Sam Phillips – The Looking Closer Interview

samphillips1

Introduction: An interview anticipated for two decades.

I was 22 years old when I attended my first “celebrity interview.”

This was in 1992. I was a sophomore in college, and a music reviewer for the school newspaper The Falcon. My very first piece for that paper had been a two-page spread about the intersection of faith and art, and how artists like Peter Gabriel, U2, and… yes… Sam Phillips were creating challenging music that asked big questions.

My friend Martin Stillion was also a journalist, writing about music for a local magazine. I admired his work, and when I found out that he was going to interview the great singer, songwriter, and producer T-Bone Burnett, I was green was jealousy. The jealousy didn’t last long. Martin graciously invited me to accompany him.

It was a day that left a huge impression. The conversation fascinating and full of surprises, but it showed me that it was entirely possible to meet and even befriend the flesh-and-blood human beings behind the art I revered.

Further, it taught me that those artists were probably more likely to be open to visiting with you if you don’t spend your time fawning over them and gushing like a fanboy, but instead talk about what they’re interested in. That’s a good lesson for a journalist.

Burnett was generous with Martin and me, spending at least an hour with us at breakfast, and inviting us to ride with him to a lunch event celebrating the release of his album The Criminal Under My Own Hat, hosted by the record company, where he gave us seats beside him at the table. He did not conceal the fact that he was not fond of such events. He seemed to welcome conversation with two college kids who were interested in discussing history and politics as much as spirituality and art.

Before we parted ways, Burnett even autographed the brim of my hat. A record company staffer took our picture together, with T-Bone wearing my hat, and she promised to mail a copy to me. It never came.

I made myself a promise that day. Someday, I would interview Sam Phillips, the woman whose songwriting had inspired me most, carried me through the toughest hours in my life, and whose example had led me to a greater appreciation of art, since I first heard her music in 1983.

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I would have to wait more than a decade for the opportunity.

During that period I’d meet and interview many other artists I greatly admire, and even become friends with some of them… but the opportunity to interview Sam eluded me.

A lot has happened in my life since then. I graduated from college, started a magazine, wrote a couple of novels, spent nine years working for the Seattle city government, was married in ’92, founded a non-profit organization, and recorded over a thousand songs with a band. I also watched the faith of my spouse crumble and with it the marriage, the most grievous loss of my life, a wound that is still healing.

But on difficult nights, Sam Phillips’ music would come to my rescue, inspiring me, reassuring me, and ministering to me with poetry and melodies unlike anything else I could find. Thus, her reminders of grace and hope gleamed even brighter when God granted me the grace of a new marriage.

Eight years of blessing later, the grace continues.

And speaking of marriages, it just so happens that Sam Phillips was, for many years, married to T-Bone Burnett.

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My history with the music of Sam Phillips

Ironic, that the singer/songwriter who would lead me the furthest in my relationship with Jesus Christ would be one who was practically driven out of the Christian music industry. For her integrity and artistry, I owe Sam Phillips many thanks. Here is a quick summary of her rather unique story, and some notes on why she is so significant a player in the history of LookingCloser.org.

Before 1989, Sam Phillips was known by her real name: Leslie Phillips.

Leslie was more of a “rock star” in the Christian world than safe, friendly Amy Grant, but she still managed to become the second most popular female vocalist in contemporary Christian music during the 1980s. Leslie had a reckless edge. Her album Dancing with Danger may have contained lyrics warning people not to dance in the dangerous world of sin, but the energy in her music had a bit of danger to it as well, as did her big blonde rocker hairdo.

I was drawn to Leslie’s albums because of her aggressive lyrics, and I came to enjoy her pinched, hard-edged vocal style, even as songs like “Black and White in a Grey World” reaffirmed the dynamic I had been taught — that for Christians, life was a simple system of rights and wrongs, while the rest of the world was lost without a moral compass.

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lesliephillips-theturning

But when Phillips’ The Turning arrived in 1986, it was like nothing I’d ever heard. It shook my life the way the Beatles shook music history. And for that depressed 16 year-old boy… who had just fallen in love for the first time and been soundly rejected… it was a great comfort.

