Pretty Time Bomb: An Interview with Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips
Push Any Button

Sam Phillips isn’t the first artist you’d expect to run an all-digital, online-only music project for more than a year. After all, Phillips is known for her warm, sultry vocals, and classic country sensibilities; not her experimentation in digital music.

Yet that’s exactly what she did with Long Play, the online subscription community that she built and filled with music and art for her fans. For Phillips, a successful independent artist who has worked with T-Bone Burnett on many albums over the years, this relationship to her audience has always been essential.

As Phillips moves away from the digital realm of the Long Play and back into the world of physical album production, this relationship to audience is just as central as ever. On her latest album, Push Any Button, she invokes a strong nostalgia for the bright summer days of her youth. It’s something different for Phillips, but it’s also perfect. Though the tone of the songs might have changed, her savvy with lyrics and composition offers her fans exactly what they’ve been waiting for since her last physical album was released in 2008.

PopMatters sat down to chat with Sam about Push Any Button, visual arts, the new advent of vinyl, and her long-running relationship with her fans.

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Your new album, Push Any Button, is your first physical release since Don’t Do Anything in 2008. For me, it’s a great summer album — it’s that fun sort of pop album.

It’s a light, happy thing. I was hoping that it would go out and bring some joy and make some friends. That’s the most I hoped for it. I’m glad to hear that.

It’s got a very California feel. I hear it was even recorded in a Chaplin-era bungalow in L.A. I’m interested in how that physical space affected your creative decisions or swayed you.

You know, I think being able to work in that space, having the freedom to work in that space over time, not being on the clock in an expensive recording studio — that’s number one; that really helped. I’ve been thinking about Charlie Chaplin a lot lately, I’ve been reading his autobiography, and I was thinking that I wished he’d had 10 more years before the talkies came in so that we could have seen what he would have done. It was funny because as I was reading two nights ago, he actually said that he wished that talkies hadn’t come in as quickly not so much for himself, but for other directors. Because the silent films did have a lot to say in terms of having no sound, just music.

I feel that a connection to the past in that sense, that technology is great but that it can’t replace the heart of what we do, it can’t make up for a lack of inspiration or a lack of development as an artist is important. A lot of times I think people mistake exploring with technology for something that is either good or bad, but I don’t think it’s either. Sometimes it can cover up, it can make it harder to grow as an artist because it’s an easy thing to lean on. I think the space around us is always informing us one way or another, even when we’re not consciously thinking about it. I really appreciated being in that place and hope to do more work there.

I’ve always been impressed with how cohesive your albums are; I don’t ever feel the need to skip songs. I’m wondering if you’re compelled to tell a story across your albums or if that just happens organically.

I try to work until I feel good about the collection of songs and certainly it’s not always every song. What I tried to do with Push Any Button was make a collection of ten strong songs that could stand on their own but could also make a very strong collection of ten. Sometimes when you see an art event or you go into a gallery, you see that the artist is displaying maybe 20 small pictures and all of them make up a piece. That’s what I was trying to do with Push Any Button, but it’s funny because the one song that I felt a little wobbly about of course one journalist called out in a review.

For me, it’s funny — and great at the same time to know that somebody is paying attention and someone is willing to say “Hey, wait a minute, I don’t know if that one song is as good as the others.” I know that historically artists take exception to what writers or critics say, but I think a lot of times it can be a happy and good relationship.

You’ve been interested in the feedback of your listeners for a long time too. Can you talk a little bit about your previous online project, Long Play?

We did close Long Play in hopes of producing some sort of physical version or perhaps doing another type of digital project with another take. It was up for a lot longer than I initially thought. It was up for a couple of years and it was really only supposed to be up for a year. It was an interesting experiment to be able to instantly write, record, and get music to my listeners while also talking about the music and doing other content like an audio blog. It was also a lot of music in a short amount of time, which is unusual for me. I really wanted to press myself to do that. I was just very happy that I had as many people come on that journey with me as did.

As a songwriter, it seems like you shared so much of your creative self with the Long Play community. What was that like? Was it something you had anticipated?

I felt that I was working so quickly because I had set how much material I was going to do in a year’s time, which ended up being a little more than a year. Sometimes it was hard for me because I felt that I wasn’t able to fill out the songs in the writing and recording process. I paid extra attention in Push Any Button to do that. What I didn’t get to do on the Long Play, I got to do on Push Any Button and I got to make it sharper and briefer. Strong and small and short and happy. But I’m already feeling that I want to turn back to odd and interesting. Maybe this next record will sit in the corner and sulk for awhile; it’s not going to be out on the beach like this one.

Do you ever consider revisiting songs that you recorded for Long Play and spending some more time with them?

I think a little more time and distance is needed so that I can have a perspective to go back and see what I want to redo. But I do see myself filling those songs out and doing some other physical projects or maybe a book and vinyl project. Something a little more special, because I feel that it was a very unique and special thing to share time with my listeners.

There was a really great visual arts component to Long Play and I understand that you also did the cover art for Push Any Button.

I did, yes! It was so fun because in the old days, no record company would have let me near the art department. That was really fun. I also did a project along with Paint Any Button that people can buy if they want that are repurposed album covers. They’re orphan covers that I decided to erase the images from, or most of the images from, and then replace them with my own collage images. I wanted to not only hand make something because I’d done an all-digital project with Long Play, but I also wanted to say something. I’m not exactly sure what it is I want to say: I’m sad it’s gone, I’m happy it’s gone, we’re in a new time, where are we going? I think there’s a lot of that in this little project of redoing the album covers.

