Gretchen Phillips orchestrates the soundtrack of her life
"It's Gary Floyd!" exclaims Gretchen Phillips when asked who's singing on the hi-fi as she ushers me into her East Austin home, her large white hair halo bouncing with enthusiasm.
The legendary Dicks/Sister Double Happiness frontman barks and croons with jazz-funk band Mushroom on 2003's Mad Dogs & San Franciscans, a hot collection of mostly Seventies blues-rock and R&B covers destined for obscurity before it was even recorded. A month earlier, Phillips had opened her (first ever) all-covers set at Flipnotics with a beautiful interpretation of the Dicks' "Shit Fool," introducing it with references to her ex-girlfriend and Butthole Surfer Teresa Taylor, as well as to a conversation Phillips and I had about our ambivalence (mostly mine) toward what used to (and may still) be known as "women's music."
It's possible these are calculated moves designed to appeal to a writer's biases and telegraph a theme, but given that Phillips has spent her career demystifying self-promotion (see her self-parodying video "Gretchen Wants a Tribute Album.") and would probably just say so if that's what she was doing, it's more likely that they're just indicators of how she lives and thinks: thoughtfully making connections, sharing enthusiasms, acknowledging genius, spreading the word.
'Jimmy Carter Says Yes'
You can trace the thread of post-1970s Austin music – and the undercurrents of a larger, renegade subculture – through Phillips' résumé. Migrating in 1981 from Houston, where she had attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, she was here in time to see the Dicks, Big Boys, Toxic Shock, the Jitters, and any number of like bands during "that glorious summer at the Ritz," as she puts it.
Once local, she co-founded the punk-concept, art-damaged spectacle Meat Joy, launching from there into high-profile lesbian post-folk superstar act Two Nice Girls and its raucous cousin Girls in the Nose. What followed is a solo career swooping through sample-laden Casio hedonism (Welcome to My World), swinging country and gospel (Songs to Save Your Soul and Seitan Is Real), and the stripped-down, easy pop of Togetherness, recorded with New York artist David Driver as one half of Phillips & Driver. Her latest, I Was Just Comforting Her, a "headphones album," was recently celebrated with a full-band blowout at the Cactus Cafe.
In addition to holding a day job as an accomplished recording artist, performer, and lesbian icon, Phillips is a connoisseur of the obscure, the passionate, and the heartfelt, a collector who fetishizes not a recording's rarity or its price tag but the randomness with which she discovered it, the earnestness with which it was created, and the puzzles it poses. She follows trails and connects dots. She was in early on the song-poem phenomenon, reinterpreting such classics as "Jimmy Carter Says Yes" (changing it to "Gretchen Phillips Says Yes," of course). Her studio/"pod" behind the home she shares with longtime love Ann Cvetkovich, a University of Texas literature professor and sometime go-go dancer, holds vinyl, CD, and laptop obscurities of every stripe, with heavy emphasis on cover songs and the inexplicable.
"For me the geekdom is strictly passion," she says. "It's the exploration. Because of being a musician, I can then go into, Who said, 'We nailed it, that's a good one!'?"
The songs resulting from the gimmicky set-your-poems-to-music industry, she says, are "completely thought-provoking to me: Who wrote this? Why? Were they trying to pull a little trick? Is that even their real name? 'A convertible and a headband makes the scene'? How? How?
"I love to spin out on trying to imagine the behind-the-scenes. Much of that is found on vinyl from the thrift store that people pass up because they haven't heard of it before, but they don't [realize] these things all lead to another thing, to wanting to delve into [more].
"I've been digitalizing shitty, shitty [covers, and] sometimes it's only the one moment. Because it's the soundalikes: Mirror Image does the Eagles. You have to listen to the whole thing, and there's just the one place where the dude's voice cracks. It's worth it to me, because there's that one place where they didn't say, 'We gotta lay this vocal down again.' They went, 'Jimmy, no one's gonna notice.'
"Within the control, there are my jokes and sort of just the wrong thing. And I do love that so much. I love missteps."
The "control" Phillips refers to has to do with a bone I have picked.
Grease Is the Word
I Was Just Comforting Her is Phillips' most sonically dense album since Welcome to My World. Its eclectic offerings contain multitudes that bear repeated listening. Still, its pitch-perfect musicianship and contained guitar squalls speak of a preference for a recorded neatness that belies the easiness of Phillips' wildly entertaining live shows and her avowed love of missteps and amateurish enthusiasm.
