On his 2005 Winter Pays for Summer, Phillips played against type. With producer John Fields at the helm, Phillips’ songs were dusted with modern pop production, to great effect. Phillips’ latest release Mr. Lemons [Umami/bigHelium], recorded in Nashville with producer Neilson Hubbard, is a return to form. The uncluttered, acoustic-based arrangements complement Phillips’ voice and let his multifaceted lyric gems shine.
While recording and touring for the past decade-and-a-half, Phillips paid keen attention to how the music business functions, on many levels. It’s from this perspective that he directs his own indie career—although Phillips doesn’t come across as a careerist. In fact, after touring in support of Mr. Lemons, he’s heading to Europe with his family for a year, to get away from the grind. Phillips is a writer at heart, however, and even without label deadlines or other pressures, it’s a sure bet that he’ll keep his notebook and tape recorder handy.
Mr. Lemons is a quieter record than your previous release, Winter Pays for Summer.
One reason for that is, I tend to tour solo, and it’s good to have a record out that matches what you actually do onstage. I’ve made some mistakes, as far as that’s concerned. My last record was great, but I only could only afford to tour with a band for a little while, and then I had to go back to performing solo acoustic. I can get a lot across that way, but it’s not rock.
Does your music need to rock?
I don’t necessarily want a rock audience. I’m appreciating the fact that beauty is in again. Norah Jones helped bring that on. Even before her, Elliott Smith completely broke down the door. You have bands now—like Kings of Convenience, and Iron and Wine—making gorgeous, melodic music, and they’re cool. The kids with tattoos and piercing are into them.
This trend makes me happy, because when Toad was together, beauty was not cool. Back then, if you weren’t loud, it was taken as a sign that you lacked depth. Now it’s okay to make beautiful music. With Mr. Lemons, I wanted to do something without rough edges. Not lightweight, but pleasant to listen to.
It’s definitely not a “lightweight” album, musically or lyrically.
I was going for an inviting, softer sound, yet with enough variation and enough real music that it wouldn’t fall apart if you put on headphones and really listened. That’s the kind of album I enjoy listening to, so that’s what I wanted to make.
Did you write the whole album from scratch?
Mostly, though a few songs are older. “I Still Love You” was originally recorded for Winter Pays for Summer, but didn’t make the final cut. The original version was wet and throbbing, with tons of delay. The new version is stripped down and laid back. “Marigolds” is another older song. It’s a quieter one, and it didn’t fit on my last record. Lots of quiet songs could fit on this new album, so I got to use them all up.
How do you know when you have an album’s worth of songs?
This time I forced it. I was getting close, and I knew what kind of songs I wanted for the rest of the album, so I set a date to start recording. Having that deadline helped. I had to get a few more songs together.
What kind of songs were you wanting?
I wanted to be very simple in the writing craft. That gave me a set of limitations that helped rein it in.
Were there subjects that you avoided?
Sometimes I feel guilty for not having more topical songs. There’s so much going on right now—the war, civil rights, and so on. Any time I started writing about those things, I got frustrated, and it would suck, so I’d stop. I may have missed an opportunity to add something worthwhile to the discussion, though I’d rather not add to it than add to it badly.
How did you track Mr. Lemons?
We always focused on the vocal first. Whether tracking live with rhythm section, or with me singing alone to a click track, we got the lead vocal down, then built the track around that.
Another interesting thing was, we overdubbed in ensembles. As much as possible, we’d avoid having only one person recording at a time. When you have, say, a keyboard player and a guitarist together, and they can look at each other while tracking, they play better and they play less. You don’t have to duck things later in mixing, because the arrangements already make natural sense.
Was this way of working your idea, or producer Neilson Hubbard’s?
It’s something we both wanted. I’d heard about Peter Gabriel doing his overdubs in ensembles, and I thought it seemed like a cool way to record. My original idea was to record everybody together in a really live room—a room that would feel overloaded if people played too busy, so everybody would have to play less. I want to try recording like that in the future.
What else did Hubbard bring to the table?
Neilson is great at capturing a vibe, and he’s really good at making a case for not fixing something that’s not perfect. He understands why the imperfect version feels right, on an emotional level. I liked that.
What guitars did you use for Mr. Lemons?
I brought one of my Lakewood M-32s. It’s a grand-concert size—big enough to deliver some low end, but small enough so that the low end doesn’t get out of hand. It handles strumming and fingerpicking well, and has a pristine character. For some songs, it actually sounded too good. Neilson had some guitars that sounded like they’d been around the block—old Guilds and Gibsons. We used those here and there. You always want guitars that work for the song. Old Gibsons can sound woodier. Old Kays and Silvertones can sound squonkier.
I’ve been enjoying funky guitars lately. You have to work around their idiosyncrasies—odd buzzes, weird resonances. I mean, some guitars are just plain crappy. But a certain convergence of events can make a guitar crappy in a great way.
But you use the Lakewood for your live gigs?
Yes. I’ve got two, actually. One has the Fishman Blender setup, with the Fishman Matrix pickup and a Crown mic, and I use Fishman’s Pocket Blender preamp box. In the other, I have the newer Fishman Ellipse system, which is also a mic-and-Matrix combination, but with the controls right in the soundhole. I sometimes use a D-TAR Solstice preamp, but the Pocket Blender sounds as good as anything, and is very portable.
Any other essential pieces of gear you use live?
I don’t know if it’s essential, but I recently started using a Boss Super Octave pedal. I use it in the Polyphonic mode, for a little low-end emphasis, adding a note one octave below the lowest note in chords. The range it affects is basically just your lowest string. It’s a great thickening tool for solo acoustic shows.
Do you leave it on all the time?
No, I just use it for one or two songs a night, maybe not even for the whole song.
You’ve been on different labels, both with Toad and as a solo artist. You decided to release Mr. Lemons independently. Why’s that?
Mostly to try to have things be sustainable as a family business, instead of a high-risk business. I have an audience, and I do what I do pretty well. Yet even with a relatively small label, you’re still essentially mortgaging the future. The whole aim is that a record will break big. If it doesn’t, nobody makes any money.
The indie business model is set up on selling fewer titles, and they can break even selling 10,000 units of a record. They spend less to make each album, they sell to niche markets, and they understand who their audience is. They run their business in a way that’s low risk and very intelligent. The majors haven’t been able to figure that out.
It must also give you more artistic leeway.
On a label of any size, they’re concerned with issues like, are you over-saturating the market, or are you making too many records. Now I don’t worry about that. I look at Beatles records, Stones records, even Richard Thompson records. Those writers were throwing their songs out there, like, “Okay, here are my latest ten songs.” Granted, with those writers, the songs are great. But those albums each has a particular vibe because things came together in a shorter span of time.
I’ve given myself the goal of making a record a year, one way or another—be it side project or major project. I really want to stick to that. If I don’t have the songs, I guess I’ll do a covers record, or cowrite quickly, or do something. But I feel I have to make a record a year to keep myself interested.