Accountancy, paperwork and rock ‘n’ roll
As a solo artist and former member of influential 1990s rockers Toad The Wet Sprocket, it’s obvious that Glen Phillips’ talents lie in skills that are far more creative than those required to complete tedious administrative tasks. But that’s exactly the activity I find the Santa Barbara native engaged in when I called to discuss his new solo album Mr Lemons.
“I have no brain today,” said Phillips, when our conversation interrupted a particularly inspiring session of bookkeeping. “I’ve spent all day doing all the paperwork and accounting for the tour I just went on, and I’m not really cut out for that kind of work! It’s completely melted my brain.”
The reason for finding Phillips engrossed in expense receipts and the like is due to his return to life as an independent artist following a spell with Universal-owned Lost Highway, during which he released the critically acclaimed, pop-orientated Winter Pays For Summer.
But after a haphazard marketing strategy led to poor album sales, Phillips was released from his deal and he decided to regain control of every aspect of his career in an effort to get back to basics. He changed managers, booking agencies and focused on making his music more of a “home business”.
“Yeah, I wanted to get away from the gamble of the music business,” he agrees. “And by keeping everything on a smaller, manageable scale, I figured I could make better music more often.”
“I remember talking to Ben Folds years ago,” he continues. “He asked me how many of my top ten albums of all time had sold more than 50,000 copies – I think only one of them might have! So the interesting stuff doesn’t always make it out to the front.”
At the time, many industry observers thought Lost Highway to be the perfect label to expose Phillips’ undoubtedly commercial, yet left-of-centre material to a wider audience already familiar with his past endeavours with Toad The Wet Sprocket. But he’s not at all bitter about the experience.
“I was a little surprised but I understand how it happened,” Phillips said. “It’s the nature of the beast; Lost Highway thought that things would work out differently with the last record, so they cut their losses. I’m happy to be free of it, but I was honoured to be in the company of the incredible stable of musicians there.”
Swapping the bureaucracy of a major label for the more hands-on independent career Phillips enjoyed when he released his debut solo record Abulum allowed him clear focus for the creative direction he wanted to take with Mr Lemons.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to achieve on this album,” he affirms. “I wanted something a little quieter, something a little simpler at every level. I wanted to make it sound like a record that could have come out at any time.”
Nashville producer and writer Neilsen Hubbard proved to be the perfect foil to help Phillips return to the more subdued Americana sound he dabbled with on Abulum.
“I wrote a couple of songs with Neilsen initially and I explained I wanted to do a record that builds from the vocal. While we were recording it I wanted to question, “What can we remove to make it better?” rather than, “What can we add to make it better?” He was really on my level and served those concepts well.”
The fruits of the partnership are clearly evident on the sparse, yet deeply affecting “Blind Sight” and the simple melody of “Last Sunset”. Clearly, Phillips’ vision for a more organic record stretched to the songwriting process as well as the production values.
“Yeah, I made an effort to keep it simple in terms of chord progressions and imagery,” he agrees. “I didn’t want obscurity that no one would get but me. I wanted to see if I could stick with two chords and see how far I could take a melody. I wanted to try to say what I needed to say with a little more elegance.”
It was a challenge he more than met on a record that positively bursts with melody yet is also delightfully understated and balanced. The jaunty first single “Everything But You” is an obvious highlight, but the epic “Thank You” is also a song that stirs Phillips’ passion.
“I am not a religious person in any way, but it’s just the idea that we are here and we’re alive and we’re able to love and we’re on a planet,” he says. “Even if it’s all just pure science, the fact that life occurred as it did and there’s such a beauty to it, I think it’s worth giving some thanks for.”
Toad The Wet Sprocket fans will be just as grateful for the band’s second summer reunion tour since their split in 1998, which overlaps with Phillips’ solo shows in the US and Japan. But he is quick to stress it’s a purely temporary arrangement that will also help expose Mr Lemons to a receptive audience.
“The last time we got together [in 2002], the people around us were very excited about the future and I felt a little trapped and freaked out,” he recalls. “This time we are being very cautious. We are not doing too many shows and are placing strict limits on it. But I’m optimistic about it and want it to be a fun, happy addition to the rest of our lives. None of us want it to take over.”
And with plans afoot to take a nine-month sabbatical in Europe with his family after a summer of hectic touring, a long-term reunion is not on his agenda. Besides, life as a solo artist clearly excites Phillips, as does the opportunity to set his own agenda as an artist free of the corporate grind of the major label machine.
“I like the creative control to do pretty much whatever I want, for the most part,” he said. “And I like the idea of doing an album a year. I mean, The Beatles did two a year and the Stones did one or two a year. If I could do it without all the paperwork, it would be that much the better!”