Just after the release of his new Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff (QRO review), Grant-Lee Phillips talked with QRO. In the conversation, the singer-songwriter Phillips discussed his latest record, retaining your sense of self during everything that’s going on, his Sunday ‘Live from the Parlor’ StageIt livestreams, the tragic still relevance of 1993 Grant Lee Buffalo debut Fuzzy, waking up in Charleston, singing into his iPhone, Google searching his own lyrics (not while on stage), being the town crier, being the Stars Hallow town troubadour, too many candy bars, and more…
QRO: How are you holding up, with everything that is going on?
Grant-Lee Phillips: Oh, goodness. I suppose I’m holding up pretty well, you know? I’m a bit of a homebody, I guess, so [laughs] I have plenty to keep me occupied. But I do go a little bit stir-crazy on some days.
QRO: How are things in Nashville?
GLP: During the first period of shutdown, Nashville, being such a tourist town, was quite a struggle. Trying to self-regulate, you know? I don’t think it’s too easy for a place like Nashville, that is built on, you know, the partying, [laughs] the tourism.
QRO: How was making Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff?
GLP: The record came together last November. Just a few days in the studio out in Los Angeles, with some old friends.
Probably took up to a year, in terms of the writing. There were a few songs that were even older than that, things that I had been kind of wrestling with for a while, songs that didn’t necessarily make as much sense on the previous record, Widdershins (QRO review). So, I feel like it was a long time, in terms of the build-up.
I began speaking with Jay Bellerose, who played drums on the album, a few years back, about the idea of getting together to work in the studio. We did a record together some twelve years ago, called Little Moon (QRO review), and so I was aching to work with Jay again.
It was quite pleasurable, though, you know? It went down fast. When you work with such first class, instinctual players like that, things happen quickly. You have to be ready for them to happen, in fact, you know? You have to kinda have hit ‘RECORD’ before you ever open the door to the studio and allow them in, because magic happens so quickly.
QRO: So, was it all done well before the shutdown?
GLP: Yeah, it was all done in November, and before the year had ended, we had put it on the calendar for September. I mean, a lot of that comes down to what other albums are in the pipeline for the label. Record Store Day is always kind of a big traffic jam as well, [laughs] so I didn’t necessarily want to get caught up in all of that.
And, I think the feeling was, this being such a reflective record, it felt like the kind of album that one could enjoy in the autumn, as well. When everything begins to die. [laughs]
QRO: [laughs] But you didn’t have to have the release date moved [because of the virus]?
GLP: No, we just kept it on board because it felt like, well, who among us knows what comes next?
I feel like it’s the kind of record that’s meant to grapple with human folly, and human questions. And perhaps it can be a source of comfort and reflection. We could certainly use that right now as well. It was a batch of a medicine made for these times.
This being such a reflective record, it felt like the kind of album that one could enjoy in the autumn, as well. When everything begins to die.
QRO: Have you woken up in Charleston (like the Lightning song, “Sometimes You Wake Up In Charleston”)?
GLP: I have, in fact. That’s where the song came from. [laughs]
There’s always the degree of the autobiographical in my songs, mixed with my own daydreaming, you know? Somewhere the two collide.
I was in Charleston a few years back, took a stroll around, and began to reflect on the history of the place, you know? It being the cradle of slavery.
Not long before I had visited the city of Charleston, there was that horrible shooting at Mother Emanuel Church. I came to realize – I was staying at a hotel just across from the church there. All of those things began to swim around in my head. I took a photograph that morning, and I posted it with the caption, ‘Sometimes you wake up in Charleston,’ and then it occurred to me, that this was probably a song. There might be a song here. [laughs]
And before I knew, that day, the song began to take form. I sang it into my iPhone in the bathroom of the hotel. [laughs]
QRO: Do you do that a bunch, when something comes to you, you sing it into an iPhone or a recorder?
GLP: I do, yeah.
It used to be, years ago, when I would get an idea at an inopportune time – and that’s always when the best ideas come, when you’re not looking for them – I would call my home phone and sing it into an answering machine. So, I would get home and I would have some song ideas.
Because you’re in that moment, you know? I try to approach it that way, you know? There’s a time when I get down, I buckle down and do some editing, but I try to allow the writing process to be very fluid, and not to different than just speaking with you, as I am now, you know?
