Was It All in Her Head?: An Interview with Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips
Cameras in the Sky & Long Play

Sam Phillips has never been as prolific in her writing and recording than she has in the last year and a half. Near the end of 2009 she announced a musical installation project that allowed subscribers to fork of $52 in order to receive five brand-new EPs (of approximately five to eight songs each), a full-length album, access to audio logs, blog entries, silent films, drum-fills-of-the-week, and visual display. When she started this project she definitely didn’t know what she was getting into. She had only a handful of songs written at the beginning of the project, allowing for the pressure of delivering the promised music to motivate her to write and record. The Long Play works as a complete cohesive music experiential installation, sometimes unwieldy, but always fascinating to be a part of.

Sam has now released a physical CD of 13 songs from the Long Play project, called simply Solid State, and it distills the project down to its very essence.

But that’s not all! After stepping away from a project that just saw 43 tunes come out of a year and a half of recording and writing, other less prolific musicians would want to take some time away. Not Sam. The experience of the Long Play inspired her too much and soon she found a second full-length album pour out of her. Tentatively titled Pretty Time Bomb, the album is a departure from the often times dark tone of the Long Play. It’s pop, and sugary, and it’s making Sam very happy!

Sam agreed to speak with PopMatters about her past as a Christian Rock pop starlet, being tossed around by the music industry, creating music on a budget and including fans in that process, and facing the daunting task of completing the most zealous project she’s ever set out to accomplish.

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You used to be a Christian Rock singer under the moniker of Leslie Phillips.

When I first started writing songs at 14, I started off thinking I wanted to change the world, and most kids experiment with sex and drugs when they’re teenagers and I was really interested in religion. I remember being dropped off as a kid to Pentecostal meetings and exploring my way through all of that stuff. Part of that early musical experience was going through that exploration of spirituality and coming through the other end. What I found is that, instead of maybe me changing the world, it really changed me. I found out through that whole process that I wanted to learn how to write songs and make music better than I had before, and I realized that a lot of the fundamentalist people didn’t care about that, or were judgmental about that. It seemed that they had a very utilitarian view of art. That art was only to serve one purpose, which was to get across their point of view, and I didn’t agree.

You wrote some striking songs about questioning faith and religion once you changed you name to Sam Phillips, specifically in [1994’s] Martini’s and Bikini’s and [1991’s] Cruel Inventions. How did that evolution come about from Christian Rock to questioning religion?

I think that love is always the most important thing, and what I felt a lot about the fundamentalist doctrine and their behavior was that they became exclusive, that they were excluding people who didn’t believe in the same thing, or they were excluding gay and lesbian people, basically excluding a lot of people, and that didn’t feel like love to me. Love is always my gauge in anything, or any kind of philosophy or group, whether it’s religious or political, if love isn’t apart of it I have a dubious view of it, I’m not going to trust it 100%. I feel like I am closer to having a spiritual life rather than a religious life. I think just going through the [Christian Rock] process, and watching all of that in full swing. At that point in my life the anti-abortion movement was beginning to take hold. I watched those kinds of clouds gather. It was a really interesting thing, because I think it was a metaphor for how that culture felt aborted from the culture at large. I don’t talk about politics and about that very much, but it was definitely something that pushed me out of the [Christian Rock] world.

So, from that you went from being signed to a major label, and then with a semi-indie label, and now you’re with no label. How did each stage influenced your creative output?

Well, you know there is a lot of romance for me about the record industry. Certainly there have been a lot of abuses and shenanigans that have gone on that are not great in the record business, a lot of people have been taken advantage of, but there were some amazingly creative people in the music business who loved music, some real characters, who did love the artists and the music they were making and tried to support them the best they could within the corporate structure. But, it has become more and more corporate, it has become more and more about Kleenex as opposed to music, you know, more of a product. It was an interesting ride through all of that, the technology changed and it’s been great to watch, but I think we lost a lot of the wonderful people who were involved in the music business. Now they’re wanting to take more of the profits and the real estate and do less and less. It’s a weird thing that’s happened, but that’s the way it is. It’s not that I’m trying to be a radical, it’s the reality of what we’ve had to deal with and it doesn’t make sense anymore to give up everything to a company that’s not going to do much for you. Basically (and this is what happened in my situation) is that you give your recording rights away and realistically your recordings probably won’t even stay in print for more than a few months. And then they’ll be filed away into a warehouse like the end of the very first Indiana Jones movie, in that great big warehouse where you can’t find anything, you know? So, because I’m looking at having a body of work, that’s not what I want to happen. I want my work to be there for people who might want to hear it.

