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Born again

Her cappuccino grows cold, the foam stiffening in the cool ocean breeze. Her face hardens, too, her ever-present smile straightening into an uneasy line. Sam Phillips is having lunch in Santa Monica, sitting on the nasty, sunny shores of the Pacific, to talk about her new album, Omnipop, a rich and rare collection of pop music just released that could well launch a career that has long been fueled and on the pad. A quick lunch, a few questions, good-bye, and home, but as iced tea turns into lunch turns into coffee, the conversation turns toward a painful past that Sam Phillips would like to erase from her diaries.

For years, Phillips has been guarded when it comes to discussing her past as Leslie Phillips, Christian pop star. In the early 1980s, Phillips was Amy Grant's compatriot on the Myrrh/Word label, a lite-rock diva shimmying as she sang to high heaven. She believed in God, all right; she just didn't believe in herself.

Her past has always haunted her; when she talked about it at all, she brushed it off with a twinge of embarrassment. Mostly, she says now, there were too many "gaping holes" in a history she never felt the need to address publicly. Those were just mistakes, nothing more than earnest inexperience and the desire to teach before she knew what the hell she was talking about.

"I feel like the whole story is so complicated and long, and it's very hard to translate without spending a lot of time," she shrugs. "I feel like I've just scratched the surface. I went through a lot of really difficult things, a lot of Elvis and Me material or Jessica Hahn experiences I could make one of those books out of."

Phillips used to think that people wouldn't accept her music if they knew what preceded it; she figured they would write her off as someone who switched paths because she thought that pop's was paved with gold. Ironically, she made more as a contemporary Christian artist, playing for a devoted flock that would happily pay for a few minutes of reassurance. Now, she's got a major label to contend with and distributors and ticket agencies that take their percentages off the top; back then, she passed the hat, and it came back filled with money.

"The funny thing is a lot of people would have said in those days, 'You quit so you could make more money doing this somewhere else,'" she says. "But I made so much more money in those days. I mean, I'd actually make money on the road, like really make a living."

Phillips would have preferred to keep her Christian-rock upbringing buried in her label biography; but she's content to leave the past in the rear-view mirror, growing smaller with each new album. And indeed, Omnipop--her fifth album with her husband T Bone Burnett producing--is her most complete, provocative, coherent, and musical work to date. It's a melange of ambient noise that somehow shakes out into 11 near-perfect pop songs.

Where her first three records for Virgin--beginning with The Indescribable Wow in 1988, just a year after she was born again from being born again--were flawless pop records covered in neat little tricks, Omnipop is less a collection of songs than the collective moan of a dozen or so musicians working in absolute tandem. Something new reveals itself with each listen, some little joke ("She would undress/Make him nervous/But he would rather lay a bet"--a lyric lifted straight from a 30-year-old Playboy) or some little musical gambit you've never heard anywhere else.

It's the product of a woman who came of age working in a music business that cared little about music, the output of one who barely escaped so-called "contemporary Christian" music with her sanity and dignity intact. She's still looking for something to believe in, but whoever said there are no second acts in show business must have never been brought back for an encore. Phillips got more than a second chance: She got a fresh start.

On her "gospel" records, Leslie Phillips screamed through a forced falsetto, barely audible beneath all the gooey lite-metal production. She sang to God, but damned if He could hear her. "T Bone describes those early records as these huge slick tracks where this person is screaming, trying to get heard," Phillips says. "She's waving: 'Hello, it's me over here!' And that's really what happened. Isn't that the sappy new-age metaphor? Finding your voice? But in this case it's true: I really did find my voice."

Two years ago, Die Hard 3 director John McTiernan saw the cover of Sam Phillips' 1994 album, Martinis & Bikinis, and proclaimed she looked like a "German terrorist"--a sleek blond with ice-queen features. He cast her as the murderous Katya, and although she didn't say a word--a giant scar on her neck hinted that her vocal chords had been violently removed--she exuded a particular danger.

 

But as she sits on the patio, not far from the Santa Monica home she shares with Burnett, Phillips is almost anonymous. She wears a black tux-tails jacket over a black top and black pants; her sunglasses are almost too big for her face. "I'm thrilled to be doing an interview here because I know Pam Anderson has often done interviews at this very same restaurant," Phillips laughs. "My God, Baywatch, well...You know, David Hasselhoff has exactly the right idea. He can inflict his horrible music upon the world because he's got this TV show. I should get a TV show because I could really do some heavy inflicting with my music upon the culture.

