Artist: Grant Lee Phillips
Played at City Winery: October 3rd, 2012
Q&A With City Winery
You’ve done a lot of work recently with comedienne, Margaret Cho. What role does comedy play in your life? Are there any other comedians you’d love to work with?
Margaret’s a force of nature. We’ve known one another for ages, but it was a huge treat to work with her on her “Cho Dependent” album. Comics and musicians are a bit like distant cousins, but there’s a crazy amount of courage it takes to be a comic and I look upon people like Margaret and Paul F. Tompkins with awe.
Do you check out any comedy shows? Any favorite places to check out? Do you ever think of getting on stage at an open mic or taking an improv class?
Largo out in L.A. has long been a hotbed for comedy. It’s a place where comics and songwriters mix and through Largo I’ve been able to explore the high-wire thrill of being onstage without a guitar.
You are very vocal about your Native American heritage. How has it informed your songwriting? What drives you to incorporate this into your music?
I grew up with an awareness of my Creek heritage. It was reinforced by my mother and grandmother. My desire to grasp the history of our country, one that’s often untold, has been a driving force behind a lot of my songs. Becoming a father has also compelled me to better understand where I come from, to honor my ancestry and pass that knowledge onward.
It seems like you have also been able to use comedy as a way of demonstrating your awareness of your heritage against a contemporary American backdrop. In the Margaret Cho video for “Asian Adjacent,” you appear as a Native American man when she says the word “Cherokee.” Something Margaret (and many comedians do) is poke fun at herself and address stereotypes that affect her on a personal level. Was this experience a first for you (as far as addressing it in a comedic way)?
Margaret came to me with “Asian Adjacent.” She’d written these lyrics inspired by our first meeting many years ago. For ages, she had assumed because of my features and the “Lee” in my name that I was Chinese. It’s not the first time that I’ve encountered this. When I explained that I’m actually Creek and Cherokee, it inspired the concept of being “Asian Adjacent.” In one scene of the video we did a take-off on “Miss Saigon.” I was portraying an American soldier, pursuing Margaret. The editor dropped me in on the Cherokee lyric, (the power of editing and suggestion). There’s something really incredible about her way of using comedy to challenge stereotypes.
You also combine your music and your heritage as a means of awareness and outreach. Though the Internet has had some negative impacts on the music industry, it has also been an amazing tool in expanding audience. Additionally, it has become a means of outreach and awareness. One platform this is possible through is PledgeMusic, which you are currently using; how has that been?
My new album, Walking In The Green Corn, is a Pledge Music project. I love the grass-roots connectivity of this approach. There’s something very hands-on about it that appeals to me. I’ve also become very informed in the ways of shipping these days and I have a greater appreciation for the US Postal Service.
Outside of your heritage, what inspires you as a writer/performer?
Songs are just the evidence of whatever life you live, the people you love, your desires, your fears and the rest. I’m just trying to walk and sing at the same time.
I just wanted to mention that your website is incredible. How do you think that the aesthetic style and the design (interactivity, click-throughs) reflect you as a musician and as a person?
My website is one part American Pickers and one part Hoarders. I’m very at home there.
You’ve done a bit of acting work, even had a recurring role on Gilmore Girls. Is acting something you’d like to do more of, maybe having bigger, more prominent roles?
I’d love to do more acting. When Gilmore Girls ended I went back and studied some more. I’ve got a lot of respect for actors and all they have to put themselves through.
New York, for all of the times that I’ve visited, still takes my breath away. I grew up in the country and learned to drive on one-lane highways out in the foothills so the city is little overwhelming. Still, on a warm night, with good friends there’s nothing like it. New York is also a place where people still hold the door for each other. More often that you would think. ( LA is the worst for that). There’s a rhythm to this city. It can be tough to find the downbeat at first, but when you do, it’s an incredible place.
What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Depended how hungry I was.
If you could eat any meal right now, what would it be? Would there be a drink to go with it?
I’m always up for a cup coffee and I’ve never pushed away a pecan pie.
Do you have any big plans for 2013?
More music, more coffee, more pie. Let me get that door for you…