An Interview With Grant Lee Phillips
by Jeremy Griffin
If you were listening to rock music in the 90s, then you probably remember Grant Lee Phillips, frontman of the eponymous Grant Lee Buffalo. Since that time, Phillips has a released a number of stunning solo albums, has been featured on several television shows–Gilmore Girls being the most notable–and was even ranked in 1995 as Rolling Stone’s Best Male Vocalist. For those familiar with this site, I probably don’t have to tell you what a huge fan I am of both GLB and GLP; I even have a cat named after one of his songs (Josephine, from “Josephine of the Swamps”). Do whatever you want with that info: the dude is untouchable, is my point. Phillips was kind enough recently to take some time out of his schedule to discuss his craft:
CB: I was hoping you could tell us a little about your songwriting process, such as it is. And let me amend this question by acknowledging outright that most musicians we interview hate being asked this, and rightfully so; it does sort of impose unfair limitations on the answer. But I think the very fact that every songwriter seems to have such a different answer is what makes it interesting, at least in an artistic sense…or maybe I’m just really dense about the creative process?
GLP: It’s a hard thing to talk about. When your native tongue is metaphor it’s a bit of a challenge to pin down the process. The song itself is by my best stab at communicating. Beyond that, it gets pretty murky quick. There is a lot of craft to songwriting which gets honed in time but the best music seems to fly in the face of all of that. You have to feel your way through it.
CB: In almost every interview I’ve read with you, there have been parallels drawn between your current work and that of Grant Lee Buffalo (and I realize I’m kind of doing the same thing, but just go with me here, please). I’m wondering how you feel about this: do you feel that what you are doing now is an extension of that, or are they two distinct spheres of your life? Or something in between? Is it even fair to draw any comparison between the two?
GLP: When my new songs are compared to those I wrote in Grant Lee Buffalo it’s like they’re going for the wide angle lens. Trying to get a handle on things. It’s actually flattering. Of course, there are bound to be people who prefer one facet of my work over another. As a writer I’m always moving forward. The performer part of me keeps in contact with the old songs but the writer in me is fixed on what comes next.
CB: Lyrically, your work leans toward rich imagery and quite a few classical and literary allusions. One descriptor that I see quite often in regard to your lyrics is “literate.” What do you make of that? Do you have any particular literary influences?
GLP: I’ve always loved books but I really keyed in very early to song lyrics. Literary allusions are probably a little more common in the Grant Lee Buffalo songs than those that follow. Sometime it’s just me getting busted. Pure theft. “Allusion” sounds so much more respectable though. Let’s go with that.
CB: It’s always interesting to see how reviewers try to categorize your sound; Southern Gothic comes up quite a bit. It’s almost as if folks are determined to find some kind of label for it, even though your work spans a spectrum of styles. Is there a certain way that YOU like to describe your music? Have you come across any descriptors that you would say are spot-on?
GLP: I’m the worst at describing what I do. The last time someone asked me what I did, I lied and told him I played “Blue eyed soul” just to wiggle out of the question. Southern Gothic is interesting. I’ve seen a few Goths down South.
CB: You did a brief tour with GLB last year, and you’ve been booked for the Haldern Pop Festival in Germany later this year. How did this tour come about? What was it like? Any plans for anymore dates?
GLP: The Grant Lee Buffalo shows were incredible last year. The silence of twelve years, all that pent-up energy exploded right out of the box the first show in. We’re coming back for more this summer, including Haldem Pop Festival in Germany and the HMV Forum in London. In the old days our year was laid out fifteen months in advance, with no end in site. That was tough. We’ve always played every show like it was our last. It’s no different today.
CB: Are you currently reading anything? If so, what is it?
GLP: I recently went back and re-read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee which is a riveting historical account. Being of Mvskoke Creek heritage, I have a long interest in Native American studies, our history, customs and so forth. In fact my new album is called Walking In The Green Corn. That title, the song is based on a Southeastern Native tradition known as the Green Corn Dance. I’m currently raising independent funding through PledgeMusic.com and looking to release the album later this year. Fans can get involved and pre-order Walking In The Green Corn online http://www.pledgemusic.com/artists?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q=grant-lee+phillips. I’ve just started reading Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne.-Grant-Lee Phillips