"Katya on the Beach! She could be maiming and killing up and down Santa Monica. I'd never have to say a thing. There's an idea in that. Just let all the guest stars do the talking." Again she laughs. It's a perfect metaphor when it comes to Phillips' response to questions about her past--back when she let other people do her producing and thinking and, yes, even her talking.

Leslie Phillips was Bible-bound during her childhood in the quietly sterile surroundings of Glendale, California, born into a middle-class family she doesn't like to discuss. It was a "crazy family" she says now--"Well, not such a crazy family, but an average crazy family, ya know?" she corrects. "There aren't many normal ones left."

Her father didn't communicate with her; Sam doesn't even know, after all these years, why her father came to California. "Something happened," she explains, "but he never talked about it." Her father would later become the subject of one of her early Christian songs--"Walls of Silence," about a dad who doesn't speak for months when he becomes angry--and he still appears in her conversations.

Young Leslie turned to the Bible for solace and checked out records at the library for asylum. It was there she discovered the likes of Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman, two singer-songwriters who would profoundly influence her work. She knew she was supposed to listen to Styx and Kansas, but Phillips wanted to emulate her songwriting heroes. So at 14 she started writing songs as a means of escape and catharsis, locking herself in her bedroom and writing about God, belief, and finding faith where there was none.

"My songs were mostly about God," she recalls. "Trying to figure out how to have a relationship with God. A lot of times they were about the things I was going through, trying to figure out the pain. I felt like I could deal with a lot of things more safely in a song. I could write a song about my dad, and then he wouldn't be so scary."

Leslie came of age during the burgeoning of the punk scene in Los Angeles, but she avoided the clubs, preferring her gigs at halfway houses, churches, and community centers, playing to the drunk and the despondent, strumming her guitar and singing her folkie hymns of salvation. There was a halfway house on Hollywood Boulevard filled with women trying to kick drugs or prostitution; she'd play there every Friday night. Another regular gig was at a Pacoima union hall rented to feed people off the streets.

She talked to the winos and listened to their stories; she found out where they liked to drink. She talked to them and consoled them, even though she herself felt more than a little lost. "I started out very idealistically, thinking that music could change the world," Phillips says now. "I would do these weird underground gigs, not exactly in churches, but those kind of social activist functions. It was very bizarre. Those are interesting audiences to start out with--much more interesting than the club circuit. I would really sit and talk to them; you would never just sing and leave."

When she was 20, the then-Waco, Texas-based Word Inc. signed Phillips to its Myrrh subsidiary, the company's most "mainstream" label. Word was home to Christian-pop divas like Amy Grant, who released her debut album in 1979 and soon after became the first gospel-pop artist to go platinum. Suddenly Phillips' audiences were no longer desolate and penniless; she now played in small theaters for God-fearing folk who wanted to be reassured; she even toured the arenas opening for Petra, Jesus' favorite metal band.

Sam sang songs with such titles as "Be My Spirit" and "Strength of My Life"--the kind of music that might be piped into a dance club in Heaven. "Way down in my soul of souls," she sang in a voice all but unrecognizable, "I know I am a fortunate girl to have known divine love."

 

But the longer she existed in a world in which prophet was spelled "p-r-o-f-i-t," the less she believed. She still enjoyed writing songs, but she became more and more disillusioned as she heard them butchered by her producers. Phillips released four albums for Word, plus a career capper called Recollection that does its best to forgive and forget those days. (She and Burnett even went so far as to replace the sickly sweet mix of "Walls of Silence" with a stirring home demo.) None sold more than 100,000 copies, but Phillips had her flock.

Yet she never quite fit, not like the safely bland Michael W. Smith or Steve Curtis Chapman, certainly not like the Queen of Innocent herself, Grant. Phillips was from the West Coast, and her appearance--a sort of waify, disco-doll cross between Stevie Nicks and Madonna--didn't go over well with the Bible Belt crowd. Some were suspicious of her from the get-go, and more joined when she started asking questions from the stage: Who is God? Why is God? Why do we believe? She just wanted answers, but she was branded a hell-raiser among the heaven-bound. Her Christian faith started slipping.

