Our first interview, and I wanted this one to be a little special. Grant-Lee Phillips will be releasing his new album “The Narrows” on March 18th. He was kind enough to spend a little time on the phone with me as he was preparing to hit the road. I hope you enjoy our little conversation.
BT: We initially talked about 14 years ago when we launched Bluetint Magazine, and you were the first interview we did then, and now you’ll be the first one we do to launch the new version.
GLP: Oh wow, that’s cool, I like that, welcome back
BT: Thanks, We last talked just as “Mobilize” was being released, the world has turned a few times between now and then, life has changed, you’re a father now, you’ve left Southern California and now you’re in Nashville. How have these things- fatherhood and pulling up roots effect who you are and subsequently your writing?
GLP: That’s a whole lot of change with me since we last spoke. Every album for me is a picture of where I’m at in my life at that time. “Mobilize” was the first major album that I had put out after Grant Lee Buffalo, at that moment in time I had really been trying to find a new way to go about this, write with other instruments, other than the guitar, and consequently created a record that might have been different than what might have been anticipated. Now at this point in time I’ve kinda come full circle and maybe I’ve grown a little more comfortable in my own skin I suppose. Writing with the acoustic guitar, in some ways I’ve had the opportunity to cycle around and revisit a lot of the same ideas. Searching for some sort kind of truth is a constant theme on my albums, and I’m at peace with that. The idea that I can circle around and revisit and maybe the next time I hit that point in my orbit maybe I’ll have a little more perspective. There are those markers in our lives such as leaving our home, my case leaving California, after being a native for so long, losing my dad later that same year, in fact hardly a month or two after I left California. Those things certainly found their way into my writing. For me, I don’t exclusively write from autobiographical experience but on the other hand, our lives are similar enough that we can relate to one other thankfully and I can allow myself to go to places I haven’t physically been too. So it’s always a process of gathering new information and circling back around and visiting the same themes and addressing wherever I’m at in my life.
BT: With the new album “The Narrows” to me it sounds like the embracing of who you’ve been, but also the perfect balance of the last few records from “Virginia Creeper” on forward, was this an intentional thing, or did it grow out of the sessions themselves?
GLP: I think it comes from doing it habitually for so long you reach a certain point, maybe out of exhaustion is the word where you finally come to that point where you’re doing what just comes naturally to you. I think that’s what happened with this album, it is similar in some ways to other albums of mine like “Virginia Creeper”, in some ways I see connections to “Mighty Joe Moon” as well. I think probably as a whole I’ve become a more conscious writer though. My inspiration can come from anyplace and a melody, who knows where they come from, they kind of drop out of the sky, but I’m more at ease at walking that tight rope of pulling ideas out of some place I’m not really driving. I’ve done it long enough I can put it all together when it all comes time. It’s just a matter of just finally hitting my stride where I’m feel like I’m doing justice to my strengths.
BT: You’ve mentioned in the move to Nashville you’ve been turned on to the “other side” of Nashville, what does that mean?
GLP: I think it begins with musicians that call this place home, what has happened, a lot people have moved here from other parts of the country so it’s a lot more diverse, so it’s not just the modern country thing that’s going on here. There are a lot of musicians here I’ve found who may well play on those modern country albums by day, but at night they venture out and they might track on a record like mine, or others, and they’re able to express themselves in limitless ways that they might not be able to in that very strict format. Along with that you’ve got bands like the Black Keys and others that call Nashville home, a lot of bands find it a good place to live and its a great hub for touring. I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff under the surface. There are guys like Buddy Miller who is a really respected musician and producer in this town, he could certainly navigate quite well in the mainstream if he’s called upon, but that guy is a real interesting musician who can push the edges, but there are a lot of guys like that. I’m just in awe of his guitar playing and sensibilities. Gillian Welsh, David Rawlings, that dynamic duo, My buddy Robin Hitchcock just moved to Nashville, so I have a new neighbor, so that gives you a different spin on what Nashville is all about.
BT: Nashville is a big change from LA
GLP: California, I was born in California and Los Angeles held the promise of so many things and I was able to try my hand at everything from music, acting, composing all that kind of stuff. It’s great for that, but for quality of life, just being able to hear my own thoughts, put my ear to the ground and be out in nature everyday it’s what I love about the mid south.
BT: Last time we talked you said you see performing as a service position, and the desire to play host nightly, has that changed at all, or expanded over time?
GLP: I want everyone to acknowledge that this is going down one time, tonight, and that it’s going to be different tonight than last night. It’s really important to know that we’re in that moment. I never really make out a set list these days, it’s very much of the moment. I think that’s part of it, to stop, get off the treadmill for a minute and go “here we are” what’s going to happen right now. There used to be that part of me that was so determined to present a full show, part of me would easily go to the next song as I’m playing the song I was playing, but that’s not a good way to do it. I’ve found it’s best to be in the moment playing the song I’m playing. I’ve been enjoying it much more these days. I’ve hit some sort of stride where I’m enjoying singing and playing and I’ve been doing so much more of it these days, perhaps it’s a muscle thing. My friend Steve Poltz was saying that after so long you do this, you find your swagger, know matter how you do your thing, and you don’t have to think about it too much, and that’s when music feels just right.
BT: Lets talk about Steve for a second, how did this tour idea come about, is it sort of the same sort of thing that you did with Glen Phillips?
GLP: It’s similar in that it’s a co-bill. Glen and I had a great time and I think it was Glen who said “have you met Steve Poltz? you guys have to meet if you haven’t.” Steve and I share the same agent and Adam reached out and said how do we make this happen? I’m so glad that he did, Steve and I hit it off so perfectly at the first sound check. The show allows us both to stretch out and do a set of our own and then do songs together, but Steve is a hoot that guy flies by the seat of his pants every night, he’s like a Wallenda, a high wire act.
BT: You’re getting some pretty high praise for this record from Rolling Stone etc. How does that make you feel?
GLP: It’s incredibly gratifying to have that kind of praise and attention. I’ve been doing this for a long time and there are definitely long periods where I keep doing this regardless of the fact I feel as though I might be doing this in the shadows as if there’s been a long lunar or solar eclipse. When I look back on all of it, it’s as if it’s given me time to grow and to get more in touch with what I do and why I do it. That’s the best thing of all you know, to be acknowledged for just doing what you do. I’ve always tried to go forth with that intention but from time to time. I’ve been pulled in a few different ways, wanting badly to be heard, not knowing exactly what that would require of me, be on the road all the time, or work with this or that person. But I’ve really tried to just stay on my path.
BT: Are there any plans to hit the road with a full band for this record?
GLP: Goodness, that would be something, I would really love that. Majority of my shows are solo acoustic these days, have been for the last ten years I guess, maybe since ’99. I did a few tours with a band, the last one was eight years ago and I tore my achilles three songs in, and I never went back on the road for a band tour after that. But this record is me and a couple other guys, so it really does perform with a band or without. I’d love to see that happen, it’s probable that we’ll do some shows as a group. I’ve done a few here in Nashville and I have one coming up in March, yeah I suppose that’s a good possibility. But my new comfort zone has moved to doing this on my own, I like the fluidity and freedom. I like the space as well. I’ve learned almost without trying that I can pound on my guitar with the soft part of my palm and approximate a bass drum, its the wonders of the brain to compensate for whatever isn’t there.