STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
Grant-Lee Phillips is touring Australia, with Philadelphia waiting in the wings. The 1994 “Rolling Stone” Best Male Vocalist promptly responded to some questions we emailed him.
(David Myles opens for Phillips on Nov. 4)
Where did the “Buffalo” in Grant-Lee Buffalo (Phillips’ band in the ‘90s) come from?
What became the band name was originally sort of an alter ego, a character which allowed me to define my writing. My given names tend to evoke something very American. The buffalo is a symbol of the land and the people that were here before it came to be known as “America.”
Has your Native-American heritage always influenced your songcraft? Or is it something that gradually became more pronounced, like in “Cry Cry” (a track from Phillips’ latest album, “The Narrows”)?
I think ancestry has a profound influence on how we experience life. When you grow up being taught certain stories about how the country came to be, and you then attempt to square those glorious tales with the darker truth, it pushes you to question. Questioning is a theme that can be traced throughout most the songs. I’ve touched upon Native history as early back as ‘96 with a song about Wounded Knee
called “Were You There.” A decade later I wrote “Susana Little.” It’s the story of my Muskogee Creek grandmother and some of the trials of her life, being born in Oklahoma at the turn of the century. The album“Walking in the Green Corn” (2012) and the song “Cry Cry” are a continuation.
What’s been the best and worst parts of being involved in both incarnations of “Gilmore Girls” (in which Phillips has a recurring role as the town troubadour)?
There is no “worst part” of being involved with “The Gilmore Girls.” This opportunity came along at the right time in my life and it exposed my music to a whole new crowd. The “best part” is that we’re getting to revisit it all with the Netflix reunion.
From your point of view, what are the biggest differences between living in Tennessee vs. California?
The state of California comprises so many distinct areas and attitudes. You can’t sum up the state so easily. I’m from the Central Valley, the agricultural heart of the state. A lot of us have family that came from the Midwest, MidSouth to work out west back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. A lot of my friends were second and third generation from Mexico, Italy as well. LA has got its own story. I moved to Los Angeles in ‘83 and I was like a fish out of water. After 30 years I got to know the lay of the land though. I met my band mates, my wife. We had our daughter there. But at this point I was itching for something more down to earth, like the Central Valley. Tennessee is just that.
After writing something like “No Mercy in July” (a commentary on the Golden State’s natural disasters on “The Narrows”), are you glad you don’t live in California anymore?
I actually pine for my old home late at night. Seeing how nature hasn’t been too kind to California these years, I take it personally.
What’s unique about having a Creek and Cherokee blended lineage?
I grew up knowing more about my mother’s Creek side than my dad’s Cherokee side. The two tribes share a lot in common, both Southeastern and both were victims of the Removal. Being a Creek citizen, I think it’s important and honorable to study both our history and our living culture and to pass those things on to our children.
Two songs people know you best for are “Mockingbirds” and “Truly, Truly.” What do those songs mean to you now?
These two songs have been with me for a long time now. I’ve never grown tired of them, still play them, and as I have grown, so have they. It’s a great gift when you have a song or two that people have embraced. When we come together, we have something to share, we have history.
You’ve crossed paths with the likes of Michael Stipe and Robyn Hitchcock over the course of your career …
Michael and Robyn are two of my oldest and closest friends. Given that we each have our own orbits, it’s remarkable that we remain in touch and see each other as much as we do. Big influences, both of those guys.
What inspires the songs you’re most proud of?
The closer to the bone I can get, whenever the truth shines through, that’s the bar I reach for.
Because it was written when your father was dying, does playing “Smoke and Sparks” (from “The Narrows”) make you particularly emotional?
“Smoke and Sparks” will always have that connection to my dad. On one hand, it’s healing to sing it and at times it’s an open wound. Most songs are.
What were your favorite acting experiences?
“Gilmore Girls” is the dream job that I never saw coming and never auditioned for; and my most favorite job by far.
Whose music are you enjoying listening to right now?
I’m enjoying new music by Parker Millsap, Jason Isbell, Margo Price, The Lumineers … lots of good stuff out there.