I’ve flown across the country to see Sam Phillips perform. Three times. The first time when she played Carnegie Hall in 2005, the second at a more intimate venue in Santa Monica. The third, a set at the famous Largo cabaret.
Now, at her suggestion, we are meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel. We opt for the retro-chic fountain coffee shop downstairs—instead of the notorious Polo Lounge—which is vastly more appropriate, and more than a little symbolic. Phillips has always pinged under the general public radar, while floating creatively, intellectually, spiritually above musical mediocrity. But even this former rebellions Christian singer, Grammy-nominated mainstream performer, television composer, occasional actress, and producer has never sent a signal that is simple. She is currently working on her 10th studio record.
STE7EN FOSTER: You’ve worked with some remarkable artists. Elvis Costello, REM, Marc Ribot, Van Dyke Parks. And you’re in that Largo circle with Aimee Mann and Jon Brion as well, right?
SAM PHILLIPS: Well, yeah, I kinda fell into that through Jon Brion, who’s a film composer who does a lot of music. He has a residency at Largo. He’s just a doll, and he’s so talented. So yeah, we all meet in a community. When you’re odd, you have your odd friends back you up.
Elvis and Michael are famously prolific writers. Are you?
I’m not usually. I think I’m a little more the tortoise than the hare.
You’re ex-husband, T-Bone Burnett is the go-to producer for so many acts. How did you two meet?
I actually hired him back in 1986.
The Turning, the last album for your gospel label, got you in a little trouble, didn’t it?
I think I was already in trouble. I had gone to my record company and said, “You know what, I feel there is so much hypocrisy, and I feel the spiritual path I’m on is not what’s happening in the fundamentalist camps here, and I, as an artist, want to be free to write what I want to write about.” So my A&R guy said, “Do one more record for our company. What person do you want to work with?” And I mentioned T-Bone. But after T-Bone and I made The turning together, they didn’t want to let me out of my contract…I had a moral clause in my contract at that time and I said, “I’ve broken my moral clause. I’ve slept with somebody and I’m not married.” And they said, “Okay! You’re out of your contract!”
Did you fall in love with him when you were making the album?
I did. And to this day I’ve never had any more fun making music with anyone. He’s completely charming and great in the studio. That’s why we made so many records together.
I remember when Rolling Stone reviewed The Turning, they said if church was as open and honest in their approach to spirituality as your record, they’d have to turn people away. I think that’s why I responded so strongly to your music, because your spirituality was more genuine about the seek.
That’s really so kind of you to say. I feel the same. You know, talking about being an odd person…I do have a deep spiritual belief, but it’s so easy to be disenfranchised from churches.
There is an Episcopal church here in Pasadena. When we had our tussle with Prop 8, they said, “Hey, we don’t care if the state doesn’t recognize it. If anybody wants to get married, we will marry you. You come here.”
I feel like there are some bright spots. You have to look for them, but there are people of faith who are really about love. I’m always looking for those people to hang out with and to love and support. I want to be one of those people, and I hope I’ve been able to make my way towards that, you know? It’s tough. Especially what we’ve been through. What people have done in the name of Christianity, it’s shocking. And sad.
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Amy Sherman-Palladino remembers her first encounter with Phillips.
“The first time I saw her perform, I saw her at the Roxy,” the Gilmore Girls creator and executive producer recalls. While Phillips’ work has always been uniquely cinematic, never was this more utilized than when Palladino sought out Phillips to score the music for the hit series, Gilmore Girls. Phillips jaunty guitar chords and Beatlesque “La-la-la-la-la-la-la=la-la” refrains were as integral as the chemistry between stars Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel, as compelling as the caffeinated, pop culture-referencing banter. It was like a third character.
“She stood up there in all of her black,” Sherman-Palladino continues, “and she’s got that blonde hair and that pixie fairy face, and she stands there and she’s looking at the audience like ‘I fucking hate you people. There was nothing she said to the audience, there was just a presence.
“And when I met her, I’m like, ‘My God, you hated us!” She’s like, ‘What?!’ And if you meet Sam…she’s a delight! And yet there’s this gravitas to her onstage. Like there’s this whole other side to her that is melancholy and angry, and it’s wry and it’s ethereal and it’s not full of shit. It’s serious stuff. Her voice might be my most favorite female voice ever. It’s kind of like Joan Didion’s writing to me. It’s a little, um…haunted.”
It’s music that’s still haunting Sherman-Palladino. She tapped Phillips once again to score her Amazon hit The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
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FOSTER: So I talked to Amy.
PHILLIPS: You did?!
And she mentioned you onstage.
[Laughs] She said I didn’t move and I didn’t smile and she thought I was so scary. She always teases me about that. When they got a deal to do Gilmore Girls, they called and I met with them, and they wanted me to do the music, which was really left field, because I had never thought of doing something like there. I’m so glad I did it, because I grew to really love the show and Amy and Dan [Palladino, Amy’s partner in work and in life] and their scripts and their directing. It really grew into something lovely.
I’m noticing a theme here. Amy sees you in concert and you scare her, and isn’t that how you got that part in Die Hard? John McTiernan saw your Martinis and Bikinis cover and thought you looked so…
[Laughs] Yes! He thought I would make a good German terrorist. My mother probably thought that, too.
Buy the way, thanks for not playing “Don’t Do Anything” at your show the other night. To me, that song is the most dead-0honest expression of unconditional love I’ve ever heard, and it just brings me to tears almost every time I hear it. If you would have played it, I would have lost it. Seriously.
Thank you so much for telling me that. That’s so funny because the Section Quartet did a show at Largo, and they invited me to do a couple of songs. Jon Brion was at the show, and he said, “I’m gonna do a song that is one of the best love songs I’ve heard in a year.” And he plays “Don’t Do Anything’” And I was crying because I respect Jon so much. He’s a huge Beatles fan and is very particular about what he respects in music. I meant it that —it’s a really dead-honest expression of love. And I’m so glad it meant something to you. I don’t want to be famous or anything like that or sell millions of records, but I do want to be able to connect, and so when I can hear things like that from you, that’s the reason I’m doing this.
Sam Phillips lives and works in Los Angeles. Her latest work, a mini-album called Human Contact Is Never Easy is available on iTunes, amazon music, band camp, and from her store at samphillips.com. A full album will be out later this year.