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Glen Phillips and the artist’s life

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Glen Phillips is not jaded. Despite the success he’s had with his band Toad the Wet Sprocket and with his solo work, there is still that sense of wonder, that idea that when it comes to music, you can never stop learning or doing something new.

“I need that to keep sane,” he laughs. “It probably hasn’t helped my career. People want to know what you sound like, and my only response to that is ‘which album?’ There are certain things I do with songwriting, but I try to avoid making the same album twice. But at some point people want to know that you sound like a certain thing and predict that. And I’ve done a terrible job of providing that for people. (Laughs) But I’ve kept myself amused, which I’m happy about.”

There are plenty of people who “get it” though, and they’re likely to be at SubCulture on Bleecker Street in New York tonight to see Phillips do his thing on the current solo tour that precedes a Summer trek with Toad that sees the band team up with Counting Crows.

“It’s a different thing,” said Phillips of doing solo shows. “More awkward stories, things are a little looser, and there’s not all these technical needs song to song. Usually I write down 30 or so songs that I might want to sing that night, and I kind of wing it. It’s very much a low-key kind of shared experience as opposed to being a show. Toad has our particular technical needs and even to a degree more of a need to provide the fans with the songs they expect to hear, so we pay attention to that. I still play ‘All I Want’ and ‘Walk on the Ocean’ in the solo shows and it’s not like I ignore that entire side of things, but it’s a different set of criteria. The people who are showing up to my solo shows, they want to hear the rarer songs.”

Several of those rarer songs show up on his latest release, Coyote Sessions. Containing ten tracks that he describes as “beloved orphans,” the album contains songs that he has played live and that he has co-written with other artists but never recorded himself.

“For the people who’ve followed my stuff and seen me live a bunch, a lot of these have showed up in live shows and some are ones that I meant to finish but never really had,” he said. “A lot of them are also songs that have been on other people’s records but I hadn’t done my own version. It’s a mixed bag, and it’s a weird little collection of songs, but it was fun to do that.”

And as an extra incentive to check it out, Coyote Sessions also features Phillips and his friends playing live around a single microphone. It’s good stuff.

“It was an experiment in seeing if everybody can listen and respond to the room, play less and play lighter, and allow the room to dictate their volume instead of mixing everything after the fact, which most musicians are pretty used to at this time,” he said. “I had a ton of fun doing it, and it definitely also showed me places where I’d like to prepare a little more next time and rehearse things out. I miss vocal harmonies. But it’s an amazing thing to get everybody to concentrate that hard just because nothing’s separated later, and what you play is what you get. I love what happens when you get a bunch of people in a room and let the music happen that way.”

It’s also a perk of the ever-changing music industry in that artists like Phillips can go into the studio, jam some material out and then deliver it to the public without the restraints that used to keep such things from happening. Yet after some misses to go along with the hits, the 43-year-old Californian does have to be picky about what projects he chooses to focus his time and money on.

“I can pretty much do what I want within the realms of what I can afford to do,” he said. “Sometimes I think a little small just because I’ve had a few projects where I was like ‘okay, I’m gonna really get behind this and try to make something happen,’ and I found myself at the end of the year, and my wife, God bless her, she still looks me in the face, but I’ve lost my shirt a couple of times. So it’s an odd thing – for me, I think more in terms of balancing what I need as an artist and what is a safe or good investment, and what is a creatively important investment. How do I balance my artistic desires with the need to make a living? It’s a very strange thing to do. My risks have not always panned out in the earning an income for my family way, so it’s been interesting to go back and try to ask what I want. It’s an odd thing to do something you love and have your creative output be tied to your occupation.”

Glen Phillips is pulling it off though.

Glen Phillips plays SubCulture in New York City tonight, April 10. For tickets, click here

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