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Grant-Lee Phillips

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

Recently, one of my guilty pleasures has been re-watching episodes of a favorite television series, "Gilmore Girls". Actually, I take back the "guilty" part of that comment. I was and still am a fan of the show’s rapid-fire pop culture quips and snarky back and forths, in spite of any naysayers (and I know that there are some out there). It’s also through that show that I happened upon musician Grant-Lee Phillips.  Appearing in nineteen episodes as a street corner musician, serenading the Girls and their neighbors in Stars Hollow as they went about their day, Phillips played the role of The Town Troubadour.  Philips' screen time and lines on the show were limited, but the small parts that he did act were every bit as funny and quirky as I'd come to expect from any of the other characters. When I first watched the series during its network run over ten years ago, the character piqued my interest, but it wasn’t until I dusted off my season DVDs and saw him again that I began to really wonder. Was this actor an accomplished musician, or someone unknown at that time, waiting for a big break? As it turns out, it was the former. Phillips was no novice; he already had over two decades of experience working in the entertainment industry under his guitar strap.

Phillips began playing guitar at a young age, with some performances at a vaudeville revival house as a teenager.  During his college-age years, Phillips attended film school for a short time in the early 1980s, but decided that music was the path he’d rather take.  During that decade he formed the band Shiva Burlesque with friends and fellow classmates, releasing two LPs before they disbanded in the early 1990s.  Phillips later went on to form the band Grant Lee Buffalo with two other former Shiva members. Releasing their first album in 1993, they enjoyed much success touring in Europe, went on to tour with bands such as R.E.M., The Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam, and released three more albums until 1998, with Phillips embarking on a solo career shortly after.

Grant-Lee Phillips (photo: Denise Siegel)
Described as a visionary and one of the most important songwriters of his generation, Phillips was voted Best Male Vocalist of '95 by Rolling Stone magazine, and has built an impressive catalog since. Six solo albums is just the beginning of what he’s accomplished; he’s also been a featured vocalist and instrumentalist on albums by Rickie Lee Jones, Aimee Mann and more, written scores for several indie films, and composed songs for television shows including "Witchblade", "What About Brian" and the aforementioned "Gilmore Girls". I was interested to find out that nearly all of the snippets of songs that Phillips performed on that show as The Town Troubadour were in fact his own. Visual art is another of his talents that has been showcased, and some of Phillips’ paintings, drawings and other work have been featured in his album designs.  In addition, Phillips collaborated on "Haiku Year", a collection of contemporary haiku poems by himself, Michael Stipe, Tom Gilroy, Jim McKay, Douglas A. Martin and others, published in 1996.  He also collaborated with comedian Margaret Cho on her recent "Cho Dependent" album, producing a track and appearing in a video for one of the songs.

These days, Phillips regularly plays sold-out shows at Largo, a nightclub/cabaret venue in Los Angeles. He and the other members of Grant Lee Buffalo have also reunited to do a few shows within the United States.

Phillips performing at Largo (photo: Lincoln Andrew DeFer)
Though I'll always treasure him as The Town Troubadour of a beloved series, I'm enjoying my discovery of the real-life Phillips and many of his facets.  There's a certain tenuous quality to his voice that draws me in on so many tracks, as if he's teetering on the verge of heartbreak or joy, and to keep listening is the only chance I'll have to know which direction he'll fall.  There's also a decidely folktale and definite storyteller aspect in each of his songs that prove that Phillips doesn't just play one on TV--he is a true troubadour.

If Grant-Lee Phillips wasn't already on your radar, I highly suggest a visit to his fun-to-navigate website: http://www.grantleephillips.com/ to learn more about him and his work.