I try to allow the writing process to be very fluid, and not to different than just speaking with you, as I am now, you know?
QRO: Your last record, Widdershins, had notably more political lyrics than you’d done in a while. The world hasn’t gotten any less political since then, so why back to your more personal reflectiveness for Lightning?
GLP: I think because I had done so with the last record.
I often pivot from talking about the external ideas that affect all of us in the town square, and then I will talk about what’s going on within me, you know? I’m always kind of finding a new focal point, I guess.
I feel like it’s important, in the midst of all of this political upheaval, that we retain our sense of self. We have to remain engaged, socially, and politically. We have to be vigilant, but we also need to be reflective as well, you know? We need to maintain that sense of openness, and what matters to us.
Let’s hope that some of the struggles that we’re undergoing right now are temporary, and we will surmount them & can get back to rejoicing and appreciating this life that we’re given.
So, as an artist, I can never lose sight of that.
QRO: Did you think, when you wanted to release the record in autumn, you didn’t want to release in late November?…
GLP: Oh, I hadn’t thought about that so much.
I’m always eager to put it out the day – the day that it gets mastered, I say, ‘Let’s put it out tomorrow. Why can’t we?’ Record companies don’t really function that way. [laughs] They need time to build up and spread awareness, so this was the earliest we could do it, really.
QRO: You’ve released a record in 2016, 2018, and now 2020 – how have you been able to keep up this clip?
GLP: Oh goodness. It seems to be a pretty natural metabolism, if you will.
I probably could be even more prolific if I were allowed to be. It’s just that it takes time to get an album up on the shelves, take it on the road, you know? There’s so much that comes with it. It’s not just the album release, it’s the tours, and the promotion.
There was a lot of hoopla that was made over the summer, some comments that were made by the CEO of Spotify, as to how much music we should be putting out. I’m not sure that I agree with that. I feel like it’s up to each artist to make that judgement. The marketplace shouldn’t dictate that. I think it’s more important that, when you have something to say, then take that opportunity.
There’s so many external factors that play a role in releasing an album, however. People make albums, and then they get put on the shelf, and then they get buried, and oh, goodness – a lot of nightmares. I just try to keep going; I think that’s the key.
I probably wrote thirty songs, and I whittled it down to ten with this album.
And some of that’s budget, too. It’s like, ‘How do I want to spend the limited time and resources that I have?’
I also like the idea of five songs per side, you know? Kind of looking at it from that perspective of an old school vinyl record.
QRO: I suppose September 4th’s release day wasn’t like previous release days for you?
GLP: Yeah, that’s true.
I try to make a little bit of a splash. I created a record release party live on Facebook the following day. That was nice.
I also perform every Sunday on StageIt. That’s the thing that’s kept me sane. Over the last six months, I do a ‘Live From the Parlor’ show on Sunday nights.
I feel like it’s important, in the midst of all of this political upheaval, that we retain our sense of self.
QRO: Are you bummed that you can’t immediately tour behind the new record?
GLP: It’s frustrating, I gotta say, to our livelihood, as musicians, that we can’t go out and tour.
But it’s also kind of pushed me to engage more in the virtual realm, doing these live concerts and to be a little more active. Sometimes that’s hard for me to keep up with, when I’m on the road. Just trying to get from place-to-place, trying to get over jetlag, and by the time I do, it’s time to pack my bags and come home. [laughs]
So, it’s a little hard to juggle all of that anyway. I feel like, well, I can invest more of my energies into embracing the social media these days, making use of that.
And I’m enjoying that. I have quite a few of the songs that I have archived, as far as home acoustic performances. There’s more & more of the Zoom chat interviews happening. So, it’s reshaping the way we can do this, you know?
QRO: I did see tour dates listed on your website for U.K./Europe starting in January – are you still holding out hope?
GLP: I’m still holding out hope.
I think some of the dates are being moved to the following year, if you can believe that. I think there are dates set for March, which is six months away. It’s really hard to know. [laughs]
I guess, the one upside is that, as a musician, you’re accustomed to the rug being pulled out from underneath you, and just rolling with the punches, you know? That seems like what we have to do every day in our world, anyhow. [laughs]
And spending time at home is kind of where we do a lot of our work as well. Just trying to keep the lights on, and trying to keep positive about all of it as well. There are darker days as well.