Word had forced Phillips to sign a contract with a morality clause written, as she recalls, in language vague enough to include--or exclude--almost everything. "The gospel conventions were funny," Phillips remembers. "More people bought porn movies on the pay channels than any other time, and the mini bar tabs would be higher...They wanted to watch the soft-core and drink from those little bottles. But I wasn't exactly the most devout person...I didn't exactly tow the line.

"I basically said to a magazine [Contemporary Christian Magazine], 'I don't believe in this anymore,' and I aired my grievances. I actually had an interesting talk with the president of the record company and told him, 'Hey, I've done something immoral. You better let me out of this contract.' Once the article came out, they were more than happy to do it. It just drove people nuts."

President Roland Lundy, head of sales and distribution during Phillips' stay at Word, recalls her parting as easy and quick. Word had plenty of singers happy to fulfill their morality clauses, and they sold a he--uh, a heck of a lot more records than she did. "It wasn't, 'Let's kick her out in the street,'" Lundy says from Word's Nashville offices. "Her decision was, 'I want to go this way'; it happens all the time with our artists. From a company standpoint we had some success--nothing dramatic--but she carved a niche. When she made her decision to go in a different direction, what do you do?"

According to legend, T Bone Burnett was influential in turning the former Robert Zimmerman into the born-again Bob Dylan after their days together with the Rolling Thunder Revue. Burnett had dealt with religion before, with his Alpha Band, but by the time T Bone and Sam met, Burnett had become known less as a singer-songwriter and more as a producer, working with the likes of Los Lobos and Elvis Costello.

When she and Burnett were introduced in 1987, Phillips was considering giving up music and pursuing...well, God knows what. She was despondent about her inability to make her music, set upon by producers forcing their ideas on her and label executives insisting she stop questioning her faith in public. By 1986 she was nothing more than a vocalist singing words she didn't believe in over music she didn't like.

"She showed up and did what the producer told her for the third record, which is not how I like to have an artist work," says Tom Willett, Phillips' former A&R man at Myrrh and one of her few allies there. "I sensed she was unhappy, but I couldn't put my finger on it. The contemporary Christian music format wasn't holding her back, but [when] we talked about the next record, I sensed all this intellectual, spiritual, and musical growth. She was already a fan of T Bone's; we had been listening to people like him and Bruce Cockburn as alternatives for people who had intellectual and spiritual directions in their music without writing for the narrow world of Christian music."

Willett--who met Burnett while they both were working with singer-songwriter Tonio K.--persuaded Burnett to meet Phillips in Hollywood, where she played a song she was working on. Burnett liked it well enough, and he and Phillips hit it off (they were married two years later), but he sent her off to write some more.

"I gave her my point of view: 'It's a really sweet song, but you're trying to be something you're not. You're dealing with these tough issues, but not honestly,'" Burnett recalls. "I think she liked hearing that because, in retrospect, it was her struggle. She'd been incredibly sheltered in a world where you can't see R-rated movies or go to the ballet because the girls wear tutus. Seriously. Seriously. That's the world she was trying to work in, something she'd tried when she was 14, but those ideas weren't working for her anymore."

 

When she returned with songs he felt were good enough to lend his name to, he took her to his home in Fort Worth to record her farewell for Myrrh: The Turning, perhaps the most aptly named album in rock 'n' roll history. Phillips' haunting, slightly husky voice emerged for the first time, and even though Burnett played most of the guitar because of her persistent insecurities, her final Myrrh record became the first one on which she felt honest. One song lyric: "Answers don't come easy/I can wait."

"In the process of recording that album [she] played me her old records, and they were diabolical," Burnett says now. "'Walls of Silence' was a touching, pretty song--not one of these angry songs about a father--but the production was terrible. There were background singers going, 'Walls...of...SILENCE.'

"There are some really beautiful songs on those records--standards in a certain area of Christendom--but they're beautiful, spiritual songs covered in this chocolate syrup." Now her Myrrh albums are well out-of-print--which is probably just as well, since most God-fearing Christian bookstore owners refuse to stock her anyway. (Phillips says there are tentative plans for Virgin to either lease or buy The Turning and reissue it.) She has been branded a faithless heathen who abandoned her flock and betrayed The Word and is regarded--when regarded at all by her old fans--with nothing less than contempt. Phillips and Burnett, in turn, refuse to be labeled "Christian"--"It's more of a cartoon, a historic idea," Phillips says. They seek their higher truths now through pop music, through lyrics that ask more than they answer.

