In 1987, three years after Harper’s heralded her as the “Queen of Christian Rock,” Leslie Phillips sang these words: “You lock me up / with your expectations / Loosen the pressure you’ve choked me with / I can’t breathe.” That song appeared on an album called The Turning, and the title spoke of her decision to step beyond the boundaries prescribed for her by the Christian music industry. Two years later, Phillips reemerged wearing her childhood nickname, Sam, and presented herself to mainstream audiences as edgy pop artist whose imagination might qualify her as the late-arriving fifth Beatle. Over the course of three albums (The Indescribable Wow, Cruel Inventions, and Martinis and Bikinis), she became a critics’ darling, and her whip-smart lyrics about love, politics, faith, and desire made it clear that her “pop star for Jesus” days were over. After a best-of collection (Zero Zero Zero) and four more albums (Omnipop, Fan Dance, A Boot and a Shoe, Don’t Do Anything), Phillips is still “turning,” still in transition, still defying expectations. She played Jeremy Irons’s mute girlfriend, a German terrorist, in Die Hard with a Vengeance, performed a spooky closing-credits number at the end of Midnight Clear, scored scenes for TV’s Gilmore Girls, and played herself in Wim Wenders’ film The End of Violence. Her career has included collaborations and appearances with Bruce Cockburn, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Marc Ribot, Van Dyke Parks, and T-Bone Burnett. One of the most consistent aspects of Phillips’ work has been its literary quality; wellread listeners will find a whole library of allusions in her songs. The on-line All Music Guide writes that Phillips “never coasts on the fumes of her influences, but turns them on their head and gives them new life.” She was interviewed by Jeffrey Overstreet.
Image: In 1994, Newsweek’s Jeff Giles remarked that you “began studying philosophy and religion” when you were fourteen years old. And in the interviews you gave to CCM Magazine near the close of your Christian music career, you were quoting Lewis and Chesterton quite comfortably. Did their influence play a part in your decision to step off of that platform? Did other writers influence that choice?
SP:It’s hard to be specific about influences. I always believe influences are absorbed and then come out in the strangest ways, probably never the way you’d want or plan. They just sway you. A lot of those writers I was quoting early on were like rungs of a ladder. I’d been through a very confusing and difficult thing, and I had to grab onto something. My sister-in-law, who is from Cuernavaca, Mexico, went to seminary. When she graduated she was very young, twenty-four, I think. Faced with the question of whether to become an ordained minister, she decided not to. She had the wisdom to see that at twenty-four she didn’t know how to counsel married people, or people who had been through a lot of loss or had a lot of debt. She decided that her true calling was to become a teacher. She’s a wonderful teacher to this day. I think she was so wise to say no thanks. I was an idiot. I was egotistical. I thought, “Oh, I can save the world. Sure, no problem. I’m up for it. And I can not only make music, but afterwards I can talk to people who need professional counseling and help them.” I was put in a position where I was supposed to live my life as an example for other people. There was so much pressure to be—not exactly perfect, but a very weird version of perfect. So, when freedom came, when the mystics came blowing through my world, it was such a relief. I hung onto those writers, especially Thomas Merton. He’s the only one who has fully resonated.
Image: What drew you to Merton?
SP: Merton grew so much after his first books. At the end of his life he came to see The Seven Storey Mountain as a nice, quaint little book. He looked back and thought, “That’s not me anymore.” He almost apologized for what I believe is a great book—what everybody thought was a great book. I can relate to his evolution and to where he ended up. I like his being able to embrace Zen and not be threatened by it. I feel at this point in my life that I can worship in a Buddhist temple just as well as in another kind of church. I might as well be in New Mexico looking at the mountains. I don’t feel I have to adhere to a certain regimen or routine or dogma. There’s a beautiful thing about getting to that stage. Most of the people I meet after shows who really want to talk have been through the same kind of thing. They started out with fundamentalism and have been on a journey for something more, for a spirituality that’s bigger, that’s attempting to be as big as God is or should be. Merton is a beautiful writer. He’s humble enough to take what he can from this to help him on his way. It’s like Peter’s revelation, when the sheet comes down from heaven and there are all these things on it that were forbidden in the Old Testament. And the revelation that God gave him was this: “See all these things? Go ahead and eat them. It’s okay, it’s a new time.” I feel that about Christianity. That’s a metaphor for me. I take that as: “You know what? If Yoga helps you, if you can embrace Zen and that helps, if that lets you understand God and life and love more clearly, if that helps you on your way, then it’s okay.” God is bigger than all of this, than doctrine, than dogma. Those things are going to fall away. God’s going to outlast all of the institutions and all of the trappings.
