To say singer-songwriter Sam Phillips has had a long strange trip in the music industry would be a grave understatement. And now she is taking a look back on it with the re-release of her 1994 masterpiece, the Grammy Nominated Martinis and Bikinis.
“My publishers thought the idea of re-releasing Martinis and Bikinis on Omnivore Records was a good idea because they have reissued some other albums in great packaging with a lot of nice extras,” Sam Phillips said from her home in Los Angeles. “The funny thing was, in 1994 when the album was released, it was the first of my albums which wasn’t released on vinyl.”
Omnivore is releasing a beautiful version of the album on vinyl and remastered CD. The first 1,500 copies of Martinis and Bikinis on record are pressed on white vinyl.
“I was really interested in putting this out on vinyl because there seems to be a resurgence of vinyl now. Originally when this album came out, people thought vinyl was a thing of the past. It’s kind of funny now as we move forward with technology, whether you listen to music on your computer or phone or little ear buds, we are going back to vinyl. And there’s something beautiful about that. When you put on a record, you actually listen to it.”
Before Phillips was being thrust into the spotlight with her monumental album, she had a rocky beginning.
The Glendale, Cali native began her career in the early 1980s using her given name Leslie Phillips. She was a renowned Contemporary Christian pop singer-songwriter who released four albums with Myrrh Records. After her 1987 release The Timing, produced by her future husband, the legendary T-Bone Burnett, Phillips publicly condemned Myrrh as a right-wing machine. She left the world of Christian music, disowning her recorded past with Myrrh and adopted her childhood nickname of “Sam.” After a brief hiatus, Phillips signed with the mainstream label Virgin Records and released her mainstream debut The Indescribable Wow in 1988.
“Talking about that time in my life is like going back to junior high when you had braces and bad skin,” Phillips joked. “I was brought up in that environment [Christian beliefs], and I thought from the beginning I was going to use music to help people, maybe change people’s lives. But the music changed my life.”
Phillips continued, “That time period people wanted me to become a ‘crossover’ artist. I felt like that was compromising, and I didn’t want to do that. So I just quit music. Then I took on my nickname of Sam and started all over like those 10 years never happened. I was back to playing small clubs and working my way up. That was okay, though; I became a better songwriter and believed in the songs I was doing.”
The switch from Christian to mainstream music didn’t affect Phillips’ music in the least. With her signature soprano vocals, hard-hitting, honest songwriting and perfectly placed song structure she was a critical hit.
When most think of 1990s music, they tend to think of grunge. However, there was a balance to that sludgy sound coming out of the Pacific Northwest. Thanks in part to artists like Sarah McLachlan, Jewel and Joan Osbourne, the ’90s was also the decade of the female singer-songwriter. But somehow, Phillips didn’t seem to find the radio hits like her peers.
“The ’90s work I did wasn’t my best work, in my opinion, so it wasn’t justified that I would have been as popular as those others. I think it has and will continue to serve me better as I grow as an artists and a musician, though.”
Even though she doesn’t think 1994’s Martinis & Bikinis is her best record, it is arguably her most popular.
“That’s because it was the most heavily marketed,” Phillips joked.
Along with her then-husband T-Bone Burnett, Martinis & Bikinis had an all-star lineup of guest musicians – XTC’s Colin Moulding; R.E.M.’s Peter Buck; Marvin Etzioni and Don Heffington from Lone Justice; Heartbreaker Benmont Tench; Marc Ribot; Mickey Curry; and arrangements from Van Dyke Parks all played on the record.
“With musicians like that you know at the very least it’s going to be a good record, right?” said Phillips.
Even though Phillips was backed by a legendary producer, and some of the best musicians, she didn’t really feel that Martinis & Bikinis was the “it” album to make her a household name.
“We were just trying to serve the songs, do the best arrangements we could. We had wonderful people coming in to play on that record; it was just fun to play. We put a lot of time and a lot of love into the record.”
When Phillips says “a lot of time,” she isn’t joking. Phillips and Burnett were connected at the hip 24/7, not only for Martinis & Bikinis but for the decade-plus of their marriage. They spent so much time together that it would probably add up to 50 years in a normal marriage. Sadly, it came to an end, but the two still remain close friends.
“We are still friends, yes. Amazingly so, really.” Phillips said. “We are very lucky. I adore T-Bone. It wasn’t anything specific that ended our marriage; no one did anything bad and it just ended. I guess when you spend that much time together it just ends. But we have a daughter together, and we both help raise her and are always there for her no matter what our crazy schedules are like. That’s the most important thing. Life is too short to go around angry.”
During that time in her life, not only did Phillips’ personal life change, but she changed as a person and as a musician. And going back to listen to the old songs on Martinis & Bikinis for the re-release really made her see the path she took over the years.
“It was hard listening to these old songs on the re-release because I turned a corner in my career. My songwriting turned a corner as well. I am proud of the songs on Martinis & Bikinis, but I am certainly much more proud of stuff I did after that and I do now.”
A year after releasing Martinis & Bikinis Phillips’ career took an unusual and unexpected path when she starred in her film debut – the Bruce Willis blockbuster “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” in which she played a mute terrorist.
“The director [John McTiernan] originally wanted Ute Lemper to be the assassin, who is a wonderful singer too, but she was super pregnant at the time. I guess pregnant women can’t be assassins? But she was pregnant and nude in ‘Prêt-à-Porter.’ Anyway, the director saw my Martinis & Bikinis cover and thought I looked like a terrorist. I don’t know where he got that, but I am going to be apologizing to actors for the rest of my life for taking their job.”
Though she went into making the movie not really knowing the process, Phillips embraced it and had fun with her co-stars.
“It was like undercover journalism,” Phillips said. “I came in and didn’t know what to do, but everyone was so nice and so sweet to me. There was one scene in the movie where I went high up on a big crane, and when I got down Bruce Willis was there and gave me a big hug and kiss, thanking me because I didn’t have to do that. It was a lot of fun. I even got to shoot a potato gun at Bruce’s trailer.”
Though she dabbled in acting (a cameo in the 1997 Wim Wenders film “The End of Violence”), Phillips stayed on course with her true love of music and has married the two. From 2000 to 2007 Phillips scored the music for the popular television series “Gilmore Girls” and more recently started scoring the new ABC series “Bunheads,” both shows created by Amy Sherman.
“I absolutely love Amy,” Phillips gushed. “She is so into music, always putting songs and music references in her shows and in the dialog. When she asked me to score “Gilmore Girls” I had never done anything like that. Amy always wanted something very specific, and I always loved her ideas when it came to music. People might not think it’s hard, but scoring a television show is hard work. You have to get a specific feel and work around the dialog, but I love it and I am very excited to be working again with Amy on “Bunheads.”
Through the years, no matter what medium she was working with, Phillips has consistently released critically praised albums. In October 2009, the singer/songwriter launched The Long Play sessions via www.samphillips.com, a year-long subscription program offering five EPs and a full-length album release without a label.
“Well, I certainly wasn’t the first artist to do something like that, but it was fun and I really appreciate all the fans that supported Long Play. With the corporate world, especially corporate
music, they are used to hanging on to all the money, and with the internet subscription base is the way to go. It’s a wonderful thing for musicians. It’s easier in a way for me now. I was in a little corner, and now I am in my own corner calling the shots.”
Phillips wrote much so material during the Long Play sessions that she has an abundance of material left over that she is currently working on for a proposed new album in 2013.