Name: Grant-Lee Phillips
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Recent release: Grant-Lee Phillips's All That You Can Dream is out May 20th 2022 via Yep Roc.
If you enjoyed this interview with Grant-Lee Phillips and would like to find out more, visit his official homepage. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
The impulse to create is often an irrational attempt to repair the world and in the process, to heal oneself.
Because the real fountain of inspiration wells up from the unconscious, creativity is something an artist develops a relationship with over time. Just as we cannot force ourselves to drift off into the dream of our choosing, we can’t will the moment of inspiration. We can, however, surrender, pay heed and ponder those sudden flashes of insight - wherever they come from.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualization' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
A songwriter must love writing. Most everyone loves a good song. Fewer posses the level of obsession that drives a person to write. For some, writing songs is a kind of necessary evil - the bargain of being in a band perhaps. It’s an unfortunate truth and something I simply can’t relate to. Nor can I relate to the idea of mechanically cranking out songs that fit nicely into some current trend in programming.
For me, music is a solitary and sensual experience, something I’ve done my entire life. There’s a joy in exploring the contours of melody and harmony, the physical propulsion of rhythm. The weaving of words is perhaps the most challenging. It’s a process that confounds, even for the veteran songwriter.
As for the balance of planning and chance, I believe those concepts are to be wrestled with in the studio, where the song becomes shaped by performance and production. Prior to that moment, the song will undergo development by way of demos, lyric editing, improvisation and so forth.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Most of my songs can be traced to sitting down with the guitar, changing my strings, noodling through soundcheck - just being open to the feel and sound of the instrument, the room and whatever has been bombarding my mind. If I land on something that draws my ear, I’ll sing it into the phone, write it down in my notebook app and try to develop it.
I often have multiple acoustic sketches, variations on a given song and multiple drafts of lyrics. The real heart of a lyric is almost always there from the start though. The door arrives immediately but the handle and the hinges are sometimes delayed.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
My only real ritual is coffee, but I suppose that’s more of a habit, maybe even a religion for me.
I do some of my best writing when I’m in the car, a place where I can take my coffee, let my mind wander and sing with the windows down.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
Sometimes the seed of a song is in the first line. That was the case with “Sometimes You Wake Up in Charleston” off my prior album Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff.
I woke up in Charleston, took a morning walk, took a photo and posted it with the caption “Sometimes You Wake Up in Charleston.” By the time I had walked back to my hotel, most of the song was written.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
My observation is that music typically precludes the lyric phase. A casual discovery of chordal passages inspires a melody, which in turn coaxes the words out of me. From there, the sober work of meter and rhyme comes into play.
This whole chain-reaction can happen so fast that it’s hard to say what comes first. You could argue that the lyric, its essence, was there from the beginning and that is why our ears and hands seek out certain musical colors to express those feelings.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
My yardstick for a lyric is that it expresses my voice, my point of view and that it fits hand in glove with the music. I have far less concern about how it reads on a page.
Lyrics are a different beast than prose or poetry. They’re meant to be sung.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Some songs come quickly, as was the case with most everything on the new album. If there’s external stimulation, such as the Jan. 6th attack on the capitol, then my response can be immediate. This can heard on both “Peace is a Delicate Thing” and “Rats in a Barrel.” These were written within days of the event, back to back.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
When I was a younger writer, my relationship to lyric writing was less conscious. My ear was tuned to words but I hadn’t developed the means of fully steering the song. There’s something to be said for this state of mind. Good songs can emerge from it.
As the years went by I gained greater liberation as I could articulate myself better. I don’t feel as though I had a choice in the matter. When you stay with something, you naturally become more conscious. You also become more trusting of the process, including its mysteries.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Sometimes I’ll come to realize that an idea that went unused, has become resurrected in a new form. This is almost always for the better. It happens without trying.
A musician’s mind is a store house of all the music we’ve encountered and created. It may be pushed to the far recesses but it remains, waiting to be revisited in our time of need.
“A Sudden Place” was written shortly before “Lightning…” but I held it back, preferring to live with it longer before recording it. It was a good call. It wound up being a very special song, the opening track, on All That You Can Dream.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I think there’s an analogy to prayer or meditation that one could make about creating. The dialogue between the higher self, as it is sometimes called, is very akin to where an artist goes when in deep focus. There’s an opening up that’s essential as well.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Being done is being done for the day. We simply run out of days. Another session, another mix? All well and good of course but the there’s often a point where the results are merely different, not better.
I think we have to put our best foot forward and be on guard for the trickster of perfection. You can miss all the unexpected nuances when you’re fixed on some oasis of what the work could be. I try to remember that before ever pushing record.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practice?
Ideally, I prefer to live with a song before I record it and then live with the recording before I master it and release it into the wild.
That said, the luxury of time hasn’t always been abundant. The truth is that many a record was done under less than perfect conditions. Perfect conditions are nice when you’re having a wisdom tooth pulled. They knock you out and someone drives you home - perfect.
When you’re recording, there isn’t any Novocain or laughing gas. Eventually the song will come. A lot like pulling teeth.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
As a musician, I’m very sensitive to tonality and the detailed sculpting of a recording.
My venture into self-production began as soon as I went solo. It was a natural outgrowth of writing and studio recording. I’ve worked with some fantastic engineers in the past, in addition to producers and mixers.
With All That You Can Dream I was locked down at home. I had to be more self reliant than ever, recording, mixing - sending tracks back and forth with the other players. All of us were were wearing a few more hats.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
That’s a great observation. That moment when the work is done and out of our hands. There’s a long sigh. I’ve felt this with just about every album once it was completed.
The only thing that seems to break the spell is shrink-wrap. Seeing the record as something separate from myself, hearing it as something separate from myself - that takes awhile.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Coffee is a sort of tincture when you think of it. I go through a lot of it and a lot of it has gone through me, today alone. Songs are also a tincture. Experience gets funneled and distilled into a form whose potency can be absorbed in a matter of minutes. They both play on our nervous system, stimulate our memories and wake us to the present. Two of my favorite things, without a doubt.
And yet the music of my youth still fuels me. The songs of The Beatles still move me when I’ve crashed from my 5th cup of coffee. Music is a bottomless cup.