Image: You’ve got to admit that talking about a book like Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is not normal behavior for a Christian pop starlet. When did this intellectual curiosity begin in you?
SP: It started at age ten or eleven. My dad is a great reader. He loved to go to the library, to bookstores. I would go with him and poke around. My mom was a Presbyterian, and I’d been to church with her, and to Sunday school, but it didn’t stick. I wasn’t interested. At age eleven, I somehow found this crazy book. It was some kind of positivism, but with a Christian twist, the notion being that if you praise God in every situation, grateful for everything that comes your way, things will change because of that attitude. The writer described her experiences where disasters would happen and she would just say, “Well, okay, God knows best, I’m going to be thankful for this. I’m going to praise God anyway.” Then these crazy, miraculous things would happen to her. I was fascinated. This Christianity, this belief system was changing this person’s life. I was hooked from that moment. Then the local Pentecostals (or some kind of ’costals) were having a regular meeting at our little civic center a few blocks away from my house, doing their thing, and I would go check that out. I was fascinated, and fascinated by parachurch organizations like Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, which was a youth movement piggy-backed on the counterculture. They had free concerts, and it was all evangelical. It was based around an invitation at the end to become a Christian.
Image: So you made this journey on your own. Your family wasn’t bringing you into it.
SP: This was really my own thing. When I started out at ten, I was pretty much on my own, just reading and putting pieces together. When I was in junior high, in a youth group at the local Presbyterian church, a couple of college-aged women became like older sisters to me and took me under their wing. We would go to Calvary Chapel and investigate some of these happenings. We were exploring the subculture. I found my way into the Vineyard, where I met Bob Dylan and all these crazy Hollywood people at a young age. T-Bone was also there, although I didn’t know him at the time. I went through an interesting journey as a young kid before graduating from high school, coming into contact with all these characters. At that time a lot of people were turning to Christianity, a lot of people who since have left the church. It was an odd time, and it’s hard to explain this to people who know fundamentalism now, who see the very political church, the very showy church, and the televangelists. This was more of a groundswell. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to write a book on those times. It was a beautiful time in the church. People can’t understand the difference between what was going on then and what goes on now.
Image: You must have felt some tension, becoming successful in a very prescriptive Christian rock world, while the writers who fascinated and inspired you were coloring outside the lines.
SP: Things were happening simultaneously in my life. I was reading more, meeting people who had faith but who were not involved with the church. And the church was getting very political on the abortion issue. And then my record company was demanding dishonesty from me, saying weird things like, “This song just sounds a little too sexy. We don’t know why, but you’ve got to change it. And no, we don’t know how you’re supposed to change it.” At that point it just got ridiculous. I said, “This is ludicrous. I’m not going to continue with this label.” At first they were upset and said, “You have to. You’re under contract.” I was selling well enough for them that they didn’t want to let me go. But I said, “There’s a moral clause in my contract. And you know what? I’ve slept with someone that I’m not married to. And I’m not ashamed to tell anybody about that. And I will.” They said, “Okay, you’re free to go. You’re out of your contract.” That’s how easy it was to get out of it. That’s how silly it was. But it was a good parting of the ways. The label, and the church I was attending at the time, were worried that here was this young girl running around talking about Christianity who might not always toe the line, who was getting out of the barn and away from their control. They found it threatening. They were trying to rein me in, having me do secretarial work at the church to help put me under their control. I have crazy stories about some of the fringe characters that I met in the parachurch organizations—from former groupies to former drug dealers, and one guy who had done hard time in prison now had a prison ministry. There were so many amazing, colorful characters who I have great affection for—a lot of really good human beings who were deeply flawed, who were trying to have some kind of spirituality, trying to help people, trying to change the world in their own way. It was a complicated decision to leave, and a very complicated time for me. And Merton seemed very clear, very simple, very calm in the wake of all that had gone on in my life during those years.
