Interview with Grant-Lee Philips

Karin McLaughlin
By Karin McLaughlin / October 10, 2018

​Karin McLaughlin: Hi Grant - I'm super excited to talk to you and have you guys coming to Pearl Street Warehouse.   Before we officially start, for our audience who might not be familiar with you or Josh, individually, could you, kind of, give us an overview and maybe a musical background?  You can be as brief as you want, obviously, to give us some insight on what you guys have been doing in music – just some oversight.

Grant-Lee Phillips (Photo Credit: Denise Siegel)

Photo Credit: Denise Siegel

Grant-Lee Phillips (Photo Credit: Denise Siegel)

Photo Credit: Denise Siegel

Grant-Lee Philips: Oh, goodness, well, the two of us have been at this for for some time.  I began recording with a band called ​Grant-Lee Buffalo​; I was the front man of that band and we put ​our first album out in 1993.   We we were signed to Slash Records, but ​Slash ​ultimately ​ran our albums through Warner Brothers and some larger labels overseas and we found that it wasn't long before our music really struck a nerve, especially in an international way​.   I spent the major part of the nineties on the road as a result - in the ​end made four albums with the band -  and then at the outset of the 2000s, I went on my own, ​to record as a solo artist.  Now I have about thirteen albums out - solo albums and ​Grant Lee Buffalo, I sort of lost track at this point (laughs).  I know Josh Rouse was a fan of one of our earlier records especially, called ​Mighty Joe Moon and that was probably the bridge for us eventually meeting.  He came to a show of mine that I had in Nashville many years ago​ and that was the first time we met.  I was beginning to hear about him - he's a little younger than me - and you know, as years went by, we eventually did some writing together.  I suppose that in the last ​year or so, we began to seriously kick around this idea of doing a tour together.  He had been living in Spain for many years, and I had been in LA, but it turns out, we're both in Nashville now, so that had a big part in this.  We're also on the same label, so all of the stars conspired to make this happen so that we could do this co-headliner tour.  Both of us are singer-songwriters and I think we probably have certain similarities in terms of how we go about our work, you know, both very much driven by the desire to write a great song.  We both also have a lot of admiration for the great songbook of the ​sixties and the seventies and​ having that common sort of ground​ makes for a good friendship and good creative parent.

KM:  So you guys are label mates and now you both have new albums that have come out and you're touring in support of that. Can you tell us a little bit about your newest album and kind of how long it's been in the making and the process that you went through to create this new album?

Grant-Lee Phillips - Widdershins
Grant-Lee Phillips - Widdershins

Grant-Lee Phillips - Widdershins (2018)

GLP: Yeah sure. ​ The new album was called Widdershins and it came out in March of this last year. It's an album of mine that's  a little more topical than some.  We've been collectively experiencing these very turbulent times as a nation, really heated political times and so that found its way into the song writing.  These songs are written very quickly in a fever, the songs of Wi​ddershins, because ​I was addressing things that were eating away at me in the night, the things that kept me awake, and so it's that kind of record.  Sometimes I'm coming from a different place, kind of going inward more.   I think this is an album where I'm addressing something that we are we're going through but I'm trying to tap into this feeling, not trying to offer diatribe or present a soapbox sort of soliloquy, it's all about trying to tap into the anxiety and the questions and the absurdity of this particular moment in history.

KM: I think that's pretty standard for most people at this point, unfortunately.  Now a lot of people don't know where this word Widdershins comes from, other than what you just explained,  is there ​some sort of light bulb that went off and gave meaning to this as far as the songwriting process and the meaning behind the songs and like you said, as far as assigning this album that certain title?

Grant-Lee Phillips (Photo Credit: Denise Siegel)

Photo Credit: Denise Siegel

Grant-Lee Phillips (Photo Credit: Denise Siegel)

Photo Credit: Denise Siegel

GLP:  Well, yeah, the word itself, it's an Archaic word meaning counter to the sun, moving backwards or counter, and I think one of my observations has been that there is such a sense of having our world sort of turned on its head, that concept of 'Through the Looking Glass'.  I was playing with that, I have a fascination with words and I have a song on this record -in fact, the album kicks off with a song called "Walk in Circles" and the full sentiment is that I'd rather walk in circles with the witches and huddled with the heretics finding a sense of community with those who have been branded as outcasts, as the enemies, ​or those that move in contrast to what we're told is the right way of doing things, the right way of thinking about things. I typically find a commonality with those who are shut out of society, so I'm trying ​to address that.  I feel like that does ​sort of describe this moment.  What's up is down and what's down is up, and even with this political suggestion, this th​ought that press is the enemy of the people - how do we find that out?  We found out by watching our news source and if it wasn't for those various sources, then we wouldn't have the  objectivity that we do have to draw our own conclusions. So, we do rely on a free press completely and we are constantly bombarded with this idea that the press is the enemy and all of that.  I felt like I want to deal with these things head on, even metaphorically.

