Britta Phillips Finally Steps Out on Her Own
After many years collaborating with others, the Luna bassist unveils her first-ever solo record Luck or Magic.
Since moving to the Big Apple to pursue a music career in the early '80s, singer-bassist-songwriter Britta Phillips has been involved a variety collaborative projects: as a member in such groups as the Belltower, Ultrababyfat, and currently Luna. As one-half of the duo Dean and Britta with her husband, Luna singer-guitarist Dean Wareham, she is also a co-composer with Wareham on the Noah Baumbach films The Squid and the Whale and Mistress America. (Outside of those musical activities, Phillips is also best known as the singing voice of Jem in the '80s animated series Jem and the Holograms, and as an actress in the comedy film Satisfaction.)
Yet the one thing that Phillips has never really done in her long musical career was release a full-length solo record.
"I loved being on the side and playing bass," she explains to PopMatters, "and I love doing the Dean and Britta stuff because there's less pressure. But there's always been maybe different kinds of music or me wanting to sing more. So I've always been working on tracks and stuff, but I was just like, 'Why do I need to make a solo album?' There wasn't that urgency. Once I joined Luna, I sort of shelved it, and sometimes your tastes change. It's kind of been a vague idea in the back of my mind but never really an urgency because there was no deadline, there's no necessity for it."
But it was the encouragement from DJ/producer Scott Hardkiss during a lunch the two had in 2012 that Phillips finally took the plunge into making her own album. The result is the atmospheric, romantic-sounding Luck or Magic, which contains half original material and half cover versions of songs by Fleetwood Mac, the Cars, the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson, Evie Sands, and ABBA's Agnetha Faltskog. Showcasing Phillips' hypnotic and sultry vocals, Luck or Magic features appearances by Luna members Wareham and guitarist Sean Eden as well as YACHT's Jeffrey Brodsky.
"It's really exciting," Phillips says about her record. "It's a lot of work and it's kind of huge for me because it's been so long. I described it like, 'I finally feel like an adult' -- something that I've taken the reins on, obviously more than anything else I've done. A lot of decisions and signing off on things and stressing out, [but] having fun too. I don't feel like it's the biggest deal for everyone else in the world, but for me it's a big deal."
Phillips describes the new record as somewhat of a departure from the music of Dean and Britta. It wears some of the sonic hallmarks of the '60s, '70s and '80s on its sleeve, yet the incorporation of electronic elements ground those influences into the present. For example, the sexy funk of "Do It Last" could be a hybrid of Massive Attack and Daft Punk, while the sweeping "Million Dollar Doll" recalls a bit of New Wave but with a contemporary synthpop feel.
"Obviously the covers [of Dennis Wilson's] 'Fallin' in Love' and [Evie Sands'] 'One Fine Summer Morning' are very '60s," she says. "'Daydream' ended up sounding pretty '60s to me too, so that's a good third of the record. I was kind of thinking on that one like a Nancy Sinatra [James] Bond song, but that's not how it was when I first wrote it. It sort of morphed into that. My original songs 'Do It Last' and 'Luck or Magic', they both ended up sounding pretty '70s to me. or early '80s, maybe with some Air in there.
"My original demo of 'Do It Last' was so different," she continues. "It was actually kind of like this bouncy Paul McCartney eighth-note piano, like 'Me and My Arrow', a Nilsson thing. I was like, 'I really like this.' And then I listened to that Daft Punk song, 'Something About Us', and I kind of took a little bit of those sounds and maybe tried to funk up the bass a little."
The two cover songs that most people will likely recognize from this album -- Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" and the Cars' "Drive" -- evoke an ethereal vibe that deviates from the original versions. Aside from the rather obscure songs by Dennis Wilson and Evie Sands, Phillips also unearths the love ballad "Wrap Your Arms Around Me", originally recorded by Agnetha Faltskog of ABBA from her 1983 solo album of the same name.