QRO: I saw your Rough Trade NYC livestream – do you not know the lyrics to your new songs?…
GLP: I think I knew all of the words to all the songs that I sang that day. [laughs] I don’t think I had to look at the lyric sheet. But there was a few that haven’t been played night-after-night on the road, and so it’s possible.
You have to think, I wrote the songs in 2019 and prior, recorded it then, and now, here we are, almost a year later, and I really haven’t been in the process of performing it.
It’s like, if you were in a play, and you had a year off. [laughs] You probably would have a hard time remembering all of your lines. I think most of them are in there pretty well.
It’s a funny thing, you know? Sometimes the new songs, I haven’t quite memorized yet. Some of the very old, old songs, I might know really well, and some of them, I might not know well, because I haven’t played them enough. When you have fourteen albums in your catalog, it’s hard to keep them all well-tuned.
QRO: Have you ever had to Google search the lyrics to one of your songs?
GLP: I try not to do that on stage. [laughs]
I have, yeah, and they’re always wrong. They’re always wrong.
Sometimes I’m offended, sometimes I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty good line, actually. I should have thought of that.’ [laughs] So, when I do Google my lyrics, I have to go about editing all of them. Otherwise I will sing the wrong lyrics that I got off the internet.
I guess, the one upside is that, as a musician, you’re accustomed to the rug being pulled out from underneath you, and just rolling with the punches, you know?
QRO: How have your Sunday StageIt performances been?
GLP: Oh, really fun. Really fun.
That’s a case where I try to keep a binder full of my lyrics next to me, just in case somebody makes a request, as they are known to do, some deep bonus track that I haven’t played in 25 years. I’m usually game, you know? Sometimes it works out alright. Sometimes it’s a train wreck.
QRO: Do you do a completely different set list every Sunday?
GLP: It’s always a little different.
As I have been nearing the release of this album, I’ve tried to make sure to include some of the new songs.
But it runs the gamut from Grant Lee Buffalo, Grant Lee Buffalo b-sides, cover songs, songs of my own. It’s pretty broad, actually. And often, I don’t know what I’m going to play until an hour before, or even during the show, when the requests come in through the chat.
Some of these songs that I’ve been playing forever, they may seem like they are a little worn-out to me, but, you know, I find that fans still want to hear them, and so, it’s like, ‘Okay, one more time, we’re gonna sing that song, “Jupiter and Teardrop”, one more time, for you.’ That’s how it stays alive, because people want to hear it.
Otherwise, I’m usually trying to move forward. [laughs]
I appreciate that history that my audience & I have together. I understand that dynamic where they heard a song for the first time, and that was… It’s like your first kiss, I guess, or your first date.
QRO: I think that’s true of any artist, when you’ve got a long career…
GLP: Yeah. But I appreciate that history that my audience & I have together. I understand that dynamic where they heard a song for the first time, and that was… It’s like your first kiss, I guess, or your first date. You remember it. You remember where you were. I can appreciate that as much as anyone.
QRO: Do those livestreams at least somewhat ‘scratch the itch’ of not being able to tour?
GLP: They fulfill a purpose of performing and remaining connected.
Economically, they help out. But it’s nothing like you would make on the road.
But that said, I really appreciate the support & the generosity that I’ve been shown doing them each week. It’s helped to alleviate some of the anxiety of not being on the road, for sure.
Grant-Lee Phillips’ video for “Gather Up”:
QRO: How was making the video for “Gather Up”?
GLP: That was fun.
You know, it was really because of the pandemic that I took that route, of an animated video. I knew that I didn’t want to be out with a film crew. I had to find a way that I could collaborate without going anywhere. It just so happened that I had a green screen at home.
So, I filmed myself, at home, and I sent it to Luke Jaeger in Northampton, Massachusetts. He had made some great videos for my friends Winterpills, who were based in that city. I loved what those guys had done together, and I looked him up, and he was game. That’s how all of it came together, over a few months.
Grant-Lee Phillips playing for “Easter Sunday”:
QRO: Have you been writing/making music during all of this?
GLP: You know, I haven’t dove in too deeply, as far as writing songs for another album. I’m just not ready to go there yet.
I have been good for short bursts of agitation, or inspiration. There was a point where Trump had announced that he wanted to see every church “filled to the brim” on Easter Sunday. And I thought that was so preposterous, so I wrote a song called “Easter Sunday”, and I put it up on Instagram. That turned out to be kind of a cool song.
