they did at the church on a radio station. She was really funny in that she had a 24 hour prayer hotline. She was using technology, she was using the arts, and she was also trying to help remedy some of the social problems of the day, as well as doing these performances, these illustrated sermons that had props from the Hollywood studios and choirs and little vignettes they would do - I think there were motorcycles and cars and animals. She was quite a showman.
A big scandal went down about her credibility, that she'd run off with some man and she said she was kidnapped. So very controversial. Just very Los Angeles, very Hollywood through and through in all the craziness surrounding her.
So I just had to write a couple of songs based on her, because it's too amazing a story.
Songfacts: Well, pardon my ignorance, but can you tell me which songs those were that were inspired by her.
Phillips: There's a song called "Old Tin Pan" that was on The Long Play. It was 50 songs, but "Old Tin Pan" was the main one.
Phillips: No. It's an interesting part of Los Angeles history to me, and I have actually been to the church that she started in Los Angeles and I've been inside and all that, and even in her parish, which is interesting. It's funny, because I view spirituality as an ongoing living thing - as a process. The best metaphor for me would be none of us are using computers that are 20 years old, the technology keeps getting updated. I feel that spiritually, we're constantly growing.
Where I started in the church, there were a lot of performers before me - Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke - that's sort of the place that I started. But I grew out of that and took a different path out. So that's kind of the metaphor for me. I think that got stuck on Wikipedia, and so a lot of people bring that up. And it's funny, because it's so long ago, and it really is such a tiny part of my body of work. It was more than 20 years ago, so it's always odd to me that it even comes up, because it really has so little to do with what I do now and what I've been doing for the last 25 years.
Songfacts: Well, since I asked you about songs inspired by a couple of strong women, are there other songs that you can think of in your catalogue that were inspired by particular women?
Phillips: No. It was funny, because being a songwriter and singer in the 1990s, a lot other women who had hits and were asked about their influences and so many of them said Joni Mitchell. Women have not been my primary inspiration; I've always been inspired by male artists for some reason.
My grandmother was a very strong woman. She worked in the defense plants in the '40s, was a single mom, and such a loving, wonderful human being. But that would be more of a subtle influence than something I took on. I didn't actually write about her.
Songfacts: I've always wanted to ask you about the song you and T Bone did called "River of Love."
Phillips: That's a beautiful song. Yeah, I think that's one of his best. I love that song.
Songfacts: How did that all come together?
Phillips: Well, when I first met T Bone, he was doing a beautiful record called T Bone Burnett that was live to two track in the studio in Hollywood, and it was just a gorgeous record. I was actually at one of those sessions listening to them record, and they did "River of Love." I just thought that was an amazing song, and I wanted a lot of people to cover it, so I felt the least I could do was put it on my record that we were making at the time. That was when we first started to work together. He played guitar on that version that I did and I sang it.
Songfacts: To me it sounds almost like a hymn.
Phillips: Yeah. In a sense. It's really beautiful.
Songfacts: How much of that old material do you still do live?
Phillips: Old material, meaning?
Songfacts: Anything from that last Myrrh album and the early Virgin ones.
Phillips: I do some from my Virgin catalogue, yes. There's a lot of material to choose from now. The gospel music companies, they did bad deals, they took people's publishing, they were Christian on the outside, they were business all the way on the inside. I don't support their method of doing business and I don't really support their political views, so I really cut all that. I've turned down licenses, money to have some of those songs used because I don't want to contribute to what they're doing, because I don't really believe in it. They've also tried to attach themselves to my Sam records by even calling some of those old records Sam Phillips instead of Leslie Phillips, which is not legal, which is not right, not cool.
This is not with their listeners, this is with the record companies themselves. I don't feel that they've been very above board. I don't like the way they do business, so I try not to shed any light on them whatsoever.
Songfacts: It's rare that you do covers, but you've done a couple of really interesting ones. I think one of them was "Give Me Some Truth," which was a John Lennon song.
Phillips: Yes. I mean, the audacity of covering John Lennon. But I think the way we did it was deconstructed enough and I think it was one of the songs that not many women have covered. I'm happy that we did that, because I think the lyrics are so great.
Songfacts: In any era it would ring true.
