Analogue Music | Grant-Lee Phillips

Grant-Lee Phillips

By Matt Conner

Grant-Lee Phillips probably got up early this morning, as always.

To be honest, the literal rhythms of Grant-Lee Phillips are unknown to us, especially as it relates to the exact hour at which he rises, but as an accomplished songwriter with well over 30 years of experience, his approach is workmanlike—akin to a fisherman, he says, who gathers his equipment and floats out on the water before the sun is even up.

All That You Can Dream is Phillips' latest excellent LP, the latest in a long line of (now 11) solo releases that speak to a seasoned work ethic and the generosity of the muse. In our latest interview, Phillips opens up about both sides of that coin and the rare longevity he's enjoyed in a here-and-then-gone business.

Analogue: All That You Can Dream is your eleventh album. Does that strike you at all just how rare that is?

Grant-Lee Phillips: As I do with my own age, I have to stop and get out the calculator sometimes. [Laughs] You don’t think about it so much when you’re in the midst of it. For the longest time, I went about it with the mindset that this first album is apt to be my first and last. I don’t know where it will go from here. I said the same on my second album and on and on. It was only after 10 of them when I said, ‘Well, this seems to be a habit, so I’ll try to relax it a little bit.’

Analogue: Does that change the creative approach when that settles in?

Grant-Lee: Yeah, I would turn to the analogy of the survivalist. What do I want to put on this album? If this isn’t the first or last I create, well then it’s gotta represent so much. Every idea that ever passed through my head seemed worthy. So consequently, I think my earlier albums are like that. There are several different vantages I’m following. But as time has gone on, I’ve been able to pinpoint particular ideas and really explore them. In that way, I think I’ve gained some clarity about the process. I’m less inclined to throw everything, including the kitchen sink, on an album.

"An album is not unlike the development of a single song. It’s going to have peaks and valleys and should take you on a certain kind of ride."

Analogue: Were you chasing a particular stream on this new record?

Grant-Lee: Good question. A part of me has to allow the writing to guide the process. Now, that seems a conscious act and yet there is part of it that I have to chase. You write the first song and you don’t necessarily know where it’s going. It may not have a twin or it may not have a cousin, so you see where the next one goes. It’s only when I have a few laid out before me that I begin to see a sort of pattern and I can make some harder decisions.

But it’s a bit similar when you write a song. When I set out to write, I don’t necessarily know where it’s going entirely. I might have a general idea or a melody or a few things in mind, but in terms of really being able to hold it in my hand and hear it, that’s something that evolves. Same thing when you put together a record. It’s a microcosm/macrocosm kind of thing.

An album is not unlike the development of a single song. It’s going to have peaks and valleys and should take you on a certain kind of ride. It should have a throughline and so many different thematic spiderwebs to it. Part of the joy of making music is to dump it all out on the table and try to make sense of it.

Analogue: You mentioned making hard decisions in this process. What were those on All That You Can Dream?

Grant-Lee: Well, they usually come in the selection of songs, songs that I feel close to but perhaps they need to be cut because they’d make the record drag or would make it too long or wouldn’t fit on vinyl. Some decisions are mechanical, but they’re real-world decisions.

Credit: Denise Siegel-Phillips
Credit: Denise Siegel-Phillips

Case in point: the song “A Sudden Place” was something I’d written slightly before I recorded the record prior, Lightning Show Us Your Stuff. I’d written it just before I’d gone into the studio. I was still getting comfortable with it and I was also looking at the clock and realizing it’d be hard to find the time to record it, even though I really loved the song. So I had to make that hard decision to set it aside so the fella who was mixing the album wasn’t bogged down.

I set it aside and came back to it and that’s sometimes a hard thing to do, to come back to a song you’ve set aside. I usually am one to just move on and just begin writing. A song really has to mean something strong to me to rally and cry out, “Don’t Forget About Me,” as the Simple Minds song would suggest.

The theme of that song, “A Sudden Place,” has to do with the swiftness that life can take a sudden turn, as life has. When I think of the political climate or the pandemic, so it seems more pertinent now than it did at that time. I feel like it has more of a place on this album, which is largely preoccupied with those ideas than it would have on the previous album anyhow.

Analogue: Even with your level of experience, I love the way you talk about making music. You have such a humble posture where it seems like you’d still say, ‘I’ve nothing figured out here when it comes to the muse.’ Is that true?

Grant-Lee: It is true. I feel like I’m an agile songwriter. I’m quick on my feet and I like improvisation. I love tinkering with the inner workings of songs, so it’s something I have a lot of experience with. Yet there’s a difference between sitting down and cranking something out and a different feeling when something really jumps out at you.

To generate new ideas, sometimes it’s as simple as sitting around with a guitar in my lap and seeing what lands. It’s improvising. I do a lot of that. Sometimes I’ll get a little more involved in playing an instrument that’s not my first instrument—the piano, for instance—and that will lead me down a certain path. I was able to do that with this one because I wasn’t outside of the house. I was locked down for a long time, so I used my studio in that way to help me generate new ideas.

The title track is like that. It’s very layered and piano-based, and that produces a different kind of song than if I was on the road and I had an hour in my hotel room to plunk around on the guitar, which is where a lot of songs have their beginnings. It’s about always being up for the task.

I think it’s being a fisherman. You have to have it in you to get up before dawn and drag your stuff out in the boat and sit there for hours hoping to get a bite. [Laughs] But you most certainly won’t if you just stay at home. You have to show up and keep at it. And you have to love doing that part of it as well, regardless if you have anything to bring home or not.

Analogue: Do you love it as much as ever?

Grant-Lee: I think so. I’ve been at home for three years now and I haven’t really played in that time aside from performing online. So now I’m getting that opportunity to share these new songs and that’s really exciting. Even as I’m doing it, I’m putting on songs and working out how they were written and what chords they might have used and taking my best guess at it. I’m listening to new music and classical songs and old jazz—all things I have less familiarity with. So as a musician, that’s the exciting part that you can forever be a student of it.

VISIT: Grant-Lee Phillips

Photo: Denise Siegel-Phillips