The Turning began with a cover of a song by T-Bone Burnett, the album’s producer, called “River of Love.” That song began by acknowledging the hardship of life, the confusion that love can bring, and its verses concluded with melancholy notes about failure and brokenness that would not be resolved by the conclusion of the song. The rest of the album consisted of desperate prayers, anger, frustration, longing, and only occasional glimmers of God’s promises. It sounded like a collection of the darker psalms, the ones where David feels lost and alone and never comes to that perfect peace that most Christian music offers. One song especially—“Answers Don’t Come Easy”—concluded with the singer resolving merely to wait for God’s answer, observing that the answer was currently nowhere to be found.

For me, The Turning gave voice to the things I was feeling, acknowledging things the religious cheerleaders of the Christian music world did not have the honesty, courage, or integrity to acknowledge.

Furthermore, Phillips gave voice to her pain with the use of metaphors that challenged you to think about ideas that were larger than the songs themselves. You had to get involved with that music. Burnett had orchestrated a sparse, percussive, unconventional sound that set you on edge and defied expectations. To this day, The Turning remains among the rarest of gospel music recordings—something that doesn’t deliver what we want to hear, but challenges us to pay attention. The lyrics were not approved by any Christian committee. They were raw, naked, honest, right out of Phillips’ journal.

The album was not well received by Christian counterculture. It got one rave from an insightful writer at CCM Magazine, but Phillips’ Turning concerts bombed. Many Christians walked out on her because they wanted something else — they wanted simple, happy assurances with lots of lights and dancing. They didn’t want a woman pouring her heart out for them. They didn’t want to face the harsh realities of the questions. They just wanted to agree with the answers they already knew by heart.

This was something above and beyond Amy Grant’s crossover from commercial Christianity to commercial pop culture. Amy Grant was affirming that Christians can sing about anything—that we can celebrate all parts of our lives in song, because God is in all those parts. Hooray for Amy. But Phillips was going farther than that. She was saying we could even bring out the darkness, we could admit to our own flaws, and not be ashamed.

Indeed, we needed to quit masquerading as perfect “Jesus gave me all the answers” Christians and start admitting our human-ness, our fallenness, our lack of answers, our sins. She could not live up to the “role-model” status that the industry demanded of her. She was something better. She was more compellingly real.

And with that, she did an interview with CCM Magazine in which she promptly announced her retirement from the Christian music industry. This was, I would learn, due to the counsel and guidance of her producer, now her friend — and a few months later, her husband — T-Bone Burnett.

Burnett, the man who had led Bob Dylan to Christianity. Burnett, who would become one of rock music’s greatest producers, packaging up the great sounds of Elvis Costello, Counting Crows, Los Lobos, Bruce Cockburn, Gillian Welch, and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? phenomenon.

It would be Burnett’s genius that would chauffeur Phillips back into the spotlight, on a bigger stage, to realize her finest work.

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indescribablewow

Leslie changed her name to her childhood nickname — “Sam.” And in 1987, she released an album as Sam Phillips, titled The Indescribable Wow. It was an album of Beatles-esque pop songs, brilliantly written, sung with a new energy and excitement, and recorded with astonishing creativity and beauty.

I followed right along, stepping out of the confines of the restrictive, prescriptive, saccharine Christian music world into the larger world where everything contained glimpses of the sacred, where honest and authentic expressions could be found amidst the commercialism and the crap… in fact, they were far easier to find than in the polished, packaged, carefully cleaned-up, committee-approved lyrics of the Christian music industry.

The Indescribable Wow… it was liberation, it was the freedom and exhilaration of singing about human things, human relationships, not the prescribed preach-and-praise of Christian music. She was free and it was a joy. At the same time, thanks to her music and others I had recently discovered, I was beginning to affirm that all subjects are sacred, all beauty is God’s, all truth open for discussion.

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cruelinventions

Cruel Inventions (May 28, 1991) showed her discovering a new confidence, and with that came the release of anger. She was finally ready to be done with “lying” and to speak her mind frankly, even a bit arrogantly. (Others here have pointed out a sense of cynicism and harshness, and I think that’s true, but I think it also makes total sense considering her story to that date.)