Image: You’ve joked about writing a tell-all memoir.
SP: I certainly could write a gossip book. But my gossip would only make it funnier and more heartbreaking. The people themselves were pretty extraordinary. I’m so glad to have had that experience at a young age. Every time somebody asks me how I got into the music business, I just roll my eyes. Obviously they don’t have time for me to explain, not really. It’s not a career path anyone should try to follow. Or could follow.
Image: Do you still read Chesterton and Merton? Were there others who gave you comfort or inspiration along the way?
SP: Malcolm Muggeridge was another. His writing was really beautiful to me. I haven’t read Chesterton in quite a while, but he is one of the more logical, wellspoken, clever, brilliant writers around. He helped give me clarity. Lately I’ve felt more akin to Alice Waters. Before she started on her culinary journey, when she was very young, she worked for a political campaign and was disillusioned when her candidate didn’t win. So she said something like, I’m going to go create my world. I loved that, because she absolutely did. She changed cuisine. She changed the way we eat and the way we think about food. She was talking about organic farming and sustainable living a long, long time ago. She has her famous garden up in Berkeley, a public garden that helps underprivileged kids. I find Chesterton and some of my early reading a little further away from me now. Later I went more in an Alice Waters direction: I’m going to create my own world and do the music I want, do things that are interesting to me. I didn’t leave behind the logic, the eloquence, and the thoughtfulness of writers like Chesterton, but I became more interested in imagery and things beyond words. I always have a sense that the music is a lot bigger than what I end up writing about. I’m always aspiring to get there, to do better. I’m now interested in more imaginative writers like Henry Miller, and some of the poets. Jean Giono became such a profound part of my life. When going through my divorce, I was reading Jean Giono’s The Horseman on the Roof, which is such a beautiful metaphor for somebody who feels lonely and disconnected, yet finds a beautiful point of view up on the roof, looking down on things. Even though they’re isolated, they find some great perspective in that pain and insanity of having to live up on a roof.
Image: Some people will jump to the conclusion that, since you share Merton’s appreciation for Zen, and your faith is opening you up to see merit in other traditions, you’ll end up deciding that all religions are saying the same thing.
SP: Thomas Merton never said that all religions are the same. There’s a big problem with saying, “I believe in all religions,” because that’s impossible. How can you reconcile all religions? They’re very different, and you obviously wouldn’t know what you were talking about. I think what Merton expressed was closer to what I feel: he embraced the mystical part of every religion and believed that those small corners were connected. And I believe that too. The Bible says we see through a glass darkly. We may not have all the facts and all the doctrines correct, but I’m not sure that at the end of the day that’s the point. If we miss a few points, I think it’ll be all right.
Image: You read a lot of Lewis along the way as well?
SP: Absolutely. He’s beautiful. If you’re a fundamentalist, you’ll find he’s a little outside the box. He’s so articulate. The metaphors in his fairy tales.... I didn’t love the Narnia movies, but I felt strong emotions when I read the books. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is certainly my favorite of those kinds of stories, and the movies couldn’t have been better. There’s something in almost every scene that you can turn toward your own life, that can go metaphorical: the steward is ready to kill his son, and he kills himself because he just doesn’t get that there’s hope. It’s about how egotism and negativity can ruin your life and the lives of those around you. Lewis will always have a place in my heart because of the tenderness and humility of those Narnia stories. They make it so real to children, and it takes great humility to get down to that level, especially for someone as wordy and intellectual as those Oxford guys were. I will always love Lewis for doing that.
Image: In your journey as a writer you’ve moved from the didactic, prescriptive tendencies of Christian pop and into a more literary realm. In the song “Five Colors” you say: “I’ve tried, I can’t find refuge in the angle / I walk the mystery of the curve.” It seems that your attraction to the fantastic and to poetry has influenced not only your interests but also your method of exploration. Your lyrics have become more challenging, requiring more from the listener.
