June 21, 2008 -- 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."
On "Don't Do Anything," Phillips delivers another top-notch collection of consummate pop. There's no flash, no pomp. She sings in a hushed voice that invites intimacy and reflection. The songs for the most part are short in length, but pop with cherry bombs of clarity. Phillips expresses melancholic heartbreak, assertive confidence, spiritual questing. Some of the tunes have bouncy gaits, while others have smudgy sonics that evoke turbulent inner weather. Of particular note are the buoyant "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" (a tribute to iconic gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe) and the longingly sad waltz "Signal."
Typical for all her releases, brevity is foremost. The 12-song "Don't Do Anything" clocks in at a tad more than 35 minutes.
"I can't help it," Phillips said. "Maybe it's my own attention span. But really, I don't want to wear people out with stuff that goes on too long. Plus. I get worn out by confessional writing. Just because you feel something doesn't mean you have to put it into a song." She told me a couple of years ago, "I grew up with the Beatles and I loved the way they got to the point in a song. So many records make me tired because they go on for so long. I guess I'm into the old show biz idea of leaving the audience wanting more."
So, in the end, was producing her own album for the first time a daunting experience? "It was hard to sing and play and then cut live tracks at the same time," Phillips said. "I wasn't sure sometimes if we got a good performance, especially when we brought the string quartet in. But we got lucky."
Even so, not everything ran smoothly. At first the title track was a disaster, she says. So she and Bellerose ran the tape again and took a different tack. "I decided to play electric guitar instead of acoustic, then Eric brought in a string arrangement," she said. "I'm proud of what we came up with, especially from where we started. So, there were bumps, but I've watched T Bone for a long time and learned a lot."
Phillips laughed, then added, "It was like a graduation. T Bone listened to what we did and said he liked it."
So, he gave it his seal of approval?
"Oh, yes," she said.
While the two experienced their share of heartbreak and anger, Phillips believes healing is coming.
"It's actually been quite miraculous," she said. "We were able to get really mad at each other and express a lot of hurt feelings. We got it out of our systems." She laughs and notes that Burnett brought "Sister Rosetta" into the Alison Krauss-Robert Plant hit session "Raising Sand" that he produced (and is currently touring with as the guitarist). "T Bone pitched the song to them, which is not the typical thing an ex would do."
If the end of a marriage weren't enough, Phillips also had to say goodbye to "The Gilmore Girls," the WB and then CW television series about a single mother raising a daughter that for seven years she had provided the acoustic guitar-derived musical interludes to. "You think 35 minutes is short," she says. "For 'Gilmore Girls,' I was contributing 10 and 20 seconds of music to picture. There I had been writing music that had verses, a chorus and a middle section for all these years and what was required were snippets. That was a challenge."
At first some of the mini musical segments for TV came from songs Phillips had already written, but soon that morphed into developing musical phrases that later bloomed into full songs, such as Fan Dance's "Had a Dream" and A Boot and a Shoe's "Love Changes Everything." It kept the songwriter limbered up for her own projects.
Yet, the "Gilmore" demise hurt in more ways than one. "I loved that show, and I could relate to it -- all the heart and faith, the wit and sensitivity," Phillips says. "It's funny, when I started out I was a mom raising a daughter with my husband. Then four or five years into the series, I became a single mom, and it was as if the people writing the scripts were reading my mail. I guess you've got to be careful about what jobs you take on."
Sam Phillips will hit the road later this year with her band. Go to samphillips.com for soon-to-be-announced tour dates.