"It has tons to do with what was hammered in my head," says Phillips. "I think I'm just controlled. There must be some, probably, emotional reason. And maybe there's not. Maybe it's temperamental, astrological. What I did at the end of 'Swimming' was rather indulgent: running all the music through the modulators. And it's long. Where I'm not controlled particularly is lyrically, because I feel like I will just say something. I think that I'm trying to find the order [in things]."
There's also an inevitable growing up, a pulling back, as she becomes (according to her most recent birthday party invitation) "solidly middle-aged."
"So much was controlled in Two Nice Girls," she explains. "With Welcome to My World, I was unbridled and able to go in any direction. And I would go in every one of them. I think about stuff that I wrote or this book I was writing called Love Fuck and [how it's] just so honest about what was happening to me sexually.
"What's weird to me about life is how it changes. [Welcome to My World] was all over the place in a way that maybe it is all over the place when you're younger. Because Meat Joy was not particularly controlled [laughs]. But I wasn't in charge of it. I do love control, that's the thing. If shit's out of control, that will be reflected onstage."
One consistency in Phillips' work has been her revisitation of songs. Retiring some songs that no longer speak to her, she endlessly revives, reworks, and rearranges others, creating a palimpsest of alternate takes and meanings for others to delve into as she does her beloved cover songs. Comforting Her features three songs Phillips has recorded twice before: "Burning Inside" (her Sonic Youth mash-up), "Peola" (ode to a beloved cat), and "Swimming," a tale of poolside lust. "I was trying to come up with the third and final version," she says. "Not necessarily the definitive one, but one that I can completely live with, let's say. Because I spent as much money and time on this record as I wanted to. I've never done that before."
Phillips has always sung with a clear, ringing voice, playing with tension between sonic clarity and the plainspoken emotional messiness or goofy whimsicality of her lyrics. Lately, the emotional impact she brings to her singing has grown exponentially, a phenomenon easily noticeable in her heart-stopping rendition of the Scud Mountain Boys' "Grudge ****" on Driver & Phillips' Togetherness. It's there in Comforting Her's "Your Drinking," and it was present on covers night, when she tapped transcendently into Ian Curtis' sorrow with her take on Joy Division's "Insight." It's an unfakeable vulnerability, the kind of artful communiqué that's achievable only through the confluence of technical mastery and emotional resonance. Phillips attributes the change to quitting smoking, singing country, kundalini yoga, working with Driver, and – perhaps most important – Ann Cvetkovich.
"When Ann and I got together, and all through Two Nice Girls, when I hear the way I am on [live recordings]: smart-alecky, dismissive, kind of just being a smartass," she explains. "And that was a total defensive posturing.
"Being with Ann upped my trust enormously with being able to feel I could let my defenses down, and it wasn't that somebody who needed to then move in and [take advantage of that]. And she has never for a second done that in 17 years, so I've been able to have a level of trust that then extended out from that to relationships with other people. That's been fantastic."
In some ways, Comforting Her is Phillips doing what she's always done: working stuff out, buffering disarmingly unadorned lyrics with sounds that fascinate her, another step in some sort of searching. "Bitch, the performer, told me about this album, 'It's almost like they're musicals!'" explains Phillips. "I didn't get it until I was listening to Grease, which was a very, very important album to my songwriting when I was 16, and seeing how you can move the plot along via the song. There's just so many things you can learn from Grease. ...
"[The title I Was Just Comforting Her is] an attempt for me to exorcise a terrible demon of denial. That's what I said when my mother walked in on me and my first girlfriend. It was completely unsuccessful. And especially because it was unsuccessful, I feel even worse for trying it. It denied myself and her. I'm just trying to exorcise these things so it just doesn't have a charge for me, and that act has a huge and very shameful charge for me."
Don't Stop Believing
One plot Phillips continues to move forward is that of her family, a cautionary, heartwarming, and stage-worthy tale of a NASA scientist studying potential "moon germs," his and his wife's Holiday Inn cover band, and their kids, including a lesbian daughter – a sort of bizarro-world Partridge Family, perhaps.
Her parents split during her childhood, her father, Paul, going on to "really devote himself to gypsy music, Russian music, the balalaika orchestra, stuff like that," says Phillips. In Don't Stop Believing, the 2007 one-woman show she created for the Rude Mechanicals' Throws Like a Girl series, Phillips interspersed hilarious, poignant snapshots (verbal and visual) of her family with songs, ending with a free-for-all disco party onstage.
