Have guitar, will roam
Grant-Lee Phillips unpacks his stories from the road
Grant-Lee Phillips lives the life of a troubadour in the old tradition, traveling the world with only his guitar, a vast collection of heartfelt songs, a raconteur’s natural gift for storytelling and a singularly powerful and expressive singing voice. Since disbanding his ’90s alt-folk/rock band Grant Lee Buffalo in 1999, Phillips said, “the majority of my tours have been one man, one guitar.”
Just back from a whirlwind tour of 13 shows in 13 days with concerts in Italy, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, England and Ireland, Phillips is beginning a U.S. tour in support of his recently released album, The Narrows, that will bring him to Chico’s The Rendezvous Friday, May 20, with tour mate Steve Poltz. The CN&R caught up with Phillips on one of his few days off the road to talk about his life of playing music.
What elements of performing do you find most challenging and satisfying?
When I first began touring completely on my own, my tendency was to aim for the same intensity as I would with a band. If there was 5-inch-deep pool of sweat on the stage when I hit the last note, that was the marker of a good show.
What I have discovered is that there is a whole ride that I can take the listener on given the variety of songs I can pull from now. But a lot of it has to do with drawing them inward rather than lunging at them. I’m enjoying the whole process of exploring what I can do with very little these days. If anything, the presentation is often more dramatic when I’m on my own. There’s nothing to hide behind.
Do you work from a strict set list or improvise the song order according to the crowd and vibe?
Typically, I have a notion of the first few songs before I walk onstage, but that’s about it in terms of a set list. I’ve found that the energy in the room, my own gut is the best compass. I’ve been working without a set list for most of my career. Naturally, some songs get played more than others in my catalogue but there’s always a chance that I’ll go off-roading.
For this tour, will you be presenting a retrospective of your work or focusing mainly on songs from the new album?
I’m happy to find that I can drift in and out of some of my earlier work very naturally. I tend to pull from The Narrows, from my other solo albums and I even venture into Grant Lee Buffalo material.
Current tour mate Steve Poltz and former tour mate Robyn Hitchcock are both known for their impromptu stage patter and eccentric humor. What is it about storytellers that attracts you to them as touring partners/collaborators?
Every so often I’m coupled with a touring partner like Steve Poltz, Robyn Hitchcock or Howe Gelb [of Giant Sand]. All of these guys live in the moment when they perform. We’ve all been in bands, and yet something compels us down a solitary path. So when we enter the same orbit for a spell, we tend to relish the rare nature of it all. It’s like pitching curveballs to one another. I always come away with a sense that I’ve gained so much and grown from these creative relationships. Other dudes go fishing and hunting. Maybe this is my version. It’s like going off to camp, being on the road with these guys.