Grant Lee Phillips at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Thursday (February 26), 10 pm. $15, advance $12.50. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
Grant Lee Phillips has had a celebrated run with 90s alt-rock three-piece Grant Lee Buffalo, two acclaimed solo albums and a third, Virginia Creeper, hitting the streets just this month. But for all that, Phillips's talent still feels like a well-guarded secret. "In some ways it would have been easier to stay in the band. When I left Grant Lee Buffalo it wasn't that I was unhappy," he claims on the phone from southern California. "It just felt like my music needed to have more freedom to express itself. It's too easy to become complacent, to get used to doing something just one way."
Then again, maybe his flirtation with marginalization is one of his greatest defining charms.
"Playing live, you're given a finite amount of time to have an impact," says Phillips. "The tendency is to gravitate toward the known. But often I get the most satisfaction from playing something that's more remote. It took me three years to get around to playing Happiness (from the last album, Mobilize). Now it's one of my favourites, largely because it's sort of a buried track. Buried songs have a special intimacy."
It isn't just his knack for narrative songwriting or his smoky voice that have wrung accolades from critics and peers alike and garnered Phillips a loyal core of listeners. It's the trueness of his personal compass, which keeps him locked on a creative path markedly his own, always straining a little against what came before.
On Mobilize, Phillips conducted his own one-man band, playing every instrument and overdubbing the tracks into lush swaggering gems. Virginia Creeper couldn't be more different. With a large rotating cast of musicians, Phillips has made an album more starkly simple, more achingly spare, than anything he's done to date.
"There's a funny paradox in that," he says. "That the songs sound so light and simple just comes down to working with musicians who were confident enough to spread the music out and let the songs breath. It comes from musicians who are firstly feeling, thinking people.
"It's the first time I've allowed myself to make an album without relying on overdubs, to let go in the studio," Phillips adds. "What you hear is more true to the actual recording than what I'm used to."
To many ears, Virginia Creeper will sound more mainstream than the Grant Lee Phillips we know. But its no cynical grab at the brass ring, just something he'll always court as he continues to straddle the apparent contradictions of pop auteurdom. If there's a little more of John Hiatt in his acoustic folklore, more of Springsteen's mythic Americana, it's just Phillips navigating his own way.
"It's worth the challenge not to paint myself into a corner. There is a strong degree of continuity between all my albums. I'm the continuity. The key is not to be weighed down by what you've already done, not to let it overly define what you do next."