Had she not met Burnett, Sam might never have gone on to receive tremendous critical acclaim after The Indescribable Wow was released in 1987. Burnett gave her a slight push in the right direction by introducing her to the music she missed as a sheltered kid. T Bone played her Jimmy Reed and Hank Williams; she introduced him to such artists as Pablo Neruda. Burnett's no Pygmalion, he says, merely the partner she needed in the studio and in life.

"It has been a very dramatic metamorphosis, and it's still going on," Burnett says of his wife's changes during the past decade. "I don't think she's come out of the chrysalis, but when I met her the process was beginning. She said she was going to quit gospel music. She was sick of it, the people were hypocritical and worse...She hasn't lost the faith. She lost faith in Christians, in fundamentalism. But I consider that a good thing."

Burnett and Phillips agree Omnipop is Phillips' record: She picked the musicians (including drummer Jim Keltner, and former New Bohemians Matt Chamberlain and Brad Houser), wrote every single note and word, and made the decisions about the sound down to the last echo. The new album is her inevitable masterpiece. It's the sum of its predecessors, the mark of a woman who found her voice then climbed on the roof to let everyone in the neighborhood hear it.

"Maybe I'm just a product of my environment," she shrugs. "I think the thing that's been bugging me, that shaped this record, is the way singer-songwriters mercilessly subject you to their, I don't know, their pain. They write these songs about pain and all the gory details, or they just do this mindless stream-of-consciousness stuff that just drives me crazy. There's no craft. Anybody can do it. And I know, yeah, yeah, yeah, we're at the end of our civilization and why write anything that means anything and all that, but on the other hand, I just think there's room for some craft and humor." Even as recently as 1994's Martinis & Bikinis, the Beatles-tinged record that came close to making her a pop star, Phillips was still exorcising her old demons: "I Need Love" and "Baby I Can't Please You," her shoulda-been hit singles, dealt implicitly with the church and fundamentalism ("I need God, not the political church"). Now she's writing about why she loves men, about washing her brain "down the info TV drain," and about begging a lover to "let me be your TV."

She likes to say Omnipop is her side of television's "one-sided conversation," and there are recurring themes of worth and worthlessness in a cold technological age. "You don't have to be talented or do good work or be smart," she sings in "Animals on Wheels." "It's perfect for me." Another song is titled "Zero, Zero, Zero," about using weaknesses as strengths, a subject about which Phillips perhaps knows too much.

 

But the record is also a sly love song set to a carnal back beat and is filled with a playful sense of humor missing from her earlier albums. Guitars coil around organs and percussion sneaks in and out through the mix; all the instruments come at you at once, and it's left to the listener which way to go with them. It's an elegant and dynamic anomaly in these bland times.

"I just tried to apply a little craft to it," she shrugs. "To me, a song like 'She Loves You' by the Beatles communicates so much. Certainly there's the air of 1963 that's going into the microphone and the feeling of the times, but that song also doesn't say a whole lot. It's a simple teen-age lyric, but I think it communicates so much hope and something way beyond what the lyrics are saying. I think in terms of the music and the lyrics, there's really a lot of space in that record. There's a lot of space for musing and for the listeners' thoughts.

"What I feel today about most singer-songwriters is it's too claustrophobic for me. There's no room for my thoughts, for my life when I listen to a song. I don't feel like I'm connecting with the artist; I feel like I'm being talked at incessantly, which is something my dad would do." She chuckles. "Gosh, maybe we should have brought along my shrink for this."

Tom Willett has remained friends with Burnett and Phillips; he still calls Phillips "Leslie," though she changed her name to "Sam" during the recording of The Turning. Willett himself left Word only recently, helping the Christian-music label nurture its mainstream distribution deal through Epic Records. He's not devout anymore, either, but he's kept the faith--in Phillips, if nothing else.

"Watching her make that slow transition, it was obvious then what she would become," Willett says now from his home in Virginia. "I could almost project the next five albums. She's one of the most literate pop musicians I know. I knew conceptually and lyrically she was going to be a real poet. I remember listening to Cruel Inventions in the studio just after she and T Bone finished making it. I listened nonstop, and my comment at the end was what I feel every time I hear her newest record. I said, 'Congratulations, you've stopped the slide of civilization into the dumper. It's real, honest, and smart, and has so much musical soul...it's the kind of record I want to make, and it's the kind of record I want to buy. It's perfect.'


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