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Going It Alone

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

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.

"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."  

Mobilize is a welcome, inspired outburst of optimism and freedom. Together with producer Carmen Rizzo, Phillips has put together a dozen songs that not only are true to where he has come from, but also stretch out into new territory.

"There was a spirit intact [on Mobilize] that is familiar to my ears," he says, "and I hope it will be familiar to the ears of those who have followed me this far. In the end, the album is more in step with my past than I would have set out to begin with. I actually found myself sort of reeling it back in."

The influence of producer Rizzo, who has worked with Perry Farrell and Prince, among others, can be heard on songs such as "Spring Released." It's a giddy romp through an evening of dancing and wild, joyous, simple-minded fun, reminiscent of the triumph of early Buffalo songs like "America Snoring." The song also bears a likeness to the heated adolescent volatility of REM's "Crush With Eyeliner:" "Damn, this floor is thumping/Spring released and/My little girlfriend's hanging light/I feel the blood rush..."

The song has a thumping beat indeed, as well as an irresistible chorus/hook and a fine bit of subtle violin-like synthesizer that sounds like it came from "Little Red Corvette."

"Carmen brought a lot of interesting programming elements to it," Phillips says, "so the palette itself is quite a bit different than anyone might have associated with me in the past."

The liberation that can result from signing with an independent, smaller label like Rounder comes shining through on Mobilize. On songs like "See America," the disc's opener, Phillips's sense of looseness is readily apparent in the lyrics as well as in the slowly flowing, mellifluous tune. The song strikes one as an aural version of that quiet, colorful time just before the sun sets, as seen through a car window on the first hopeful leg of a road trip: "We're tumbling in our chariot/What a slender thread I've been clinging to/All these cracks for me/To slip into..."

That "slender thread" mirrors a welcome fragility, a tenuousness that Phillips seems to have embraced in making Mobilize. It seems he has opened himself up to new horizons, risky though that may have been.

"There was a lot of experimenting that I allowed myself to do, both in the studio and prior to beginning the recording session. I was often writing as the tape was rolling. I came to realize, as a lot of folks do, that there's some magic when you allow yourself to move quickly, when you disable that 'edit' button that too frequently enters into your writing.

"That's probably one of the benefits -- at least when you're on a roll -- of working entirely on your own: You get that flash of lightning for a moment, and hopefully you catch it. Every time you try to reinterpret or articulate that impulse, you tend to alter it. It's a case of trying to capture lightning in a bottle."

Phillips has always been something of a mystic, and as such, he has been alternately lauded and ignored, depending on what he was saying at the time and who was listening. He's like a mad, hurdy-gurdy gothic storyteller outside an 1880s saloon -- one that happens to be located in an alternate universe. Phillips is like a dusty Robert Heinlein, a stranger in a strange, sunset land, one fashioned from the past but not beholden to it.

The album's title captures something of that spirit, the idea of moving forward, but perhaps not in the sense one might initially think. In this era of protests against corporate globalization, listeners might take Mobilize as a directive.

"I find some delight in that," Phillips says. "The word has military connotations, global connotations, and all at a good time -- when we're wearing camouflage. But, in fact, it's a very personal kind of sentiment. It's basically a sort of call to arms to find it in yourself, that inner strength to move forward, to learn from your mistakes."

And did he ever feel that Mobilize might be one of those mistakes?

"I have to admit there were times when I asked myself, 'Oh, my goodness, what have I done?' It didn't necessarily taste or feel like one of the Grant Lee Buffalo albums, which was a goal of mine. But when I actually found that I had stepped out on that limb, it was little scary. I held my breath. But I continued to walk out on the limb. I've finally come to that place where I can entirely embrace what it means to work as a solo artist. It's more personal. There is both a sense of liberation and accountability when you decide to go it alone.  

"I'm thrilled to see this disc finally come out, myself," he adds. "Sort of a long time coming, really. I managed to put some music out there on the public airwaves with Ladies' Love Oracle, but it was in a much more covert way."

Covertly might be the only way for an artist like Phillips to get his message across. The artist who forges a trail outside the parameters laid down by those who came before will always be outshouted by dumb flash and the dim, shiny temptation of the mainstream.

"I've always turned to folks like Tom Waits and Robyn Hitchcock and a handful of others as being an example of what it means to follow your own path and to survive and to remain productive, in spite of however you might be going against the grain," he says. "I like to believe there is enough fringe for a person like me to find some elbow room. And from time to time, your genuinely creative artists do rise to the top, you know? That's why there's REM. Every once in a while, the best really does rise to the top."

And when that happens, Phillips believes, the world itself can be changed.

"I'm a firm believer in the power of music to transform at least our interior lives," he says. "At times it can knock down real walls as well."


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