Sam Phillips

Taylor speaks with Sam Phillips about ‘Push Any Button’, her relationship with Amy Sherman-Palladino, and her vision for the future of the music industry.

Taylor Brogan

June 5, 2014 | The Future | Print #3

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN OUR 3RD PRINT ISSUE, THE FUTURE. TO PURCHASE A COPY, CLICK HERE.

sam good quality

Sam Phillips is a name you might not recognize, but you’ve more than likely heard her voice. She supplied the infamous “la la las” that accompanied the Gilmore girls as they walked arm-in-arm through Stars Hollow. Sam’s career, though, is so much bigger than her long-standing professional friendship with Gilmore creator Amy Sherman-Palladino (Phillips also scored Sherman-Palladino’s Bunheads). Phillips’ catalog spans decades and mixes elements of folk, pop, rock, and bluegrass to produce something uniquely bittersweet. Each album in her 30-year career has been a step forward, but her latest release, 2013’s ‘Push Any Button’, is what she calls “looking at the future through the past.”

Before I could ask her the first question, though, she was quizzing me on my own goals.

Taylor: I’d like to go into screenwriting, or something like that.

Sam: We need that, please do that. I was just talking with someone about, you know how it’s such a wide open thing in some senses, if you have something to say and you’re an optimist – because the networks need content.

Original content, especially.

Yes, and battling that sometimes is difficult, but it’s a worthy fight. As I’ve just seen my friend Amy Sherman-Palladino do with her show Bunheads. And I saw her fighting for what she wanted to do with Gilmore Girls. She’s an inspiration to me because she’s tough, she won’t compromise. And she doesn’t tell off her friends, which I love as well.

Yeah, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about Bunheads, just because I was a big fan of that show, and it’s such tragic news that it got cancelled.

I know! You know it’s funny, having been in the record business for 20-some odd years, I’ve seen it happen with labels. They’ll find somebody, and they won’t quite understand what the music is about or how to market it and how to get it out to the people who would love it, and everyone is unhappy, and they end up getting dropped from the label. And I think that nothing is more true than that in this case. I think they [ABC Family] were just more comfortable with shows like Pretty Little Liars. Amy was challenging their demographic. There were older people in her show, smarter things in her show, and she really stuck to her guns about having the budget to do a show that looked beautiful and was high quality, and that just wasn’t their MO. They’re more comfortable with things that…are not gonna rock the boat – Amy is a boat-rocker.

I’ve been a fan of your music since I was a fan of Gilmore Girls, actually, which I grew up on and was so obsessed with. 

I loved Gilmore Girls, and I don’t know if you related more to Rory or to Lorelai, but during the course of that show – my daughter was born right before I took on the music, and during the course of that show I became a single mom. So, at some point, I felt like the writers and Amy were reading my mail. I looked forward to the episodes as much as anybody else, because they were funny and relevant and a little heart-wrenching sometimes.

There was nothing like Gilmore Girls on [The WB] at the time, and there still isn’t much out there like what Amy does…There are shows like Girls – there are shows that are outside the box, and you might have to find a corner to make your show in, but I think those corners are popping up everywhere now. And to me, I think I see change is coming, and it’s very exciting.

Sort of related to that, the theme of this issue of the magazine is “the future,” so we’re really looking forward and trying to talk to as many people as possible to see what their vision is for the future of, in your case music, but entertainment and – how do you feel about the future for content creators in terms of, like, Kickstarter and crowdfunding – all of those venues. What do you see happening?

I don’t view the future in terms of those things. I think that those are quick fixes and short term things that are very good. But I think what is going to happen is that music is going to have to partner with other things. And just like rock-n-roll was a combination of musical styles, I think we will see more hybrids of music and drama. Plays, live things, live on the internet – I just think that it’s so open right now, it’s in such flux. It’s an exciting time. Any time the money people are confused and don’t know how to make the money and are a little panicked, they’re going to clamp down. But they’re also going to be so short sighted and so focused on the money that they’re not going to see all the amazing creative potential that we as artists and writers will see. And I think we have an amazing opportunity to jump in and create new formats, and new combinations of things. It is sad for me to see the record business as I grew up knowing it crash and burn, but on the other hand, that’s the only way I think that something new and something better can come along.

Is that how you came up with the idea for the Long Play? Because I feel like you’ve tapped into something really unique, the way you’re combining art with music. [Editor’s Note: Long Play subscribers had access to a year’s worth of exclusive music.]

