They say you reinvent yourself every seven years, whether you’re aware of it or not. No one knows who “they” are, but the statement nonetheless seems to have the ring of truth (even if seven years is simply enough elapsed time for one to perceive growth) for Glen Phillips.
It was seven years ago that Phillips’ band, Toad the Wet Sprocket, broke up. At the time, the group seemed to be riding high; their last four Columbia Records releases produced at least a hit single apiece and they’d amassed a loyal (some might say obsessed) throng of fans. None of it was enough to make Toad, who ironically authored a song called “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted,” happy.
“I took a life I was accustomed to and threw a huge part of it out the window,” Phillips says from his home in Santa Barbara. “I didn’t do a great job adjusting to the new life. It took a while to get my sense of gratitude back.”
He felt like Toad could break up and he would reap the same rewards as a solo singer-songwriter. The realities were much more cruel. Phillips wanted the “Cadillac treatment” he enjoyed as a member of a platinum-selling band, but got a smug A& guy making the decidedly non-prescient point that “male singer-songwriters were out.” He said Phillips needed a band, the very thing he’d just thrown away.
Phillips kept playing solo shows, finally releasing his debut album, Abulum (Brick Red) in 2001. The mostly acoustic songs on that record were lyrically and musically stripped, folksy tunes that while redolent of Toad evinced a simpler, more mature (if not in all areas) Phillips. In retrospect, Phillips says this was a drastic effort. “I felt I was cutting off all my hair, taking off the makeup and clothes and asking, ‘Am I still pretty?’”
He toured (with then-unknown John Mayer opening) with some success, then briefly reunited with Toad the Wet Sprocket … only to have them break up again. This was an epiphany. “As time went on,” Phillips laughs, “[breaking up Toad] proved to be a very good decision.” The experience also went a long way in helping him get back to gratitude.
“[The breakup] kinda messed me up. It took me a long time to learn to work and bear down and not take anything personally—that I didn’t have this special past that meant anything I did would be successful. That’s a bad set of expectations to carry around with you.”
After the Toad reunion, he resumed solo touring and released Live at Largo (2003) on his own. He resolved to make the big change and quit relying on the prospect of a record deal. “I couldn’t waste any more time,” he admits. “I wasn’t gonna wait.” If he couldn’t get a record deal, he’d just put out his own stuff.
Another thing “they” say: As soon as you stop trying to get something, it falls in your lap. Last year, Phillips signed to Lost Highway—perhaps the most songwriter-friendly big label around. He promptly commenced recording Winter Pays for Summer with producer/guitarist John Fields (Jack Logan, The Honeydogs), bassist Jim Anton, and drummer Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello & the Attractions) as his core band, augmented by guest turns from Ben Folds, Andy Sturmer (Jellyfish), Kristin Mooney and Dan Wilson (Semisonic).
The record is typical Glen Phillips—introspective, poetic and melodic. Phillips says he was aiming to straddle the fence between an immaculately produced album like Peter Gabriel’s So and something rougher, like XTC’s English Settlement. He nailed it; the songs are marvelously arranged, sumptuous without sacrificing folksy intimacy. Had Toad the Wet Sprocket survived, this is the album they’d have made in their late-stage, post-major-label, supreme-credibility years. Phillips seems to know this, but has learned not to cop any attitude other than gratitude. This, incidentally, is the theme of his first single, “Thankful”:
“Forgive me this sin of falling over/ And flashing tin grins/ And rolling in clover/ I never got it/ I never got it before/ Hey, hello, where do you get on?/ So much undone/ It’s like it was before/ We’ve both got a lot to be thankful for.”
So seven years later, Phillips is “excited about the future,” and flying even as he’s grounded.
“It’s been a bizarre time,” he says. “I was really crazy for a few years. I defined myself as some kind of victim, but the only real problem was myself. I’m back to appreciating what I have and the album centers around that. It’s about gratitude. I keep coming back to that as the key element in having a happy life.”
GLEN PHILLIPS In the Venue, 579 W. 200 South, Tuesday April 19, 7 p.m. 800-888-8499