Thursday, June 2, 2016

Even Grant-Lee Phillips ‘Needs a Little Sanctuary’

by M. BRIANNA STALLINGS Roots may run deep, but even an older plant can thrive in new soil. That’s if you know how to make the transfer. It’s a handy gardening tip and solid advice for people too. Born and raised in Stockton, Calif., musician Grant-Lee Phillips moved to Los Angeles at age 19. He founded the short-lived group Shiva Burlesque before finding international success in the 1990s with his alternative Americana band Grant Lee Buffalo. Phillips disbanded Grant Lee Buffalo in 1999 to pursue a solo career, releasing eight solo albums between 2000 and 2016. In between, he had a recurring guest role as the town troubadour on the hit television series “Gilmore Girls”; that show is currently filming a reboot for Netflix. In 2013, Phillips’ roots—which had flourished for 30 years in the Golden State sunshine—were transplanted to the verdant country of Nashville. Phillips’ latest record, “The Narrows,” seamlessly traverses the country—a sonic chronicle of the move his family made from southern Cali to way down South. As always, his burnished tenor rings confessional and confident throughout. Phillips planted his roots even further by recording “The Narrows” at Nashville’s Easy Eye Studio, owned by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. [Editor’s note: The Grant-Lee Phillips concert scheduled at The Co-Op was canceled due to a disagreement between management and venue. Phillips’ management relayed his desire to make up the Albuquerque concert soon. We’re gonna hold you to that, Mr. Phillips.] Phillips spoke with ABQ Free Press by phone about “The Narrows,” how place informs his songs, the non-monetary benefits of crowdfunding and his possible return to the fictional town of Stars Hollow.

ABQ Free Press: Tell me about your songwriting process for “The Narrows.” Aside from living in a new geographic location, what was different about this record?

Phillips: It was a time of great upheaval: moving from Los Angeles after living there for 30 years, moving to Tennessee. Then my dad passed away in the latter part of 2013. That sense of loss is found in the songs, as well as a sense of hope. Every album I create is a document of where I am geographically. It’s like a GPS tracking system that tells you where I’ve been and where I’m going—and where I am emotionally.

You’re Native American, of Creek, Blackfoot and Cherokee ancestry. Do you think the thread of place that courses through your body of work can be attributed to your Native heritage—i.e., a sense of belonging and displacement?

I traveled a lot when I was a kid. My grandmother took me with her on long road trips, and occasionally my parents would drive from California to Oklahoma. I suppose the travel bug bit me at that early age, realizing there was a lot of stimulus that came from being on the move. It was inspiring. In terms of the Earth itself, maybe there is a connection there. There’s a natural sense of gratitude and awe that Native peoples are accustomed to; it’s the church that we worship in.

How was your experience at Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studio?

Dan has a fantastic studio in Nashville. It’s old school—lots of old gear that hisses and sparks—plus all the new stuff you need to make a record. I felt like it was the right place. He basically gave [“The Narrows”] engineer Collin Dupuis the keys to the place so we could make this record, and I’m quite grateful for his blessing to do so.

Your 2012 record “Walking in the Green Corn” was funded in part by a PledgeMusic campaign. Would you advocate crowdfunding for musicians and other artists?

Crowdfunding can offer creators a lot. To begin with, it’s a way of realizing the project, obviously, by gathering the funds, but it also puts you in touch with the people that are interested in your work. That’s just as meaningful as the funding itself. I did house concerts as part of the fundraising package. That opportunity, to show up with my guitar in hand and play in the living rooms of people that have been listening to my music for a long time, was revitalizing. It bled into my performances everywhere else. When I step on a stage now, I have a new marker, a yardstick, where I say to myself: This ought to feel as intimate and as connected as those house concerts. So I think that crowdfunding serves a lot of different purposes.

What kind of creative community do you have in Nashville?

It’s harder to come by. One of the challenges when you live in a place like Los Angeles is finding your own tribe. That can take lot of time. It’s somehow much easier when you’re in your 20s; you have more tolerance and energy. These days, when I come home from the road, I’m much more inclined to spend time with my family. I’m not on the prowl for a scene. [laughs]

Fans are abuzz about the upcoming Netflix reboot of the beloved series “Gilmore Girls.” Did your work on that show earn you a new group of fans?

It did! I’ll show up to sound-check in Hamburg, and lo and behold! There’s a young person with a bunch of “Gilmore Girls” DVDs under their arm for me to sign. They come to the show. Often they come to the shows with their mothers.

Will you be reprising your role as the town troubadour?

Yes, indeed. In fact, I’ve already spent some time working on it.

M. Brianna Stallings is a staff writer for ABQ Free Press. Email her at

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