In terms of sticking with no label, do you find that with the changing industry and the saturation of internet music, do you find that there’s less of a clear direction now when releasing an album, or another music product?

Yeah, it’s almost akin to taking a private jet across the country as opposed to taking a bicycle across the country. I think we’re going to have to move in the same direction, but we need to realize that it’s on the ground now, and it’s going to take longer, it’s a slower mode of transportation and that’s ok, but it just takes more effort. I think what I’m trying to do is piece together a team rather than just going to a company that has everything in house. Hopefully that doesn’t mean we’ll have to sell CDs out the back of a car, but if we have to then that’s OK too. I’m used to this because for me it’s always been about how do I put together a body of work, how do I keep going? I’ve never had aspirations of being a pop star. I came as close as I wanted to that in Gospel Music, and I didn’t really like it because I felt it constricted what I could do creatively.

In 2006 you produced your own album Don’t Do Anything for the first time on your own. How was that experience of taking the helm of your own work?

I have to say that with [2004’s] A Boot and a Shoe I was graduating from the T-Bone Burnett school of production. He was less involved, he was busier, we were also separated because we were married for a long time and working together, so it was kind of a natural progression that I would take the reigns. Every record was a natural progression. T-Bone was definitely at the boards and was there for some of the sessions, but I was already launching myself as producer. So by the time that Don’t Do Anything had come out I was already doing what I was doing.

So do you think now that you are taking the role of producer with your work, do you want to continue in that direction or do you think you are still open to letting someone else take control of your work?

The way I approach production is by trying to get the casting right, trying to get the right people in the room and hopefully the chemistry will work. And from that it’s more a collaboration with the musicians, because that’s what I’m into more, than trying to be a producer and trying to get a sound. So, I would like to continue on that path, to collaborate with musicians. The only thing that I would say is that I would like the budget to do more, to be able to pay the musicians more, to be able to have more musicians in the studio, to be able to go into bigger studios. A lot of this Long Play was done at Little Box Studios, which is a home studio in a little barn and it’s very funky. I was even playing more, playing percussion or piano and although it’s great to be able to stretch out and do that, but ultimately I don’t play piano like Patrick Warren, or Jon Brion or some of the people that I love to work with. So, I would like to continue as a producer, but continue with more help from more musicians.

Let’s talk about the Long Play.

The Long Playwas inspiring for me the whole way through. It was a lot of work, I probably took on more work than I should’ve, but at the end of the day I’m so glad I did it. It was an experiment, I didn’t know what was going to happen, and it wasn’t a trainwreck.

It was definitely a great ride from a fan perspective to understand your process and how everything unfolded. To be able to read what you were thinking while you were making the Long Play, and all the visuals that came along with it, it was such a great experience for you to let us in.

Well, that’s good! Because, I really struggled. The thing about it that was not fun and that I really struggled with was I was constantly thinking: “How much is too much? I didn’t want to tax people, I didn’t want to bore them. Also, quite a few people have said that it’s expensive, and I’m thinking “It’s a lot of songs to plow through.” So, something friendlier would be just to distill it and make it available for some people.

Less than a handful of the songs that appear in the Long Play were re-recordings of past tunes, such as “Lying” and “I Need Love”. What was it like approaching these songs again, and what made you decide to do that?

Well, you know, the cry is “Re-record you catalogue, because then you’ll own them!” There’s this big financial push, and I have been resistant to that because I loved the records that I made, and I stand by most of them. But then, I thought is there a way to move them forward, because when you perform them live they do take on a different shape and it’s really fun to see how different versions of the songs can develop. So, I tried to approach it song by song, very organically. Did it make sense to do something, am I inspired to do something, and with “Lying”, which I did on the Long Play I was never really happy with my performance of it on Cruel Inventions, I thought my vocal was too strident. I wanted a softer approach, vocally, so I thought a stripped down version would be interesting, and I was really happy with how it turned out. I do like the production of the old one, but I like my performance more on the new version. To me it was a step forward. So that’s always my question, I don’t want to re-record randomly songs for financial reasons, I really want to approach them in the way I would anybody else’s song — does it make sense to cover this song, can I add something to it?

So, Drum-fill-of-the-week! It’s definitely original, I’ve never seen it before, but what made you decide to include this as part of the Long Play?