I remember spending hours with the liner notes of, say, my R.E.M. albums. That seems to be something that’s lost in digital.

It doesn’t satisfy. I have a yen for the physical and the craving. I find that I have acquired more albums, vinyl records, and art books, like coffee table books and some lovely magazines as opposed to seeing things online as much. It’s an interesting thing. I think it kind of goes back and forth, which is comforting too. I think as much as we love technology and depend on it, we realize that there are things like firelight and music that have been around for thousands of years and I think that there’s something to be said for these things as well. We need a balance in our life of the physical and the ether.

Does that interest in balance inform your decision to release some of your work on vinyl or is it more about audience demand?

It was a little bit of both. I did ask around to see what formats my fans would like. I really did want to do a vinyl, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a CD and I found that a lot of people still wanted a CD. Mostly because I think they felt that they were the highest quality and maybe the best way to keep the album for long periods of time. That’s interesting because a friend of mine claims that some of his older CDs, from the ’90s, are starting to decay a little bit. This isn’t something that I’d heard of before. Before it’s all over, we may need another format to store music.

Do you think that a CD really offers a better listening experience than vinyl?

No, I think it’s convenience. There is a clarity thing, and you don’t have something that’s going to necessarily warp, but to my ear, and physically and scientifically, I think vinyl is just kinder to the ear. Analog is kinder to the ear than digital. There’s something about it that digital it stressful to listen to. And that’s interesting because that’s so much of our world now.

It seems that digital is just so technically perfected that something real is lacking there.

I think that and warmth. There’s real warmth, even with some of the noise and get go. Very shortly after CDs were introduced, I heard musicians talk about wanting to put noise back in. It really didn’t last very long in terms of people wanting to hear things so pristinely … I think a whole generation is going to be really influenced by vinyl again. It’s really odd, but I think it’s great. It will be interesting to see what kind of music they’re making in another 10 or 20 years. And in what format?

In all of this talk about the physical product of the album, I’m wanting to go back to the visual arts aspect of the project. I’m wondering what visual artists are a source of inspiration for you.

There are a lot of visual artists that are inspiring to me. I think one of the most moving things that I’ve seen in the last 10 years was the Gordon Matta-Clark exhibit at MOCA in L.A. I didn’t know his work at all and I think, from everything from some of his sketches to the things he did with food to the large cutouts of buildings and pieces of walls and houses, were so beautiful and so touching. There are a lot of other artists as well: Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Bourgeois. There are so many! I love Rothko. There’s a room of Rothko at MOCA that I visit frequently because there are moments in my life where I feel that life is difficult, nothing helps but art. Nothing can help me as much as going to see art. Being with paintings, or looking at my art books, or making art myself.

As an artist, how do you approach doing something that you love as an art form as a business?

That has always been difficult for me. I’ve probably erred on the side of non-business because I think that influenced a lot of my decisions. There was a time when it was really not okay, or at least a lot of us felt that it was not okay, to let our songs go for commercials. A little over 10 years ago, I didn’t have a lot of money and there was a really tough decisions to let one of my songs go for a commercial. It was a lot of money and I did it. I’m still not sure … the money was sorely needed and it was great because I’d just had my little girl.

But on the other hand, I don’t know. I still kind of regret letting the song go for that. In the end, though, I feel that the song will survive. When I was little, there were Randy Newman and Paul Williams and other people wrote songs that were huge television commercials. Songs that were played so much that they got stuck in your head as that product or really connected to the product. I know that my song was not played as much so it wasn’t the same, but still. There was a Randy Newman song, I think called “You and Me”, that was ruined for me for 20 years because it was connected to some sort of body powder.

It’s an odd thing because we’re very lucky when someone asks to do that, and we can be supported as artists, but it’s a tricky thing as well. It’s even trickier now that the music business has just been decimated by any number of things. Sticking to your guns is ultimately the most important thing. In the long run, it’s what really matters. As long as you can keep doing what you’re doing and keep developing as an artist, that’s the goal. My goal has never been to be a celebrity or a pop star. That just doesn’t seem appealing to me and it doesn’t seem like that’s a way to do your best work or to do good work that lasts over a lifetime.

You haven’t been afraid to ask your fans what they want. Can you imagine a career as a successful independent artist without that sort of relationship with your fans?

First of all, it’s interesting that you ask this because I’ve been thinking about, with my daughter who is very musically talented and a lot of her friends who want to go into music, I always see people taking voice lessons and taking photos of themselves and trying to dress a certain way. And then I see other young artists trying to experiment with different technology.

And all of that is good, but at the end of the day the most important thing for me is, and one of the most important aspects of having a career at all, is connecting with an audience. Whether it’s actually writing for them, hearing from them or just touching them and moving them, it’s so much more important to connect with an audience than it is to have some sort of publicity campaign and some sort of viral thing on YouTube. Marketing and all of that stuff is the icing on the cake. What you really need to do is connect with an audience. Once you do that, large or small, there’s a dialogue and a relationship, even if not a lot is being spoken. You’re connected to people and that enables you to play live for them and make music for them.