During this time I too was beginning to vent my long repressed anger and frustration about many things: about the walls behind which my church upbringing had kept me, where they had thrown fuel on the fires they had lit in my head and heart, fires of judgmentalism, legalism, self-righteousness, and pharisaical Christianity. Now I realized what a monster I had been, and I began rebelling against religious isolationism, prejudice, and separatism that had been instilled in me.

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martinisandbikinis

Martinis and Bikinis (Mar 8, 1994) was the sound of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. She was unveiled in all her Beatles-styled splendor, a wildly imaginative and professional work of rock and roll, at once her boldest musical adventure and the most eloquent syntheses of what Sam Phillips has to say. It also hinted at the mysticism of the music of her future.

I was enthralled. It was all the sonic brilliance of the Beatles without compromising an honesty and commitment to the truth of the Spirit that moves in mysterious ways.

Time Magazine did a full story on the album, saying something to the effect that the ghost of John Lennon, if it had taken up habitation in any particular songwriter, must have settled in Sam Phillips. Burnett’s work with her seems to have found firmer ground on this record after the experimentation and eccentric style hopping of Cruel Inventions. Today it still sounds lasting and true in its explorations of faith (via C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton), the embarrassment of right-wing evangelical politics when it comes to “legislating” art (“Baby I Can’t Please You”), and the tightrope between law and freedom that each spiritual pilgrim struggles to walk (“I Need Love,” “Strawberry Road”).

Every track is outstanding. Sample her banner song “I Need Love,” as well as “Signposts” and “Circle of Fire”.

One of the most interesting footnotes in Phillips’ career: The cover of Martinis and Bikinis caught the attention of film director John McTiernan, who thought she looked like the perfect person to play a German terrorist in Die Hard With a Vengeance. Cast her he did. And Phillips got to vent some more of that pent up anger playing a murderous (and mute) villain. It was a hoot.

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omnipop

Omnipop: It’s Only a Flesh Wound, Lambchop (Aug 20, 1996) was strange, twisted, experimental, subversive, and mysterious, like Martinis and Bikinis with a twist of David Lynch. She was moving on already, refusing to simply be the carrier of the Beatles torch, refusing to use her newfound fame to turn out hit singles. The abstract, Rilke-esque “Your Hands” showed that she was still interested in developing as a poet of spiritual longing and the eroticism of dialogue with the Divine. Throughout, the album works as a piece, joined loosely by common thematic threads — falling, faith, fear, “zeroes” — to keep us turning it this way and that for better understanding.

Her references to Thomas Merton (“Power World”) paralleled my own immersion in Merton’s writing. The mystery of Christ was the center of the world now, and the trappings of confining, over-defining dogma were a memory.

The refrain of “Your Hands” would be a chorus close to my heart in those days, as I suffered the collapse of a marriage that died. But the songs that would provide the most resolution for me would not come until 2004….

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Two months later, I married a woman named Anne. Fortunately for me, Anne’s a big Sam Phillips fan too.

During this period, two significant things developed in my life thanks to the Internet. First, a Sam Phillips Internet fan club was born through an e-mail chain; it was called Samposts. After it had been running for a couple of years, both T-Bone Burnett and Sam Phillips showed up at one point to chat with their fans. Actually, Sam posted only one email. To my surprise, she addressed it directly to me (which disgruntled a couple of those on the list.) She quoted Thomas Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite:

…if revelation is regarded simply as a system of truths about God and an explanation of how the universe came into existence, what will eventually happen to it, what is the purpose of Christian life, what are its moral norms, what will be the rewards of the virtuous, an so on, then Christianity is in effect reduced to a world view, at times a religious philosophy and little more, sustained by a more or less elaborate cult, by a moral discipline and a strict code of law. ‘Experience’ of the inner meaning of Christian revelation will necessarily be distorted and diminished in such a theological setting. What will such experience be? Not so much a living theological experience of the presence of God in the world and in mankind through the mystery of Christ, but rather a sense of security in one’s own correctness: a feeling of confidence that one has been saved, a confidence which is based on the reflex awareness that one holds the correct view of the creation and purpose of the world and that one’s behavior is of a kind to be rewarded in the next life. Or, perhaps, since few can attain this level of self-assurance, then the Christian experience becomes one of anxious hope–a struggle with occasional doubt of the “right answers”, a painful and constant effort to meet the severe demands of morality and law, and a somewhat desperate recourse to the sacraments which are there to help the weak who must constantly fall and rise again. This of course is a sadly deficient account of true Christian experience, based on a distortion of the true import of Christian revelation.

