by Kelly McCartney (@theKELword) for Folk Alley
Since bursting onto the pop-rock scene some 25 years ago with Toad the Wet Sprocket’s third album, fear, Glen Phillips has established himself as one of the most heartfelt songwriters on the folk-rock block. His solo albums, and Toad reunions, all showcase the work of someone who feels passionately and thinks deeply. Over the past few years, Phillips’s feelings and thoughts have been put to the test with a near-crippling accident and an emotion-testing divorce. As most artists do, he filtered it all through music and emerged with his latest release, Swallowed by the New.
Kelly McCartney: You’ve been through a lot in the past few years. How important was songwriting to your emotional processing and physical healing?
Glen Phillips: I was just thinking the other day about how easy it is to get to the other side of a process — or at least a new chapter in the process — and forget about the work you did to get there and the states you passed through on the way. A songwriter leaves a crumb trail of songs along the way, marking the path. It’s hard to say how much the songs move me through and how much they are simply a byproduct of the journey. I’m sure it’s a bit of both.
I like to use songs as a mnemonic device to remind me of what my higher self is telling me. It’s not always that way — some of these songs are just about states of feeling, and I think that is a worthy and universal thing to write about, as well. Most of them, or at least the most important ones to me, are letters to myself reminding me to choose a better path than the one I might be attracted to at the moment. Life hands pretty much everyone some major curveballs. It’s up to us to decide if we want to simply be injured or if we want to learn.
You really pour a lot out of you on this record — listening merely to “Go” evidences that. Writing the songs is one outlet; performing them is another. Compare and contrast those two aspects, in terms of what you get from each.
I waited a year after recording this album to release it. I was deep in the middle of the subject matter when we recorded Swallowed by the New — trying to be hopeful and accept my new life, but still deep in pain and mourning about the loss of my home and my identity. There was a period of time when I couldn’t sing a lot of these songs without breaking down. A year later, I’m happier than I’ve been in years. It’s kind of miraculous. I can still get into these songs, still learn from them, but they don’t overwhelm me like they used to.
“Go” was important for me to write. Kris Orlowski came over to write with me and he had this beautiful start of a melody with the single line “You know which way to go.” I had recently listened to a podcast talking about lighthouses. The gist of it was that most things that say “I love you” ask you to come closer. Lighthouses say “I love you. Go away.” They want you to keep a safe distance for the good of everyone involved. I was thinking about both my former wife and a woman I dated after separation. My former wife really loved me, but knew we weren’t serving each other any more. It was a great act of love for her to say she was done — one that I don’t think I would have been strong or brave enough to do. It took me a while to see how generous it was, how it was the kindest thing she could do for us both. When I started dating after the separation, I found myself pushing someone away in a similar fashion. Being on the other end of that equation helped me understand how a breakup can be driven by love more than by rejection.
You’ve always been able to craft beautiful ballads that easily steer clear of being overly sentimental or saccharin. “There’s Always More” is a great example. What’s the key to that?
That song was written with Neilson Hubbard, who produced the Mr. Lemons album and co-wrote “Everything But You,” and Amber Rubarth, who I’m going to be collaborating more with in the coming year. A three-way write usually starts with a long talk, and this was no exception. We found ourselves talking about the importance of silence, or sitting with a feeling or thought instead of needing to talk it do death or try and fix everything. There’s not as much silence as there used to be. It’s still there to access, but it’s much more of a conscious practice — the Western world is a very noisy, distracting place to live.
The other idea in that song is about the inherent limitations of language. We can’t describe things unless we name them, but as soon as we name them, we limit our perception. Words end up being these tiny stepping stones in a vast lake.
“The Easy Ones” offers up some pretty sage advice that, I presume, you were pointing at yourself. But it applies to the entire songwriting community and beyond. You proved, with Toad, that “pop” songs can have both style and substance. So why do you think so many don’t?
“The Easy Ones” was written for the Santa Barbara chapter of the Bushwick Book Club. They have a bunch of songwriters read a book and write a song or two about it. Our book was The Art of Happiness by HH the Dalai Lama. It’s loosely based on the idea of Tonglen, as described in the book, which is a meditation where you breathe in while concentrating on a troubling individual or situation and breathe out compassion and love toward that same point of focus. It’s recommended that you don’t focus on the easy people in your life, that you will go deeper if you practice unconditional love for the ones that aren’t so easy.
I like that song. It’s fairly universally applicable. As far as pop songs with style and substance… who knows?! I’ve always been drawn to the thornier questions. My family liked to talk about politics and religion around the table, so it came as a shock when I found out that those are the two things you’re not supposed to address in polite conversation. I just write about what I’m interested in.
In addition to your new solo album, this year also marked the 25th anniversary of Fear. What’s the overriding lesson or perspective gleaned when you look back from now to then?
Over and over, the lesson is that a little more gratitude would always have been a good idea. Then again, I am where I am. I wouldn’t be here, happy in the way I am right now, unless I lived the life I lived. I lost a couple decades to severe depression. It was hard on the people around me, particularly my former wife and bandmates. I was kind of a wreck. Nothing was even particularly wrong in my life; it was just an exercise in self-inflicted pain. I can look back at it now and see it as a waste or as an extended master course in developing compassion. It means I can serve others and be present for the ones I love in a way I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Still — a little more gratitude always is never a bad thing.