Sam Phillips Offers Gentle Touch On 'Fan Dance'

Although Sam Phillips' new album, 'Fan Dance,' clocks in at just over half an hour, the set packs a considerable punch with intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics, and uniquely musical backdrops.

Although Sam Phillips' new album, 'Fan Dance,' clocks in at just over half an hour, the set packs a considerable punch with intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics, and uniquely musical backdrops.

Due July 31 from Nonesuch, 'Fan Dance' also marks a turning point in Phillips' career. The project's dozen tracks were recorded live with few overdubs, reflecting a focus on performance rather than production. This recording process differs dramatically from Phillips' previous studio album, 1996's 'Omnipop,' her fourth for Virgin (and a top-30 album on Billboard's Heatseekers chart).

"I think lyrically and musically what I brought to 'Omnipop,' was a little too miserable, except for a few things like 'Zero Zero Zero!' and 'Animals on Wheels,' " Phillips says. "We did this big pop-produced record. I felt that it was something I would never do again. I'm sort of glad that it didn't get promoted. The week it came out, the head of A&R, the head of marketing, my product manager, everybody quit the label. 'Omnipop' sank."

After the album's release, Phillips says she disconnected from the world. She also detached from her music career, which had started in the Christian recording industry in the mid-1980s, when she was known as Leslie Phillips (she veered into the pop realm in 1988 with 'Indescribable Wow,' the first of the four Virgin albums). This separation, in addition to many of Phillips' reading choices, influenced the style of "Fan Dance."

"I became much more interested in the process than the result after watching all that I've watched the last 15 years," Phillips says. "I was reading Colette's 'Vagabond.' In it, the main character is a music-hall performer at the turn of the century. She's constantly on tour. She's tired. She's not making it. She's more interesting than if Colette had chosen a musical star to write about. That was this record -- very interested in the process, the songs."

Referring to actress Louise Brooks, Phillips adds, "I hate to paraphrase her, but in her biography, she talked about the fact that the decisions she made in her career weren't made by some ambition or business sense. Her decisions were made because of love. I can relate to her on that. I feel the same."

A similar point of view led Nonesuch to sign Phillips, according to label senior VP David Bither. "I've admired her music for at least 10 years," going back to her 1991 album, "Cruel Inventions," he says. What brought them together was a project Bither had been working on with Phillips' husband/producer, the widely esteemed T-Bone Burnett (mastermind of the hit "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack).

"We had lunch in Los Angeles, and as we left, T-Bone gave me six or seven songs that Sam characterized as demos," Bither says. "I listened to them obsessively for a week and said, 'I'd love to put this out.'"

Bither specifically points out that this Phillips album is easy to love, despite and perhaps because of its overall brevity. "This harks back to records that a certain generation grew up listening to, when records were 16 or 18 minutes a side. While there are 12 songs [on "Fan Dance"], as soon as it's done, you want to listen to it again. I don't think anyone will feel shortchanged by that. To the contrary, there is a kind of energy attached to this record."

"Fan Dance" conveys this feeling due to the star's intimate way with vocal melodies and astute taste in musical cohorts. Along with Burnett's contributions as producer and bassist, Gillian Welch provides additional vocals and Van Dyke Parks creates string arrangements for "Wasting My Time" and plays harpsichord on "Taking Pictures." Guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Carla Azar round out the musical team.

Such tracks as "How to Dream" showcase Phillips' individual knack at creating riveting melodies and lyrics. "There's obviously something that I feel compelled to communicate that I can't help, for better or for worse -- that's what 'How to Dream' is about," she says. "It talks about the secret that I can't hide. It's talking about being a writer or writing songs. It's an odd thing that we do, this weird compulsion to reveal things."

Nonesuch is in the midst of building a Web site for Phillips and is exploring the possibility of Web chats and online acoustic performances. A tour is in the planning stages for the fall.

While Phillips is bashful about anything like overtly encouraging consumers to purchase the album, there is no doubt that she's especially proud of "Fan Dance." "I found myself shamelessly giving out copies of this record," she says. "I've never done that. But probably very few people should buy this. I really didn't build this record like a stadium, to say a lot to a lot of people. It's really a little bungalow or salon that is meant to seduce people one at a time."