Then Phillips added:

“I’d rather have the mystery of Christ than the right answers.”

The second thing that happened: Right about that time, I posted the first version of the Looking Closer Web site, to offer whatever I could in helping people see God at work in the arts beyond the walls of the Christian counterculture. Sam was my inspiration… a sort of “patron saint” for the site.

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fandance

Arriving July 21, 2001, Fan Dance, another veritable reinvention, was Sam’s move to the monastery of quiet poetry. It was a spooky minimalist affair about finding her identity in her departure from logic, her departure from dogma, her constant pursuit of the elusive truth, the God who will not be boxed in. “I’ve tried, I can’t find refuge in the angle / I walk the mystery of the curve…” There was an increasing emphasis on the mystery of invisible reality, of the love growing underneath the harsh and angular surfaces of the visible.

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bootandashoe

When A Boot and a Shoe was released on April 27, 2004, the album affected me more deeply than anything I’d heard since The Turning. That’s because the songs were her quiet laments and prayers in the wake of her separation from husband and producer T-Bone Burnett. Making things even more bittersweet, Burnett himself produced the album and played bass for it.

“Reflecting Light” may be the most beautiful song she’s ever recorded, capturing and crystallizing themes and insights that have recurred throughout her career. Compare this to “Answers Don’t Come Easy” from The Turning, and you can hear the same ideas, but voiced with such mature and sophisticated poetry. How far she has come.

Sam returned to Seattle for the first time since the Martinis and Bikinis tour. On June 8th, 2004, Anne and I met her after the concert, and I was finally able to shake her hand and thank her for her music and the story of her life. It is, after all, the story of Leslie Phillips becoming Sam Phillips that became the inspiration for me to start writing about art for Christians, and the provocation for me to start the Looking Closer Web site. When I told her the story, she was rather bewildered by how far back I traced the progress of her creative vision and its influence on my work. And she gave me the details for how to contact her for an interview.

And so an interview was finally scheduled.

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THE INTERVIEW

It almost didn’t happen.

I counted fifteen attempts to connect with Sam Phillips on the morning we were supposed to speak. First, she wasn’t at the right number. Then, I couldn’t reach her agent. Then, the hotel staff told me they were supposed to hold any calls coming in. Then, they gave me a cell phone number, but couldn’t provide a three-digit prefix; so I tried several logical guesses, wrong each time. Finally I called the hotel again and got hold of a different woman, and SHE had the right prefix. I finally connected with Ms. Phillips, just in time for her cell phone to die. She suggested, as the signal died, that I call her room in five minutes. So I did, and the hotel staff told me they were not allowed to put calls through. I pleaded my case, and they conceded. At last, we were ready to talk.

As you might might imagine, much of the conversation was personal. But here are some excerpts from our talk. Some of the questions deal with issues I have worked through for a decade or more, but the chance to get her personal response to them was too good to pass up. So if some of this seems like familiar “Looking Closer territory,” don’t be surprised.

Overstreet:
There was a time when the word “Christian” and the word “art” were not considered such an uncomfortable fit. But we’re talking, what… a century ago? Why do you suppose things have devolved so much, so that it’s become so difficult to find good art within the bounds of what is defined as “Christian”?

Phillips:
Maybe the difficulty comes in trying to define something as “Christian.” Maybe the problem is thinking that way at all—thinking of it as “Christian art.” A person’s point of view is a person’s point of view, and maybe it’s just too narrow of a starting place.

I thought The Lord of the Rings was a great film of Tolkien’s work—there was so much metaphor in that. Or in Bob Dylan songs. There are so many places you can find these things.

But we’re having a dark period. It doesn’t seem like we’re having a lot of great music, film, or art right now. I think something’s getting ready to happen.

