World Turned Upside Down: A Q&A with Grant-Lee Phillips

Watch his new video for the song "Miss Betsy."

Grant-Lee Phillips’ latest album, Widdershins, finds the Nashville-based singer-songwriter delving into big-picture topics, inspired largely by the 2016 election. Phillips, who once held a recurring role in Gilmore Girls as a troubadour musician and helmed the band Grant Lee Buffalo in the 1990s, recently caught up with American Songwriter to discuss the inspiration behind Widdershins and to share his newest music video for his track “Miss Betsy.”

You released your album Widdershins last month — can you tell me about the inspiration behind that project?  

This album was written quite quickly, probably between mid-November of 2016 and the first few weeks of 2017, very much a response to the moment. My albums tend to vacillate between being personal and reflective and, at other times, there’s more of a social parameter. This one’s more of the latter. Perhaps a synthesis of the two — the two ways of writing. Essentially, I found myself with several songs and booked the room here in Nashville. Shortly after I’d written the songs, we were recording the album and within about six months’ time, it was in the pipeline and ready to be released.

Can you explain the title to me?

The title was probably the last thing to arrive. I tend to seek out that theme or through-line after the work is completed. I stand back and I look at it and, in this case, it was clear that I was talking about a world turned upside down, an inversion of truth, and so I found myself looking for the proper title. I’d written a song called “Walk In Circles” with the lyric being, “I’d rather walk in circles with the witches.” And that led me to this very old and witchy word called “widdershins,” which means “to move counter to the sun.” And I thought, wow, that’s quite mysterious. And it does suit the sentiment of the album: Which direction are we moving — are we becoming more accountable as people? Are we rising to the moment? Or, are we entrenched in old ideas that never worked so well to begin with?

Looking at your lyrics, you seem to pull from history a lot, like Marie Antoinette in “Unruly Mobs.” Why would you say that is?

Characters like these — Marie Antoinette, Cassandra, there’s a few others — they have a way of turning up in my songs from time to time. They make a cameo. I enjoy playing with characters like that in the way that I do like working with colors. And these characters are colorful. When I toss something out there like that, let’s say, Marie Antoinette, it’s likely that we both have a sense of the metaphor: someone who’s abusive in their power, maybe has an aloof way of looking down on those below their station. And we all know, or most of us have an idea, of the fate that was awaiting Marie Antoinette. So, it’s a great symbol for that sort of inequality; that’s how I use it. I’m not necessarily trying to provide a history lesson or expect that anyone’s going to open a book, but I enjoy those things myself, and they’re merely characters who I adopt and use in a different way.

The album ends with “Liberation.”  Do you consider it a hopeful ending?

[Laughs] Hopeful ending to the album or to civilization?

Either!

I guess it’s easier to end an album than it is a whole society. No, I wouldn’t say it has any ulterior motive in terms of being hopeful or otherwise. It’s merely an observation on the doublespeak that is often at play, the way that power is abused, and the way that our natural inclination to come together is often used against us. Our desire for liberty, for instance, or our desire for security — the idea that we could be told that we will be all the more secure once we are walled in or we will be all the more safer when everyone is packing heat. That kind of contrary through-the-looking-glass kind of thinking — that’s what I’m tampering with in that song. So, I don’t know if its optimistic or cynical, it’s merely a reflection.

You’ve lived in Nashville for a few years now. Has Nashville inspired your songwriting or your sound?

What Nashville has provided me with is a place to live where I am at peace or I am inspired by the natural beauty. The history is fascinating here in this part of the country. And the geographical access to so many other neighboring states and being on the East Coast where I tour quite a bit or being able to fly to Europe so quickly, all of that makes a difference in my mundane professional life. But I’ve also met some fantastic musicians. I think some of the best musicians you’ll find in the world are here — expressive musicians who are really nerds about it, people who really authentically love playing and will play until they fall asleep standing up. A couple of the guys who recorded on this album with me — Jerry Roe and Lex Price — I’ve now made two albums with them and I’m always thinking of what lies next because I enjoy playing with them so much. So that’s been probably the biggest plus — just meeting so many incredible people here.

You’re about to start your March tour. How do you think Widdershins will translate live?

It’s quite often the case where I tour solo acoustically, which you would think has its drawbacks. I suppose it’s a different experience to hear an artist in that fashion than it is with a full-blown band. For me, I have embraced it. It’s an opportunity to travel through so many areas of my album-making. It’s the case where the songs usually begin with me and the acoustic guitar sitting on the couch playing. And then I make the album, the album becomes a little more robust, and then when the time comes to take to the road, I often do it with nothing but the guitar. So, it’s sort of a full circle experience. It makes for a very intimate but powerful show.

Watch “Miss Betsy” below and check out Grant-Lee Phillips’ upcoming tour dates.

US Tour Dates:

March 13     Brooklyn, NY     Rough Trade NYC

March 14     Philadelphia, PA     Boot & Saddle

March 16     Washington, DC     Pearl Street Warehouse

March 17     Pittsburg, PA     Club Café

March 20     Evanston, IL      S.P.A.C.E.

March 23     Minneapolis, MN     Cedar Cultural Center

March 24     Seattle, WA      Fremont Abbey Arts Center

March 27     Sacramento, CA      Harlow’s

March 29     San Francisco, CA     The Chapel