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Going It Alone

Grant-Lee Phillips returns with a new solo album, ready to Mobilize.

Poets and poetry can come from anywhere. Sometimes the poet and his hometown are completely intertwined, inseparable as the thorn and the rose -- much as Lou Reed is fully a part of New York, and Tom Waits is the ragged king of down-and-out Los Angeles.

The songs that Stockton, California, native Grant-Lee Phillips sings are not exactly of that place, though they're close. Stockton is a broad-shouldered working city of 200,000 on the moist edge of the San Joaquin Valley, dependent on farming for its survival and with a green-golden charm straight out of Steinbeck. And while Phillips's music both as a solo artist and with his former band, Grant Lee Buffalo, contains a certain sense of rootsy Americana that is in keeping with that town's milieu, Stockton is too small a lens through which to view his work.

"Stockton is someplace special," Phillips says from a hotel in Boston, gentle laughter in his voice. "At least, that's what it says on the billboard when you cross the city line.

Buffalo soldier: Grant-Lee Phillips has found a poetic niche as a solo artist.
Buffalo soldier: Grant-Lee Phillips has found a poetic niche as a solo artist.

"No, Stockton is an interesting city," he goes on. "There's a great blend of personalities, ethnicities -- a sort of heartland feel about the place. There's some similarities [between] Stockton and the Midwest; it's a place that isn't afraid to get its hands dirty."

But the California Phillips sings of is neither the mythical dreamland of Steinbeck's hopeful Joad family nor a more plastic-fantastic L.A. version of utopia (that decidedly Other place Phillips went in search of when he was twenty). His California has something in common with each of those storybook locales, though, in that none of them are exactly real. With the most basic of tools -- acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums -- Phillips seems able to pry open a secret window on a world that eludes most of us, at least during our workaday, conscious lives. That ability is evident on Mobilize, released in August on Zoë, an imprint of indie label Rounder Records. On this, his second solo venture (following 1999's Internet-only release Ladies' Love Oracle), Phillips continues a dialogue with his listeners.

"Perhaps I'm overly idealistic," he says, "but I feel there's a forgotten audience who longs for something transcendent, something meaningful, something that speaks to a deeper part of them in their music. I believe the hunger for this is so strong that it may someday come to populate the common airwaves, in the way that an artist like Marvin Gaye was able to speak to such powerful ideas in another era."

Way back in yet another era -- the early '90s -- Grant Lee Buffalo struggled to scratch out a tenuous foothold for itself on the fringe of the college-radio pantheon, touring with such alterna-luminaries as REM, Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam. In fact, it was partly because Michael Stipe publicly named Buffalo's Warner Bros. debut, Fuzzy, his favorite album of 1993 that the band won its first national notice, however brief. Phillips's shining tenor, prone to occasionally shooting up an octave or two into an expressive falsetto, was always the highlight of the band's music. Strong, richly vivid songwriting and a well-chosen supporting cast composed of bassist Paul Kimble and drummer Joey Peters also helped make Grant Lee Buffalo one of the most promising new bands of that period.

But, commercially at least, Grant Lee Buffalo's wheels never really got a good grip on the pavement. The band sold upwards of 100,000 copies of its second album, 1994's Mighty Joe Moon, and maybe 200,000 total copies of the other three albums recorded under contract with Warner Bros., including Fuzzy. But that just wasn't enough for the voracious corporate machine.

The band's music was always difficult to define. Even an association with REM -- which, at one time, had a musical feeling that was somewhat similar to Buffalo's -- could not insulate the band from the big-label kiss of death: the lack of a simple, idiot-proof tag. Warner Bros. and Grant Lee Buffalo parted ways in 1998, and shortly thereafter, Grant-Lee called it quits on the band that bore his name. He walked away from Warner Bros. a wiser man, but not a bitter one.

"It all comes down to how you measure success," he says. "For me, the opportunity to follow my creative whims -- on my own terms -- is a success in itself. If it happens that some of this catches the ear of the public at large, then so be it. But if not, then at least I've been true to myself. If I can manage to do that in such a way that I can make yet another album a year from now, then that is a major success.

"There are so many examples of artists who have sold in the millions who [later] find themselves 'only' selling hundreds of thousands, and even they are looked upon as some kind of failure," he continues. "And that's just an unfortunate thing, because this is a business that has no rhyme or reason. It's also a sort of popularity contest, and frequently the music itself has very little to do with it. I don't really bother myself with too much of that."

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