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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky