The Power of Failure

Randy Lewis is a Times staff writer

Singer-songwriter Sam Phillips turns up for a late-morning interview in a remarkably chipper mood for someone who's not only trying to silence a pesky cough, but is also returning to the music world after five years of wrestling with the feeling that she had "completely failed in every sense of the word."

Now she's happily touting the virtues of failure, a subject she doesn't think gets its due, in her native Los Angeles, the success-at-any-price capital of the world.

"Failure is a really powerful thing, but it's definitely the F-word in Hollywood," the 39-year-old musician says in an upscale coffee shop in the West Hollywood area. She's just ordered a pot of Irish breakfast tea to help soothe her reedy vocal cords.

"Nobody wants to say they're a failure, but I think it's one of the most amazing things that can happen to you," she continues. "And like it or not, especially in Hollywood, it is going to happen eventually, no matter how high you climb, no matter how much power you have."

Failure and its frequent sidekick, alienation, surface repeatedly in "Fan Dance," Phillips' first album of new material since "Omnipop! (It's Only a Flesh Wound, Lamp-chop!)" in 1996.

That album had its admirers but sold only about 26,000 copies, a major letdown after her previous album, 1994's "Martinis & Bikinis," sold more than 100,000 and appeared to position her for an even bigger mainstream breakthrough in a time touted as the era of the female singer-songwriter.

"Certainly by any kind of Hollywood standard or any kind of business standards--like sales--I have failed," she says.

Sales also have a way of feeding an artist's self-image, which Phillips also started calling into question.

"I think, no matter what, if you're honest, you're always wanting to be pretty, wanting to be loved, wanting to be respected, well thought of--that kind of success. But at some point you even have to give that up. You have to overcome that to be brave and to really make your own mark."

All of which led to "Fan Dance," which will be released July 31 by her new label, Nonesuch Records.

She didn't record it as a comeback album. In fact, she didn't even have a record contract when she made it. Her only goal was to please one person--herself. Only with that mission accomplished did she and her producer-husband, T Bone Burnett, let Nonesuch Senior Vice President David Bither hear the songs.

"I don't know whether there's an audience out there," she says. "I guess [Nonesuch executives] thought there was, otherwise they wouldn't have wanted to put it out. It is business--although David Bither does have a little bit of wildcat in him in terms of wanting to take the hard road and wanting to take something that's unlikely and see if it will do well."

Indeed, Nonesuch has expanded from its world-music base in recent years by adding such respected, envelope-pushing artists as Emmylou Harris and Laurie Anderson. Like Phillips, they have also sometimes struggled in the marketplace.

Says Bither, "When we decide to do something, like we did with Sam, we really aren't thinking that much who the audience is. . . . I was thinking, 'This is a great record and I'd love to have it as part of Nonesuch.' . . . We figure that if we love this stuff, there's got to be more people like us who will love it too. And sometimes we've been right." There was a time, less than a decade ago, when Phillips looked like a good bet instead of a longshot for pop success.

"Martinis & Bikinis" almost doubled the combined sales of her two previous, critically lauded albums, "The Indescribable Wow" (1988) and "Cruel Inventions" (1991). But instead of moving closer to the mainstream with "Omnipop!," her songs turned darker, and Burnett unleashed an intriguingly exotic barrage of elaborate production touches that virtually assured no pop radio interest.

"Fan Dance," by comparison, sounds positively ragged. Stripped-down songs come across like rough drafts--most were recorded on the first take--not polished pop gems. But the raw, jagged instrumental settings provided by such esteemed players as guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Jim Keltner were exactly what her raw, jagged lyrics cried out for.

"My life was in such pieces," she says, recalling a 1996 management shakeup at Virgin that left her and "Omnipop" with no record company support, "it was a natural thing for the music to unravel."

In "Wasting My Time" she sings "My soul's a worn-out road where you've left a trail of reminders" as triple-overdubbed cellos saw mightily behind her.

A slightly out-of-tune piano makes what sounds like a false start to kick off "Edge of the World," which begins with the image of "a car in the ocean off of Suicide Bridge."

Rather than continuing the consistently bleak outlook of "Omnipop!," Phillips finds room for optimism.

Near the end of the album she sings, "I've found a new world / There is no end to the good."

That reflects some of the good that came out of her five-year soul-search, which included the birth of a daughter, Simone, who's now 31/2.

She's also continued to glean satisfaction from her personal and professional relationship with Burnett, a respected singer-songwriter himself as well as an in-demand producer. He recently oversaw the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" film soundtrack that topped the country chart, and is riding high again now that the movie has been released on video.

"Making records is one of the most fun things that we do together, and one of the easiest for both of us," she says. "The marriage part is a lot more difficult. I don't even know how I feel about marriage. It's the paperwork, the cultural structure, but you hope your relationship is bigger than the marriage."