Overstreet:
Your songs have always contained glimmers of the material that you’ve been reading. Cruel Inventions had hints of Walker Percy. Martinis and Bikinis had echoes of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. Omnipop had references to Thomas Merton. And there are hints of Ranier Maria Rilke. You’re holding what is, if I’m not mistaken, a Henry Miller book in one of the photos on A Boot and a Shoe.

Phillips:
Yes! It is a Henry Miller book.

Overstreet:
All of these writers are well worth reading, and they deal with themes that recur in your own writing. What are you reading now?

Phillips:
The writer that I found recently was Jean Giano. I’ve been reading a lot of him. He’s a really interesting writer, a contemporary of Henry Miller’s, maybe a little bit older. A French writer. I really love him, what translations I’ve read. He’s a really interesting, beautiful writer. It’s fiction, and it’s odd… at times it’s like magical realism, but not quite. It’s his own thing.

Overstreet:
What about in contemporary music? Are there other singer-songwriters who feel like kindred spirits? Or do you feel like a lone cosmonaut out there, charting new territories out of reach of other writers and explorers?

Phillips:
There’s Joe Henry… and T-Bone Burnett, of course. He’s making another record. T-Bone and I always shared things in common. Our music is so different, though. In music it’s more complicated than in writing because you’re dealing with concrete physical thing—you’re dealing with a rhythm, a beat, a melody and the suggestion of so much more. And then you have the added thing of trying to interpret what the melody is saying, or trying to write something that goes against the melody on purpose… to set off the words or set off the melody.

Overstreet:
When you start songwriting, you go into an intense period of submersion—that’s the way T-Bone Burnett described your creative process, anyway. What happens for you in those times? Is that when you do a lot of reading and digging for new ideas?

Phillips:
It’s not reading—that happens way before. It’s a lot of walking around… a lot of thinking. It’s not even the intellectual that inspires me—it can be just a piece of silk paper or somebody’s gesture or the way that the sky looks that day. That starts happening.

I collect these metaphors and I write them down. I start finding these melodies and put them down. And then I try to put them all together. But I’m more conscious of that, I’m more ‘on the trail,’ when I’m working on a project of a bunch of songs. I’m not as good writing in between projects—it’s a concentrated effort to write a group of songs. That’s how I’ve always approached it.

Sometimes there’s the odd song that will come. Coming back from tour I wrote a song that I really like, and we’ve put into our set. We’ve recorded it and we’re playing it every night, which is nice, but that doesn’t happen very often. That’ll probably happen more often as a result of working with these musicians that I really love.

Overstreet:
So many great writers talk about those times when they’re writing and the song, or the story, takes on a life of its own. Do you ever experience that? Is songwriting like pushing something up a steep hill all the time, or are there times when you really “tap in” to something beyond yourself, or when a song just comes rushing in? Bono talks about those moments in U2’s creative work “when God walked through the room.” And Madeleine L’Engle talks about those times of inspired writing as “collaboration with God.”

Phillips:
That gets into a scary thing, because you can sound like “Well, if I do say so myself….” That’s hard to judge. I know the songs that have come more easily. “All Night” came quickly and all in one piece. But there are also those songs that just keep coming back to you. On past records there have been melodies or pieces or ideas that have been around for years that would never quite go away… little nags. I’m sure those are just as valid. Even the ones you tend to labor hard on, there’s a reason you work hard on some songs trying to get somewhere, even if you don’t ever get there… those songs are important too, and meaningful. I think it’s all an inspired process—I don’t know why some come easier than others.

Overstreet:
On every album you’ve released, a few similar motifs emerge. One of them is the tension between logic and reason. “Logic’s mad,” says one song. And in “Five Colors,” you sing about how you can’t “take refuge in the angle,” but prefer “the mystery of the curve.” What is it about that theme that intrigues you?

Phillips:
I love reading, I love learning, and I wish I was smarter than I am. But I think in the end… my intuition is usually stronger than my intellect. I wish that weren’t so, but when I follow my intuition it does me a lot more good than trying to think things through.

It’s like the lines, “You try to understand, you try to fix your broken hands…” That’s a really simple version, but that’s what therapy feels like at times, what any kind of self-improvement or any kind of reflection feels like. You’ve got two broken hands; how are you going to fix yourself? It’s almost impossible. So, that’s where I think the intuition comes in, something beyond ourselves… that’s a good place to be. As much as I don’t like that my intellect is being frustrated, when that breaks down, there always seems to be something to be learned and some good that comes out of it.

