San Joaquin creeper
Grant-Lee Phillips, from the farmlands east of Stockton, is slowly developing into one of pop music’s distinctive voices
Mention “Sacramento” and “music,” and a lot of names come to mind. We know the histories of our many hometown musical heroes.
We’re slightly more sketchy when it comes to that city to the south of us, Stockton. We can recall a few names. There’s Chris Isaak, better known as a refined San Francisco performer with a Memphis-derived style and a Roy Orbison singing voice, who will point out his roots in agrarian Stockton, a city that evokes Texas as much as it does California, whenever he needs a little earthy cred to counter his city-slicker image. Or Pavement, the band whose loopy string of whip-smart but fashionably oblique records in the 1990s helped define the do-it-yourself indie-rock ethos of that decade.
But there is a third Stockton native, a man whose increasing contributions to the pop-music canon are bringing him into the degree of public recognition enjoyed by Isaak and Pavement. His name is Grant-Lee Phillips.
Phillips is at a strange point in his career. With the release of Virginia Creeper last month by roots-music label Rounder Records’ pop imprint, Zoë, Phillips now has three solo albums to his credit—one fewer than the amount of albums released by his now-defunct band Grant Lee Buffalo. Looking back at that era, Storm Hymnal, a two-CD anthology of Grant Lee Buffalo peaks and rarities that Phillips compiled for overseas release in late 2001, finally came out in the United States, via Rhino Records, earlier this month. And Shiva Burlesque from 1988 and Mercury Blues from 1990, two albums by Shiva Burlesque—a band Phillips formed in Los Angeles with Stockton native and Nevada City resident Jeffrey Clark, which evolved into Grant Lee Buffalo after Clark left—were recently reissued by Ripple Effect, a New Orleans-based independent label.
Today, Phillips is perhaps better known as the town-square troubadour on the WB Network series Gilmore girls, which made its debut in 2000. According to Phillips, it was an easy transition. “They’ve made it so easy for me just to walk into it and basically portray a cartoon version of myself,” he said.
Phillips also plays a character named Caleb the Sonnetteer in Death and Texas, an independent film slated for release later this year that stars Charles Durning, Steve Harris and Corbin Bernsen and features such character actors as Jello Biafra, Mary Kay Place, Tiffany and Billy Ray Cyrus.
Phillips was on the line from a hotel in Atlanta, a stop on an East Coast tour in support of Virginia Creeper. He described the band backing him as “pretty stripped back,” which means standard rock instrumentation—Phillips on a 12-string guitar, an upright bass, drums and a female backing vocalist. None of the fiddles, pianos or vibraphones on the album, which give it a lush, organic feel, are present in the live show. “The great thing about this record is that it grew out of the voice of the guitar,” he said. “But it is a pretty thick sound”—and one hard to recreate onstage.
Recorded and mixed over a two-week span last August in Hollywood, near Phillips’ adopted home—he’s lived in Southern California since the late 1980s—Virginia Creeper is a prime example of the genre that has come to be called Americana, which encompasses everything from old Carter Family records to the works of modern day singer-songwriters. Most of Americana’s characteristic sound comes from stringed instruments—guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles and the like—despite the fact that the original “Americana” composer, John Philip Sousa, wrote most of his stuff for brass bands.
Once the basic tracks were cut, Phillips got some of Los Angeles’ better instrumentalists, names like Jon Brion, Greg Leisz and Danny Frankel, to stop by and overdub some atmosphere. The atmospherics never seem to distract from the focal point, however, which is Phillips’ songwriting.
As a writer, Phillips has a knack for crafting memorable melodies. His style there seems informed by the early-1970s work of David Bowie and Elton John, among others, but Phillips puts a distinctly American spin on that often cinematic, post-English-music-hall sound, and his vocals—which recall Bowie and Sir Elton, along with John Lennon and Harry Nillson—serve the material well.
Phillips’ lyrics tend to be nicely drawn character sketches, or first-person observations that evoke a mythical sense of America. The new record features 10 of his originals, along with “Hickory Wind,” a signature song co-written by the late Americana icon Gram Parsons.