And is the marriage bigger than the artist-producer relationship?

"A producer needs to be able to say, 'That's a good performance,' or 'No, you haven't gotten that yet,' and I really needed T Bone to do that on this record," she says. "Because most of the performances were live takes, with very few overdubs, it's very hard when you're in the middle of trying to sing and play to know when you've got something that's really good. So that's an amazingly valuable thing."

For his part, Burnett says Phillips is "the easiest person to work with" but that it's still "a delicate balance" to avoid having professional pressures intrude on their personal lives.

He continues to produce her records not only because they're married, but also because "she's one of the two or three best songwriters today, and probably the best pure singer I've worked with," he says.

That's not to say he wouldn't enjoy seeing her use another producer at some point. "I'd like to see her work with Dr. Dre. I think he's the most imaginative producer there is today." Phillips, who grew up with her parents, brother and sister in Glendale, was drawn to music early and began singing wherever she could as a young teen, not just in coffeehouses and nightclubs, but also for halfway house residents and inmates in prisons and juvenile halls.

Though hers wasn't a religious household, she found herself inexplicably drawn to Christianity. She signed at 18 to the Christian music label Word Records and put out four Christian albums during the 1980s under her given name, Leslie Phillips.

"One thing about the Christianity in the early days, it really did give me a different point of view," she says. "There was a halfway house right off Hollywood Boulevard where I would go when I was 14 or 15, and I would just sing and hang out with the girls.

"A lot were runaways, some were prostitutes, some were drug addicts, and they all were trying to start new lives. They all were about my age, and I would go play guitar, and there was always this thought of trying to change the world, to do something different. That's how I came into music--it wasn't to have a big career, it wasn't to be a big star, it was really to see if things could change."

Things did change dramatically for Phillips in the late '80s when she abandoned the comfort and success she'd achieved in Christian music.

She chose to start afresh, resurrecting her old childhood nickname--unaware that rock already had one Sam Phillips, the legendary Sun Records founder who gave Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash their starts.

"Mostly I just wanted to make a clean break," says Phillips, who engages in conversation easily and, for the most part, effortlessly. Occasionally her hazel eyes will squint when she's struggling to express an elusive concept, or to understand some facet of herself that's been revealed--perhaps unconsciously--in one of her songs.

"I know this sounds completely silly," she continues, "but I really wanted to be brave. I was making money in that world, but I wanted to be brave and jump off a cliff. . . . I felt like I really had to earn trust with my audience, because of mistakes I'd made. I wanted to just start over again . . . make it clear I wasn't trying to write propaganda or trying to convert anyone.

"I think if anything, in those days, and probably still now, I feel like one of the things I want to do is cause doubt," Phillips says. "I want to pull things down, pull the curtains down and get people to think."Even as a child Phillips sensed the disconnect between the harsher realities of life in Los Angeles and the culture of myth that stems from Hollywood's influence.

That awareness led to an ongoing effort to reconcile her need to express herself through music with her alienation from the celebrity-focused side of the entertainment world.

Rather than being critical of Hollywood and celebrity worship--"I think I'm becoming less jaded as I get older," she says--Phillips seems mostly amazed, intrigued or bemused by Hollywood's oddities. The word "weird" surfaces often in the conversation.

"It's a weird aquarium, to say the least," she says. "We're all submerged in this weird pursuit and creation of celebrity."

She took the plunge briefly with a small role in the 1995 action film "Die Hard With a Vengeance." She looks back on the experience now with a sense of disinterested appreciation: "It's nothing I would want to do for a career, but it was really interesting."

Another key line from "Fan Dance"--"The places I go are never there"--seems to capture her feeling of distance from the images and values Hollywood most frequently projects.

One of the places she goes is the one she describes in "Five Colors" as "the small forgotten world where we see the concrete world disintegrating." It's an elusive spot not found on any globe, but one that fascinates her endlessly and appears to be at the crux of her approach to music.

"That's what making art is all about," she says. "I think people want to get past the concrete world. Some people choose violence, some people choose sex or drugs or buying things. There are so many ways to try to get past the concrete world.

"I like Henry Miller when he talked about the idea that we wouldn't have to make art anymore because we would be living, instead of having to make art. I love that. It's such a radical concept, especially when there's a whole town built on making art [and where] everyone has the need to express himself or herself. To get past that would be something."

Phillips isn't optimistic that such a state will come to be, nor has she found a way, after five years of rooting around the "small forgotten world," to reconnect with the concrete world. But she now seems at peace just in recognizing that. "I think I'm pretty disconnected for good," she says. "But here I am back on the ground. It's hard, but it's warm and it's wide and anything's possible."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°