Interview with Grant-Lee Phillips
For our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One, we were seriously stoked to have the opportunity to talk with legendary singer-songwriter and Stars Hollow troubadour Grant-Lee Phillips in advance of his new album The Narrows (out March 18 on Yep Roc).
Along with offering an exclusive NoiseTrade compilation Gather Up, Phillips breaks down the inspiration behind some of his new songs, discusses his relocation from Los Angeles to Nashville, describes the recording atmosphere at Dan Auerbach's Easy Eye Studio, and even graciously indulges a little Gilmore Girls chit-chat.
NoiseTrade: Your new NoiseTrade compilation Gather Up features “Smoke and Sparks” from your upcoming album The Narrows (out March 18 on Yep Roc). What can you tell us about the song and your new album?
Grant-Lee Phillips: Mortality, transcendence, dignity – that’s what I’m touching on here with “Smoke And Sparks”. It was written as my father was dying. This collection of songs came out of a hard time, including loss and relocation. Very often my songs, whether it’s me or the voice of a character, are about navigating tough waters while keeping the shore within sight.
NT: A lot of your new songs on The Narrows deal with your recent move to Nashville after three decades in Los Angeles. What inspired the move and did you know it was going to be so sonically inspiring?
Phillips: Los Angeles was home for a big part of my life. My wife and I had to ask ourselves if it was where we wished to raise our daughter and remain for the next decade. As a touring musician and songwriter, I’m not as pinned down to one particular place these days. The city winds me up. I get plenty of that energy on the road. The thought of living with my ear a little closer to the ground – I was ready for that. Musically speaking, there’s a lot going on in Nashville. Some of it’s really inspiring and some of it hurts my head. But I love the place.
NT: Another topic that you write about on your new album is your Native American ancestry, specifically on the song “Cry Cry.” What was the inspiration for that song?
Phillips: I’ve always been interested in trying to tell some of these stories that we talk so little about. Native American history has been largely told by Western movies and poorly so. “Cry Cry” is about the Removal, also known as Trail Where They Cried. Part of the trail actually winds through Nashville. Being of Creek and Cherokee heritage, it hits home when I visit some of these places and I think of what my ancestors endured.
NT: Did recording the album at Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studio (with its amazing collection of vintage gear) help shape the sound of The Narrows in any surprise ways?
Phillips: Dan’s really built the ideal recording studio. As you would imagine, there’s a big emphasis on old gear and the room is set up to play live without a bunch of separation. It’s a very workman-like space, set up to get down to business. Collin Dupuis, who engineered the album, is so quick on the draw. That freed me up to just play and forget that I was making a record. The marimba on “Cry Cry” was one of Dan’s instruments, that and the parlor guitar I played on “Holy Irons”. All old instruments are kind of haunted. So yea, having those things to grab for was great.
NT: Alongside the new track “Smoke and Sparks,” Gather Up also features two tracks each from your last two albums (Walking In The Green Corn and Little Moon) and “Heavenly” from your 2000 debut solo album Ladies Love Oracle. What made you pick these songs to help represent your catalog?
Phillips: I felt like this little grouping of songs worked well together. More and more I’m drawn to albums that allow me to remain in a certain emotional place for awhile. When it feels right you don’t want to be yanked by the collar to some other place. It’s a reflective batch of songs. These are the kind of songs that are most personal and the songs I would sit and play for myself in the late hours.
NT: Finally, as a big Gilmore Girls fan, I have to ask… What was your favorite moment playing the Stars Hollow town troubadour and is there a chance we’ll get to see him at all in the new Netflix episodes?
Phillips: Gilmore Girls was something I never could have predicted. I meet people the world over who have discovered my music through the show. “Love, Daisies and Troubadours“ remains my favorite episode of course. That’s the one where I have to battle it with Dave “Gruber” Allen for troubadour turf. I’m as thrilled as any fan about these new episodes. I wore my own clothes for the character back in the day and the jacket still hangs in the closet, along with my busking rig. This Troubadour is ready to spring into action.