I wanted to do something that was completely different from what I’d done before, and that was usually to take years to make an album. And I wanted to do a lot of content, but I also wanted to do it quickly, and I wanted to do an all-digital project as well because I hadn’t done that before. My listeners were great, they were up for it. They came with me and supported it, and it was really fun. And it was really basically just doing something that I was interested in doing, because at the time, I would have loved to pay a fee to just be in on the process of my favorite author, or even a fashion designer, or any kind of artist. I’d love to see their process a little bit more and hear from them and be privy to the things they were creating as they were created rather than after the 6-month marketing plan had been put into action.

And that’s what the Long Play was about.  It was about making the music, getting it to listeners as quickly as possible, and then trying to give some things that would show the creative process – not to tax anybody too much, because it was a lot of music. I mean, I believe that a lot of the creative process for me is sitting and staring at a wall, and I don’t think anybody wants to see that. But I did want to bring out the more interesting parts.

Consequently, I decided after that – what I was feeling and hearing from my listeners and feeling myself was that I wanted something more physical. So I did an album cover myself, and I’ve done these art pieces that I’ve made out of old album covers that I’m housing my vinyl in. I pressed a vinyl by myself for the first time!

It’s really interesting to go from all digital to the really physical, and it’s really hands on, you know, working with the art, which I’ve done with ‘Push Any Button’. But I’m looking forward to doing other things as well, with more live performances, with theater involved as well.

Would you consider doing another Long Play?

I would. I mean, that’s a lot of music. I would have to feel that it’s the right time, that people would be up for it. I’m certainly up for it – I think that it would be fun. But again I feel that doing something all digital gave me a real yen for physical. For vinyl. I’ve been on a big vinyl kick, listening to almost primarily vinyl at home. I have a lot of art books and coffee table books. I really do love that tack of thing – being able to have and hold something.
That’ll be interesting, too, to see how all of that changes. It’s a system of checks and balances. People love the digital, love the freedom of having their library on their iPod, but that’s pushed a lot of people to want to collect vinyl and have a collection of music that’s physical as well.

I definitely see that reaction. Not just you, but everybody is really buying up vinyl. I’m 20, and I have a record player.

Yeah! My daughter is 15, and she plays vinyl all the time. What I would love to see is maybe even another format that’s more green and that’s more sturdy, because what I’m hearing from friends – people who are actually in the music business and have collections of CDs – is that some of their CDs are wearing out, even though they’ve taken very good care of them. Which is really disconcerting, because I think we all thought that’s the closest to an indestructible format that we were going to ever have, but apparently not. So we need somebody to get in the laboratory and cook up something that’s eco-friendly and that’s going to last. So far, vinyl, other than warping and scratching a little bit – which adds character – vinyl is pretty good. It’s lasted for a very long time.

So as far as Little Box Recordings goes – what do you plan to do with it?

Little Box is my…I can’t even say it’s my “imprint.” But usually what happens when someone has a label is that they own it and then they make a deal with a distribution company or a marketing company or a record company. And this is completely independent for me. It’s just a few people, and I’m the only artist on the label as of now. Whether we will go on and do more and have other people on the label, I don’t know. But it’s my label for putting out this ‘Push Any Button’ project. It’s really my first self-release in a more traditional sense, and my first  physical self-release of an album.

We did do a best-of the Long Play called Solid State, but that was a little bit different because it was a very limited amount.

How would you compare this to previous recording experiences in terms of the amount of freedom that you’ve had?

Oh, actually this was a wonderful experience, because it started at the end of the Long Play. There were a few songs that popped up that I thought, “These are interesting songs, “ but I wasn’t sure they really fit. So I didn’t record them then.

But after that was finished, I started recording with my band, and we did it over the period of, like, two and a half, three years? It was nice, because we’d go into the recording studio and play and then we’d have a beautiful dinner and hang out. It was relaxed and fun and there wasn’t any pressure to get it finished. Especially because Bunheads came along during that time, that sort of kept me from working on it straight through.

And I think, these days when people have small budgets and they really have to get the record done and they can’t spend that much time on it, it’s a luxury to have that perspective. To be able to do a song and then in a couple of months listen to it again, see what it needs, see if we need to recut it. We did that with this record – we redid a few of the songs because we didn’t feel like we got them the first time. So I feel like I had an enormous amount of freedom.

And the kind of record that I made is nothing that would be considered extremely hip. It’s an impression of a time when I was really small and all of the music I was hearing at that time. It’s not even one particular artist or another, other than that it’s more traditional songwriting with melodies. It’s not avant-garde, it’s not odd. It’s more a tip of the hat and a love letter to that time.

Photo courtesy Sam Phillips.
Taylor Brogan

Taylor is a Los Angeles-based idiot with a degree in English from the University of Chicago. She wants to write your favorite TV show.