2016 sees Santa Barbara’s Glen Phillips thinking heavily about change, loss, and grief. When he plays at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Tuesday, April 26, he will play songs from his upcoming October album, Swallowed by the New, which meditates on these themes. I talked with him on the phone about a recent separation, his relationship to his earlier music, and making the best of painful transitions.
How are you? I’m undoing a Chinese package of jujubes … It’s like a cross between a date and a plum. My girlfriend likes exotic fruit.
One of my favorite questions: Do you have a spirit fruit or spirit vegetable? You know, I don’t know if I do. [Asks girlfriend.] Prune. She says I’m a prune.
How has your 2016 been? 2016 has been busy, but it’s been a good year, full of travel. I’m getting ready to put out a new record in October. I finished up a tour with a Canadian ensemble doing new arrangements of Sgt. Pepper where I sang in front of a symphony. I’m about to do a program with my songs and Toad songs with an orchestra in Florida, a summer tour with Toad, I just went to Japan with my daughter, and I’ve been going to Nashville a lot and doing a lot of songwriting there.
Wow, lots to talk about. Let’s start with the Canadian ensemble. How did that come together? The Canadians came about with a friend, Craig Northey, who is in a band called Odds, and Steve Page from the Barenaked Ladies. One of the four singers sadly had early onset Alzheimer’s, and it got to the point where he was unable to play the shows. It’s been a lot of fun. Most of the arrangements are really different. The ensemble is called Art of Time. They do some original performances, with a lot of pieces trying to bridge a gap between symphonic music and jazz music, so it edges on pop. For this piece, 11 different Canadian composers did the arrangements. I sang “Fixing A Hole,” which is done as a waltz. It was definitely not a tribute band doing a note-for-note [rendition], so the interpretations can be really broad. So it was kind of fun, and standing in front of an orchestra was something I’ve never done before. It’s a powerful engine to be in front of.
And you will be working with an orchestra to play Toad material. Yes, I got approached by an orchestra in Florida who’s looking to do a pops program. The director was a fan, and she called up, and we ended up just doing a program together. So far I’ve only heard mock-ups of the arrangements. In about a week, we’ll rehearse, and I’ll hear how all this stuff sounds in the real world.
Did you ever expect the Toad the Wet Sprocket material to have such a long and enduring life? No, when we got signed, I just assumed we would get dropped after a couple years and I would have a little story for my grandkids. The fact that it’s had some endurance has been very surprising and wonderful. It props a lot of doors open.
To what extent are the band and solo material compatible, to what extent do they work against each other, or are they just separate entities altogether? They’re kind of separate items. I had years where I would compare myself to being in the peak of Toad — I was in my very early twenties, and I would be gone on tour as much as possible, on a major label at a time when major labels were really investing in new artists. We didn’t have a single on the radio nine months into our third album. These days, it doesn’t work that way anymore; if you don’t have a single in two weeks of your first album, you get dropped. … The fact I could be out as a solo artist is entirely due to the luck of when Toad came about. We worked very hard, but we were certainly in the right place at the right time and incredibly lucky. If I compare the two … I was never business-savvy, and I think with Toad, in many ways, we were so ignorant of how to promote ourselves, and I think there was something maybe charming about our kids-from-a smaller-town, blinking-in-the-spotlight kind of attitude. We never had that kind of commercial ambition or drive or ego that’s required to push your way through. I’ve had to kind of reckon that I’m not built for that world very well. I have to stop comparing myself to Toad’s stuff. There’s no way my solo stuff can have that impact, mainly because I don’t have that ambition.
What are the challenges now? I’m in a new stage of life. My marriage reached its end about a year and a half ago, so I’m kind of moving into this second life right now: from where I’ve been in a very different role for a long time to kind of being able to start again. I ask myself, what do I actually want to construct on this part of my life now that I have some choice in the matter? How do I want to approach my art and my livelihood? I’ve always felt a disharmony between how the industry works and how I work, and so there’s a question of how do you be an artist without being gone all the time, number one? And number two, dealing with music as a commodity, and how you deal with it for its real purposes, which for my purposes are much more spiritual. I’m trying to figure out how to start again and reclaim that career, skirting that difference between the commercial world and where my heart’s actually at. It’s easy when you have a bit of success to say, ‘Ah, I can work it; it’s fine.’ But when you’re struggling, you have to claim the stuff you actually care about. At a personal level, I feel my solo work is more important. I feel I’ve learned to say what I wanted to say better. I slowly found my purpose as a writer, and it’s a much more intimate purpose. My strength as a writer is hopefully in bringing the listener into a place where they have permission to be vulnerable, where if I’m vulnerable enough [that] they get to open up, too, and feel less alone and get to dive into their dark spot and realize they’re not the only person feeling it. And so, you know, I feel like it’s more important but certainly less commercial and reaching [fewer] people, but hopefully reaching them a little more deeply.
Tell me about the new album. It’s called Swallowed by the New. I recorded it last May, I guess. The songs were really written right when the separation started, and I was in a really difficult place. It is a breakup album. I was surprised when I listened to Björk’s album, and she also did a breakup album, and I was listening to all the blame on it, and I wanted to avoid blame.
