Britta Phillips Branches Out

Published March 9, 2016

ABOVE: BRITTA PHILLIPS. PHOTO COURTESY OF LUZ GALLARDO.

The first time we saw Britta Phillips perform live was during Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year—a collaboration with her husband, Dean Wareham, and acclaimed musicians Bradford Cox, Eleanor Friedberger, Martin Rev, and Tom Verlaine. An incredible homage to Warhol via a soundtrack of sorts, the concert coincided with the unveiling of 15 never-before-seen film selections, allowing history to collide with the contemporary world in a way that felt neither forced nor derivative, nor overly hip. Simultaneously, the collaboration evoked memories of Phillips and Wareham’s 2009 DVD and CD release, 13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, which was commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Through her work with Wareham (professionally known as the band Dean & Britta) and as a member of indie dream-pop four-piece Luna, Phillips has long been an exemplar of how music can thrive on partnership and the meeting of minds. Recently, she helped compose the soundtrack for Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig‘s Mistress America, and in 2012, she worked with the same duo for Frances Ha, in which she also made a cameo appearance. Now, however, Phillips is preparing to release her first solo album Luck or Magic (April 29 on Double Feature Records), and below Interview is exclusively debuting the video for her cover of “Drive” by The Cars. A swirling John Waters-meets-Andy Warhol dreamscape, “Drive” and its video retain an accessible campiness—even the squarest among us, myself included, can feel pretty cool for a few grainy, 8mm minutes.

Born in Michigan and raised in Pennsylvania, Phillips has been surrounded by music her entire life. Her father was a composer and formerly Paul Simon’s music teacher. From 1985-1988, Phillips provided the singing voice of Jem in Jem and The Holograms, which eventually led to her role in Satisfaction alongside the likes of Justine Bateman, Julia Roberts, and Liam Neeson. Over the weekend, I met the 52-year-old to speak about the latest chapter in her musical career.

WILLIAM J. SIMMONS: You have worn many musical hats, but it seems to me that you’ve always been working with a centered and singular drive. Could you describe your musical journey?

BRITTA PHILLIPS: Before I moved to Brooklyn to pursue music, I was a high school dropout and speed freak who’d been living with her dealer boyfriend in Bucks County, Pennsylvania at 16. Then I enrolled in beauty school and lived with my grandparents near Philly in an attempt to get away from the drugs. There, I wrote some songs and recorded them with my dad, who was a musician and lived in New York City. I moved to South Park Slope at 19. Early on, I found anger—at being taken for granted or feeling invisible—to be a great motivator. Negative feelings can either lead to sinking into oneself and disappearing, or they can make you angry and want to prove that you’re worthy to be in the conversation… I was talking to someone the other day about what an ambitious person is. Certain people have the eye of the tiger, and I never was myself that kind of person, although I’m not a slacker. I just love music, so that’s what I’m always working on, and I try to say yes a lot. Maybe I’m more ambitious than I thought I was.

So my dad got me an audition for Jem and the Holograms. They heard my demo and saw my headshot, and they said, “She looks like Jem!” That’s how I started, even though I had moved to New York to be in a band and write songs, but that was the first paying gig. Before that, I was working as a cocktail waitress in a heavy metal bar. Then, my manager said I should try some acting, which led to an audition Satisfaction, where I played a musician in an all-girl band. That movie is where I met my future ex-husband Jody Porter. We got married and had this band together called The Belltower. After moving to London, we got lumped in with the shoegaze bands. We also got described as being a bit like The Mamas and the Papas, and even Television—which, yeah, okay, that’s cool! I lived in London for a while with them, which was fun and terrible, but it was great because I learned a lot about American bands that I didn’t learn while in the United States. I think I am a late-bloomer. My taste in music just keeps getting better. I liked My Bloody Valentine and the other shoegaze stuff, but I didn’t pick up on Galaxie 500 or Spaceman 3 until a little bit later, which I always kick myself for.

After The Belltower broke up, I went through a dark night for several years where nothing happened, and then I joined Ultrababyfat, another all-girl band from Atlanta. Jody and I relocated to Charleston, and I then I got a gig with Ben Lee, which brought me back up north. Ben Lee’s guitar tech was also Luna’s guitar tech, and that got me an audition with Luna. During this time, I was also writing my own songs. It was definitely in my mind to do a solo album, but I didn’t know it would take this long.

SIMMONS: What has working on this solo album required of you that working in a band has not?

