Interview: Grant-Lee Phillips’ thoughts on Direction, Freedoms, and Songwriter Teakettles


Americana Highways took a road trip to talk to Grant-Lee Phillips about his new album, entitled Widdershins (Yep Roc). The archaic term means: “unlucky, backward, running counterclockwise.”   We asked him about the significance of this, and Phillips responded: “It grew organically out of the material itself; I named it once it was finished. It was especially inspired by the opening track “Walk in Circles,” which is a song about just what the title says. “Widdershins” is a term about direction but also it connotes superstition. In general, this whole album works through the question of “what direction are we going in?” in hopes that the answer is not a darkly superstitious one.”

Can music help to solve problems as a society, and help us change direction? “I see the role of songwriter, and troubadour, as being part of the essential mechanism of society. Like a teakettle, when the water comes to a rolling boil, then we songwriters sing about it, we give warning. It usually takes things getting worse and more heightened before artists begin to sing about it. It’s possible that artists pick up on things quickly, to the degree that we seem a little sensitive and a little hyperbolic. We are attuned to things.”

To what extent does music connect with our basic human nature? “I look around and see that a lot of us, both musicians and nonmusicians, really desire to let go of anger and be socially linked. I think there’s something in our wiring as human beings that makes us want to draw closer together, to be members of communities and be connected.”

“This may be the fundamental attraction to social media, it’s human nature to connect. But it often turns out to go wrong somehow, it sometimes feels like you’ve put your face in a furnace, when you go onto social media. So hopefully music can connect us and remind us that we are not alone, and get us off social media for a spell.”

You mentioned discord on social media, do you think people are closed off from one another, or are they, at bottom, still open-minded and willing to reconsider new ideas? “I like to think we are always accumulating knowledge. I hope we are not just moving from one really entrenched position to another (laughs). I hope we are able to stay open minded rather than digging in and arguing our case, because that is seldom as effective. Nothing takes the place of honest to goodness face-to-face conversation. Because that’s when we realize we have more in common than we thought. And yet in a universal way, music is even more in sync with our inner selves—it’s emotional and subtle, and that touches the feeling part of us. It has a very mysterious side, and is able to carry complexities that are not easily conveyed by language, it’s a language of its own. As Stevie Wonder said: “Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand.””

A lyric line in the song “Walk in Circles” references Giordano Bruno, perhaps one of the lesser known of 16th century scientists whose work with astronomy decentered the geo-centric theories that kept humans at the center of the universe. What’s your connection with Giordano Bruno? “Well, he’s not a household name, but he was a martyr for science. These days science is taking such a pelting we are constantly in that battle, still now, between faith and science. It must be confusing to be a child these days, with all the grappling over what even counts as a fact these days.” Asked whether history is repetitive or cyclical; or linear, Phillips said, “There’s a certain amount of repetition, we do keep bumping our heads into the stalactites. It’s not exactly cyclical, it’s more like a pageant where the characters keep coming back onto the stage.”

Phillips has another song on the album called “Great Acceleration” that’s particularly chilling. Lyric lines like “the tyranny advances like the darkening night… you’re blind at the beginning and you cannot see the end“ are set over frenetic guitar, connoting dark scenes of fascist marches and terror. We asked him about his worries in this song. He explained, “That song is kind of a nightmare. Now and then my feelings overwhelm me, and I write a song about that. Right now in our society, the incremental chipping away at freedoms really frightens me. It goes against what it means to be open-minded and democratic. I am truly afraid some people want to push things in the direction of fewer freedoms. We say ‘we would never commit the same atrocities that took place in history’ but I think our pride is a dangerous thing sometimes. It’s back to the open-mindedness theme, and we need to acknowledge the possibility. I love my life and the freedoms that we do enjoy, and I feel as though we need to let go of fears and be able to discuss how to actually protect those freedoms. We’re in a much better place than people in a lot of other countries, and we shouldn’t act like we are in a worse position, we don’t need to fear our government, we don’t need to fear the FBI.   Come to think of it, I think there’s a song there, one that says “there’s no place more free than a zoo.””

Your song “Miss Betsy” is another song of a troubling situation, would you describe that song? “It is written through the eyes of a child, inspired by modern times but it also hearkens back to a time when children were exploited in the workforce and their education and health and were of little concern. Strangely enough this kind of thinking persists here even now, and children are denied schooling in many parts of the world, our manufacturing is tethered to this situation oversees.   The song is an expose of that kind of thinking that can make that acceptable, it’s a story of a child who worked in the mines or a factory job, and is trying to make sense of the world.   Miss Betsy is on the receiving end of a Cruella Deville character. Most of us are shuttered to the fact that these situations are still pervasive, and we have a hard time imagining it.”

“And yet look at where we’re at today, we’re having a conversation about firearms in the classroom. As if somehow not only do we under appreciate teachers, but we should also strap a gun on them and harness them with yet another job of policing.   You can tell a lot about a society by how it treats its weakest members, and I would certainly include children in that.”

We asked him about his songwriting process. Phillips said. “I have dreamed pieces of music. Currently, I have gotten to the point where it’s become one fluid movement, and whatever is underneath the surface starts to evolve as I sing it, a back and forth between my need to express, and the technical editorial part of my brain. I try to delay the editorial part of my brain. Right now the process is so heightened that it’s put me into a fight or flight state, I guess you’d call it “fight, flight, or write.” These songs write themselves very rapidly that way.”

Tell us a little about your time as the nameless Town Troubadour on the Gilmore Girls show. “It was an amazing opportunity, the writers of the show were fans of mine in “Grant-Lee Buffalo” and they came to me out of the blue. They reached out about playing a small role as a town troubadour—little did I know it’d turn into a seven season run, with a reunion and be syndicated all over the world. It’s one of the great kooky wonders of my career. “

What’s coming up for you? “First a tour with Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses. And then I’m off to Europe in April, and then tour dates throughout the year. I’m off, with the suitcase! On the road by myself, I usually write a song, and the cycle begins again.”

Check out Grant-Lee Phillips’ new album Widdershins, produced in Nashville’s Sound Emporium, mixed by Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, the Decemberists) here.GrantLeePhillips_Widdershins_COVER-1


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