Glen Phillips photo by Chris Orwig
Glen Phillips on Community Singing, Finding Wonder, and There Is So Much Here
Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman, songwriter, and solo artist Glen Phillips released his new collection, There Is So Much Here, on November 4th via Compass Records. His previous solo release, Swallowed by the New, was direct and exploratory about grief and change, whereas There Is So Much Here seems to dwell in a state of wonder, but a kind of active wonder that encourages observation and participation in the weird and wild aspects of life.
Phillips, like many musicians, found renewed time at home during the pandemic period gave him a very different perspective, but it was one that made him even more observant of the small details of life. Together with his work as a community song leader, new perspectives arose that find their way into the songs of the new album. “Stone Throat” forms a kind of transition away from the grief period of his previous album, and guides us back into beauty, while “Big Changes” plunges us into the unknown with a sense of hope. In songs like “Let in Anarchy,” Phillips reflects on life choices and the interplay of dualities while “Call the Moondust” is a resonant reflection on things that are bigger, and more pervasive, than our human limitations.
I checked in with Glen Phillips about his perspective of the world right now, having come off a fair amount of touring, and the ways in which his life experiences make their way into the wonder we find expressed on There Is So Much Here.
Americana Highways: You’ve been out in the world traveling a lot and playing and I know travel hasn’t always been easy lately. How have you found the world out there?
Glen Phillips: There’s something for me about having a sense of humor about it and finding it ridiculous. Then it can be kind of charming and I can have affection for it. As long as I have affection for humanity, even if I feel that it’s probably doomed, it feels less dire.
I was playing a show with a songwriter in the Bay Area who had a great practiced optimism. He was pointing out that modern life is actually pretty amazing and that people are far more kind and gentler to each other than they have been, by and large, at any point in history. My counter-factual would be that poverty isn’t allowed to exist in most indigenous societies and people don’t have much, but they have dignity and purpose. I do think the idea that we’re somehow more evolved than people a few hundred years ago is just ridiculous.
AH: I think these observations are probably seasoned by years of traveling this country, and others, a lot. It seems like you have experienced a lot of America. I saw that you tend to go running in the towns that you visit, too.
GP: Depending on what mood you catch me in, I can be pretty devastated about things. I don’t think I’m ever that optimistic. There’s the option of “active hope,” like Joanna Macy writes about. If essentially optimism and pessimism are predetermined states, then you don’t have to do anything. Active hope is not knowing the outcome, but knowing the right action. It’s kind of putting yourself in the game. I feel like I’ve been, politically, less active during this most dire election cycle in US history.
I also can’t seem to find a tone that doesn’t piss off people who see things differently than I do. We’re already all convinced. I don’t think there’s anything I can do to move the needle right now. If there’s one thing, I’d like to tell people to the left of the dial to please vote and don’t give up, and to have conversations with people to the right of the dial that are respectful enough. I’m trying to understand, and I’ve exhausted myself on judgement and on self-righteousness. If this country goes into a restrictive and frightening state where extreme dissonance is celebrated, it’s going to wreck the place really quickly. To quote a line from myself, “It’s not the end of the world, It’s not the worst of your fears, It’s just the price of the last 500 years.”
AH: Do you think that the sheer amount of information coming at us, much of it unfiltered and unchecked, is part of the problem?
GP: We live with a kind of white noise right now that’s caused by information which causes constant anxiety and fear. Because it’s stuff that we can’t actually control. Yes, there are some things we can do for the environment. There are ways of being which are less impactful, but the whole ship needs to be steered. I’m an information junkie and an overthinker, so I have to ask myself how I’m receiving my information in a way that still enables me to function as a human being. My real job here, the way that I look at it, is to love people and make beauty. I want to alleviate suffering in some way by doing that. That’s the best thing that I’ve been able to come up with in terms of how to live a meaningful life.
AH: I was wondering about how you view music. I don’t want to perpetuate any unhelpful myths about making music or fandom, but don’t you think that the live experience of making music and experiencing music with others impacts people, hopefully in a positive way?
