For almost 30 years, Grant-Lee Phillips has shared his deep, burnished tenor voice through a slew musical constellations.
After moving from Stockton to Los Angeles for film school, the California native got his start in the critically-acclaimed but largely forgotten band Shiva Burlesque, which, after two albums, would evolve into Grant Lee Buffalo.
Despite rave reviews, overseas buzz and successful tours with R.E.M, Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins and others, Grant Lee Buffalo never translated into moving large units of CDs, and in 1999 they called it quits. In the wake lays a row of classic albums Fuzzy (1993), Mighty Joe Moon (1994), Copperpolis (1996) and Jubilee (1998) – all using a different approach to their signature sound of rootsy instrumentation, epic songwriting and electrified Americana.
After the breakup of Grant Lee Buffalo, Phillips set out for a journey on his own, spending the noughties nurturing a solo career under his own name. This includes such album highlights as 2001’s Mobilize (praised by All Music as ‘comparable to the finest moments of U2, David Gray, R.E.M., and Radiohead’), the stellar 2006 covers album Nineteeneighties and the poignant Walking in the Green Corn (2012) where Phillips translated his ancestral legacy into the present era.
Since then, Grant-Lee Phillips has left California and settled with his family in the rolling hills of Tennessee, and a quieter life resembling both the San Joaquin Valley of his upbringing and his parents’ mid-southern roots.
This is the backdrop to his latest dispatch on Yep Roc Records. Entitled The Narrows, the album is a concentrated nexus of romance, recollection, historic struggles and tragedies, and peerless craftsmanship – coupled with the hopes, fears, and isolation that accompany transition, according to the label.
Grant gathered a trio of musicians, including drummer Jerry Roe – grandson of eccentric guitar virtuoso and songwriter Jerry Reed and multi-instrumentalist Lex Price, settled in Dan Auerbach’s (of the Black Keys) Easy Eye Studio, which also gave them access to his collection of museum-quality vintage equipment. The Narrows deals with the tension between past and present, foundations and freedom, also captivating the southern spirit and energy along with Phillips’ journey into marriage and fatherhood, and the passing of his own father.
‘Discovery is what I love the most about songwriting,’ Phillips shares. ‘When it comes to albums, I tend to let the through-line reveal itself as I gather a collection of songs. Recurring themes tend to arise organically, and I enjoy encountering them like fresh webs in the morning.’
Grant-Lee Phillips shared five albums that changed his life in some shape or form.
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Van Morrison: Astral Weeks
I must have discovered this album some twenty years after its debut in 1968. There’s really nothing else like it, nothing since. To steal a line from the title song, it’s an album that never fails to transport to “Another time, another place.” One can’t help but be swept up in the spiraling energy of “Sweet Thing,” “Cypress Avenue” or “Madam George.” Dizzying, breathtaking, Astral Weeks is a work that transforms itself and it’s listener with every spin. I regard it as an oracle.
Strangely, I always feel as though I’m hearing it for the very first time. There’s something in the gestural brush strokes, the details, the blazing intensity of both the lyric and Van Morrison’ s seemingly possessed vocal performance that transcends rational bounds. One song invisibly bleeds into the next. Undulating, breathing, ever rotating with the symmetry of a mandala. Perhaps the most spiritual collection of songs ever captured on record.
Featured Track: “Sweet Thing”
Gillian Welch: Time (The Revelator)
I had the good fortune of first hearing Gillian Welch and David Rawlings around 2000 or 2001, when they stepped onstage by chance one night at the Largo in L.A., back when it was on Fairfax, across from Canters Deli. David and I spoke upstairs about this old guitar he was playing. He was pointing out that it had no truss-rod, as though this could in some way explain the electricity flowing through his fingers. Gillian too couldn’t have been more unassuming. Together onstage, they possessed a divining rod, tapping into a source as potent as it was ancient.
Floored by this set of original songs, along with a Buddy Holly cover or two, I went out the next morning and hunted down the album, Time (The Revelator) by Gillian Welch. There isn’t a word or a note out of place on these ten songs. Every song feels as though it has been slow cooked and simmered to perfection. Effortless, truthful, even prescient. No other song hits the nail on the head like “Everything Is Free.” If ever there was a Cassandra for the music business, Welch would be it… for this song alone.
Featured Track: “Revelator”
Elliot Smith: Elliot Smith
Around ’97 or so my friend Jon Brion went out and bought about 15 copies of a quiet-voiced singer and gifted guitarist named Elliot Smith. Jon, whose talents have earned him wide admiration as a producer and composer, was on a mission to spread the word about an artist who he himself had just encountered and was beginning to work with. “You have got to hear this!” Jon said. The album was simply called Elliot Smith. It would be followed by the albums Either/Or, XO and Figure 8 before Smith’s death at the terribly young age of 34.
At a time of musical grandiosity, Elliot had emerged with a very contrasting vision. His originality, almost whispered rage and isolation spoke to a generation with the kind of honesty and sophistication not heard since Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. The album Elliot Smith coincided with my casual friendship with Elliot. He, Jon and I shared many an off-the-cuff night on stage at Largo, colliding like bumper cars as we worked our way through old cover songs, even tackling the Bowie/Queen duet “Under Pressure” one night – none of us with a straight face. I remember those laughs well, just as I recall the impact of encountering Elliot Smith’s artistry for the very first time.
Featured Track: “Needle In The Hay”
David Bowie: Hunky Dory
David Bowie’s Hunky Dory stands out in his staggering catalogue. Like Picasso, who is associated with so many distinct periods of output, it’s criminal to settle on one favorite Bowie album. But this list wouldn’t be very honest if his impact wasn’t rightfully acknowledged in some degree. Low was the first Bowie LP I bought but Hunky Dory is one that I go back to the most frequently.
Bowie’s love of Dylan, The Velvets, The Stones, Andy Warhol culminate in an album that is majestic at times and primitive at others. I’ve heard that Hunky Dory is an assemblage of various songs that were not originally conceived as a whole. Bowie often employed lyrical experimentation, such as the cut-up writing methods of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs. Hunky Dory functions as kind of a cut-up. The effect of all of these songs juxtaposed together increases their magnitude, making for a very singular album.
Featured Track: “Life On Mars”
The Band: The Band (The Brown Album)
The seeds that were planted long ago, when The Band recorded songs like “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Whispering Pines” are still yielding a bountiful harvest. That mythic and pastoral landscape continues to draw new pilgrims. I’ve been tracking those footsteps as long as I can recall.
The Band is one of my major influences. So whether we call it Alt-country, Americana or whatever, we have Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson to thank for there being a road to begin with. They were here first. Blessed with some of the most expressive voices and musical virtuosity the ages have known, The Band were galvanized around songs that seemed to have existed forever and were built to last forever. Sung with the pain and joy of life’s experience, the unvarnished and divine music of The Band is a treasure to share.
Featured Track: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
Originally published on read.tidal, May 2016