This year’s Fall and Winter concert ‘season’ is positively off the chain here in Aarhus. There is simply something for everyone and it almost feels like a whole bunch just for me in the next few months.
Grant-Lee Phillips will perform tomorrow evening in Atlas – a starkly intimate setting for a solo show by (in my humble opinion) one of America’s greatest songsmiths. Just about everyone I know my age who was into music 20 years ago has remarked on the impact Phillips’ songs have had on them – and even growing more over time. Even my former Danish teacher, who shares an uncanny taste in music with myself made the bold statement that (Grant Lee Buffalo’s) “Copperopolis” album is the best record of the 90s. I’m not disagreeing – in fact, after hearing it half a dozen times over the week leading up to tomorrow night, it’s an album that I’m going to go on record as saying is perfect. This, their third album, is even seen as prophetic – or at least in an Orwellian sense – ahead of its time and possibly more relevant now than it was exactly 20 years ago in (Bill) Clinton era USA. I’ve always thought the Buffalo era of Grant-Lee Phillips material fell somewhere in between the grungy-ness of alternative music, the folky-ness of alt-country, and the catchiness of British music of the era (Shoegaze, Brit-pop etc…). Phillips is of course touring here under his own name and promoting his new LP “The Narrows” which is a fantastic LP rooted in Americana and folk – yet still retaining a voice that is…Grant-Lee Phillips-esque.
I got the opportunity to shoot him a few questions last night – and dadgummit – he actually went and answered! It’s nearly an OMG moment for me – as both his solo albums and the Grant Lee Buffalo records hold special places in my heart – memories made to them. It’s always a good day when this sort of thing happens. I told him to “go nuts”, and wasn’t sure if some deep political convo would be out of line – but I felt it was important to ask- as in this rare case – we have someone who has both Native American Heritage (Creek Indian on his mother’s side) and a legacy in song. The results below are well thought out and very satisfying thoughts – especially in lieu of current events leading to a massive upheaval and controversy in the Native American community in an extremely weird and frustrating US election cycle.
“Thank you for granting me the freedom to go nuts. It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.”
The new album, “The Narrows”, follows down a “rootsier” path – even more of a traditionally American sound. How do you find the European audiences are responding to it?
“I think of this album as more of an embrace of my natural inclinations. The songs are built around my voice. The instrumentation is in the service of telling a story and invoking a picture. I’ve always felt that there were so many places these instruments could venture into. The pedal steel for instance. It’s capable of creating incredible textures and its tonal range is off the charts. Yet it’s often relegated to a certain traditional approach. Russ Pahl, who played the steel, took it into a new place for me. American music, at its core, is really an ongoing synthesis of cultural contributions. I find a lot of inspiration in the possibility of tinkering with older forms, wrenching out something new and I suppose that gets interpreted as “Rootsy” but I’m also interested in the branches, the whole tree as much as the roots. Europeans seemed to get that idea and were among the first to wrap their heads around Grant Lee Buffalo and I.”
Especially on the Grant Lee Buffalo records – I suppose you’re kind of known for those soaring falsetto vocal passages, I kind of wonder, as a singer myself, if, when choosing your sets each night, you ever go “there’s no way I can hit that note in ‘Fuzzy’ tonight or…?
“There are couple of songs – “Fuzzy” and “Mockingbirds”, where the vocal requires a Sherpa to get up there sometimes. I do those songs when the night calls for it but not as a matter of routine at this point. I don’t think about all that technical stuff too much. I never know what I am going to play next – I just sort of walk out on the high wire and avoid looking down.”
You said in a recent interview for the venue that you never really know what’s on the program for your shows, drawing from all of your output – do you ever do anything from the pre-Buffalo stuff? I recently started getting in to the Shiva Burlesque stuff?
“I’ve never reached back any further than GLB (ed: Grant Lee Buffalo). Shiva Burlesque is going back so far, and because I only sang a song or two on our second and final album, I never had to learn the words. Although I doubt most anyone would know if I faked my way through one of those songs. It’s a pretty hermetic couple of records.”
Something I didn’t know about you until just now is your native American heritage – with all that’s going on now with the pipeline protests, do you ever feel a pull to use your voice and stature to put words/music to current events? I mean, it’s quite a unique thing – I feel- to be a songwriter and also have strong ties to the Native American community?
“I don’t draw a huge distinction between the personal and the political. They go hand in hand. In my writing I prefer to focus on the most human aspects of a given struggle and I have faith that this will often resonate on a political level. What’s more universal than the need for water? It’s a strong metaphor but in North Dakota it’s something far more urgent and literal. It’s something Native People have always had to fight for. It’s incredible what’s happening there. Native peoples have been on the front line fighting this pillaging and abuse of the earth for ages. That sacred regard for the earth is at the heart of Vanishing Song, off my album Walking In The Green Corn. My being Native American does shape my world view, it always has.”
Speaking a little on the politics side – a good friend recently pointed out that “Copperopolis”, while put out 20 years ago is potentially even more relevant now in its scope. It sort of touched on de-industrialization, migration, the rise of dangerous militia groups and the estrangement of the working class – do you feel it’s relevance today? Is it worth re-visiting? I mean you could almost say “looky here – I told you so!”.
“Copperopolis was very much ripped from the headlines of the day. Sadly, these were just the seeds of what we are now struggling with – now in full flower. But the stuff I was trying to talk about has been eating away at us for decades, certainly since the Reagan years, even further back.”
Finally – what’s next for Grant Lee Phillips – anything interesting planned for us after touring for The Narrows, or do you just kinda shoot from the hip?
“It’s keep on keeping on. Keep seeking out inspiration, keep following this music wherever that leads me.”
Tickets are still available for Grant Lee Phillips (Solo) tomorrow at 190 DKK . Doors at 20:00 with show At 21:00. No support is listed.