Grant-Lee Phillips: On his Nashville life, the big sound of ‘The Narrows’ and hanging on to your humanity

Grant-Lee Phillips
Grant-Lee Phillips

Grant-Lee Phillips pulled up stakes and moved from L.A. to Nashville three years ago. In a conversation with Buzz Bands LA’s Roy Jurgens, the troubadour talks about his new environment, his new album “The Narrows,” his “Gilmore Girls” fame and, in these trying times, feeling a call to action.

California born and bred, Grant-Lee Phillips was ours to claim until three years ago when he pulled up stakes and moved the family east to Nashville in search of fresh inspiration and a new voice. His 2016 Yep Roc Records release, “The Narrows,” is a warm and earthy representation of his new home. Recorded at Dan Auerbach’s studio, the album comes across as resolute and romantic, as Phillips penned heartfelt tales of love, loss, struggle and pain. The change of scenery has stirred a new sentiment within him, one that resonates with the fire of a crackling hearth and the comfort of pipe tobacco in a leather-bound library. From his beginning with the late ’80s psych-folk of Shiva Burlesque, to fronting the critically acclaimed and sorely under-appreciated Grant Lee Buffalo, to his work as a solo artist, Phillips has left a vast legacy of influence and acclaim within the City of Angels. 

He returns to the friendly confines of L.A. tonight for a show at Largo at the Coronet Theater, and we spoke with him in advance of the show.

Roy Jurgens: You were such a stalwart in our L.A. music scene for so long and I have to admit that some of us locals were a little hurt when you left. That said, your new surroundings really seem to have inspired you. You sound really fresh and rejuvenated on this record.

Grant-Lee Phillips: I really appreciate that. Yeah, I’ve been kind of getting back to the business at hand. Just grabbing the guitar and telling stories and going about it the way that I naturally would. And you know, I spent so much time these days on the road — something that I’ve resisted, because it beats the life out of you — but it makes you a better player and it sharpens your writing as well.

I imagine that you just pick up stories as you go.

Yeah, I mean this record is sort of a road tale. Not so much with [being on the road], but with leaving California for a new life somewhere else.

Your last couple records where more sparse and intimate, and this record sounds more full and richly orchestrated.

Yes, it’s a bit fuller because I recorded it live with a band in the studio. The previous record was pretty much just me, a guitar and late hours of the night and nothing much else. There are moments like that on this record.

I really noticed a return to that signature guitar sound that was so prevalent in the ’90s.

I guess that’s true, I mean right out of the gate in a song like “Tennessee Rain.” I mean really it’s the sound of a trio, and I find that a very workable place. It’s just enough. To get across this big sound, you have to work a little bit harder as a trio. In some ways it’s just a bit more intense.

Well it gives you someone to play off of. You don’t always have to carry the melody that way, you can sometimes just carry the atmosphere.

Good point. I can really put across a lot of atmosphere and paint a picture with the two other parts. I don’t know, I do so much touring entirely on my own, but when I have that chance to get into the studio with a couple of other people it inspires me instantly and it kicks me out of my head. And the next thing I know I’m standing outside of it witnessing it just as I am a part of it. It’s exciting.

So do you live with in Nashville proper? Or are you out in the country somewhere? I understand that Nashville is going through quite the renaissance.

I’m not really in the thick of it, I’m out of little bit more in the sticks. But I am quite close. It’s a similar situation as when I lived in the Valley when I would going to Hollywood and play a show and I could get out of there when it was over and I could find a little bit of peace. As much as I travel and as much as I thrive on the city, I do better when there’s quiet at some point of the day.

Yeah, I used to bash the Valley, but now I love it up here. There’s nature.

L.A. is a lot of things to a lot of people, but it certainly has its share of nature and solitude if you know where to look. That’s the sort of thing I was looking for when I came here. I grew up in the country at in central California (Stockton). It was that kind of experience I wanted to impart on my young daughter. Something that my wife was yearning for, with trees and shade and all that kind of stuff.

And seasons are are always nice.

Yeah, seasons as well. I looked forward to that. One week or two, often in March, it would turn a little gray in Los Angeles, and I wanted to do nothing but write during that time.

You were a pretty integral part of the Largo scene here in L.A. Have you found anything like that in Nashville, a local singer songwriter hangout where you’re safe among friends and you can create and enjoy the act of making music rather that it being an actual formal gig?

I feel I’ve made some very good friends here in terms of the people that helped me make this record. I’m actually still getting to know people in Nashville. I’ve spent so much time away. It’s a hard thing to develop those type of lasting friendships like I organically developed in Los Angeles.  And truthfully, Largo is so unique. I can’t say that I have found its equivalent here. But that isn’t to say that something like that doesn’t exist. I mean, I get the impression that there are a lot of people here who just love to play and that’s why they are drawn to a place like Nashville. They want a good job in this business. They want to be prosperous, but there is also and magnetism to the place because there is just so much around and there always has been.

I imagine there has to be a lot of people who just get together for the love of playing.

Yeah, there are places like that where people just get together and share songs and they’re not doing it for the payback.

So what are your plans for the coming year?

Oh, I’ve got more touring scheduled, beginning with this trip to Southern California. I haven’t played Largo in quite some time so I’m looking forward to that. A night at Largo with my friend Sara Watkins, then a trip to Santa Barbara and a trip to San Diego, Del Mar to be specific. And all of this will lead into another European tour in February, followed by a tour with my friend Donovan Frankenreiter in March. Donovan is a guy who I’ve collaborated with over the years. He reached out to me some time ago about co-writing with him on a record he was working on most recently called “The Heart.” So we are starting in Houston and doing 25 straight nights, finishing up March 25 at the Glass House in Pomona. I’ll join his group and play some songs of my own. It’ll be nice.