I wrote a song with my friends John Doe and Sam Phillips called “Stay Safe” quite early in, that addressed our newfound state of quarantine, and we put that up on the internet. So, I’ve been kind of using the medium of songwriting and the internet for approaching it like the town crier. How Woody Guthrie would have done it, you know. Addressing topical things by way of a song.
I wrote an ode to the USPS a few weeks ago. You can find that on Instagram as well.
So, I am remaining engaged in terms of writing songs, but it’s very much ‘of the moment.’ Hopefully by the time we get around to making a new record, this will all be in distant, hazy past. I sure hope so. [laughs]
Grant-Lee Phillips & more playing for “Stay Safe”:
QRO: During these recent times, I’ve thought of a song not of the moment, [Grant Lee Buffalo’s 1993 debut Fuzzy’s] “American Snoring” and it’s lines about the police and “call out the National Guard” – not to mention [Fuzzy’s] “Stars n’ Stripes” “and the swastika”. And that’s a record that’s over twenty-five years old…
GLP: The ideas there, I can boil it down pretty succinctly. Don’t think the atrocities that we’ve seen throughout history could not occur in this country.
Being blind to that possibility is exactly how we open the door for it. And that has occurred throughout history, where those in power have opened the door for tyrants. So, that’s kind of what I was talking about, you know?
The fascinating thing for me was “Stars n’ Stripes” was written at a time where the handycam was just becoming a consumer video camera that was easy to carry around, you know? That was beginning to reshape journalism & awareness, and the Rodney King incident was captured in that fashion. That led to a pivotal moment in history. And that technology that would soon find its way into our cellphones would go on to reshape our sense of awareness, and how connected we are.
So, I think there are some things that are kinda creepy in terms of being prescient in that song.
Sadly, some of this is just kind of speaks to the terminal state of our politics that I sure hope we can overcome.
Don’t think the atrocities that we’ve seen throughout history could not occur in this country.
QRO: Like, on that record, would you still play “Dixie Drug Store” live, as now the name ‘Dixie’ is dicey? It’s not like it’s your band name or something…
GLP: [laughs] Oh, it’s in no way a celebration of slavery. It’s a song about hoodoo-voodoo store down in New Orleans. Kind of a ghost story. It’s based on a real place in New Orleans.
I don’t play that song a lot, but there are a lot of fans who love that one, and every now & then I’ll get nudged pretty hard. But it’s got a lot of words, so I try to shy away from it to begin with… [laughs]
QRO: Hell, even that record’s “Wish You Well” has a different connotation these days, “wish her well”…
FLP: Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know… [laughs]
My ear’s always kind of tuned to those things that are on all of our lips that we don’t think about too much, you know? There’s a lyricist ear that’s always bending towards things that sound like, you know, they have a little bit of melody to them.
Grant Lee Buffalo’s video for “America Snoring”:
Grant-Lee Phillips on Gilmore Girls:
QRO: How would the Stars Hollow “town troubadour” be handling the epidemic [his Gilmore Girls character]? Could he still play on the street?…
GLP: [laughs] Oh, good question. That’s a great question!
Speaking on behalf of my character, he would certainly be masked up, you know. Which is a little hard to busk with a mask on; why not? [laughs]
I think my character was enough of an oddball that everyone naturally kept a six-foot distance anyhow… [laughs]
QRO: During this time, have you picked up and/or accelerated any bad habits? Like I went a long time without shaving…
GLP: Oh, goodness, goodness. That’s a penetrating, ‘gotcha’ kind of question… [laughs]
Well, I’ve already dug into the Halloween candy. I can admit that. Having done so, I can feel the first pangs of a cavity coming on, you know? But those are backstage teeth; nobody needs to know about those teeth.
A few too many candy bars during this quarantine, if I have to come clean.
QRO: I was just hearing that they’re not going to do trick-or-treating this year…
GLP: I know. That is a real bummer, you know? I mean, the one day you look forward to wearing a mask…
I think my [Gilmore Girls] character was enough of an oddball that everyone naturally kept a six-foot distance anyhow…
Grant-Lee Phillips playing for “It Ain’t the Same Old Cold War Harry” live at DROM in New York, NY on November 18th, 2009: