Grant-Lee Phillips first came to national prominence as the leader of Grant Lee Buffalo, a critically-acclaimed Los Angeles alt-rock trio that released four albums in the 1990s and was best known for the songs “Mockingbirds” and “Truly Truly.”
Since then, Phillips has put out eight eclectic studio efforts. The latest one, Widdershins (definition: to proceed counterclockwise or in a wrong direction), touches on where America is heading these days. Yet the Stockton, Calif. native still has faith in our ability to overcome steep obstacles, as the past has shown time and time again.
We caught up with the singer/guitarist from his home in Nashville, where he’s preparing to hit the road.
Rock Cellar: Are you anxious to get your fans’ reaction to the new material?
Grant-Lee Phillips: I am looking forward to it. This particular batch of songs is a very natural one to play. I didn’t fret over any of them in terms of the writing and that’s probably the key to it all. They sort of wrote themselves and play themselves. I just hang on for dear life.
Rock Cellar: When I saw you’d be co-headlining shows with Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses this month, I immediately thought of the Exile Follies Tour you did with her and X’s John Doe in 2002. I caught your freewheeling Troubadour gig together in West Hollywood. Have you shared a stage with Kristin since then?
Grant-Lee Phillips: That’s the last time I toured with Kristen for any length of time. It should be interesting. We’re each going to do a full set.
Rock Cellar: Widdershins is quite a compelling and thought-provoking album, where you often tap into the anxiety much of the country has been feeling over the past couple years. What prompted you to delve into that national malaise on some songs?
Grant-Lee Phillips: I think it’s the need to document; the need to express. Writing songs is my way of staying sane – or my version of being sane. I suppose it’s a human thing: to want to connect and resolve conflict. It’s probably why a lot of us turn to social media: that desire to connect.
Unfortunately, it usually goes awry at some point. When I go on Facebook these days, it’s like sticking your face into a furnace and it’s rarely productive. But I do understand that need to pull together, especially in these [times], where the sense of anxiety is so palpable. We’ve all been on the edge of our seats for so long now.
Rock Cellar: Were you ever inspired by the late 1960s/early ‘70s protest movement, which spawned incisive songs like Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s “Ohio?”
Grant-Lee Phillips: Most certainly. “Ohio” – what a lasting song! It is so particular in terms of its inspiration and depicting that horrible moment at Kent State. It also feels so timeless. I think that kind of song works best when it taps into humanity and the part of us that really bristles at the idea of injustice.
It’s easy to isolate the protest song as being outside the emotional spectrum of popular music, which so typically deals with raw emotions. How can you not be emotionally affected by a song like “Ohio?” I think one of the greatest songs of all time is Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding.” You don’t really have to know much of the back story, but it taps into all these ideas.
Rock Cellar: With lyrical references to Marie Antoinette, Italian philosopher/mathematician Giordano Bruno and Cassandra, the prophet from Greek mythology on Widdershins, I had to brush up on my knowledge of past centuries. Are you a history buff?
Grant-Lee Phillips: I wouldn’t call myself a history buff at all. I need to do my historical crunches, in fact. I am fascinated with history and I always have been. I am utilizing some of these names, like caricatures in shorthand. The songs that I tend to feature these names in are satirical pieces in some ways. That’s not to say that they aren’t without their bite.
If I toss in Marie Antoinette, I assume that the listener has some sense of what she represents. ‘The disparity of the classes’ is how I would define Marie Antoinette. A disdain for the lower classes and those below her station. Her aloof ignorance, which led to her downfall. I think there’s plenty of that to go around [now]. It’s a colorful way of talking about a big subject with one fell swoop.
Rock Cellar: When you put out The Narrows album in 2016, you’d said recurring themes in the lyrics arose organically. Considering the subtle political touchstones on new songs like dreamy first single “Totally You, Gunslinger” and rallying cry “Liberation,” I assume it was just the opposite for Widdershins. Am I correct?
