Having spent a good chunk of April playing solo shows throughout the East Coast and Midwest, troubadour Glen Phillips most recently embarked on a whirlwind tour of Japan. Now back in Santa Barbara for a well-earned break, Phillips will celebrate his homecoming with a grand-scale performance at SOhO on Tuesday, May 6. While the road has been a prominent feature in Phillips’s recent endeavors, for the past year, so too has the studio.
When Phillips sets up his merchandise table this week, a newly recorded undertaking, Secrets of the New Explorers, will undoubtedly be on display. Along with laying the foundations for the aforementioned disk, the singer/songwriter has also been busy collaborating with Garrison Starr and Neilson Hubbard (under the moniker “Plover”), as well as playing with a yet-to-be-named project alongside big name American roots musicians likes Sean and Sara Watkins, Benmont Tench, and Greg Leisz.
Such collaborations are an apt reflection of how Phillips’s undertakings-as both a soloist and frontman for Toad the Wet Sprocket-are regarded by his contemporaries. No matter how he chooses to express himself, Phillips manages to do so with conviction and grace. But throughout his career, he has always dived heart-first into his various musical undertakings.
That approach also extends to his collaborative projects. After returning from a six-month European tour early last year, Phillips was invited to stage a night of music as part of Sings Like Hell’s monthly concert series. In rounding up his colleagues, Phillips also laid the groundwork for a much grander musical escapade. Since the show, Phillips, the Watkinses, Tench, and Leisz-along with Elvis Costello & the Attractions’ drummer Pete Thomas and multi-instrumentalist Luke Bulla-have been holed up in the studio together.
“We played that show here in Santa Barbara and had such a good time that we decided to take it on the road,” explained Phillips. “But even before that tour, we had talked about doing a record. We gelled on the tour and the record developed more and more from being just a few of us to the point where it became a band with all the players. : We are all ambitious musically and would love it to do really well. And we will try to be savvy and careful, and we want to put it out in a way that will work for everybody. We all have other things that we are actively involved with and committed to, but we’re trying not to treat this as a side project either. Everybody feels a real sense of ownership.”
Under the guiding hand of Tench, the collective is building a record that is both fresh and evocative. With such a unique pedigree of writers and performers penning material of their own, writing collectively, and embracing a handful of classics, one gets the sense that the hardest part of the undertaking will lie in the editing process; something Phillips fears given how much fun the ensemble is having.
“The songs are coming from everywhere,” enthused Phillips. “I have cowritten one song with Luke and another with Sean. Sean has a couple of songs and Luke has a song of his. Sara has sung some covers and also one of Benmont’s called ‘The Price,’ which is a great song. And maybe it is just because it’s new, but it has been a really exciting thing to be a part of.”
And having spent much of the past year on the road with just an acoustic guitar, Phillips set himself a very specific goal when he ventured back into the studio-simply to have fun. What has emerged is a layered and intricate recording of epic comedic proportions. The finished product, which boasts what must surely be the first song written about radiation sickness (“Solar Flare”), seems to indicate his goal was met.
“I’ve wanted to record and get something out on my own and not take it so seriously,” he offered. “I spent a few days in the studio with my friend John Askew and then just kept going on my own. I chose this space travel theme to see where it led me. And it’s been great to have a theme to write on instead of my typical navel-gazing, ‘here is why I’m depressed’ kind of songs.”
It has been a liberating experience for Phillips and one that has seen his musical vision come full circle.
“Since I’ve been a solo artist, I haven’t often been in a state of mind where I was feeling light about what I was doing musically,” he added. “For so many years now, I have felt like I’ve been auditioning for my job, or trying to get back an old audience, or making some statement. I wasn’t thinking about what would be fun. When I was a kid and doing well, that was my attitude, and it has been hard for me to win that back again. But now I feel like I am finally doing that.”
Glen Phillips will play an extra special solo show this Tuesday, May 6, at SOhO (1221 State St.) at 8 p.m. Call 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com for ticket information.