KM: As a songwriter it's relevant to say that during the time of the sixties, ​music and its message was a huge part of the political movement and it gave people that didn't have a voice something to use to express how they were feeling.   ​It always has and it always will, but there are times when it's much more prominent than others.​  The state of the world today is just sheer chaos in my opinion ​- how important do you feel it is to kind of return to that time where music really healed or it carried a political message and was used to motivate people to stand up for themselves and stand up for what they believe in, fight for what they believe is right?   How much does music give them a voice to do that?

GLP: F​or me, I think it comes down to sharing ideas and it means something different to do it today than than it did in the 1960s.  We didn't have social media at that time,​ but we had a common place where we could go, you know, there was a rock and roll festival or the radio or there were those kind of​ arenas where we could come together - we had protests on college campuses.  I think what happened was a lot of that sense of the group and the empathy for others kind of wrote it in generations to come.  I think where we are, we are rediscovering the necessity that none of us are islands and that we're all part of this greater phenomenon and so songs can really kind of help draw that line, that through line.  It's not as though a song itself is going to be the magic bullet so to speak, but it can really amplify some of the feelings that are already there and coming to the surface.   I think we as artists, we simply take the temperature of what is happening or what's about to happen.  Sometimes we're a little early on that (laughs), but I think that's what it's about, for me, anyways.  I'm not interested in writing a song for the sake of propaganda, but I do think we can't help but mirror the times that we live in and if we don't, then maybe there's something to reevaluate in our art.

KM: You mentioned that this album actually came out back in March.  What have you been doing as far as performance wise, since then?  If it's been a lot of live performances, how have you noticed the response to the songs as far as for audiences you've played so far?

GLP: I feel like there is a really strong response.  I mean, I play outside of the country just as much as I play in the U.S.   but it's funny, so many parts of the world over are experiencing these strange changes that are underway.   Maybe a better way to put it is just the resistance to positive change - that kind of attention, you can use certainly see it and I could feel it in Europe, and it's on the tip of people's tongues and so I think they sense that connection there. I've been playing songs from my entire career when I do tour, but I feel like there's definitely a strong resonance with the new material as well as the old stuff of mine and everything in between.

KM: How do you think that you and Josh mesh in that way, as far as music and message and hopeful outcome of this tour together? What do you think is it that ​will make you guys work so well together on this?

Grant-Lee Phillips (Photo Credit: Denise Siegel)

(Photo Credit: Denise Siegel

Grant-Lee Phillips (Photo Credit: Denise Siegel)

(Photo Credit: Denise Siegel

GLP: Well I think we're probably a nice oil for each other, you know, he is going to have a different perspective in some ways than I might.  I know this from writing with him many years ago when when we sat down to start a song and I would throw an idea out and then he would throw another idea​ out and I would realize, 'You know, I think I liked his idea better, let's go with that'  and then what we wound up with ​was this really cool thing that transcended what either one of us would come up with, together.   I like that that combination of our energies, in fact, the funny thing is, we went back in and revisited the song that we began writing like ten years ago and finished it up recently and recorded it and I realized that now we have we have so many places where we we intersect.  He could say, 'What about like a string part like Harry Nilsson?'  and I'd think, 'Yeah, I hear that​, I know what you're talking about.'   So ​we would have that sort of good,​ shared vocabulary, I guess where I mean, ​it's two solo singer-songwriters,​ but I don't ​know how much interplay there will be between the two of us, really​.  We do plan to come together and do some stuff, but I think it's just going to be a good juxtaposition. ​ If I get too dark, he'll be there to bring me back to the light and if he's too light, I'll ​bring it down (laughs).

KM: (laughs) A good counterbalance to each other.  Now that we're ​in a change of seasons going into the Fall ​and the last​ part of the year - reflecting back on this year alone, obviously​ the album coming out was it was a big highlight - is there anything in particular, other than that, that stands out for you for 2018?

GLP:  ​The touring​ which has brought me to some places that​ I haven't spent enough time in the last few years.  I got to do three weeks in Australia earlier this year, I was in Italy a couple of months ago​ and I'm going back to Europe in November.  So just all of that, ​several trips to Europe and like I said, in the U.S. as well.   That's the great thing, just to really be immersed and performing the songs.  I gotta admit, as a songwriter, almost as soon as I'm done recording an album, I begin thinking towards the next one and I go back to writing.  This time, I sort of kept myself from doing that all together​, that way, I was fully present just to go out and play the songs and enjoy bringing them along​ because anybody​ with several records, you basically realize very soon that you can't keep all of the songs alive and in tip top shap​e. You record them, and then they get put on a record and maybe that's the last time I see them or hear them and that part makes me a little bit sad​, so I try ​to resuscitate them or or keep them alive a little bit longer​ now, before I move on to the next thing.

KM: ​Do you do a lot of writing while you're on the road?

GLP: Yeah, I do​, because that's where I have more alone time​.  It's a good​ balance of boredom and stimulation, you know, ​here I am in some beautiful part of the world and I've got nobody to share it with, except my guitar, (laughs) so I'll write a song or I'll begin a song.  I take some of those​ memories, some of those snapshots home and I'll probably do my editing when I get home, but I get a lot of ideas when I'm traveling. 

