T Bone Burnett's Ex Finds Her Voice

When Sam Phillips was contemplating songs for her new album -- the first of her career that she was self-producing -- the singer-songwriter sought feedback from producer extraordinaire T Bone Burnett. While he had produced every album she recorded since 1987, "Don't Do Anything," released earlier this month on Nonesuch Records, was Phillips' first outing since their divorce.

"We had a very good run," said Phillips, whose seven-album string with Burnett coincided with their romance, marriage and birth of their daughter (Simone is now 10). "We were together officially for 17 years. But it was time to move on and go into a different direction. It was definitely a good time to produce my own record."

As it turns out, "Don't Do Anything," which hints at the breakup throughout, needed that critique from a pro, said Phillips, and who better?

Burnett is, after all, a top-tier pop/roots music producer with credits ranging from Elvis Costello's seminal "King of America" to such award-winning film scores as "Brother, Where Art Thou?" and the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line."

"It was great to check in with the Boss, the Teacher, to make sure I was on track," Phillips said, sitting in the midtown Manhattan offices of boutique label Nonesuch Records. She's pleased that she did, given that some of the tunes she was thinking of recording were shelved.

"I was feeling some of the songs were a bit too heavy, too sluggish, too weighed down," she said. "T Bone was kind and generous. He was so sweet. He felt the same way, so I set aside six of the songs and wrote six more."

Burnett gets a thanks in the liners.

(Full disclosure: I've followed Phillips' career for two decades, having first met her in 1988 when she performed in the most unlikely place -- The Nightbreak, a biker's bar in San Francisco's Haight district. Smoothly and slyly, she delivered music from "The Indescribable Wow," her Virgin Records debut of smart and catchy songs, while the leather-jackets played pool. The last time I talked with Phillips was four years ago when her album, "A Boot and a Shoe," came out. At the conclusion of our telephone conversation, she told me that she was off to the courthouse to file the dissolution papers.)

While Phillips admits to going through a "meltdown in my life" around the time of her 2001 Nonesuch album "Fan Dance" (she called it a private record that was "like a conversation with myself"), on 2004's "A Boot and a Shoe," she extended the conversation outward and told me, "For the first time in 10 years, I feel compelled to sing to people and take the music on the road."

That proved to be the impetus for Phillips to slip out from beneath the Burnett security blanket.

"I had a great band and when we came back from the tour, we went into a studio and recorded some new material," she said. "It had been incredible fun making records with T Bone because he knows a good performance. But I really enjoyed working with my guys like [drummer] Jay Bellerose and [guitarist/violinist] Eric Garfain, so I knew who I wanted to work with."

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