SP: I certainly don’t mean to make demands on the listener. To me, if I’m trying to tell people what to believe or what’s right, that wears people out much more than opening the song up and allowing them to be struck by some image. A woman said to me recently that she loved Fan Dance because it played like a movie in her head, there were so many images. I love that. That is exactly what I wanted. I’d rather take somebody into a world, so that when the music’s over, they don’t know exactly where they have been, but they know they were transported. Even though that’s a small thing, a brief thing, something you can’t explain, in the end it helps us change and grow, helps us love, and inspires us to move forward.
Image: What writers have your attention now?
SP: I completely fell in love with Gaston Bachelard, who wrote The Poetics of Space and The Poetics of Reverie. I absolutely adore him. If you haven’t read him, I would start with The Poetics of Space. I think you’ll find no end of inspiration from that book. He was very ambitious in his analysis of poetry, and he’s a poet and a dreamer himself. He talks about, for instance, how you return to your childhood home in your dreams, and what it means that you still think of it and how it affected you. You’ll say, “I went back to my childhood home, and it was so small,” or “It’s not the way I remembered it.” My grandmother’s home seemed like Narnia to me, infinitely big, and we’d go in and play all kinds of games. But when we go back, it’s like, “This is so tiny. How’d we ever fit in here? How could we imagine things in here?”
Image: There are so many different forces and influences moving through your songs—references to your reading, relationships, and experiences with religion and the recording industry. What about your family? Did your parents have anything to do with your intellectual curiosity and your aversion to, as you call them, “the metal teeth of ugly rules”?
SP: My mother and father chose lives and professions that were sort of classic and small. At the time, it seemed American and logical that the best way to proceed in life was to have kids, stay in one place, and get a good job. But I always felt that it never fit either one of them. They both had wild parts. I’m not sure that ever really manifested itself in my mother. She kept things in and was able to stick with the structure. My dad did have some moments where he acted outside the box. But I always felt that they never really got to be who they were. They always seemed to have a double life: the life they were leading and the life they wanted. Maybe they just didn’t have the courage. Or, in the end, maybe they didn’t think it was worth it, or responsible, or logical, because of what was American or what was accepted. I’m not sure how this affected my life. They gave me a lot of love and encouragement, and despite their shortcomings and prejudices, they wanted me to do well and be happy. People talk about the middle child always being neglected, but I felt that I stood out and maybe got too much attention. I think my brother and my sister feel this way. I’m not sure I understand how my parents shaped me, but that may change in five, or ten, or twenty years.
Image: Do your parents appreciate your music?
SP: My mother is very much a fundamentalist. She loves me, and she prays for me all the time and hopes for the best. I think she thinks, “Well, I don’t understand it, but I love her and I’m with her all the way.” My dad appreciates it, but it’s not his cup of tea. I don’t think he’s interested in the kinds of things I’m talking about. My mother has a little more of a leaning to understand it, but she would shy away from any Christian who embraces Zen. She doesn’t want to mix it up. She wants it more black and white.
Image: Rainier Maria Rilke shows up in your songs from time to time. For example in the song “Your Hands,” from your 1996 album Omnipop.
SP: I’ve been reading him a long time, starting with, of course, Letters to a Young Poet. T-Bone introduced me to that book early on, and then it seemed to have a resurgence, particularly in AA circles. That book made its way into the culture in a big way. When Wim Wenders asked me to be in his film The End of Violence, I said, “Wim, I would love to be in your movie if you would just translate a little bit of Rilke for me.” I think he was a bit taken aback. He stiffened a little, but he did laugh and say maybe he would think about it, though he still hasn’t done it. I was a little embarrassed that Robert Bly’s translations of Rilke’s poems touched me so deeply. I started wondering if it was Bly I loved, or Rilke. I started wondering about how close those translations were, and how much liberty Bly had taken—even to the point of considering taking German. But I had sung a Bach cantata, and I just felt it wasn’t a language I wanted to speak. It’s not as pretty as French. Rilke’s ideas seem to be big enough that they just leap over the forms and the languages, which is quite a feat for a poet. I love him, or what I gather of him in my crude, English-only mind.