You’ve been doing that a lot lately, joining other artists on the road.

Yeah, from time to time I’ve have the chance to joining forces with guys like Steve Poltz and Howe Gelb. I’ve spent time with those guys over the past couple of years. It introduces me to a new crowd, for one, and it makes the travel a lot more adventurous. The music gets more adventurous when we get to play together as well.

I’m recalling a show you did many years ago with Robyn Hitchcock at the old Largo on Fairfax, actually I think you did several of those. Those were always just hilarious, with moments of high comedy interspersed with real poignancy. The scene at the old Largo was so insular and vibrant, and you were a big part of that.

Most certainly. In terms of Grant Lee Buffalo, we really cut out teeth on that little stage. We played quite a few local clubs over the years but Largo became the place where we could try anything.

Flanagan (Largo owner) was always a big supporter of you guys. 

It was pretty unique. The city was really aching for something like that, and it just had the right components. I don’t really know if you can necessarily engineer it, it just happens, and its a beautiful thing when it does. 

You got together with Paul and Joey for some Grant Lee Buffalo shows a couple years ago. Any discussion regarding warming that back up anytime soon?

Nothing is really in the works at this time, but it was really a blast to do the shows together and again and Joey jumping up and joining me at the show at McCabe’s last year was really nice.

Late this fall the internet was abuzz regarding the return of the Troubadour of Stars Hollow. There were a lot of folks who binge-watched the new “Gilmore Girls” miniseries on Netflix. I imagine that strange bit of fame reaches you wherever you tour in the world. 

Yeah, the show has a diehard loyalists throughout the world. I’ll be in some far-off place and run into “Gilmore Girls” fans. It’s how they discovered me in some cases. It’s a wonderful thing; I’m mean, talk about another universe. I don’t know how else a lot of these people would have discovered my songs had it not been for that show, so I’m very grateful for it. When that show happened for me back in the day it was an amazing experience. That happened out of the blue you know? It essentially occurred because they were fans. That doesn’t just happen every day. I’m was so excited that it happened again.

I intend to keep trying to hang to the things that matter to me more than anything, hang on to beauty in life.

You spent much of last year in Europe. Based upon some discussions I’ve had with other Americana artists, I have this theory that traditional American sounds seem to be more widely accepted there. Is there any validity to that?

Goodness, it’s one of those things I’ve often wondered about. It seems to me that the European listener is more at peace with a diverse listening experience. They are more apt to be aware of music that was created outside their country. For instance, look at the jazz players of the ’50s and the ’60s. They had to go to Germany and the Netherlands and France in order to find real acceptance. It seems to me that historically Europeans of been a little bit more progressive and open to traditional sounds but they’ve also been more progressive in things that are just kind of beginning to develop. So it’s a little bit of both, no I’m not sure why that is. Maybe because it’s a little bit more chopped up? We are a big, big country. I think music is disseminated very differently here, you know?

I think there also may be this fascination with the Old West and what they think America is. In essence, if you think about it, when you’re over there, you’re “world music.”

Yeah, you’re right, I never thought about it that way. Maybe it’s a romantic lens in which someone outside the U.S. might peer through. Maybe that has something to do with it. I just feel that I was quickly well-received when we toured Europe for the first time with Grant Lee Buffalo in the early ’90s. Things developed more quickly in Europe and we were able to build on that. I was able to build on that as a solo artist.

I’m sure you noticed some interesting attitudes from Europeans regarding what was going on in the States over the past year. 

Yeah, it was interesting. I had a few exchanges. Waiting for a train in Italy, I was making my way to Bologna, and I struck up a conversation with a young man, and he was offering his take on things. His father had been an immigrant, and at some point and time, many, many years ago before the war, he had to make this awful decision to either join the Armed Forces in the U.S. or go back to Italy and fight. It was a terrible fork in the road. This kid was telling me he had a lot of anxieties about what his future might hold in store, looking at his own country. 

Europe is going through a crisis in itself. You’ve got far-right movements, but at the same time they’ve always been ahead of us in terms of being socially liberal. 

You can’t help but sense that nativist current wherever you travel these days. It’s an alarming thing. But you can’t help but sense it.

I wouldn’t necessarily characterize you as a purely political songwriter, but you’ve penned quite a few socially conscious songs over your career. You tend to artfully hide your viewpoint and use metaphors instead of blurting out sentiments in a punk fashion. Would you say that past year has moved you in a different direction consciously in terms of what is going on? 

Well, I think what you’re speaking to is what it means to be an artist in these times. Artists are citizens just like anybody else. We have concerns, we have families, we have our futures. Even when I attempt to suppress that conversation, it finds a way of emerging. That how it is, you know? There have been times where I would have liked to tackle it a little more directly; some of the Grant Lee Buffalo songs were like that. I can think of “America Snoring,” and I think “Stars and Stripes” is the song of Grant Lee Buffalo’s that still rings true to me, because its about trying to hang on to your humanity, and that is what it comes down to. Politics is not some other universe that never collides with this universe we desire to live in, the one we find security and comfort and hope in. Those universes they collide, they interact, culture, politics, art — there is no compartmentalizing really. That said, I intend to keep trying to hang to the things that matter to me more than anything, hang on to beauty in life. But every time those things are under threat, you’re going to hear artists speak out.

I’ll hear people say “Well I don’t care about politics,” and I respond “Well, politics cares about you.” So there is no escaping it, so if anything good is going to come of this, I hope it leads to resurgence in smarter, socially conscious music.

Well, I would hope that call to action would extend to all of us, not just those of us with guitars.

||| Live: Grant Lee Phillips will be appearing at Largo at the Coronet with Sara Watkins on Thursday. Tickets