The World According to Sam Phillips

By Erik Philbrook, ASCAP Editor in Chief  •  December 4, 2018

The Grammy-nominated and acclaimed singer-songwriter discusses the making of her new album, World on Sticks, composing music for Gilmore Girls and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and embracing her mysterious side

Sam Phillips’ new studio album, World on Sticks, her first full-length in five years, confronts some of the thorny issues of our time, namely our current environmental, social and political ills. Characteristically, she does so in a way that is both compelling and comforting. Phillips has long been a master of weaving darkness and light into songs that are perfect pop gems. It is one reason why her songs have been covered by such artists as Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek, Gaby Moreno, Chico Mann and Jimmy Dale Gilmore.

Phillips always takes the listener down some twisty roads, but she’s a provocative tour guide, generous with thoughtful lyrics, indelible melodies and visceral music that embraces everything from primal drums to cinematic strings.

Along for the sonic journey on World on Sticks are percussionist Jay Bellerose, with whom she co-wrote some of the songs, as well as some of LA’s finest musicians including Jon Brion, Eric Gorfain and The Section Quartet, among other kindred musical spirits.

Phillips talked to ASCAP about the origin of her new album, her decades-long songwriting career, her unexpected detour into composing for the hit TV series Gilmore Girls and the award-winning The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and the art of becoming “Sam.”

You are always creating new music, yet this is your first proper full-length album in some time. What characterizes the songs on it?

I think there's a certain sense that we have as artists. We’re a little bit like the cat before the earthquake. You know, when all the animals before an earthquake start freaking out because they can feel the vibrations of the earthquake coming before humans can.

I feel a little bit like a cat in that way, but as a songwriter. I started this album about four years ago and these odd, murky things came up. Like one song on the album is called “Roll ‘em,” and it is about a sociopath or an egomaniac who just doesn't care about anybody and wants to roll over everybody to get his own [LAUGHS]. Then, you know, bingo, we now have one in the White House.

A friend listened to the record and said, “you know, I think this is your resistance album, but it’s not mentioning any names.” I think that is true because I  think that the thing we have to resist is the mindset and some of the problems that aren’t the problem of one person or one party. I think there are deeper problems that we’ve had all along that have culminated into this political situation we have found ourselves in.  

That’s a big subject. How do you capture it creatively?

My intent in finishing the record was to talk about how it feels to be in these weird times. It feels like being in a world on sticks…wobbly. I wanted to voice some of my concerns that I think everybody shares. Nobody wants the earth and our waters to be polluted and ugly. That was my first concern when things started getting dark – that was a scary one.

The other thing is I think I wanted to approach this with kindness too, because I feel like we don’t know how much anybody knows at any given time.

Obviously, some people have their fingers in their ears and they’re shouting as loud as they can for their favorite political character. But they may not have all the information. I think it’s important to be patient and kind and loving and voice our concerns and to talk with each other, to not stop talking no matter if you're sporting red or blue or any other color of the rainbow. Solidarity is really important to us now.  

I ended the album with a song that kind of says that. I started the album with a song called “Walking Trees,” talking about the human condition and how we have what we need to do what we need to do. And the end of the album is like, well, we’ll make it through this even if everything fails us – technology, modern life, we’ll still make it through with “Candles and Stars,” if nothing else.

You co-wrote a lot of these songs with the great drummer and percussionist Jay Bellerose. And a lot of your recent music possesses a very visceral and primal sound. It’s not overly produced or needlessly prettied up. It’s organic and natural, even though it is produced. How did you write some of these songs with Jay.

I think I’ve always been attracted to people who have a great rhythmic sense. My old friend T Bone Burnett once said that we’re all drummers. I can’t actually accept that because I wish I was a drummer but I’m not [LAUGHS].

But I notice when I’m writing that framing is really important to me. I think I always have a feel in mind, and perhaps that locks my writing down. Finally, what I decided to do was to collaborate with Jay who I think has the most incredible gift. He and Jim Keltner are two of my absolute favorite drummers. I’ve known Jay for many years now and feel comfortable with him. So I actually asked him to do some drum performances for me in the studio that I could write to, and that’s how we did it. He just went in and played these pieces.

