Grant-Lee Phillips has worn a lot of hats in his prolific career.
Grant-Lee Phillips has worn a lot of hats in his prolific career. From his beginnings with critically acclaimed 90s alt-rock group Grant Lee Buffalo to his memorable stint as the quirky and ideal Troubadour on Gilmore Girls, he’s pretty much attacked every facet of music a singer-songwriter could hope to in a lifetime. His solo career is where you’ll find him wearing the most hats, both metaphorically and literally like on 2001’s Mobilize. But on his eight album The Narrows (due out March 18th on Yep Roc Records), Phillips is trading in that Bicorne hat for apparel that seemingly points to a country direction: a ten gallon hat.
“I think it’s just a quart actually,” Grant-Lee Phillips mused when discussing the album’s imagery, but it’s still a very clear indicator of the style featured on The Narrows. Country or Americana is not something Grant-Lee is a stranger to. His celebrated 2004 album Virginia Creeper boldly explored this style and opened up a new world and even audience for the singer, but Phillips himself states the Americana flirtation may have started earlier. “I think Grant Lee Buffalo even had strains of Americana in it even if people just remember us as an alt-rock 90s band so it’s really not unfamiliar terrain at all.” While it’s not unfamiliar terrain, the expressive musician isn’t entirely sold on the album being described as straight country or even Americana. “I think the things that push it in that direction are the pedal steel on a song like ‘Just Another River Town.’ But is it Americana? Is it country? I don’t know, but I think one would be hard-pressed to call a song like ‘Cry Cry’ modern country.”
So if not an Americana record from an veteran singer-songwriter, then what is The Narrows? “I think it’s the kind of record that’s certainly indicative of where I’m at now,” Phillips explained. “I’ve always turned to music of [Bob] Dylan, [Neil] Young, and The Band and I’ve also found a lot of inspiration in my peers like Gillian Welch and Jay Farrar. I’ve always had an ear turned in that direction and found writers that can place emphasis on the words and perhaps very sparse acoustic instrumentation.” That style is exactly where Phillips has found comfort in at this stage of his career as he tours more intimate venues across the country such as The Southern in Charlottesville. “These days, I do so much touring entirely on my own where it’s just my voice and the guitar. In doing so, I’ve really gotten accustomed to exploring what I can do in that regard. I’m not at the liberty of adding so many parts when I’m playing live. In some ways, it’s given me some new insight into how to make records. I’ve tried to make lots of different types of records. I’ve played with different styles, but this is bringing it back down to the songs themselves with the support of the rhythm section and a few other instruments.”
It may be a record of a solitary balladeer, but the country elements are still pretty blatant. Dirty up a pressing of The Narrows and place it in a bin next to The Highwaymen and it’s doubtful any hopefully buyer would think twice about its placement on the musical spectrum. Though he downplayed the album’s core being that of country or seminal folk, Phillips admitted that it was still very much a part of the record. “I grew up in the country in that era of singer-songwriters and I was also quite enamored with people like [Merle] Haggard and [Johnny] Cash and other artists that my family adored. All those kind of records got played around the house a lot. I’m just allowing some of my influences to come through a little more in this case.”
It’s always fascinating to hear Phillips discuss the music that influences and drives him, mostly because of how diverse it can be from the aforementioned Dylan and Cash to artists like Nick Cave and New Order. It’s one of the reasons Phillips has worn so many of these hats in his career, yet in a move as clever as his songs, he’s not letting these vast influences pull him in conflicting directions on each record. “I have great appreciation for an album that allows me as a listener to settle in,” he described. “If I could put it on and remain in a certain kind of emotional state throughout that listen, even if the songs go from a ballad to something a little more adrenaline based, that’s cool. You don’t really want to tackle every type of album you ever wanted to make on one record. I think probably when I was younger I was more guilty of that because I loved those kind of records that somehow pulled that off like The White Album, but I’m much more focused now and my current cycle helps. Not allowing years and years to go between records so each record typically represents a period of time leading up to that, maybe a year or two. I’m creating a chronicle of my experience record to record. It’s harder with those earlier records because you may have well accumulated a lot of ideas and songs and now here’s your shot. This could be both your first and last album. That thought is running through your head and that thought ran through my head with every record for a long, long time.”
Hopefully that thought is far removed from Phillips mind at this point, especially after his stint on beloved show Gilmore Girls. Though it’s last episode aired almost nine years ago, Netflix adding it to its library in 2014 has breathed new life into the show and with that also comes renewed interest into Phillips’ music and career. “There was a whole generation who discovered my music through Gilmore Girls and there’s a completely different generation discovering it today. It’s a quite common occurrence these days for me to arrive at sound check early and there be a fan holding Gilmore Girls DVDs for me to sign. I love that and they end up coming with their mom and dad who they probably have watched the show with so it’s great.”
The show has become iconic for its pop culture references and lightning quick dialogue, but an often overlooked aspect of the show is the big part music played in not just scoring scenes, but adding to the plot and subtly enhancing atmosphere of tiny Stars Hollow. “They had a really strong idea of what they were after musically,” Phillips remembered. “Even the choice to have Sebastian Bach play that rocker that joins the garage band. So brilliant and he was so funny. As much as people got into my music from the show, I think they probably got turned onto Sonic Youth or maybe even Skid Row in the same way. Who knows? It’s so subversive and it was a great show for that.”
Still, despite all the one time cameos from bands like The Shins and Sparks or more sporadic appearances from Sebastian Bach and Carole King, Phillips role as the Town Troubadour was easily the most memorable. Whether he was protesting against Town Selectman Taylor Doose or squeezing in a Grant-Lee Phillips original, he always provided a notable highlight for each episode he was in, making that younger generation curiously interested to see what his catalogue contained. “I can’t take credit for anything except that I was honored to play the songs of mine that I did. Every now and then, they would get really creative and have my character play a George Michaels or Beach Boys song. Something totally out of left field like “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” or something and I always really enjoyed that. Probably more than actually acting.”
The news broke at the end of 2015 that the show would see a revival of sorts on Netflix, much like Arrested Development and Full House before it, and as much as people are excitedly guessing on the direction the story will take, there’s even more discussion about who from the original run will sign on to return. Phillips was understandably coy when asked if he had been contacted about returning to the show, offering only a blushing “well, I can’t say” in response, but he did admit that the possibility of him becoming Stars Hollow’s musical backbone is something he would definitely love to do. “I’m poised and ready to step into that role again should the opportunity arise and I’m crossing my fingers that it does.”
Hopefully we’ll see Phillips outside Luke’s Diner once more playing songs like “Cry Cry” or “Moccasin Creek” from The Narrows, but until then that day comes, Grant-Lee Phillips will keep providing the world with his familiar, yet singular approach to the singer-songwriter style. It’s unknown where he’ll land on the musical spectrum for his next release, but for now, The Narrows has provided Phillips’ wandering musical heart a perfect landing pad for him to show off the qualities that have made him so beloved for over three decades.
Grant-Lee Phillips comes to The Southern in Charlottesville Tuesday night for a co-headlining show alongside Steve Poltz. Tickets are $15 with the doors at 6 PM. For more information on the show, click here.