One of the best songs on Virginia Creeper, “Susanna Little,” is, by Phillips’ admission, a piece of his own history. “The basic bones of the story had been passed to me by my mom,” he said. “It’s essentially the life of my great-grandmother.” It’s a concise piano-driven waltz of a biography about an American Indian girl torn from her family by the county authorities in Oklahoma, who survives violence and the death of her father at the hands of the sheriff, marries and gives birth to five children. It may not be the most musically adventurous song on the record, but it resonates as the most honest. “Questions that stream through my own Creek blood / The odyssey of your life,” Phillips sings. The singer is, by his reckoning, slightly less than half American Indian—“some Creek, some Blackfoot, some Cherokee,” he said. “It was a big part of the family heritage and a source of pride for my grandmother and my mom. It meant that there were a whole lot of Indian busts around the house—sort of like the native version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
According to Phillips, Virginia Creeper is his most consistent record, from track to track. “You can put the record on, go off and fry up some bacon,” he said, “and when you come back, it’s still the same record. It’s not as, um, schizoid as some of the things I’ve done before,
that were built on the [David Bowie] Hunky Dory model or the third Velvet Underground record.” Those earlier records trace Phillips’ development as a rock artist.
Following the neo-psychedelia of the two Shiva Burlesque albums, which were built around Jeffrey Clark’s songwriting and singing, Phillips teamed with that band’s drummer, Joey Peters, and bassist-producer Paul Kimble, who had joined Shiva Burlesque for its second album, Mercury Blues, to form Grant Lee Buffalo. After a single, “Fuzzy,” came out on Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould’s Singles Only Label (SOL) in 1992, Grant Lee Buffalo signed to Slash and released Fuzzy, the album, in 1993. A deal was signed with Warner/Reprise through Slash, and two albums with Kimble followed—the classic Mighty Joe Moon in 1994 and Copperopolis, named for a tiny town east of Stockton, in 1996—along with several EPs for Slash’s U.K. distributor, London Records. After Kimble left, Phillips and Peters recorded the band’s swan song, Jubilee, which came out in 1998.
Phillips still plays his former band’s repertoire in concert. “When I need it to go to 11,” he said, referencing This Is Spinal Tap, “I pull out one of those songs.”
After the demise of Grant Lee Buffalo, Phillips recorded a charming little homemade album titled Ladies’ Love Oracle, which he released on his own Magnetic Fields imprint in 2000. A deal with Zoë/Rounder followed, and the following year he released Mobilize, a big-sounding disc that evoked Phillips’ beloved British Invasion roots.
And now he’s released Virginia Creeper, which connects with some of Grant Lee Buffalo’s more Americana-leaning work. “When I first heard that term Americana,” Phillips admitted, “I didn’t know what to think about it. It didn’t sound too far off. But, if anything, I guess I’m less at war with tradition these days. Maybe I can find a place within the flow of tradition.”
Every artist occasionally runs into a creative dry spot, or writer’s block, which requires untraditional methods to break through. One of the exercises Phillips uses to free himself up whenever that happens is a game developed by his former Shiva Burlesque bandmate Clark and another artist-musician friend from Stockton, Kelly Foley. The game, titled “one-minute song,” is played with a group of people with musical instruments. Each player comes up with a song title and writes it on a piece of paper. The pieces are folded and thrown into a hat. Players draw a song title from the hat, and they have a short period—say, three to five minutes—to come up with a song. Then the song is presented to the group, and it’s recorded on the spot. “Typically, people write much better songs in that amount of time,” Phillips said.
Even today, whenever Phillips is eager to write but needs some point of departure to get the wheels moving, he admits to employing an oracle-like device to jog his creative impulse. “I’ll use a cut-up method or a sewing box [I have that’s] full of words that will send me down a certain path,” he said. “It does seem to unlock your unconscious—I kind of feel the song is buried back there somewhere.
“I turned a few people on to one-minute songs,” Phillips added. “It’s like this little ritual that you pass to those who might be receptive.” Among those with whom Phillips shared the game was the late songwriter Elliott Smith. “Somewhere, there’s a tape,” Phillips said.
And somewhere there are several tapes of Phillips’ own one-minute song exercises. On one of those, which Clark played to this writer some years ago (disclosure: Clark is a longtime personal friend and served as best man at this writer’s wedding in 2001), Phillips sounded like a comic amalgamation of Tom Waits, Ken Nordine and Charles Boyer freestyling through the Elvis Presley movie songbook.
One of these days, when Grant-Lee Phillips is a universally recognized name, the world may get the chance to hear those mutant works of genius. Until then, his records are in the stores and are well worth checking out.