Phillips: And the wonderful Chad Blake mixed that song and mixed it in a really interesting way, so the technology used on that was kind of interesting, as well.
Songfacts: And you covered Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'."
Phillips: Well, yeah. I was asked to do that for the Prêt-à-Porter movie. I have a soft spot in my heart for that record. I think that's just such a beautiful record and her rendition of it is great. I was honored to do it.
It would be fun to bring a little more of a spin to it, like I did on a TV show called Crossing Jordan. They had a soundtrack and I did a Beatles song for that: "I Wanna Be Your Man." I thought that would put a more interesting twist on that, being a woman.
And it's funny, because at the time their publisher said, "Well, you can't change the pronoun when you're doing a Beatles song," and I said, "No, no, no, I don't want to change the pronoun. I want to sing 'I Wanna Be Your Man' and make a darker version of it." So I wish I could have done something similar for "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," because I think the definitive version has already been done. Maybe I'll get to do another version somewhere down the road.
Songfacts: Well, you really do have a lot of audacity in your covers. You're going for the big fish.
Phillips: Well, "I Wanna Be Your Man," I felt I had something to bring to it, being a woman. That was more of an obvious way. But I myself am annoyed by most Beatle covers - it's difficult for me to listen to people covering the Beatles. So I think that'll be my last one. I'll leave it at that.
But speaking of covers, a great cover that I had heard early on was T Bone Burnett's version of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." I think that is one of the best all time. I heard that before I met him and I knew something great was going on there, because I thought the cover was just wonderful. It was funny and just great.
Songfacts: That would have fit really well into maybe not so much your early work with T Bone, but the sort of persona that you put on when you performed live. I'm trying to think how to describe it...
Phillips: It was motionless.
Songfacts: Yes. I could hear you doing that song.
Phillips: Oh, that would be interesting. Not as well as he did it. But, you know.
Songfacts: Are there songs that you haven't covered that you one day intend to?
Phillips: There have been some songs that I've tried and didn't feel like I got to a great place. One cover that I did on The Long Play was "Steppin' Stone," which is The Monkees song, and I had great fun with that. I thought that was a really fun one to cover.
Usually the songs that I love, I love the versions of and I'm not sure how I can bring anything to that. I recently did a cover of "Big Spender" for a charity album that's being released for the charity Sweet Release. There was a theme to the album; I think "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" was the theme or something like that. So "Big Spender" was a natural, because that's another song that I love, and I wanted to do a non-Broadway version of it. So I did one with my band and I'm happy with that one, too. It was a live take in the studio.
So we'll have to think about that. I'm sure there are a lot of other covers that will come to mind at some point.
Songfacts: I wanted to ask you because you've been on the cutting edge when it comes to adapting to new technology with the new music business as we see it. The model is continually changing as far as offering your fans downloads of your music and insights into the process of making music. I wanted to get your take on the state of the business. Are you optimistic that the future is bright? That artists will be able to make a good living off of their music? Or are you pessimistic that it's going to be a while before artists can make the kind of money they really deserve?
Phillips: Well, it depends on what kind of an artist you are - the good news and the bad news. What I see happening is - which I think is really rich and really great - is that several art forms are kind of combining for people who are successful. You may be an actor or an actress on a TV show, and then you make records. Or you might be a visual artist and you make records. You might be a computer programmer and you make records. There are the visual arts. Theatrical. Dance. All these things are combining, so it's difficult to just be a musician in this day and age.
I think that you have to have other things going on, or you have to juggle a few other art forms or put them together to make more of an impact, especially to be able to survive financially. That may be bad news to some people that just want to be musicians, but I think it's actually good news because it makes it more interesting. Popular culture has always been about hybrids. It's been about the rock & roll, blues and country music and the collision of those things. And then later on, through The Beatles and through experimentation, classical music got sucked into folk music. A lot of other things got pulled into that. So I think it's always good when there are different combinations of things that make something new.
