Sam Phillips revisits "Martinis and Bikinis"

Sam Phillips HowlinWuelf

Sam Phillips
HowlinWuelf

Speaking of her 1994 record, "Martinis and Bikinis," Los Angeles singer-songwriter Sam Phillips recently recalled an anecdote associated with one of the songs from that album--a track called "Baby I Can't Please You." It involved one of the musicians who played on the record, bassist Colin Moulding of the British alternative rock band XTC.

"I remember Colin Moulding coming in from England," she tells CBSNews.com. "We were at Jackson Browne's studio in Santa Monica recording. And I remember when he heard "Baby I Can't Please You," he had this big smile on his face and he said, 'We should do a Bollywood duet, you and me.' At the time I thought, 'Uh, maybe not.' But now I regret that. I think that would have been a wonderful idea and maybe someday we'll get to do that duet."

Still, Phillips did have a chance to rework some of the songs from the record that now appear as bonus tracks on a new reissue of "Martinis and Bikinis," which came out Tuesday. Produced by her then-husband T-Bone Burnett (whose production credits include Counting Crows, Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, and the Wallflowers), "Martinis and Bikinis" is generally well-regarded by the critics and perhaps her most accessible work.

"Martinis and Bikinis"
Omnivore Recordings

"It actually came from my publishers at Notable Music," Phillips said about the idea behind the reissue. "They've been talking to this company Omnivore-- they started reissuing these vinyl projects. "It's been quite a while since ["Martinis and Bikinis"] has been released, and also because it's never been on vinyl, they were very excited to be involved."

Released at a time when alternative rock was the rage, "Martinis and Bikinis" was Phillips' third album for her then-label Virgin Records--the others being "The Indescribable Wow" and "Cruel Inventions." One thing she recalls about the record was T-Bone Burnett playing a lot of the guitars on it. "But I also remember that of the three records for Virgin," she adds, "it was the culmination of the other two records that the process that we had started when we first did "The Indescribable Wow." I felt like they were all connected and that "Martinis and Bikinis" was we finally got to the place that we wanted to get after a lot of work. I remember months in the studio for all three of those records."

In addition to Burnett, "Martinis and Bikinis" featured musicians such as Colin Moulding, Marc Ribot, Mickey Curry and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck. And while the album was dominated by Phillips' vocals, melodic hooks, and pristine production, "Martinis and Bikinis" contained soul-searching lyrics that addressed political, personal and social themes.

"Writing melodic songs were going against the grain at that time," says Phillips, "and also going against the grain in terms of what the lyrics were saying. A friend of mine who was very wealthy once brought up the idea that he knew of a man who was a refugee and everything that he had that was of value he held in his heart. I was very struck by that, so I put that verbatim in "Same Rain." There were a lot of different ideas. "Fighting with Fire" was about having to deal with art and commerce and trying to make sense of that, trying to make a life when corporations dictate how you make art and dictate how you get paid and we're still dealing with that today. It was a very serious record."

The aforementioned "Baby I Can't Please You" was one of the many standout tracks from "Martinis and Bikinis." It took on different meanings for those involved in the record, according to Phillips. "What was funny was that [T-Bone] thought of the song was about the right-wing politicians. To me, I was just thinking of my struggle of growing up, struggling with self-image and all of that, so "Baby I Can't Please You" was more of a personal thing to me. It was really funny--he had one agenda for the song, and I had another agenda for the song, and Colin Moulding had a third agenda for the song [the Bollywood duet]. That's always been my aim to try to write songs that work on different levels--that are open to different interpretations that could be of service to the listener."

According to Phillips, she and Burnett recorded the follow-up, "Ominpop," which marked a turning point. Since then, Phillips' music has taken on a sound consisting of sophisticated pop, folk and roots on albums such as "Fan Dance," "A Boot and a Shoe" and "Don't Do Anything." "[T-Bone and I] worked so hard for those first three [Virgin] records," Phillips says now, "that I think after that, we turned and went a different direction both of us separately. I felt that I wanted to strip down my sound and he started producing for other artists. It was really fun to do those layers in pop music, but I'm happier in this new incarnation of just being a little closer to the bone and more stripped down. That's not to say I won't do another pop record like that, but it was the saturation point for both of us."

Aside from her own albums, Phillips is probably familiar to fans of the TV show "Gilmore Girls" as she composed the music for it. She has now made a return to scoring for the new ABC Family series "Bunheads," starring Sutton Foster. The show was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino from "Gilmore Girls".

"It's been a blast," says Phillips of that experience. "It's time consuming to getting a sound for a big show up and running, so we're in the first part of her first season. It's been great fun to make music for characters and beautiful writing."

Phillips is working on an upcoming record. "I could best describe it as a guilty pleasure," she says." It's closer to "Martinis and Bikinis" -- a lighter pop album. Of course, there are some weird lyrics in there. I'm very happy with it and I can't wait to finish it. I'm hoping early next year we can put it out."

  • David Chiu

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