It was just a little area of the crazy world that we were creating. Most of the musicians that I work with are very economical, and that’s the way I’ve approached producing music for the most part. So, drum-fills, were always kind of funny. There obvious, and kind of funny and clunky. There are some great old 60s drum-fills, but they are kind of antiquated, or there like a guitarist taking a solo — they can be over the top and kind of funny, or they can be understated, it can be soulful, it can make you cry, it can make you laugh. And we just thought that the drum-fills were a funny thing to highlight.

Because you knew that you were letting people into almost all creative aspects of the Long Play experience, is it safe to say that what fans experienced is what happens during the process of recording one of your albums, or were you more conscious to bring in other elements because you knew you were letting so many people into this process?

I think a little bit of both, but there’s certainly a lot more to it that you don’t see that’s a lot slower, or boring. Or maybe not, friends of mine who are outside of the music business are always talking about wanting to come into the studio to see the recording process, and sometimes that’s really fun. When you have a room full of musicians, it can be really fun and an interesting mix of people and performances, but other times it’s very slow and arduous, and taxing and everybody wishes they were somewhere else. You know, I’m trying to get a vocal, I’m trying to get it in tune, because I don’t like to take advantage of Autotune technology, I’m trying to leave enough of the bad notes in there to sound human, and believe me there are enough of them in there. But also, the creative process is a mystery because there are so many things you take in. When I’m asked about musical influences, it’s impossible to tell you my musical influences for all my life because so much went in.

It must have been scary to know that you just committed yourself to a year-long project of five EPs and an album that you now had to produce, with each EP being released every two or three months?

Well, not only that, that was going to be OK, it was all the extra things — blogging, doing the artwork, and doing the audio logs, and the drum fills — there was a lot going on. At times I felt like maybe I was trying to do a little too much, and lost focus. I think doing it over again I would really do a tight focus on the music, but you know on the other hand it was of that time, and now I feel compelled to move on. I do really want to do something straight forward and simple, I think my next album is that. I think it will be a lower price, it’ll be a more contained traditional format. The other thing was that some press people and radio people, who would’ve normally given me more time, were a little confused and perplexed on how to present the Long Play and how to write about it, what to say, how to play songs from it — because it was digital and we didn’t really send out CDs. What’s funny to me is that I didn’t feel like I was on the cutting edge at all. I think that with the music business changing every month it’s good to keep moving, we’re nomads now, instead of taking residence at a label, we now have our backpacks and we’re moving. So from here I think the next steps are to put out a best of, which is called Solid State, and then the album that the Long Play inspired. I do really want to put out this little best of, it was very fun to be able to pick the songs that I like and put them together. I might have picked more, but I ended up with 13 songs. Also Solid State is not for the Long Players, I’m going to really make that known, because I don’t want to try and hoodwink anybody. I’m going to say “You don’t really have to buy this, unless you feel you want to support the making of the new record.” So, this is really for people outside of the Long Play, this is a distillation.

How do you feel now that the project is done, and will you be keeping the subscription open for new listeners to discover?

I think for now I’m going to keep it open. We didn’t have the funds for what I would have loved to have done, which is make a beautiful box set out of it, and a book.

That would be amazing!

Oh, it would be so much fun to do that. We thought about that at one point, but I felt that because I was so inspired to do this new album Pretty Time Bomb, that it should come first. But should I go back and make that box set, then I may close down the Long Play. I would actually want to add to it at that point, to add more artwork in there, just to fill it out, to make it more of a big project. It would be really fun, this gigantic triple record box set.

That would be absolutely amazing, I was actually going to suggest that, to have this massive box set that encapsulated everything you did with the Long Play.

Well, you know that would depend on how many people would want to do that. If we put out the word and took pre-orders and gathered enough funds to put that together in a beautiful way. That’s kind of fun to if we all agree that the money would go towards that. I loved that about the Long Play as well, whatever money we get we’ll go with that, we’ll make it as LoFi or HiFi as we need to and just go with it, all depending on the budget, and we’ll give to the Haiti Fund and the Japan Fund, which we managed to do which was great.

This new album that came from the Long Play, how are you feeling about it?

The album is called Pretty Time Bomb and I’m very excited about it. It’s hard for me to be detached from it, I really like it, it’s a bit more pop and not as dark as some of the Long Play thing, so that can get too sugary for some people. I have these two sides to my personality and I keep flipping back and forth, so I can never tell. And I think maybe I have two sets of fans, the ones who are along for the happy ride and the ones who are along for the sad ride. I’m very excited about the new record, and I hope people like it as well, but at the end of the day, I keep listening to the mixes I have so far and it just makes me happy!