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The Power of Failure

To Sam Phillips, the flop of her last album was liberating. This time around, she's out to please only herself.

July 15, 2001|RANDY LEWIS | Randy Lewis is a Times staff writer

Singer-songwriter Sam Phillips turns up for a late-morning interview in a remarkably chipper mood for someone who's not only trying to silence a pesky cough, but is also returning to the music world after five years of wrestling with the feeling that she had "completely failed in every sense of the word."

Now she's happily touting the virtues of failure, a subject she doesn't think gets its due, in her native Los Angeles, the success-at-any-price capital of the world.

"Failure is a really powerful thing, but it's definitely the F-word in Hollywood," the 39-year-old musician says in an upscale coffee shop in the West Hollywood area. She's just ordered a pot of Irish breakfast tea to help soothe her reedy vocal cords.

"Nobody wants to say they're a failure, but I think it's one of the most amazing things that can happen to you," she continues. "And like it or not, especially in Hollywood, it is going to happen eventually, no matter how high you climb, no matter how much power you have."

Failure and its frequent sidekick, alienation, surface repeatedly in "Fan Dance," Phillips' first album of new material since "Omnipop! (It's Only a Flesh Wound, Lamp-chop!)" in 1996.

That album had its admirers but sold only about 26,000 copies, a major letdown after her previous album, 1994's "Martinis & Bikinis," sold more than 100,000 and appeared to position her for an even bigger mainstream breakthrough in a time touted as the era of the female singer-songwriter.

"Certainly by any kind of Hollywood standard or any kind of business standards--like sales--I have failed," she says.

Sales also have a way of feeding an artist's self-image, which Phillips also started calling into question.

"I think, no matter what, if you're honest, you're always wanting to be pretty, wanting to be loved, wanting to be respected, well thought of--that kind of success. But at some point you even have to give that up. You have to overcome that to be brave and to really make your own mark."

All of which led to "Fan Dance," which will be released July 31 by her new label, Nonesuch Records.

She didn't record it as a comeback album. In fact, she didn't even have a record contract when she made it. Her only goal was to please one person--herself. Only with that mission accomplished did she and her producer-husband, T Bone Burnett, let Nonesuch Senior Vice President David Bither hear the songs.

"I don't know whether there's an audience out there," she says. "I guess [Nonesuch executives] thought there was, otherwise they wouldn't have wanted to put it out. It is business--although David Bither does have a little bit of wildcat in him in terms of wanting to take the hard road and wanting to take something that's unlikely and see if it will do well."

Indeed, Nonesuch has expanded from its world-music base in recent years by adding such respected, envelope-pushing artists as Emmylou Harris and Laurie Anderson. Like Phillips, they have also sometimes struggled in the marketplace.

Says Bither, "When we decide to do something, like we did with Sam, we really aren't thinking that much who the audience is. . . . I was thinking, 'This is a great record and I'd love to have it as part of Nonesuch.' . . . We figure that if we love this stuff, there's got to be more people like us who will love it too. And sometimes we've been right." There was a time, less than a decade ago, when Phillips looked like a good bet instead of a longshot for pop success.

"Martinis & Bikinis" almost doubled the combined sales of her two previous, critically lauded albums, "The Indescribable Wow" (1988) and "Cruel Inventions" (1991). But instead of moving closer to the mainstream with "Omnipop!," her songs turned darker, and Burnett unleashed an intriguingly exotic barrage of elaborate production touches that virtually assured no pop radio interest.

"Fan Dance," by comparison, sounds positively ragged. Stripped-down songs come across like rough drafts--most were recorded on the first take--not polished pop gems. But the raw, jagged instrumental settings provided by such esteemed players as guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Jim Keltner were exactly what her raw, jagged lyrics cried out for.

"My life was in such pieces," she says, recalling a 1996 management shakeup at Virgin that left her and "Omnipop" with no record company support, "it was a natural thing for the music to unravel."

In "Wasting My Time" she sings "My soul's a worn-out road where you've left a trail of reminders" as triple-overdubbed cellos saw mightily behind her.

A slightly out-of-tune piano makes what sounds like a false start to kick off "Edge of the World," which begins with the image of "a car in the ocean off of Suicide Bridge."

Rather than continuing the consistently bleak outlook of "Omnipop!," Phillips finds room for optimism.

Near the end of the album she sings, "I've found a new world / There is no end to the good."

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