Manlove, her new show, mines a similar vein – or at least uses a similar structure. It jumps off from Don't Stop Believing in the sense that "Manlove is about my dad, also," says Phillips, "and this notion that I feel like my work has always been about, which is reaching across the aisle. What does that mean to me? It manifests itself in many different ways.
"It's going to have a lot to do with Republicans and Democrats ... and about what it means to not just be reaching across the aisle but just like sitting with your family and saying, 'Can you pass me the butter?' I'm really invested in my lesbian identity, and I'm really invested in my identity as a Democrat. I've got family members who are Republican, and they're not really trying to kill me. So I see a certain parallel between these knee-jerk reactions that I have and then another desire that I have to try to understand better. To shut up long enough that I can ask some questions and try to understand why."
It would perhaps be misguided to think of Manlove as some kind of reconciliation of lesbianism and manhood, because, in Phillips' case, they were never apart.
"One reason I turned lesbian," says Phillips, who maintains it was a choice for her, "was so that it would be good for me with men and that I could have them. I don't wanna live in a world without men. I like to have what I call 'vitamin M.' It's pretty crucial for me as a lesbian. And that happens with lesbians a lot more now than it used to."
What does seem more like a reconciliation is a project to release some of Phillips' parents' Holiday Inn recordings on limited-edition vinyl, an improbable project spurred by friend, art director, and DJ Noel Waggener after Phillips played some of their takes on songs like "I've Got a Neverending Love for You" and "What About Me" at a party. In the meantime, Phillips plans for a national Comforting release and tour, reveling in packaging each CD by hand, especially since she's discovered the gatefold CD cover.
"I have such mixed feelings about the fact that we've switched from LP to CD," she explains, "that when I discovered these cardboard envelopes that more closely resembled the gatefold LPs of yore, I settled into this as my packaging because it looks like a little tiny record – like if you had a little tiny bit of pot you could clean it in there."
As with the revisited songs, the alternate takes, the interpretive covers, Phillips cycles back, again and again, to the varied meanings and pleasures to be found in record collecting.
"One of the things that I love about relating to men," she says, "is the way that my passionate love for music also coincides with straight men and gay men: collectors, avid explorers. We can swap and be on the same page and really love it. It's so important to me. It's worth a million trillion dollars to have that bond with men, for whom it's so important, where I can feel that we're very passionate about this wonderful thing.
"This is what I say about my work: I just want to be a good thrift-store find," she continues. "I want to package it in such a way that somebody would look at it twice and go, 'I wonder what that song sounds like,' spend a dollar, bring it home, and then go, 'Whoa, what the fuck?' and then start Googling someone they never heard of. Even if I have to personally take them to the thrift stores and stick 'em in the bin myself!"
Gretchen Phillips premieres Manlove Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 6-8, 8pm at the Vortex theatre, 2307 Manor Rd. Thursday's performance will be followed by a Q&A, while Saturday encores with a disco dance party. For more information, see www.vortexrep.org or www.gretchen-phillips.com.
Nonironic Covers: 20 Phillips Faves
"Diamonds and Rust," Judas Priest (Joan Baez)
"Black Hole Sun," Steve and Eydie (Soundgarden)
"This Flight Tonight," Nazareth (Joni Mitchell)
"Life on Mars," Barbra Streisand (David Bowie)
"'97 Bonnie and Clyde," Tori Amos (Eminem)
"Perfect Day," Duran Duran (Lou Reed)
"Born to Be Wild," the Enoch Light Singers (Steppenwolf)
"Fancy," Hugo Largo (Kinks)
"I'm on Fire," Electrelane (Bruce Springsteen)
"Song to the Siren," This Mortal Coil (Tim Buckley)
"I Heard It Through the Grapevine," the Slits (Marvin Gaye)
"Can't Find My Way Home," Ellen McIlwaine (Blind Faith)
"Dancing Queen," Milo Bender (ABBA)
"Pusherman," Mushroom featuring Gary Floyd (Curtis Mayfield)
"In a Manner of Speaking," Nouvelle Vague (Tuxedomoon)
"My Generation," Patti Smith (the Who)
"Just What I Needed," Toshi Reagon (the Cars)
"Jolene," the White Stripes (Dolly Parton)
"MacArthur Park," Waylon Jennings (Jimmy Webb)
"Mother's Little Helper," Sara Hickman (Rolling Stones)