Confusion gives Sam Phillips focus

December 13, 1991|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

If singer Sam Phillips seems to be walking oddly these days, don't worry -- she's just working on her next album.

"I'm already starting to write," she says, over the phone from a rest stop in Austin, Texas. "So I've taken to wearing my right shoe on my left foot and my left shoe on my right foot. It seems to be working, because it confuses me. I write better when I'm confused."

Don't get the wrong idea, now. Phillips, who is touring with Bruce Cockburn and will open for him at Kraushaar Auditorium this evening, is no ditz. Nor is there anything particularly confused about the sound of her albums. Indeed, both "The Indescribable Wow" and her current album, "Cruel Inventions," are wonderfully well-focused, full of tuneful, intriguing melodies and vivid, inviting soundscapes.

A friend of hers once described Phillips' music as "acid pop," and her best work does have a certain dreamlike quality to it. Some of that, of course, has to do with the albums' lush, semi-psychedelic production (the work of her husband, guitarist T-Bone Burnett). But other bits, she says, literally come from her dreams.

Take, as an example, the song "Tripping Over Gravity," from the "Cruel Inventions" album. Phillips had asked guitarist Marc Ribot to concoct some special effects to help bring the song to its conclusion, then left the studio for a while as Ribot worked his magic.

"When I walked in to hear it, I recognized it as sounds that I'd heard in one of my dreams a few nights before, which is a lovely experience" she says. "I'd never had that experience before. I have no way to explain it. I don't know what it is or where it comes from. But I really like that sort of thing."

Things like that -- moments in which the mundane seems to shatter in a burst of fairy dust -- are precisely why Phillips courts confusion, and seeks out the unexpected.

"I'm not really a storyteller," she says of her songwriting. "Maybe it's telling an incident, rather than a story. I was thinking about this time when I was going down Sunset Boulevard, worried about life. I completely had my nose down to the pavement, just thinking about such practical things, when all of a sudden this streetlight just popped; there were sparks, and it went out.

"For some reason, it struck me. It was a silly thing, but I raised my head and started looking around. That incident took me out of what I was worrying about; all of a sudden, I had a little more perspective on life.

"Maybe it's that's something that music can do," she adds. "It can strike you for a moment and take you out of the everyday and inspire you a little bit. Or, at least, I would like to try to do that. I'd like to be part of that, however that works."

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