Despite being a fixture in the Los Angeles music scene for some 20 years and scoring some lofty accolades (like being voted Best Male Vocalist by the folks at Rolling Stone), Grant-Lee Phillips has been an all-too-infrequent visitor to these parts. He’s played Sings Like Hell and joined Glen Phillips and the Watkins siblings on the All and Sundry Tour, but next Sunday night at SOhO will mark Phillips’s first solo showing in S.B. And despite the infrequency of his local showings, this weekend’s set list will draw on a career that has truly left no stone unturned.
When Phillips’s first serious musical undertaking, Shiva Burlesque, morphed into the famed Grant Lee Buffalo, the Stockton native was quickly thrust into the limelight. The energetic three-piece took their fuzzy-acoustic version of Americana around the globe, all the while teetering on world domination. Grant Lee Buffalo might not have made it to the point of headlining stadiums with the likes of REM and Smashing Pumpkins, but they did release four quintessential albums, all the while carving out a legacy that many music makers have cited as a source of inspiration.
Since his Grant Lee Buffalo days, Phillips has gone on to release five solo records, exploring a new stretch of sonic terrain with each and every release. But Phillips’s new-found eclecticism stretches far beyond his own recorded efforts. The recent past has found him sharing songwriting credits with artists such as Aimee Mann (with whom he cowrote “True Believer”), Donavon Frankenreiter, and even former Jayhawk Gary Louris. And it is an experience that Phillips seems to be relishing.
“I’m always keen to head to where the greatest gravitation pull is tugging me,” he laughed. “Collaboration is much like a birth. The song that springs forth resembles each one of us to a degree, but it’s the kind of thing that would never be born from just one of us sitting down with a guitar. I played with the same band for years and years and there’s a beauty to having one solid core that you keep exploring. On the other hand, it’s nice to throw yourself in different situations where you find out things about your own resources.”
Resources are something that Phillips has never lacked. In confining Grant Lee-Buffalo to the dusty pages of the history books, Phillips’s first solo venture found him armed with little more than a collection of songs and access to a friend’s home studio. The product, Ladies’ Love Oracle, was intimate and raw and offered a snapshot of an artist at his most poignant. His next visit to the studio yielded Mobilize, a big, brash, band-driven pop album, while its successor, Virginia Creeper, reaffirmed Phillips as the consummate roots-tinged storyteller.
An album of ’80s cover songs (appropriately titled Nineteeneighties) surfaced next. After its release, Phillips reached a little further back into his bag of tricks to deliver his latest recorded effort, the vibrant and quirky Stranglet. While you can always count on Phillips to deliver lush melodies and compelling narratives, the most enthralling thing about his music is that you never quite know how it is all going to be presented. Which begs the question, is it the song that dictates the style, or the style that dictates the song?
“All of the above in some ways,” explained Phillips. “But I will say that if I feel at peace with the song it can take any number of roads in terms of production. Sometimes it comes down to my sense of urgency and my need to record it now-[if] I can’t wait another minute, that’s when I go out at three in the morning and record the song. But really I think it just comes down to being excited about the work. Sometimes it involves plugging something in backward or landing upon a new chord. But it’s all about that state of discovery.”
The state of discovery is definitely something that plays a big role in Phillips’s songwriting process. So much so that his creative wanderlust even scored him regular television appearances on the WB’s Gilmore Girls. As Stars Hollow’s resident troubadour, Phillips was not only presented with the opportunity to explore a new creative medium, he was able to share his music with the millions of viewers who tuned in each and every week.
“Being an actor is a much more structured life than being a musician,” said Phillips. “At least at that point where you drive up to the gate, they know you’re arriving, they have a parking space for you, and there’s a big barrel of licorice waiting. It’s kind of glamorous, you know? It’s not uncommon that I run into fans that discovered me on Gilmore Girls, which is just great. It’s a mighty task to reach new ears, especially in the fractured world of music that we live in today. It seems like the old way of doing things has, well, truly folded up and rolled outta town.”
Grant-Lee Phillips will play an all-ages show with Jesse Rhodes this Sunday, September 14, at SOhO (1221 State St.). Call 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com for details.