KM:  ​Does being with another singer-songwriter influence that - where there will be a lot opportunity for some inspiration and feedback and like you said, if you come up with something, and then Josh adds something else and you'll go, 'Oh, ​ I like that better!'  Maybe we'll get an album out of it after all? (laughs)

Grant-Lee Phillips (Photo Credit: Denise Siegel)

Photo Credit: Denise Siegel

Grant-Lee Phillips (Photo Credit: Denise Siegel)

Photo Credit: Denise Siegel

GLP:  Yeah maybe so!  ​We've got one song down,​ we just need a few mor​e to round it out (laughs).  ​It's nice to, to share the load when you're ​on tour and sort of compare notes, you know, 'How do you deal with this?' or 'Ever deal with that?', that kind of thing​, it's enjoyable.  ​And you get to hear a great artist like Josh every night.  I get to hear him from the side of the stage or the dressing room and usually what happens is when I come home from that tour, I will have been inspired by their writing, then you'll probably hear​ something resembling Josh Rouse on my next record.   ​I toured with my friend Kristen Hersh and John Doe many years ago and then I caught up with Kristen and we toured together this year and I said, 'You've got to hear this song. I wrote it after we did that ​tour together.'  ​It's sort of me doing ​Kristen a little bit, so yeah, it gets in there (laughs).​

KM: There is one question that I really like to ask to kind of learn more about the artist as a person and I know that you have been around for a while and you've experienced a lot and got to do a lot with your musical career, but I like to ask people if there's anything that's on the music bucket list that's left that you'll maybe try to accomplish in the next, let's say, year.  It could be anything from learning a new instrument, playing at a certain venue, collaborating with someone - is there anything that you really had a desire to do that you haven't gotten to fulfill yet that maybe might be something you're aiming for next?

GLP:  It's a little bit of a ​late blooming desire to collaborate with with other songwriters with the goal that I might release that music myself,​ because I've worked so much by myself ​in the writing, I finally feel a little more open to that.  I'm not sure why it's arriving at this point in time, but I think it's because I've had some good experiences writing with Josh on this song "Empire State", which will be released soon.​  I've realized that​ sometimes I'm happier ​with the possibility ​ of surprising myself. ​  So yeah, if anything, ​I would welcome ​those kind of opportunities and I'm putting that energy out there into the air these days​.  I couldn't give you a particular list of songwriters that I'm thinking of or other fellow artists,​ but there's a number of them that I admire.  Many of them that I've known over the years probably that have gone through the same sort of contortions as I have, where they kind of have their way of doing it and that's how each of us know how to go about it. ​  I guess, kind of, maybe challenging my own ​process that might be familiar, but knowing well that it could produce something interesting.   

KM: So, opening a new door.

​GLP:  Opening a new door, yeah, exactly.

KM: ​Well, that's a good one to open.  

GLP:  Yeah, I think so. I mean, ​I'd call Willie Nelson a master and I look at people l​ike ​him, who have written some of the greatest songs of all time - "Crazy", ​"Alone", "Blue", and I mean, just on and on and on, so many great songs and those that he has recorded as well.  ​Just this the scope of his work and the fact that he's still doing it and still opening new doors today - people like that, that really excites me.  So that would be my goal, to continue ​to challenge myself and, I don't know, throw myself into some unknown arena, you know? (laughs). 

KM: Understandable, totally. I think that's a great one to have, especially obviously - Willie Nelson's the high goal, right?

GLP: Yeah, right.

KM: I mean​, ​I don't know if you saw that amazing tour, the Outlaw Music Festival tour, it's hard to believe he is still doing that.  It was him, Van Morrison, Greensky Bluegrass, Tedeschi Trucks. They just did it back ​in September, I don't know if they're still​ doing dates.

GLP: Wow, it's amazing that guy still going, it's crazy.

KM: Yeah, right. If only every musician it's that good could last that long. ​ Well, Grant thank you very much for taking the time and we look forward to seeing you in DC ​at Pearl Street.  Have you been over to that area recently?

GLP: Yeah, ​I think this will be my third ​time at the club, it's beautiful and I'm looking forward to the show. ​

Performance Details

Performance Details

Performance

Details


Saturday, October 12, 2018

Doors: 7:00 PM

Show: 8:00 PM


Pearl Street Warehouse (https://www.pearlstreetwarehouse.com)

33 Pearl Street SW

Washington DC 20024 (Google Maps Link)


$30  - General Admission


About the author
Karin McLaughlin

Karin McLaughlin

Karin has been a live music junkie all her life, however is a fairly new fan in the world of jam bands and bluegrass. She grew up on hip hop, classic soul, motown and classic rock but has found a new home in the festival world and that is what, in part, had brought her to DC Music Review. Karin produces and hosts a weekly radio show in the area called Karin's Calendar, where she talks all about 'Where to be in the DMV'. She is very excited to be starting down a semi-new road with us and hopes to use her interview skills and write ups of shows to contribute even more to DC Music Review.