Overstreet:
In 1986, when you released The Turning, you were heading into a monumental change, a continental shift in your whole approach to songwriting and art. That was a quiet, personal, introspective record, far more autobiographical than we were used to. Now, in 2004, you’ve given us A Boot and a Shoe, and there are some striking similarities. This too is a softer record that draws us into something that feels personal and confessional. Are you experiencing another significant shift? Is this another “turning” away from one era and toward another?

Phillips:
I think it started with Fan Dance … more of a collaboration as a musician. It’s easy to hide behind really great musicians and production and all that. I chose to step out and play guitar. I’m not that strong of a guitar player, but it pointed in the right direction for the other musicians. That’s been a great thing for me, to put the emphasis on performing and not so much on production in the records, and make it really about going out and performing live as opposed to putting out records.

In a sense, I think we’re all back to that. There is the pop world, which will always put out big multi-million-selling records. But this is a whole other thing. This is about playing music and performing and connecting with people. I’m more interested in doing that than in making records at this point. Of course, the records are fun to do as well, but this has affected the production of them.

Overstreet:
There is a sense in A Boot and a Shoe that perhaps you’re ready to let it all go. There’s that line: “Something is pulling me, and when I go this time, don’t think I’m coming back.” It’s a wonderful lyric, and it clearly relates to the broken relationship that is the song’s subject. But it sends chills down the spine of a listener, because it almost sounds like a farewell. Do you feel your commitment to singing, recording, or touring is a tenuous one, one that you might let go?

Phillips:
No, not that. That particular song is about growing, about moving through different things in life, not only relationships but also styles and ways of making records, ways of looking at life, ways of looking at making music. It’s just about moving on.

The song ideas I have so far are really along the lines of Fan Dance and A Boot and a Shoe… those two records are more alike than any two records I’ve ever made. I seem to switch things around every record, and those two, the way they sound, they are more performance-based. And I’m still moving in that direction. I don’t anticipate not recording or not performing live—I’d like to do a lot more of both.

Overstreet:
You once commented that you’ve considered writing a “tell-all” book about your career from the Christian music industry to what you do now. Was that a joke? Or is there a book in the works?

Phillips:
It is a joke… but there are some funny stories. Maybe, if I have enough of them, if I’ve collected enough of them and I think it’s worth doing… as long as it’s not going to hurt anyone, because certainly that wouldn’t be my motivation. My motivation would be to entertain and make people laugh.

Overstreet:
And as far as doing damage to others—you got that out of your system when you appeared in Die Hard 3.

Phillips:
[laughing] I sure did!

Overstreet:
Speaking of the movie thing, do you ever think about getting involved in other forms of art? Writing, perhaps?

Phillips:
I’d love to. I’m not sure I have the talent to do that, but I always am writing little bits and pieces of things. But it’s enough right now to try to sharpen and work on a live performance and playing and singing and writing. I’m concentrating on that, and playing live is always a challenge because of all the variables. I like pushing aside all of the rituals that we have, trying to get past ‘the normal thing’ live by taking some risks and trying some things that aren’t exactly what the audience expects, different instrumentation, just experimenting with that. I’ve got a full plate with that right now.

Overstreet:
You have admirably kept your daughter Simone out of the spotlight. But I’m curious about her and how she fits into your journey.

Phillips:
T-Bone and I have talked about Simone a lot. We feel it’s best to keep her out of things. We don’t want to talk about Simone, although I can tell you that she’s an interesting person with a great ear. It’s fun—and more than that it’s inspiring—to watch someone take in life, live their life from ground zero, and watch all of the commotion of life is great. It’s humbling and puts everything in perspective. And it complicates things as well. The main thing is that we both love her incredibly and spend a lot of time with her.

Overstreet:
In some of your earlier albums, you had a sharp edge, a directness to your lyrics that suggested you might be the sort of singer to hit the road in support of a political campaign, like the Bruce Springsteen tour that’s promoting John Kerry. But your more recent albums have been a departure from that kind of tone. Can you ever see yourself out there singing in a “rock the vote” kind of endeavor?

