Catching Up and Catching Grace with Singer-Songwriter Sam Phillips

By Cathleen Falsani 9-03-2013
Singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, photographed in the Spring Arts Tower in Los Ang
Singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, photographed in the Spring Arts Tower in Los Angeles. Photo via RNS.

This world is so beautiful
For no reason at all
When life circles around
And you can’t see straight
– from “Can’t See Straight” by Sam Phillips

"Push Any Button,” the first new physical album in five years from singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, is a blithe, fetching exploration of life’s flip side — after the flush of youth, after the heartbreak, after the bottom falls out and the road bends and you head in a wholly unexpected direction that turns out to be exactly where you need to be.

“Push Any Button,” which dropped Aug. 13, looks to the future by examining the past, viewing both through a lens of stubborn (and optimistic) grace.

“Maybe because things have been so difficult, with the music business and seeing it all sort of fall apart and crumble, and our economy — since 2008 it’s been rough for everybody,” Phillips says over coffee at an off-the-beaten-track coffeehouse here.

“Watching entertainment and the arts — everyone I know — suffer from that, I think maybe I was trying to go back to a sort of optimism, the expansive ground I felt when I was growing up, where you could be optimistic and feel that really anything is possible, and you can believe anything.”

Phillips launched her professional music career in the 1980s as the contemporary Christian music artist Leslie Phillips (her given name). But not long after marrying the legendary musician T-Bone Burnett, she changed her name to Sam and re-emerged as a mainstream artist with critically acclaimed albums such as 1988’s “The Indescribable Wow” and 1994’s “Martinis and Bikinis.”

Together Burnett and Phillips produced seven albums — and one beautiful daughter, Simone, now 15. The couple split about a decade ago and both have remarried. Blended families can be a challenge, but Phillips and Burnett seem to have stitched theirs together with great care and ample grace.

Hardships, whether it’s a failing economy or a failing marriage, are a kind of stripping away that, while painful, can make room for unimaginable blessings.

“I think it does make space for other people,” Phillips said. “I know it may sound crazy but my ex-husband is really a part of my family because of my daughter. So it’s very important to me how he is, that he is OK, that his wife is OK, that everything is OK. But I often find myself saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, overstepping my bounds or not extending my hand enough.”

“It’s hard to find that balance — and so I often end up just holding space for him, for his wife, for the whole situation because sometimes I just don’t know how to be loving. I try but sometimes I do the wrong thing. What does love require? And how do you love? It’s not the easiest question,” she said without the slightest hint of bitterness.

As a kind of (intensely personal) retrospective, “Push Any Button” is as clever and funny as it is poignant. Take the tongue-in-cheek song “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You,” where the things Phillips, now 51, apparently regrets saying include: “Ask interpretive questions,” “Stay in one place in the oil fields,” “There’s no cause for alarm” and “Don’t ever change.”

Phillips and Burnett continue to collaborate musically from time to time. Divorced parents would do well to take a few cues from Sam and T-Bone, who both speak fondly of and with great respect for each other.

“I respect T-Bone like nobody else in that he’s 65 and if he wanted to slow down he probably could, but I see him fighting — fighting himself, fighting people he loves, always fighting to make things better, to progress, to do something new, to do something different,” Phillips says. “It’s never a half-hearted thing. He just goes all the way in as far as he possibly can.”

“There’s maybe a stubborn grace,” she says. “That’s a thing T-Bone and I had in common when we met … always trying to do it on our own terms because we thought we knew what we needed to do and were called to do.”

Grace has something to do with patience, with waiting — on other people, on your best intentions or your gut. On God.

“You sit with, I guess, your willingness,” Phillips said. “You want everything to work out.”

A few years after Simone was born, Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of the television series “Gilmore Girls,” approached Phillips about scoring some music for the show.

“I’d never done that and I had no idea what I was doing,” Phillips says. “I had no idea it would go on for so long or that it would outlive my marriage or that I would become a single mom and that ‘Gilmore Girls’ would become my story,” she says, referring to the lead character on the show, Lorelai, who is a single mother with an adolescent daughter. “The fact that it all came about at the time that it did just helped me so much to make that transition and to weather the storm.”

It’s a notion Phillips describes in her song “Going,” from the new album.

It feels like I’ve been where I’m going
Like every new corner is inside a knowing
Time is wound on a circle of ground that feels like I’ve been where I’m going
Stillness moves in me like water is knowing

“I always find that at my most discouraged moments, when I’m ready to quit, one of two things happens: I receive an email or a letter from a listener – a person I don’t know – randomly saying, ‘I love what you do; please don’t stop’; or I read something in one of the books that I love. Every single time I stumble across something that just gives me enough hope to carry on,” she said. “I don’t know why it happens that way with me and I don’t know how, but I get enough.”

Cathleen Falsani is the faith & values columnist for The Orange County Register. Via Religion News Service.

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