Luck or Magic?
Britta Phillips is a vocalist, songwriter, and actress, best known for her role as the singing voice of Jem, the title character of the ‘80’s animated TV series Jem and the Holograms. She also starred in the girl band movie Satisfaction alongside Julia Roberts and Justine Bateman and is the bass player in ‘90’s indie pop band Luna. In 2007, she married Luna and Galaxie 500 frontman Dean Wareham. They have performed together as the duo Dean & Britta since 2003, and have jointly composed film scores for Mistress America and The Squid and the Whale. In addition, they wrote 13 Most Beautiful...Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, a series of scores that correspond to a selection of Warhol’s screen tests. Here we talk to Britta about making her upcoming solo album, how she rescued her waning passion for music, and what makes for a good cover song. She also shares her thoughts on the joys of performing live, and dispels the current societal panic about a supposed dearth of exciting new music.
Debra Scherer: Hey Britta! So excited to catch up with you! Perfect timing for our music and passion issue. So you have been touring a bit with Luna and playing with Dean on various projects. Now you are putting finishing touches on a solo project, which I know has been a bit of journey -- changing producers, changing cities. Take us on the road with the whole process!
Britta Phillips: Around the time Dean started doing his last solo album, or started talking about it, I was like, ‘hmm, I’m gonna do one too.’ Also a good friend of mine, a producer and DJ, Scott Hardkiss, contacted me and said, ‘I wanna work on a solo project with you.’ It all happened around the same time in 2012, that’s when it started.
DS: I remember way back when you guys were still living in New York, I came to your rehearsal studio and you guys were rehearsing some Galaxie 500 stuff with Anthony LaMarca.
DS: And I remember you mentioning that you were working on a solo album back then. That was a couple of years ago. So tell us what happened.
BP: Well, it’s taken a while because of course we’ve had all these shows; I mean, recently, the Luna reunion shows and before that the Dean Wareham solo shows.
DS: Dean solo shows, yay!
BP: And before that the Dean plays Galaxie 500 shows...
BP: And the Warhol shows. So I’ve been working on it in between those and a soundtrack we did for Mistress America, so it’s just finding time in between all of that. It started, as I said, with my friend Scott Hardkiss, and he picked some covers that he wanted to hear me sing, covers that I wouldn’t have picked!
DS: I always find that so interesting, like how do they get picked out of all the songs in the world? How do you say, “I’m gonna do that one?” Do you know anything about what his thought process was? Like why he thought of you particularly, why he wanted to hear you sing them?
BP: Hmm, I don’t know, because he picked ten, and there are only two on this album, and I can’t ask him now because he passed away the week that we moved to L.A. very unexpectedly and tragically, but he picked a very wide range, very different songs, and really well known, classic, huge! I usually tend to go towards obscure covers.
BP: More or less….
DS: So you can make it your own kind of thing?
BP: Yes, right. I don’t know why exactly he picked Drive or Landslide.
DS: Okay, and so then what happened?
BP: It started out with One Fine Summer Morning, which I just recorded in our little rehearsal studio in Brooklyn, and then I recorded Drive and Landslide with Scott at his studio in Brooklyn. You know, you begin the process and then, you go away, and you come back. Then a lot of the time I was just working on five original songs, which took me a while because I don’t write songs all the time! I’m not as prolific as Dean, so that’s pretty much it. It’s falling in love, it’s lust, there’s some obsession and possession in there, so it’s like the sunny side, the romantic side, but also a little bit of darker love songs, and a lot of it was spent writing lyrics, which is really…
DS: Lyrics are hard!
BP: Yeah, it’s the hardest part! So I’d go into my room, and then after you’re away on tour for three weeks you come back and you’re like, ‘where was I?’ It takes a few days to go down the rabbit hole and get immersed in that. Actually, I did a lot of work when Dean was in Spain promoting his book that came out in Spanish, and he was gone for like five days, and I just…
DS: Got in the zone!
BP: I was in that room for five days, which I feel like you need to do when you’re writing.
DS: Yeah, definitely.
BP: We moved out here two and half years ago to L.A. from Brooklyn, and we were working on a soundtrack for most of that year, so again, it’s about finding those pockets in between to finish. And then when I finally had everything, all my demos, I thought it was ready to go and mix, so I hired a producer, Eric Broucek. He came in and basically stripped things down a little, made the arrangements simpler and more pop, and had me re-record all the vocals, and then he mixed it. And we did all that in a month.
DS: Oh, so he simplified it from where it was before?
