The Sam Phillips Project

I don’t remember why I started listening to so much Sam Phillips.  I was working on an article a year or two ago on music on the TV show Gilmore Girls, so that might be what started it, but I’ve been a fan since the late 1980s when she released The Indescribable Wow.  “Holding on to the Earth” got a lot of airplay through the early 1990s. It was a striking song, determinedly psychedelic retro, so much so that the first time I heard it I thought it was a song I’d already heard, maybe in a 1960s movie.

But you can’t lock Phillips into that idiom. She’s a bit of a chameleon, shifting easily from genre to genre but still always sounding like herself.

Phillips has had an interesting and amazingly versatile career, beginning in Contemporary Christian music (under her given name Leslie Phillips) and on to pop and television music, where she is beloved for her scoring of The Gilmore Girls — she is the singer of all of those “La-las.”

I, for one, would like to read Sam Phillips’ autobiography. But I’ll leave you to seek out details of her life for yourself (you might start with this interview at PopMatters). I want to talk about her songwriting.

One of the things that made me dig into Phillips’ work was the strange realization that I loved her music but couldn’t always name it. Part of it is a tendency, as with “Holding on to the Earth,” for her songs to sound like I already know them, even when I’ve never heard them before.  I’m not fully sure what causes that response, because it’s not that they remind me of anything. She has a distinctive style. Yet her songs rarely jump out at me from my playlist,are seldom the first things to come to mind, but I am always pleased when they shuffle to the surface. They are self-effacing, but always solid. Since I’ve taken them up on guitar, they’ve quickly become my favorites and are now extremely memorable.

Many of Phillips’ songs are very brief. They are just as long as they need to be and no more. They sometimes sound like they start in the middle. There is often something unorthodox going on with the verse/chorus relationship and proportions. There is almost always something slightly unexpected in the form and in the chord progressions, just enough to throw it off balance and make it memorable but not so much that it requires a revolutionary way of hearing.

Take, for example, “Taking Pictures” from Phillips’ 2001 album, Fan Dance:

Lyrics:

When I take a picture of the city it disappears
It’s only a photograph the city is gone
The places I go are never there
The places I go are never there

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be
I can only picture the disappearing world when you touch me

He brought me the air of Paris in a bottle
The record caught the air of London nineteen sixty-five
The places I go are never there

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be
I can only picture the disappearing world when you touch me
When you touch me
When you touch me

As songs go, it doesn’t get much sparer than this. Each verse consists of just 2 melodically identical lines followed by a bridge of another two lines. With a mere 2 verses and 2 choruses, it clocks in at just under 2 minutes. No intro, no break, and not much of an outro — just repetition of the last line twice. Any shorter, and it wouldn’t sound finished.

But maybe that’s the point. The harmonies also sound unfinished. The verse is built around a stepwise descending bassline that leaves you in a bit of uncertainty as to where you are going and how far, despite the fact that the song is solidly in A (or A-flat, depending on how you tune your guitar). You feel like you may have walked in on the middle of a song that was already in progress. The fact that the vocals start right at the beginning of the track contribute to this sense, as does the song’s ending on an unresolved dominant. You could believe that it was playing before you came and was, somewhere, playing after you left.

All of this creates a dreamy quality, a feeling enhanced by the distortion applied to the instrumental parts, which is perfect for a song about the unreliability of memory. As the quippy first line of the chorus states it, “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”

All these things are appealing to me as a potential songwriter, including Phillips’ lyrics, which are less melancholy than appraising — aware of and resigned to the fact that things that matter are, after they happen, ephemera. She lets the music do the emotional work. What makes the song work is in part what the song is not, those missing pieces of the song you might expect to hear. This is true of many of Phillips’ songs.

Phillips is, in my opinion, an expert crafter of songs, so I’m doing my best to learn as many of hers as I can. I’ve been working through them in my guitar practice, trying to learn from them, and sharing them with the Acoustic Warriors, an informal band I coordinate at my office. She’s my current teacher. I’m sure there will be more, but this is where I’ve chosen start.

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