And that sparked some lyrical ideas?  

Yes. He was playing one piece in particular and I just heard the words “I want to be you,” which is kind of poking fun of midlife and fear of missing out and being on the Internet and envying people [LAUGHS].

I felt Jay kind of sent that to me. He kind of tapped that out in some kind of code and I found the lyric. When I wrote to his drum performances I felt they were so important to the music and to creating the lyrics that I felt that he had to be a writer on those songs.

Was that a new way for you to approach songwriting?

I haven’t been in a band before – although I’ve worked with beautiful bands all my life – so I don’t think I would do well being the singer of a band and improvising to a guitar player’s chords and a bass player. But collaborating with Jay, a drummer, gave me a lot of room for melody and lyrics, even though he had created the feel. I was really inspired by that. It was a great experience.  

You said you had been working on the album for a while. Did the current cultural and political climate ramp up the urgency to release it?   

It did. I’m not sure it would be coming out now if our politics had not turned so intense. I started on it four or five years ago and I did put out a little EP just to test to see what people thought. And I actually took two of the songs from that, “Candles and Stars” and “World on Sticks,” and overdubbed them. Jon Brion played on one. We added drums on “Candles and Stars” and remixed it, and for “World on Sticks” I did new vocals. It was fun.

Artists have more freedom today to release things when they want, like EPs and singles. Do you enjoy the flexibility and liberty to share songs or shorter collections of songs with your fans in ways that you couldn't do 15 years ago?  

I do enjoy that. I think all change is good and healthy when it comes to artistic things. There’s always going to be good and bad things [LAUGHS]. And I do miss the old days of more A&R involvement or producers that you respect fine-tuning things.

Today, there’s a lot of just rushing to get things out because it's a job, it’s what you do. That’s one thing I’ve really tried to resist. I’ve tried to take my time and make sure that I’m really happy with what I've done. This album has turned out to be a very different album. Six months ago, I actually threw five songs off the record [LAUGHS] and then wrote another five songs to change the album quite a bit.  

In the old days I guess I could have done that but it would have been a little tougher because you’re on the clock in a studio. There’s a release date. It’s more difficult. So yeah, now we have more flexibility and that is great for artists.

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Sam Phillips (center) with Eric Gorfain and ASCAP's Sara Chronert

Fans of the hit series Gilmore Girls, which ran for seven seasons and for which you composed music, were thrilled to see its return as a miniseries on Netflix in 2016. In the grand scheme of your career, what does the show mean to you?  

It was crazy at the time because I’d never done any television composing really. All through the 1990s I did not watch television. I was on the road constantly. I just saw movies. I read books. So it was an interesting and completely unique situation where the show’s creator Amy Sherman-Palladino wanted to use my voice in the score but the dialogue was so heavy she didn't want to use my words and she didn’t want me to write  lyrics.

So I kind of reached back in my memory and thought, well, Harry Nilsson did some beautiful background vocals (in addition to the theme song) for a funny little show called The Courtship of Eddie’s Father when I was a kid.

 I remembered that and I just took my little song beginnings and scraps that I had and sewed those together into a score and sang and played them. It took on a little life of its own. Fans of the show called it the “la-las” [LAUGHS]. It was just so sweet because a score usually isn’t that personal to people – but Amy really wanted the score to be that. She wanted it to be the music inside the mother’s and daughter’s heads.

It meant a lot to me to be working with Amy and our producer Helen Pai. I made these dear friends working with them. It also meant a lot to me because I became a single mom during the filming of the show, during our – the seventh season. And I felt the incredible writers that came through that writers room were reading my mail. A lot of the episodes I could really relate to. So it’s funny. It started out being a fun collaboration and then turned into something where I loved seeing every episode when I was scoring it. It became a show that meant a lot to me.

It has had an incredible run – and an incredible following.

It’s interesting because the fans did not lose faith. They kept the flame alive for almost 10 years. It was pretty incredible that Amy was able to go back, gather the cast up and do more. It was so much fun.  I hope we’ll do more because at the end of the recent mini-series, we kind of left the daughter Rory in a very interesting place.