GP: It does. I think it helps peoples’ resilience. I think it helps. Especially during times when people feel very isolated, to see people that you’ve never met, and share something in common with them, feeling beauty, is beneficial. I think it gives people a little extra strength. I also feel like music, in general, has something that helps us look at the history of human expression. The modern, professional musician is a fairly recent invention. I’m sure in every town or village, there was someone of whom people said, “You really gotta hear their voice!”, or “They can really play a lyre!” In every society that’s existed, there has been music.
Some people feel that this thing that made us human was music, that we started making beats together and syncing up, connecting through music. I like the idea of that. There’s something so primal about making music together, and not doing it in a way that is audience and performer, but together. In societies, you have your hunting songs, your wedding songs, your threshing songs, and whatever else. If you visit Indigenous societies, people sing while they do things, and it’s kind of the fabric that brings people together. We don’t do that. We have earpods and we listen to prerecorded music. Some of us go to church, and some of see professionals make music for us, but that idea of singing songs together is lost to us.
For the past five years or so, I’ve been doing some community choir leading. It’s that idea, and we get together for an hour and a half with 14 to 40 people. We stand in a circle and there are songs that are designed to be learned and sung fairly quickly. They are simple, with three-part counter-melodies, since that’s easier for non-singers than harmony. It’s beautiful. Some of the people have “church damage” as I call it. They loved singing in church but don’t go anymore. Or they love singing but have been told that they can’t sing. They were shut down in some way. We just sing these beautiful songs and it’s amazing how uplifting it is. If I haven’t done that for a while, I will be high for two days after a song circle, just off of singing. [Laughs]
AH: What sort of songs do you sing in terms of traditions?
GP: It’s everything from Gospel to songs that are closer to Kirtan and old Sanskrit words. There are poems by Rumi. It’s kind of all over the map. There’s a lot of active discussion within that community about cultural appropriation and giving appropriate credit and context to sources. We respect which groups may or may not want their songs to be shared. Hinduism is pretty open, as is Buddhism, with the general idea that the sharing is a good thing. You can share a prayer and put it into the wind, like on a prayer flag. These things work. All the songs, even “Sweet Caroline” at baseball games, help. I feel like the absence of that diminishes humanity.
I don’t think they’ll solve all the world’s problems, but as long as we’re human, I think we’re going to try every weird experiment of being open. We’re all going to try all the fear-based shutting down, but on some level, I have to keep my mind on human history. Of all the life in the universe, we have to be the weirdest.
AH: Did you always want to make music and pursue a different kind of life than is typical in society?
GP: I am so happy that I get to have this experience. I don’t know if it helps to pay the rent or be a productive member of society. It makes me want to live off the land and trip out on reality all the time. But it certainly makes everything more beautiful. If I take a little bit of that and bring it back into my day-to-day where I’m driving cars and singing songs for people in clubs, it allows me to view all of that with a kind of detached humor.
AH: What makes you write a song, or write songs generally? We’ve talked about performance, but is songwriting because you need to do it, or is it about outreach?
GP: To me, there are a couple parts to it. I always felt like an artist, whether it was acting or writing, or something. I never wanted to sell widgets or have a job and come home at night. I always wanted to make something weird and beautiful. In the last number of years, there’s a spiritual aspect of it for me. That’s not meant in a dogmatic way. I called myself an atheist for most of my life, and I kind of realized in the last few years, that I’m not. But I’m not a deist either.
For me, it was a matter of the things we’ve been talking about, that if you just look at the universe, it’s one thing, but has a lot of parts. Stuff seems to emerge, like consciousness, and we come up with stories that seem improbable about a god, who seems to be made in our image rather than us being made in its image. That strikes me as absurd, and I can’t quite go there. To me, it’s more this idea that it’s all one thing that’s infinitely complex and unknowable. It gets more complex, whether it’s String Theory or Dark Matter, or the far edges of physics. It’s always way weirder than we thought.
I find comfort in that, that the job is not to understand. There’s a community song leader called Laurence Cole who says, “The purpose of humanity is to gawk.” We have this ability to look and just be in awe. We are in wonder. I think that’s alright. We’re able to be here and see this beauty.
Thank you for talking with us, Glen Phillips.
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Glen Phillips “There Is So Much Here”
Find the music here: https://glenphillips.bandcamp.com/album/there-is-so-much-here
More information and tour dates are available here: http://www.glenphillips.com/