Image: I understand you’ve been reading Eduardo Galeano. What appeals to you about him?
SP: A friend of mine who is from Mexico suggested Galeano’s political books. Then I found The Book of Embraces, which is an interesting combination of magical realism, essays, stories, and political writing. I just fell in love with that book. It was tough and funny and sad and beautiful. I love the form of it, too— it’s in very short sections. I probably fell in love with it because I was touring a lot. It’s hard to read on airplanes and buses, so the short form became very important for me.
Image: The liner notes of A Boot and a Shoe include a photo of you holding a copy of Henry Miller’s The Heart of the Matter. Miller wrote that “Art is only a means to life, to the life more abundant. It is not in itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way, something which is overlooked not only by the public, but very often by the artist himself. In becoming an end it defeats itself.” That’s a powerful statement.
SP: I agree. I think that’s why I love Miller so much. He goes on to say that if we were really whole, we wouldn’t have to make art. I think he’s right. I don’t think art is an end in itself; it’s pointing toward something. It’s a process of us trying to love ourselves and embrace our world, to get somewhere to be whole, I guess. Not perfect, but whole. I love Henry Miller, but I started reading Anaïs Nin first. I remember seeing a couple of the volumes of her diary among my dad’s books when I was young. They were up on the high shelf, so there seemed to be something naughty about them. Also, my dad was reading something by a woman! That got me curious. Instinctively, as a young adult I picked her up out of a wish to be naughty and separate from my parents. I was really taken by her. There was something beautiful about her. When you get further in, the later volumes of the diary get taxing and difficult to read, because not only is she leading this terrible double life with these men, but she’s also losing the youth that meant so much to her at one time. She sent me to reading Henry Miller. I just fell completely in love with him. It wasn’t Tropic of Cancer, or Capricorn, although those were the first books I read. His essays are what got me.
Image: Your song “Hole in Time” is dedicated to Walker Percy.
SP: T-Bone had a connection to Walker. He knew him and could have introduced us. I’m sad we didn’t get that chance. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book is brilliant, and still relevant. He was an amazing southern writer. When you get into the geeky part of the literature, you find there were letters and mutual admiration exchanged among Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. They all corresponded at some point, and had written about each other. O’Connor is one of my favorites, too. Her work is so simple and beautiful and heartbreaking. She’s just got the dickens in her. You can imagine her finishing some of these stories with a little sly smile. But I haven’t been able to fit her into my work. She’s just beyond me. Who she is is such a part of her writing. I feel that about certain musicians, that who they are comes out in their work. Who Louis Armstrong was came out in that phrasing and that voice. There’s a heart and a soul there. I would aspire to have as great a voice as a writer as Louis Armstrong has as a player. But I have a long, long way to go. I don’t even know if I’ll ever get there.
Image: Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and Peter Buck have all listed Martinis and Bikinis among their favorite records. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant covered your “Sister Rosetta Goes before Us,” and it’s the most widely celebrated track on their album of duets, Raising Sand.
SP: If I’m about anything at this point in my life, it’s writing songs. I’m not even about singing those songs. I’ll tell you, when I saw Alison sing “Sister Rosetta” live, it was like seeing that song go out and have a life. Like a child off to college, it was flying the nest. It was beyond me. That was such a great reward. I felt that same sort of thing happen once looking at a Jackson Pollock painting at the Museum of Modern Art. It stirred me, and I felt that the painting was alive. I thought, “How did this guy do that? He’s dead, and yet this painting is just grabbing me. It’s clearly alive.” That’s what I feel strongest about: I want songs to go beyond me, so they won’t be stuck with my voice and my versions of them. I want them to go and have their own lives, so they’ll mean something to somebody twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years from now. I felt that way about “Sister Rosetta Goes before Us” when I heard Alison sing it. It was a funny moment; not a proud moment, just a relief, a peaceful moment, a feeling of: oh, finally. I’ve been singing these songs for so darn long, and one finally got out of jail. It got out of the building. It got to fly.
For more information on 2011 Denise Levertov Award: An Evening with Sam Phillips, click here.