Your collaboration with Amy Sherman-Palladino continued with the Emmy-winning The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which is back for a second season. Was it fun working on a project set in a defined time period?

Well, Eric Gorfain and I were the composers on the show in the very beginning. Again, it was a collaboration, trying to find the right music and that because in the beginning they said, “we’re going to do all great songs from the late ‘50s, early ‘60s and Broadway.” And we were like, “that sounds great!”

Then Amy and Dan [Palladino] called us to help them do some score because they felt like they needed some score pieces. So we jumped in and actually gave them a lot of different choices, very different from what ended up being in the show. I think it helped them figure out and define what they wanted to do.

In the end I think we all felt that strongest thing for that show was to have these, these amazing classics from Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and Blossom Dearie, and I just think that they had the budget to do it and not every show has that kind of a budget for a period piece.

I think that conclusion was made humorously. I don’t remember if it was Dan or Amy but they asked us to do “Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” and they said could “you do something like that?” [LAUGHS] And we were like, “no, no we can’t! It’s Frank Sinatra singing “Wee Small Hours of the Morning!”

In Season 2, we have done some score for them. We’ve done some fun things. We’re standing by always to help in whatever capacity because I'm, I’m so proud of them and I love what they have accomplished. I was a composer on another show that they did that had a very short life that ABC Family Network called Bunheads about teenagers who were ballet dancers. I feel like that was a beautiful little show that didn’t have the right label – like the record business.

For me watching Amy and Dan go through all this with Gilmore Girls and with Bunheads to see them come out the other end with Mrs. Maisel and collect all those awards, that was a beautiful nod for their 20-plus years of hard work

I’ve seen you perform a few times over the years and I’m always drawn to the theatricality of your persona onstage. It’s in your music too. There’s a layer of mystique which I find compelling. Do you know where that comes from? Are you a different person onstage than you are at home, or is it an extension of your personality that you are able to express when you are on a stage?  

Yeah, it’s definitely a part of my personality. It’s funny that you’d mention that after Gilmore Girls because the reason Amy asked me to do Gilmore Girls was she had seen me perform live in Los Angeles and she said she couldn’t believe that I was a nice person when she met me because she thought that I hated everybody when I was onstage [LAUGHS], which is kind of funny. I guess she was teasing.

I think that also comes from my very unusual beginnings in music, which, you know, was gospel music when I was very young.  That's a whole other interview and there’s a lot to say about that. But to grow as an artist and to grow as a spiritual person, I needed to leave gospel music and expand my life. But starting at that place in a very idealistic kind of mysterious world, I think some of that comes from just a reaction to what I was doing in the beginning.

You know, I also started dancing when I was three, so I moved around a lot in the days when I was doing gospel music and I felt that when I took my nickname Sam as my stage name, I felt there needed to be a whole different direction musically that I wanted to express onstage as well. So I think some of that is that is the opposite of where I came from and how I grew up as an artist and came into being this other person, "Sam" [LAUGHS].

Well, your uniqueness has worked out well over the course of a productive and creative career.

Thank you. That’s the funny thing about being a songwriter. I remember this many times over the 30 some odd years I’ve been writing songs. People would say, you know, songwriting has changed, we have to write this kind of song or that kind of song. And, though I understand that, I think there are some things – feel, melody, intent and tone– that will always stay the same and are important about writing.

Styles do change and I'm certainly not a mainstream pop act. That's never been the kind of music that I was interested in, except maybe when I was a little girl, you know, and radio was everything from James Brown to the Beatles to Johnny Cash on your one radio station, and you listened to it all.

So you had to create your own radio station in your head then.

It’s true. The question is always, how stubborn do you stay? Do you stick to your guns even if you go a little retro or you have more structure to a song? How much of a new spin do you put on it that might relate to the world around you?  I’ve stayed in my corner, which, you know, doesn't make friends with the widest audience. But I sure like my audience. I’m very happy to be singing to the people that I’m singing to.