BP: Yeah, I had a lot more going on, and some strange bits that he took out. I actually might do my own mixes, like on a couple of songs -- do the stranger versions and put them up online.
DS: I always love the strange, the deluxe strange versions.
BP: Yeah, yeah. I think I would like to do that, sort of my own mix. Like demo versions of my stuff, which would be fun.
DS: So we are working together on a video for Drive! I remember when you sent me the songs, and I listened to everything. When that track came on, I just felt like it was just of this moment for some reason. I think it came out in 1984….
DS: And for me, 1984 is an extremely interesting year music-wise. A lot of incredible music came out in 1984 -- indie music, all sorts of things were going on in 1984. So even, just to think about The Cars, they’re very sort of overlooked in the canon of music, but if you go back and listen to the actual album that was called The Cars, which was I think, from ’78...
DS: Every single song on that album is like, ‘Oh my god, this song!’ you know?
DS: Drive is also funny because it’s one of those songs where Rick Ocasek, the lead singer of The Cars, does not actually sing. You know it’s always kind of like that. There are a lot of examples of that where there was a band with all of these songs and there was one mega hit, and it’s the one that the lead singer’s not singing on.
BP: Right, right.
DS: Even like, I’m sure you know Squeeze?
BP: Yes, sure.
DS: And you know, so Glenn Tilbrook was the lead singer of Squeeze, and then Black Coffee in Bed becomes this mega-hit, and he’s not singing on that either! He picks up one verse at the end, so Drive is another example of that.
DS: Where Rick Ocasek’s not even singing it! So that’s kind of funny. And it became their big, popular song.
BP: I think that was their biggest hit single.
DS: Yeah, the biggest! The biggest sort of popular song, even though all of the other ones that were on their debut album were really like, you know, the crazy ones. But yeah, there was like that momentin 1984, and I think that there’s something about that, that I’m finding really interesting right now. So, I remember I emailed you on Thanksgiving, and I was like, ‘oh my god, we have to do this one!’
BP: Well I’m glad you picked that one because it’s one of my favorite tracks, and it’s funny because I’m not like a big fan of the original. I love the early Cars, but 1984, I mean that was the year of Prince’s When Doves Cry.
DS: They had sold out by then. That’s what I mean, like it’s funny in terms of the canon ofThe Cars. By the time Drive came out it was already kind of over, you know?
DS: It’s like with The Clash -- by the time Rock the Casbah came out they were already broken up, pretty much.
BP: Right, right. I hadn’t listened to that song, and then Noah Baumbach suggested it as a cover, and he also put it in his film, The Squid and the Whale.
DS: Oh really?
BP: On the soundtrack, which Dean and I did, that was probably the first time I’d heard it since ‘84, was it 10 years ago? And then Scott suggested it, so I was like ‘I gotta do it!’
BP: It’s a more electronic version than their version. That’s what Noah liked about it, he said that it was like going back to their electronic sound.
DS: Yeah, it was overproduced and made for the masses.
DS: Well anybody who remembers 1984 would know! But the kids of today, they don’t know it so much.
BP: Yeah, well I don’t know, kids love the ‘80’s hits now, you know?
DS: Yeah, they’re rediscovering them. So when you go into the studio to do something like that, what do you do? Are you listening to the old version?
BP: Actually that wasn’t even intentional! I listened to the original version only to figure out the chords.
BP: Which are never right when you look them up online, you have to actually use your ears. And I just learned how to play it on the piano. So I just had a track of me playing it on piano, and I sang to that, and then we just started playing with these synth plug-ins, and we applied that to my piano track and it turned into this sort of, bup-bup-bup, bup-bup-bup kind of Kraftwerk, sort of very robotic, minimal sound. I really loved the way it sounded with just the piano and that synth, but then Scott and I wanted to add all this other stuff, so we put on stacks of backing vocals, and I played a little guitar, a little hook on it, and we had that mix. Then a year later, a friend of mine came in and did some more production on it. He made the backing vocals backwards, and he put drums on the end and other sounds on it. So it was a real collaboration over the years!
DS: Over the years...so there are a lot of different versions!
BP: Oh my god, yes!
DS: I would love to hear the ‘just you on the piano’ version!
BP: Yeah, yeah! I love that too, and I love it with just me, the piano, and that sort of stark arpeggio synth too. I’ll put them all online! Yeah and everyone has their favorite versions. I was kind of driving myself crazy like, ‘which one should I do?’ Because one person liked this version, so it depends on what you’re in the mood for!