I was determined at first not to write a breakup record. Then I was in this songwriting group with this guy, Matt the Electrician. He would send out a song title every Wednesday, and by the end of the week, everyone had to have a song with that title. His titles were, like, “My Criminal Career” and “Leaving Old Town” and “Rearranging the Diary”; they were so on the nose. So I started writing those songs, and those are all on the album.
With those song titles, I realized I was trying to reach the underlying subject matter, so there’s a lot on that record about change and how you wrestle with unexpected huge shifts in your life. There’s this idea that we make our choices with things being static … There’s this weird human thing that’s assuming that that’s normal. Even as a culture, we’ve been at this crazy peak, and we’re now starting to see the beginning of decline. The American empire has probably seen some of its best days. I was born at a time when consumerism and consumption and ecological destruction [have] been at this peak, and we’re starting to see the cost of all those actions. We’re starting to see for our kids a life with less security, and in many ways, that’s absolutely normal. And we’ve had wars we don’t really have to feel; they’re not hitting home in the same way. This generation has been oddly protected. My generation has been protected from what’s actually going on in the world, and to some degree 9/11 could have been a wake-up call, and I think for many people it was a wake-up call for tolerance and openness and bravery, and unfortunately it was used for other opportunities, too … Just looking at change in that way once again. When it’s comfortable, we think it’s normal. Like we were making a lot of money in speculative real estate and thought, ‘Wow, we’re all geniuses,’ and then it crashed and everyone was totally surprised, and everybody looking from the outside was saying this looks irrational. We’re looking at our own lives and what we take for granted and how we kick and scream when change actually comes, so I’m welcoming change.
There’s a book called The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise by Martin Prechtel, where there’s this Mayan concept of grief and praise being the same word. Praise is grieving the things you love and will lose, and grief is praising the things you love and have lost. And somehow to me that really ended up being a central concept of the book. That was kind of a fulcrum that allowed me to change a lot, and in that song, also to speak directly to my kids about the changes and to speak directly to my ex-wife and thank her for the years of her life … to really kind of take stock and come out of it in a way that is grateful. I think there’s this idea of sadness and loss and change underlying it; it’s about changes with the things we care the most about. It’s an act of love. To have it only be about loss and sadness and to treat it as an injury, as opposed to treating it as the price of vulnerability, is to lose a great opportunity. To step away from this album more than a year before releasing it has been a really good thing for me. In the middle, I kind of thought it was all about pain. It was refreshing to look at it again, and once again, there’s a couple songs on it that are less evolved than I would like, and there’s a lot on it I’m really proud of. On a song called “The Easy Ones,” my daughter Freya sang harmony on it. I wrote it for the Bushwick Book Club that was happening in Santa Barbara for a while. We read The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, which was in part about giving, receiving, and extending compassion to those who are most difficult in your life, and that song is about that. Whether it’s family or friends, the people you struggle the most to love are the ones who you work the hardest for. It’s an interesting album because even though there’s a lot of sadness underneath it, there’s a whole lot of love. It’s a good crying record.
Yes, I understand … For me the last two-there years had several deaths and a difficult breakup, and though it was painful for all of us at the time, I am very grateful for the challenges and how they helped me and others grow. And hopefully that’s the interesting thing about it … When people die, when you lose a spouse, child, parent, their loved ones go to war for the rest of their lives around the most inevitable thing, as if this person they loved who died would be the first person to live forever, as if they were somehow immune from the only thing that’s inevitable. To carry around rage about that forever, and to have a major transition in life and walk out of it not full of gratitude for everybody involved, is to lose a great opportunity … I was listening to a podcast where they talked of lighthouses being this thing that says, “I love you. Go away. I love you. Come away.” The lighthouse says, “You don’t want to be here. Trust me. Go the other way.” In the time since, I feel seeing that on both sides I’ve been said good-bye to, it’s a painful place. Our culture lacks a tool set as far as grieving goes, and I think it’s easy for us to blame and get angry and move on and think we’ve gone on to a better thing and not actually properly give thanks to the changes … And I think we move on a little better, and we probably repeat less of the same mistakes, if we give thanks.
When so much changes and you lose so much, you lose a sense of self and have to rebuild. You have to be willing to die a few deaths to get out the other end, and not everybody chooses to. That’s the crazy thing — it’s universal, and as a culture, we choose some really weird ways of dealing with it or acquiring enough that we’ll feel like we’re invincible, or we distract ourselves enough that we won’t have to feel it, or we’re just blaming enough that we won’t have to reckon our own part of it. When you’re in the middle of the fire, as I’m sure a year ago you were, and especially a year and a half ago, the idea you could ever be happier than when you started being farcical; it’s strange. I’m so much happier than I was, and every time I feel like there’s some stability on the horizon, or that I have stuff worked out and answers about how I’m living, every time I think that I’m doing that it goes further away again, so finally I’ll fight it for a day or two, until I say, “Oh, yep, I’m still learning, still working on it. Nothing is actually stable.”
Any last words on the music? I had a big shift in how I thought about music. I always felt it was narcissistic, and asked myself, “What is the function of this stuff in the world?” I feel this is the first record of songs and materials that have served a purpose. I want this record to get to people who are in mourning. That’s actually its purpose. It’s not about the radio or music magazines. I keep wondering, how does it find people who have been through divorce or death or a massive life change? That’s who it’s for.
Glen Phillips plays SOhO Restaurant & Music Club on Tuesday, April 26, at 8 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit sohosb.com.