It’s been a decade since singer/songwriter Glen Phillips released Mr. Lemons, his last full-length solo album. During that time, he reunited with Toad the Wet Sprocket, toured Japan, sent kids off to college, and saw his marriage come to an end. After years of ups and downs, Phillips ultimately found himself back in the studio, cutting his latest creation, Swallowed by the New (SBTN). With his trademark lyrical poignancy and tantalizing instrumentation, Phillips has created perhaps his most thoughtful work yet. SBTN explores love, loss, and family — fundamental truths of the human condition — in what is both an intensely personal yet exceedingly relatable album. I recently spoke with Phillips about the new record.
How did the songs come together that made it onto SBTN? Some of the material has been around me forever. I think there was a process in the last two years of getting a lot more serious about the work — “work” meaning really conquering my mind. Because in the state I had been in, I could have taken the changes in my life and really destroyed myself. I feel like my option was either to get really serious about happiness or to go down the tubes all the way. I guess in 12-step programs, they call it a low bottom, and I feel like I had a low bottom. I’m not going to get to the point where I don’t work. I’m not going to get to the point where I, like, trash all my personal relationships. I only trashed a few of them, I only sabotaged my career for a decade, but I didn’t really destroy it. [Chuckles.] I feel like these songs were reminders of what I actually needed to be looking at.
I was trying not to write breakup songs. And then I was in this songwriting group with Matt the Electrician, and he would send out these emails to all the songwriters. [He’d] send a title, and we’d have a week to write [the lyrics and music for] that title. And that was “Reconstructing the Diary,” “My Criminal Career,” “Leaving Old Town,” and “Held Up.” Those all came from titles from that. … For me, they are the first songs in the process. And I feel like “Grief and Praise,” which was the last song written … was everything I had to say that I hadn’t said. I needed to thank my children, needed to thank my former wife. I needed to give respect to the process that had led me there … Grief and praise are the same thing: Praise is grieving the things you love and will lose, and the grief is praising the things you love and have lost. “Grief and Praise” to me is the happy ending. I mean, that sounds weird since it’s about grief, but it’s the happy ending.
Are you and Toad working on an album right now? No, nothing right now. I mean, we did a song for a Roger Miller tribute record that was really fun. I like the idea of singles with Toad, just putting [one out] here in there. You know, there’s an audience there, but if we do a whole album, we only end up playing a handful of those songs. So it’s nice to be able to just dip in, have fun, dip out again. You know, keep it kind of light, keep it enjoyable, and keep it moving forward.
That also allows you the time to do your own projects. They are really different realms. Have you ever read How Music Works by David Byrne? [He writes about the venue and how] it influences the composition of the music, and as the composition of the music expands — you get chamber music turning into orchestral music for a symphony hall. You’re writing for the hall as much as you’re writing for the ensemble.
So you’re writing for a particular delivery mechanism; you are writing music for rock concerts. You know, for standing up, for harmony vocals, two guitars, bass, drums. The thing about the last Toad record was I felt it was the first time I got a look at the container of the band and what the band does best, what the band says the best. What the message of the band is and how this record could be a continuation of a larger narrative of subject matter. And then I’m looking at my own record in a different sense, too, you know, trying to actually have some intent. So thinking of instrumentation, thinking, What’s the spirit of the record? What’s the subject matter? It’s not just the last 10 songs I wrote, but it’s really about something.
Glen Phillips plays on Wednesday, November 2, at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.). The evening will also be an album-release party. For more information, call 962-7776 or see sohosb.com.