Phillips:
It’s not over yet. I may. I’ve been solving a lot of problems close to home, smaller problems, but some that are really important to me. And there is always the possibility of doing social work on a smaller scale.

But I’m certainly not comfortable in the world of politics because I distrust it so. I know we have certain realities we have to… [She pauses.] We are fortunate enough to live in this democracy, and we have to take the responsibility of dealing with that. But part of me is so cynical about all of it. Anything having to do with power is really tough, because even in a democracy not everybody has the power and it’s not equally shared. I think that the more power is put in the hands of a few, the more corrupt things get. It just seems like on every level, power becomes a problem—one person wants power over the other. I really do think that in a funny way, it’s the opposite of love, and that’s when things become deeply evil.

I’d rather cause people to think or to feel things that are outside politics that may influence the politics in the long run. The bigger political issues have to start deeper. By the time they’ve become political issues, then it’s just a power struggle—it’s not about really finding answers. Occasionally political activists can do some good. But in the end it’s a lot of advertising. I’m not really sure what kind of effect it has on people.

Overstreet:
And in your own way, your personal, poetic, and sometimes even abstract songwriting has contributed to change.

Looking back at 1986 and the Christian subculture that you walked away from, it seems to me that we’re seeing a change in things now. More and more Christians are beginning to look beyond the walls of this Christian counter-culture we’ve built for ourselves and they’re seeing meaning in the wide world of art. For so long, there’s been a church-bound culture of fear, fear of being corrupted by the artistic expressions of those who don’t speak the lingo of “Christian-ese,” or who have different lifestyles. But now there’s a growing appreciation for metaphor, the kind of thing that we hear in your lyrics, or in the song of Bob Dylan, U2, Bruce Cockburn, Over the Rhine, and The Innocence Mission.

What is it that you say to those who are still living in that kind of fear?

Phillips:
The one metaphor in the Bible that I always think about when talking about this is the vision that Peter had of seeing all of the forbidden food come down from heaven and God says, “Eat any of this. This is all okay.” God took the taboo off of things. I feel that way about metaphor because, as Jesus said, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God.” And I can even take that to mean metaphors… or art… that that’s available to feed us.

A lot of the things we might have thought were forbidden for one reason or another… I don’t think they are. I think they’re forbidden for silly reasons that miss that point. Because someone might curse, for example—Charles Bukowski or Henry Miller are perfect examples. There are some heartbreaking soulful stories they’ve written, but because of an obscenity or sexual references or something, someone might not want to read them… and they’d miss the beautiful things that they’re saying.

Overstreet:
In avoiding those potentially offensive things, people miss the opportunity to learn about the minds and hearts of the very people that they claim they are supposed to be loving and serving and living with. And worse, in thinking they can “stay clean” by living within those barriers, they sink into even greater denial of those darker corners of our own selves.

Phillips:
Yes. That’s the other thing… the darkness. It’s there. We don’t have to dwell on it. But I’m glad that some people were willing to write about it.

It’s getting less and less likely that people really write about the darkness. There are a lot of [merely] sensational writers, artists, and musicians. But to be really honest about it, that’s humiliating and embarrassing and leaves you vulnerable. Nobody really wants to do that. Everybody wants to look cool. And to try to fight that is important for me.

Overstreet:
What would you say to the songwriter who wants to step out, as you did, with courage, and to address deeper, more volatile, more honest spiritual realities in their work, but they’re worried about what might happen, or what people will think of them?

Phillips:
Look beyond the four walls. Get out there, find what inspires you and means something to you, and stick with that. Let that point you in the right direction. Listen to yourself. There’s always a point where you’re writing to be cool, writing to get a hit, writing to be loved. And that’s okay. I think you should know that about yourself, know that you’re doing that. But then it’s okay to do things to get beyond that, if you can. It may not be possible, but it’s a good thing to try anyway.

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UPDATE 2009:

Since my first conversation with Sam, we’ve had opportunity to connect for a few more conversations. And she’s begun producing her own work. You can learn about her latest endeavor, The Long Play, at http://samphillips.com/thelongplay .

Now, I’m off to read some Jean Giano. Sam’s never misled me before.

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