Grant-Lee Phillips: I wrote these songs in a very concentrated period – November and December 2016, going into 2017. Most everything was written there in the holiday season. One of my greatest holiday records yet. Minus the jingle bells! [laughs]
It was written at the height of the election season and the Inauguration. This whole new turning of the page. That had a lot to do with it. I think when I work quickly like that, themes naturally present themselves. I’d been chipping away much slower at a whole batch of songs I’m still sitting on. It probably would have been a logical step forward from The Narrows – reflective, mid-temp songs, delivered intimately. That’s where I thought I was going, then something happened. The world fell off its axis or at least it felt like it. I had to respond with a song or two or three.
That’s how I ended up writing this album.
Rock Cellar: The tense “Unruly Mobs,” where you sing about pitchforks, torches and having masks on was written before the Charlottesville protest last summer then?
Grant-Lee Phillips: Yeah, it was.
Rock Cellar: While it might be obvious who or what the subject matter refers to in many of the songs, you don’t take a heavy-handed approach. Instead of pointing fingers, you relay situations to historical episodes and sing that things can get better. Was that the goal?
Grant-Lee Phillips: I feel as though all of us are going to draw our own conclusions. Every one of us – me included – we’re each afflicted with our own blind spot. I don’t see life through your eyes or the next person’s. All I can do is offer up this bit of entertainment and it’s something to chew on, you know? It gets stuck in your teeth.
Rock Cellar: Drummer Jerry Roe and bassist Lex Price, who played on The Narrows, returned to the studio with you. Was there a particularly good rapport last time around?
Grant-Lee Phillips: Definitely. After we recorded that [first] album, we did a few shows here in Nashville. It was so natural that I felt this was worth revisiting. I wasn’t certain that would come together because of their schedules.
Rock Cellar: I’m sure. Those guys have some impressive studio credits. I saw that Jerry has played on recent efforts by Rodney Crowell, Lee Ann Womack and Granger Smith, while Lex is heard on albums by Miranda Lambert, Indigo Girls, Crowell and others.
Grant-Lee Phillips: They’re highly expressive musicians. We just connect really well on a soulful level. I love playing with them. They’re capable of following me through any twist and turn. They always come up with good suggestions. If I say, ‘I’m going to try this on a different instrument,’ there’s a level of trust in one another that goes a long way, because we had to work quick. Once in the studio, we had about three days and I had to know it was working within the first three hours or so.
Rock Cellar: So, it’s basically just the three of you on the entire album?
Grant-Lee Phillips: With The Narrows, I had a guest or two outside the trio, but with this one, it’s just us. I took it home and added a few overdubs. It was a super great team.
Rock Cellar: Sound Emporium, where you recorded in Nashville, has a storied history. While tracking the new songs, could you somehow sense the vibe of all the legendary albums made there in the past?
Grant-Lee Phillips: Yeah. I was delighted to hear that the room I recorded this album in was where R.E.M. recorded Document, which is kind of a muscular album with a social thread as well. Maybe there’s something in that room that they left behind for the rest of us to endeavor. Some of that essence. Kenny Rogers also recorded “The Gambler” in that room too.
Rock Cellar: There are a few spots on the album where you really rock out on electric guitar. A fast-paced “The Wilderness,” the seething “A Great Acceleration” and frantic “Scared Stiff” are prime examples. Were you inspired to turn the volume up more when needed?
Grant-Lee Phillips: I think the anger in the songs warranted plugging in and turning up. I don’t get to do enough playing with a full band live. I’d like to do more of that. There was kind of a 50/50 thing going on as far as the electric guitar on The Narrows.
This time, I wanted to lean further into it and even explore the electric as being the real basic guitar that laid the foundation, as opposed to treating it as a flavor that enriched the performance. I haven’t done that enough. Jubilee was that kind of record with Grant Lee Buffalo [in 1998]. I’m not sure where I want to go next. I kind of want to make an even noisier record right now.