PHILLIPS: It’s a lot more freedom. I love playing in Luna and I love playing with Dean on his solo stuff. That’s really easy—I just waltz in with my bass! Dean & Britta is one step away from that, where I write a couple of songs and sing maybe half of them, but Dean is really doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

I tend to work on a song, generate ideas, and re-arrange it like five times, and I’m glad I take the time to do that, because I think my original songs come out better. But it’s also a lot of work, an exquisite torture. I went through a furnace and came out knowing who I am. I’m over 50 now, and making this album made me an adult. Most of the time, the creative part is like playing in a sandbox. I can sit here and work for 12 hours and not get tired of it. The hard part was when I went into the studio with co-producer Eric Broucek, and he started slashing my demos. I always sweat that. I say, “Oh my god! What is happening?” But it is a good thing to let someone else’s vision take over, and it has always been a good thing in the end. It was definitely a good thing for my album; I had too much stuff going on, and Eric stripped it down a bit. After being in the creative, hermetic state I have been in, coming out has been painful, but it is getting easier.

SIMMONS: After listening to this album, it seems very clear that you combine references and homages with something that is uniquely your own. I mean, your cover of “Landslide” rivals Stevie Nicks’s rendition! How do you so smartly combine these things with your own voice?

PHILLIPS: That’s a good question. The way I work is mostly unconscious and instinctive. First of all, I never would have picked “Drive” and “Landslide” to cover. Those were Scott Hardkiss’s choices. He picked all these really huge hits, which I try to steer clear of, but I was intrigued by the fact that he really wanted me to do these, so I gave it a go. I was surprised that it came out that way. That’s part of the reason why we used the title Luck or Magic. These things come together, and you’re like, “Wow, I didn’t think of that.” It just happens. You spin out ideas like Tasmanian Devil, and then you just hear it. You have to catch it and not ruin it by putting too much crap over it and recognize that it is good. I recorded the vocal on “Landslide” and I thought “Ugh, I hate it!” But we did the mix, and Dean’s guitar, for me, really makes that song. It’s a combination of the sequencer with the Galaxie 500-sounding guitar on it. It’s sparse, with kind of a Motown bass. All of these little things that don’t live in the same world came together. I was super pleased with that, but sometimes it’s just lucky. 

I do have a lot of references coming out of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, but I don’t consciously think, “I’m going to put this here and this there.” It comes out of my unconscious, and I don’t want it to be just retro. I did, however, want to combine sounds of past decades with each other and with more modern sounds on these recordings, but the way it happens is more like conjuring—very right brain and instinctive. We also did this on the Warhol Screen Tests and on [some songs on the] the Dean & Britta albums. I think that it’s always more interesting to combine familiar sounds together in a new way and with newer sounds if you can make it work, rather than sticking to just one style too strictly. I love the feeling of nostalgia vying with the present. That can be from song to song, or within the same song. You always want an album to sound like its own little planet. I also had fun writing a couple of original love songs that are a bit “off” in their attitude, something that would not live on a Dean & Britta album. 

SIMMONS: That brings us to the video for “Drive.” There are two things that really struck me about it—clearly, Andy Warhol has been a huge influence for you, and this parallel combination of different kinds of glamor.

PHILLIPS: I put the idea out there to Debra Scherer of The Culture Crush. We met at a party, maybe six years ago, when Dean and I were living in Brooklyn. She went to high school with Dean’s younger brother. When she came from a shoot for The Culture Crush with the stars of the video, Tierney Finster and ODD FUTURE collaborator Errol Chatham, Debra had this concept and put it together. Then, she shot Dean and I driving up and down our street in L.A. We shot me on 8mm, which is like Warhol’s Screen Tests. That glamorous color, and the shift to me in black and white, all serious and dour, is a really great juxtaposition.

SIMMONS: So, if you were back in the Factory, what would you do for your Screen Test?

PHILLIPS: Well, I would get really high first! That’s really how those people kept going, before it wore them away. When I moved to New York in my 20s, I didn’t have an obnoxious ego, but it was huge! I’ll thought, “I’ll never die and I can do anything.” I would have been very stoic. I was pretty tough and serious in my 20s. The Mary Woronov Screen Test is one of my favorites.

LUCK OR MAGIC WILL BE RELEASED APRIL 29. TO PRE-ORDER THE ALBUM CLICK HERE, AND FOR MORE ON BRITTA PHILLIPS, VISIT HER WEBSITE.