Ex­pres­sion comes in many forms for ac­tive, out­spo­ken Phillips

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE&STYLE - By Clare Croft

Gretchen Phillips has a mane of note. Her grav­ity-de­fy­ing gray hair cuts a fit­ting sil­hou­ette for a woman who’s prac­ti­cally a les­bian mu­si­cal su­per hero­ine.

Want proof of Phillips’ su­per­hu­man sta­tus? As she strides into the Cher­ry­wood Cof­fee­house, it seems Austin hu­mid­ity has barely damp­ened her tow­er­ing hair, and she has more on­go­ing projects than most artists could track.

Sit­ting with me in the East Austin cof­fee house, Phillips out­lines her lat­est slew of en­deav­ors. She de­scribes her next al­bum, “Disco Dance Party 2000,” a col­lab­o­ra­tion with David Driver set for fall re­lease, as “disco an­thems for mid­dle-aged queers.” She’s shop­ping her per­for­mance piece, “Manlove,” to na­tional venues. She’s lead­ing two bands, Gretchen’s Disco Plague and a Joy Di­vi­sion cover band. And she’s a nascent fur­ni­ture-maker.

Phillips says she’s never been con­tent with just one project or per­sona.

“I don’t want to be per­ceived as a girl with a gui­tar, al­though I’m not a bad ver­sion of that,” she says. “My whims pull me into all these other places that re­ally are about in­ti­macy and spec­ta­cle.”

Phillips be­gan mak­ing mu­sic grow­ing up in Galve­ston. Since mov­ing to Austin in the early ’80s, she’s had a va­ri­ety of bands, in­clud­ing Meat Joy, Girls in the Nose and Two Nice Girls, with whom she wrote and recorded the catchy, well-known “I Spent My Last Ten Dol­lars on (Birth Con­trol and Beer).”

She’s also crafted solo al­bums, in­clud­ing the 2008 “I Was Just Com­fort­ing Her.”

Af­ter that re­lease, Phillips had a cri­sis. Her cur­rent com­mit­ment to work­ing across a wide artis­tic spec­trum stemmed from re­assess­ing her pur­pose while re­cov­er­ing from a hys­terec­tomy.

Phillips re­counts her strug­gle in a tone partly sar­cas­tic, partly earnest.

“As a non-child­bear­ing les­bian, I never re­ally knew what was in my uterus,” she jokes.

“It seems as though it was hous­ing a mu­si­cal mojo that, upon its re­moval, left me flail­ing and bereft. I didn’t have my old de­sires in re­gard to what mu­sic means to me.”

She found her­self de­test­ing a mu­sic in­dus­try that re­quired her to spend more time on self-pro­mo­tion via Face­book than talk­ing about mu­sic with fans and friends.

She found her­self ask­ing, “What else could I do?” So she started tak­ing wood­work­ing classes. (Af­ter we fin­ished up at Cher­ry­wood, Phillips took me to her house and hap­pily pointed out her gor­geous din-

‘I to­tally need disco. It’s a very strong hu­man need to dance. Ig­nore that need at your peril.’

gretchen phillips


ing room ta­ble, which she made.)

“As a mid­dle-aged per­son (it was great) to be learn­ing and hav­ing the brain work in new ways, in­stead of stick­ing with what I’m pro­fi­cient at,” says Phillips. “Af­ter eight months of be­ing a merely ad­e­quate welder and fur­ni­ture maker, it felt so good to go back into the stu­dio — so plea­sur­able to feel skilled again.”

But fur­ni­ture and mu­sic weren’t enough. Phillips has also made for­ays into the­atre, with her 2007 solo show “Don’t Stop Believin’” and now “Manlove.”

She says, “There is this in­ter­est­ing ten­sion be­tween what it means to play late to drunk peo­ple ver­sus play­ing at 8 to peo­ple who know for real that they’re not sup­posed to talk be­cause we’re in a theater.”

Phillips’ arts in­ter­est be­gan in theater, but she switched to mu­sic in her teens. She says the shift was “cal­cu­lated for max­i­mum pro­pa­ganda.” She could get her mes­sage out to any­one, any­where.

The nec­es­sary mes­sage in the early ’80s seemed clear: Phillips wanted to of­fer a les­bian point of view.

“We were so un­der­rep­re­sented in the early ’80s,” she says. “In ’81 or ’82, some­one could say ‘I don’t’ know any gay peo­ple.’ That gave a sin­gu­lar­ity of fo­cus to my work be­cause les­bian vis­i­bil­ity was so bloody im­por­tant. I didn’t want for queers to feel all alone. It’s tragic for that to be the case.”

She says the work of les­bian ac­tivism is not over, but has shifted.

“Just be­cause ‘The Real L Word’ is on TV doesn’t mean the work is done,” she says. “Now we need a gi­ant va­ri­ety of voices. Queers need to run the gamut from ‘Gay mar­riage is go­ing to save us all’ to ‘I’m very skep­ti­cal of gay mar­riage.’”

Phillips says part of the next step is build­ing coali­tions be­tween les­bians and gay and straight men. That’s the im­pulse be­hind “Manlove,” where Phillips traces her con­nec­tion to a va­ri­ety of men from her fa­ther to Barack Obama.

“Manlove’s” tag line is “How sweet it is to love men when your in­vest­ment is limited.”

Phillips’ pol­i­tics take on an al­most evan­gel­i­cal zeal as she starts talk­ing about Disco Plague.

“I to­tally need disco,” she says. “It’s a very strong hu­man need to dance. Ig­nore that need at your peril. Disco isn’t about sit­ting in your seat and lis­ten­ing to me say some­thing re­ally heart­felt, but in­stead for it to be like ‘Let’s get mov­ing!’ As a queer, I re­ally do claim disco as an enor­mous mu­si­cal con­tri­bu­tion that we and a long line of peo­ple of color and queers of color made. I feel like this town needs an ex­plo­sive disco freak­out.’” This is prac­ti­cally a call to the disco al­tar.

Phillips is out of town for the rest of the sum­mer, in­clud­ing mak­ing her an­nual pil­grim­age to the Michi­gan Womyn’s Mu­sic Fes­ti­val. Upon her re­turn, disco church re­opens. Her first fall show will be with Disco Plague.

Look for the disco ball cast­ing a shadow of awe­some hair across the dance floor.


Singer-song­writer Gretchen Phillips’ dis­tinc­tive hair is just part of her great pres­ence.

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