Expression comes in many forms for active, outspoken Phillips
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.’
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.