Somebody said to me, "I wonder if Bob Dylan or some of these people would have come to the surface, would have become stars if they had to market themselves and be on Twitter." And that may be true. Maybe they wouldn't have. Maybe at that point life was very different, but I don't think that it necessarily makes for bad music or pulls you in the wrong direction. I think you have to control it. You have to figure out how much of that stuff you're willing to do, or even better, how you can use Twitter to make art. You can use the technology to become a better artist. It is the Wild West. It is very interesting. And I don't feel like I have any of the answers. I just feel that I've been a little bit freer to express myself. Like this album cover... I just did it. It was my collage. I made it, and that was really fun because usually a record company would be horrified and never let you do a thing like that. Maybe they would nowadays, but when I was on a label the art department came in and they would handle it because that was a very important part of marketing and they wanted control over that. It is a really interesting time and that's a really good question.
Songfacts: Have you discovered more of the inner businessperson in you, that maybe you didn't know you had, from this whole experience?
Phillips: I would say the inner visual-ist. That's been really inspiring. I do love the visuals and I do love visual art. To me, it's been another component to what I'm doing now that I really enjoy. Business, uh, not so much. To me, there's always been so much heartbreak around the commerce and art relationship. Oftentimes, the commerce has the upper hand and calls the shots, and I think you have to fight very hard in any area of show business and the arts for art to be the main concern, not just the commerce. That goes back a long, long time. It's a worthy fight, but we've been fighting that since the beginning of time.
Songfacts: Have you been doing any acting? I know you did a few roles a while back.
Songfacts: You said that it was something you could write about, so did it lead to any specific songs?
Phillips: Well, when I was doing Die Hard 3, the director had asked for an end title song, and at that time I was writing for a new album and there was a demo that had been sent from the guys in R.E.M. to T Bone to collaborate on this song and I said to T Bone and their manager at the time, "How 'bout if I finish this?" And they all said, 'Great.' So the song "Slapstick Heart" became the song I wrote with those guys in R.E.M., and the director did not want to use it. They wanted something more military for the end, it turned out, so they did an instrumental version of "Johnny Comes Marching Home," which was kind of odd, but I was very excited to be able to collaborate with those guys and write "Slapstick Heart."
I love T Bone's production on that because he used the hip-hop approach. He did that so beautifully, and I'd love to see him return to that. Maybe someday he'll use hip-hop country, which would be very interesting, or some other hybrid because I think that T Bone is typed as a roots guy. He loves roots music, but he's got an incredible pop ear and really loves all kinds of music. He's incredibly versatile and I'd love to see more of that someday. But all the calls are coming in for that type of music so he's very busy. Maybe it'll be a while before he gets to that kind of stuff.
Songfacts: Also, I think Nashville is coming back next season, so he's going to be busy doing that.
Phillips: That's a lot of music on demand. It has to be done every week.
Songfacts: Do you still have a business relationship with T Bone? Do you ever work together, or have plans to work together?
Phillips: It would be wonderful at some point to do that. I think that we have always had a very strong artistic connection, and that will always remain. And a friendship, so I'm happy to have that. That to me means the most. We did a lot of work together and I think we're both very busy in our corners of the globe, but it would always be a welcome thing to collaborate with him because, more than anything else with T Bone, it was a lot of fun. We had a great time.
Songfacts: You mentioned your collaboration with R.E.M. What have been some of your favorite collaborations over the years? Secondly, do you work better writing by yourself or do you work well with others?
Phillips: I don't write with other people unless it's somebody like T Bone or somebody that I know really well because it's just a comfort issue. And also when it comes to lyrics, I'm very particular, so I haven't done a lot of that. Most of my collaboration has come with musicians. I've worked with Eric Gorfain, who's a wonderful arranger and violinist. He has a band called The Section Quartet, and I've worked with them and I've worked with him intensely. I find that that kind of collaboration is more inspiring to me. I have the songs, but to give them life, to make recordings of them, the musicians are key.
Also the wonderful drummer Jay Bellerose, and Jennifer Condose, who plays bass; all these people worked on this current album. It's such a luxury to work with people you trust; that you have an ongoing relationship with. I worked for many years bringing in studio musicians, which were great. Working with them record after record you work up a rapport, but to have an ongoing recording relationship with someone like Jay or Eric or Jennifer is really a privilege because it becomes much more of a collaborative effort in a recording rather than the normal producer thing.
To me, a producer's job is assembling a team. and for me, with my own records, it's more going to the people that I love and work with all the time and just try to figure out which performance is best.
September 25, 2013. Get more at samphillips.com.
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