Rock Cellar: I read a recent interview where you referred to these songs as “my photos…guerilla style.” Since Widdershins was basically recorded live in the studio, did you try to avoid laboring over the process too much?
Grant-Lee Phillips: Yeah. I like to do the vocals and all of it at once. It just turns out better that way. It has more feeling, more urgency. From a budget standpoint, it’s the only way to go about it if you’re going to do it with a band; to do it quickly. I like that. I have really come to embrace these limitations that have occurred over time as [record company] budgets have gotten smaller. I like the idea that nobody is going to push back if I want to produce myself and make a record in three days.
Years ago, it was like ‘this record is really important, so we want to have somebody else come in and make the record for you. We want you take a lot of time and keep redoing things over and over again.’ It doesn’t necessarily make for the best art, you know? My favorite albums have a vibe; they have life on them. Whether it’s the Stones or [Van Morrison’s] Astral Weeks.
Rock Cellar: Your music fits nicely into the Americana realm. Do you feel a kinship with the other acts who tend to fall under that umbrella as well?
Grant-Lee Phillips: It’s pretty broad. There are people who are more traditional in their approach or instrumentation and those who are pushing it to a different place. I think it can even be broader. I like the musically liberal perspective of the Americana world. We can welcome so many types of intersecting music.
Rock Cellar: Switching gears, what was it like to reprise your role as the town troubadour on Netflix’s limited run series reboot “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” in 2016?
Grant-Lee Phillips: It was an amazing opportunity. It’s incredible enough that I was asked to be a part of that show [many] years ago. That lightning would strike twice in the same place with this reunion is a whole other thing. I didn’t expect that would happen. So many years had passed since the show wrapped in 2007. It felt like we were picking up where we left off when I showed up on the set for the reunion. It’s such a wonderful thing. I met some great people and have gone on to work with some of them afterwards.
Rock Cellar: Can you identify people at the concerts who probably discovered you first through the TV series?
Grant-Lee Phillips: I have met people who found out about my music through the show. I love the idea that it’s a shared experience so many mothers and daughters have had. They relate to the show, that led them to my stuff and now they come to my [concert] together. It’s incredible.
Rock Cellar: You’ve recorded and toured with one of my favorite musicians – Yep Roc label mate Robyn Hitchcock – several times over the past 20 years. You also tackled his “I Often Dream of Trains” on your 2006 CD of covers, Nineteeneighties. What do you enjoy most about collaborating with Robyn? Have any of his eccentricities rubbed off?
Grant-Lee Phillips: Yes, I have more polka dots in my wardrobe [laughs]. He’s a really unique spirit. A very dear friend and somebody who I was inspired by early on, well before we ever met. His  record I Often Dream of Trains influenced me a great deal – hearing how you could create all this mood with nothing but your lyric, its imagery, one voice and your guitar. The stark quality of that album and the ability to go from some very penetrating ideas to humor, all at once, made a huge impression on me. His melodies are so incredible. I did some harmonies on [2017’s Robyn Hitchcock] when it was close to being wrapped.
We both live in Nashville now, so we see each other frequently.
Grant-Lee Phillips – U.S. Tour Dates
March 15 Stolz Listening Room – Easton, MD*
March 16 Pearl Street Warehouse – Washington, DC*
March 17 Club Café – Pittsburgh, PA*
March 18 Music Box – Cleveland, OH*
March 20 Space – Evanston, IL*
March 23 Cedar Cultural Center – Minneapolis, MN*
March 24 Fremont Abbey Arts Center – Seattle, WA (early/late)*
March 25 Old Church Concert Hall – Portland, OR*
March 27 Momo’s Lounge – Sacramento, CA*
March 29 The Chapel – San Francisco, CA*
March 31 McCabe’s Guitar Shop – Santa Monica, CA*
*co-headlining bill with Kristin Hersh