DS: So how do you keep up the passion for the music? I know you guys change it up a lot, you do a soundtrack, you do this, you tour a little, and some people do a book. Is that what keeps it going?
BP: I would say before I met Dean, I had sort of lost my passion for music. I had just stopped listening to new stuff, and had stopped rediscovering old stuff. And when I met Dean, he just played me music that really got me so excited about it again, like the way I was when I was a teenager!
BP: And it hasn’t stopped! You know? So I feel like it’s, I mean I love working on the stuff that we work on, and we haven’t planned it to be so diverse, it just happens that way, and I think that is lucky to not always be working on a soundtrack or always be working on, you know, a Dean and Britta project. So yeah, it’s luck, or magic!
DS: Luck or magic...right!
BP: I keep discovering new and old music that’s exciting, and that’s a big part of it -- and there’s great new music out there now, you know?
BP: And fifteen years ago I thought ‘ugh, it’s all over. there’s no more good music!’ There may be lulls, but there’s always really great stuff out there. I can’t remember who said it, but there are two kinds of music, there’s good music and bad music. Sometimes people get lazy, and you know, you kind of have to hunt for it now ‘cause there’s so much out there. But you can find whatever. Go to Pitchfork and listen to their ‘100 albums that you must love,’ which I like five of them, maybe! Or Aquarium Drunkard or, you know, ask your friends what they’re listening to. And Dean plays me great stuff all the time as well.
DS: Right! He’s your personal curator?
DS: Well that’s a good one to have!
BP: He’s my personal DJ, and I play him stuff sometimes, too.
DS: I feel like yeah, there’s so much out there. There’s all this blog radio, Aquarium Drunkard, Brooklyn Vegan, Gorilla vs. Bear. I rely on those guys because, you know, I’m not in the music business, so I’m trying to listen to those guys just to hear also music from different genres.
DS: The old days of ‘oh, I’m only into rock and roll,’ or ‘I’m only into dance’...now I feel like everybody likes all different kinds of music, you know?
DS: And it’s very easy to like, one minute be listening to one genre, the next minute another genre, and now the genres are all mixed together!
BP: Like when you say indie rock!
DS: Who even knows what that is anymore?!
BP: It’s not like Pavement anymore. Or Luna! It’s like, Tame Impala, or Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
DS: Or Beach House!
BP: Yeah, they’re just bringing in a lot of R&B, and electronic and dance stuff, it’s really cool.
DS: I know, I think that’s an exciting thing about the new young bands that are coming out. Because of technology, they have this access to a lot of different sounds from different time periods.
So they’re taking a little bit of this, a little bit of that, they’re remixing all of these different sounds -- it might go sort of hard core metal for a second, but then turns into a little bit of emo, and it’s all mixed together, and THAT’S new music!
DS: It’s almost like new genres. There are bands out there, I couldn’t really even say exactly which genre they’re in.
BP: Yeah, yeah! I mean I kind of have a little bit of that going on with my album, where it’s more like a playlist, not just like, ‘yes, this was recorded at the same time in the same room with the same band.’
BP: Because that’s just a reflection of different styles and tastes.
DS: Well, I mean, that’s an interesting way to put it. So that’s how you would describe this album. It’s like your playlist of the past couple of years?
BP: Yeah, I mean it’s so funny because I mean it wasn’t intentional, but it’s got some ‘60’s flavors, some ‘70’s flavors, some ‘80’s flavors. It sounds current as well, or like a mixture of all those things sometimes. But no ‘90’s.
DS: No ‘90’s? The ‘90’s are like so in, that they’re not going to be in for very long anymore. That’s why I was interested in Drive, because yeah, the ‘90’s are SO in, so that’s when it’s already not in anymore. And it’s already not in anymore for The Culture Crush and what we do here, you know? We’re looking more for the kind of stuff that inspires...
BP: Except for Luna!
DS: Yeah, but that was a couple of podcast episodes ago!
BP: Yeah, no no no, I’m just saying like, the ‘90’s...you see, Luna wasn’t what people thought of as ‘the sound of the ‘90’s,’ because it was like The Velvet Underground in the ‘60’s, where nobody knew it, it was underground...
DS: So are you going to be performing any of this live? The new stuff? Do we have that to look forward to? Coffeehouse Britta, with a guitar?
BP: I want to perform. I do want to do at least a handful of shows. You know, whether that’s going to be me, a laptop and a drummer, or what!
Britta’s upcoming solo album Luck or Magic will be released in April 2016.
To hear the entire conversation, click below to listen to the podcast: