The Way the Song Finds Its Way: A Conversation With Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips talks with PopMatters about new songwriting methods, her new EP, upcoming full-length, and yes, Gilmore Girls.
Sam Phillips
Human Contact Is Never Easy
Little Box

Though she has been an active figure in the American music scene since the early ’80s, Sam Phillips has plans for 2017 that include a new full-length album, a live concert film and support of her recent EP, Human Contact Is Never Easy. There’s also the matter of the recent Gilmore Girls revival. Phillips composed music for the popular series during its initial run (2000-2007) and was tapped by the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, for four new episodes that arrived on Netflix late in 2016.

Speaking from her home base in Los Angeles, Phillips is happy to discuss her contributions to the show and its legacy as well. “I’m a big fan as well as the composer,” she says. She peppers our conversation with observations about the series, how it married the dramatic with touches of light, how it provided a voice for women both on the screen and off and how it continued to find new audience in the years between its final curtain and encore.

In 2015 Sherman-Palladino, along with stars Lauren Graham, Alexis Bledel, Kelly Bishop, and other members of the cast appeared at the ATX Festival. “I had an inkling that they might be doing something with show again,” Phillips notes. “There was also this interesting swell of people who were a little young when the show was originally on the air who may or may not have watched it.”

The show first came to life on The WB in 2000, arriving on a network that also had Buffy the Vampire Slayer and One Tree Hill in its stable. “When we first went on air, the other shows on the network were pretty rough,” Phillips recalls. “The girls in some of the shows at the time were thugs and the meaner they could be to each other it seemed like the higher the ratings got.” Sherman-Palladino’s creation found a niche audience: “Gilmore Girls was an odd, funny show: It was so lovable but not a big prize-winner; it was a hit but not a huge hit.”

Composing for television was a new endeavor for Phillips who had been recording and releasing a series of acclaimed recordings during the ’80s and ’90s. “I barely even watched television,” she tells us. The initial sessions provided learning curve, though she quickly learned to enjoy the pace and demands. “As a songwriter, I loved the deadlines. A show airs every week whether you like it or not and you’ve got to have the music finished,” she recalls. “I’d usually have about a week to turn things around, which was good for me as a writer. It kept me on my toes and it was so much fun because Amy gave me a lot of freedom. It’s not your typical orchestral score.”

Though many shows from the era worked with songs culled from records by Warner Bros. acts, Sherman-Palladino resisted the tendency. “She told me that she wanted my voice on the score,” says Phillips, “she wanted it to be another character. She wanted it to be the music inside Rory and Lorelai’s heads. I wrote pieces that would get caught in your head and I’m touched and honored that many years later people who watched the show have named my score ‘the la-las.’ Those little musical stories were in the heads of the people who loved the show as well. That’s pretty cool.”

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After the Gilmores signed off the air in 2007 (from its new home on The CW), Phillips immersed herself in a new string of albums, including Don’t Do Anything (2008) and Cameras in the Sky (2011). Her marriage to producer T-Bone Burnett, who had overseen sessions for all her albums from 1987 to 2004, had ended by that time and soon Phillips set about producing her own work as well as releasing material through her Long Play digital subscription series. (Physical releases, including 2013’s Push Any Button, also arrived.)

She was an early adopter of the digital subscription model. “I wasn’t the first,” she offers, “but I definitely wasn’t going to be the last.” It set the pace for her to release Human Contact is Never Easy as download-only. The record combines glances both forward and back: four tunes from the upcoming World on Sticks, two live performances from the forthcoming Live at Largo at The Coronet, and two for anyone who missed Push Any Button or wish to hear the songs in a new context.

World on Sticks features players who offered their talents to the new Gilmore Girls material, including drummer Jay Bellerose. Enamored of his playing and his ability to add the perfect touches to songs, Phillips asked him to create drum performances that she could write songs around. “I’d never taken a drum track and written a lyric and a melody cold to that,” she says. “As a writer and guitar player I feel a little more like a drummer. I’ve tuned into a rhythmic thing, even with phrasing. Jay is very musical and sensitive to arrangement. He’s always listening. He really does his homework.”

His work can be heard on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand, which features Phillips’ “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”, a track that has become one of the most enduring in her oeuvre. “I had recorded it and T-Bone played it for Robert and Alison and it wound up on their record. Suddenly, there were a lot of young people on YouTube making videos of themselves play it,” Phillips says. The song was also tracked by her friend Gaby Moreno (as “Hermana Rosetta”) and featured in the TV series Ray Donovan.

Though some writers were eager to predict a breakthrough to the mainstream for Phillips, especially during a long run of topnotch albums during the ’90s, stardom has never been on her mind. “I know and love a lot of pop star people but that’s something you’re born with,” she notes. “It’s beyond talent. It’s the way that your personality is. I’m not about attention. I love writing songs and scoring and I’ll leave the rest to the pop stars.”

Instead, she’s content to let songs such as “Sister Rosetta” and “Reflecting Light” speak for themselves. “The way the song finds its way is the most interesting and the most rewarding thing to me”, she says.