"'Wrap Your Arms Around Me' was actually suggested by a friend, Chris Hollow," says Phillips. "He plays in the Sand Pebbles. He's always sending Dean great songs, and he sent this and was like, 'Britta should cover this.' It's pretty kitschy, it's pretty over the top. If you hear her version, it's great. I had to cut the line 'make love to me now like never before.' [laughs] I couldn't sing that. So I tried to do it in a way that was not kitschy but to make it more modern."
For the album's confessional and soulful title song, Phillips drew from her own diary: the track's original name was "Just Shut Up and Listen". "I can't remember if I wrote them to Dean or if I wrote them to Dean in my head," she says. "It has that personal side because when we first got together I didn't think it would ever last. But I also didn't want to avoid whatever bad stuff would come of it. I haven't done anything that was sort of soulful, that kind of groove stuff in Dean and Britta or Luna, and I've been into that lately."
If the album's closing song, the haunting, almost drone-like "Ingrid Superstar", sounds tailored-made for the Velvet Underground, it's because the song's title is a reference to one of Andy Warhol's superstars. The track was originally written for Phillips and Wareham's musical project from several years ago in which they composed music for Warhol's black-and-white screen tests of his Factory from the 1960s.
"We ended up not using that," says Phillips of "Ingrid Superstar". "I don't know: it was sort of rambling and didn't have any vocals on it then. So I kind of tightened up the arrangement. I play guitar on it. I was trying to imitate how Dean or Sean would play guitar but in a very naive way. [laughs] I opened my notebook and picked out these little stanzas that I liked and singing them randomly and sort of wrote it on the spot, which I liked because it's more like this a little walk through a poem or something. I liked it because it's sort of my secret favorite track; 'Do It Last' is too."
Phillips and Hardkiss worked together in the early stages of the record for only a year as both of them were busy with other projects. It was Hardkiss who suggested to Phillips that she consider some cover songs. Among the ones he proposed included "Drive", "Landslide", Led Zeppelin's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You", and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You". "He was so great to work with," she says of Hardkiss. "He was so enthusiastic, like a mad wizard. I'm singing [and] he was like, 'Yeah, that sounds great!' He was like this cheerleader. He wanted to me to be confessional in my original songs, too, and get into a little bit. I think he was definitely influential as far as me going for a more soulful thing."
Tragically, Hardkiss unexpectedly passed away in 2013 at the age of 43, around the period that Wareham and Phillips were moving to Los Angeles. The couple worked on the score for Noah Baumbach's film Mistress America. Eventually, Phillips completed the record with producer Eric Broucek. "I didn't get into start working with my original songs with Scott unfortunately," she says. "I played them for him and we talked about them and he was excited about them but we didn't actually get started on those. That's a part of it, being supportive and have somebody making an album and be an inspiration."
Phillips is going to do a few solo performances, including opening for Luna on some dates. In addition to her new album, she has been recording with Luna for a new covers album as well as working on Wareham's upcoming record with Cheval Sombre (a "space cowboy" album as she describes it). It demonstrates that collaboration is still a part of her work even as she has her own album now.
"In the '80s, when I first started out, there was a record deal offered to me as a solo artist," Phillips recalls. "I was working with this other guy and they wanted me to dump him. I was like, 'No,' and I just kind of shelved it. Part of it is feeling that it's good enough. I have always wanted to do it, and I've always been writing songs, but it's hard to sign off when something is finished.
"Dean's a good influence because he's not overly precious about stuff," she continues. "He's like, 'I'm a musician and I'm gonna go into the studio for this amount of time and then it will be finished, rather than for me just always searching how to make this song better.' Sometimes it's good because some of the tracks changed a lot for the better. But I could've gone on working on them for another three years and they would've changed into something else, not any better but different. That's something that I tend to do until somebody tells me it's done."
The experience of working on Luck or Magic has Phillips possibly considering another solo album in the future. "I don't have any time writing music, because I'm in the studio doing those other ideas. I don't know when to stop. [laughs] Maybe I just have to find time. I haven't written that many songs in my lifetime but I want to write some more and before I forget how again. As soon I was finish mixing, I was like, 'I want to do another one.' So many ideas, so many possibilities!"