Text and Interview: Alec Coiro
Photos: Luz Gallardo
Britta Phillips is about to release her first solo record Luck or Magic on April 29th after a career in the music industry that extends all the way back to the ‘90s when she was in The Belltower or even earlier to when she was the singing voice of Jem in the ‘80s. Today’s audiences are probably most familiar with Britta as part of the band Luna, a composer for Noah Baumbach or from Dean & Britta, the nom de band that she performs under with her husband Dean Wareham.
The album was born out of a conversation with Scott Hardkiss, who sadly passed away before the album came to fruition. It’s a mix of covers and original compositions. Britta’s unmistakable voice and atmospheric instrumentation is contemporary but also shows her deep rootedness as a master practitioner in the recording studio.
Luck or Magic is a true solo album in the sense that Britta plays the majority of the instruments, and in the cases where there are guest instrumentalists, it’s always a musician who represents a touchstone in Britta’s life and career. Britta ran down all details for me on how the album was produced, Bloberta, relocating to L.A., taking her mom to Jemcon, and what her plans are for a follow-up.
How did the idea for a solo album come to fruition? Did you have songs you wanted to do on your own? Or did you put the songs together after you decided to make the album?
I’d been recording ideas on the side for years, but the idea for a solo album was solidified during a lunch date in early 2012 with my friend Scott Hardkiss. He wanted to help me make a solo album and was really excited about it and I jumped at the chance . I’d known Scott for about 6 years. He’d started out as a DJ and played a key role in the development of America’s rave scene in the 1990s. He was also a big Galaxie 500 fan and did some remixes / mixes for Dean & Britta. In 2011, I did a remix/cover of his song “Come on, Come On” which ended up in the movie The Vow. Tragically, Scott passed away a few days before I drove across the country to relocate to L.A. I was crushed, of course. Two tracks that we’d almost finished ended up on “Luck or Magic.” “Drive” and “Landslide.” Covers I never would have picked myself.
I’d love to know about putting “Luck or Magic” together? Who plays with you on the album? How did you put the band together? How much do you play on the album? And who produced it?
I play almost everything, except drums. And my husband, Dean Wareham, plays guitar on 6 songs. Roger Brogan (Spectrum) plays drums on one song and also co-produced a couple of tracks. Jeffrey Brodsky played drums on every other track on the album in one day. Sean Eden (Luna) plays guitar on one song, “Ingrid Superstar.” Eric Broucek (house engineer at DFA for five years working with LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy, the Juan Maclean and Eleanor Friedberger) co-produced and mixed the album with me in May/June 2015. We recorded drums on top of my home demos and then went about re-recording almost everything else. I re-recorded the bass, but I left my demo guitars on 5 of the tracks. I replaced most of the keys/synths and re-sang all the lead vocals except for two songs, “Landslide” and “Ingrid Superstar.”
What was it like revisiting the world of Jem when Jem and the Holograms came out last year?
I was on tour so I missed the premiere of the movie, but I did get to see a screening with director, Jon Chu, Samantha Newark (the speaking voice of Jem) and Christy Marx (who created the show), along with some Jem fans, so that was fun. I also took my mom to Jemcon 2015 with me last summer. The world of Jem is all about the fans and I interact with them all the time. Being on the set of the movie was a trip, though. Very surreal.
I’m sure many of our readers associate you with New York City because of your frequent collaborations with Noah Baumbach — not to mention the New York bands you’ve been in— but you’ve actually been in L.A. for the past few years. What has the transition been like for you?
I was feeling really awful when I first got here, but the sunshine and the trees and having a back yard with a lemon tree and the quiet… it was what I needed and I haven’t really missed NYC. I miss Brooklyn a bit, but I don’t miss the cold. If I had to drive much out here, I might feel differently, but I enjoy being a hermit most of the time in the little studio in the back. Then I get to go on tour and interact with people (and visit NYC!), so it’s a good balance.
How do you think being a musician has changed since Luna and The Belltower? How has it changed for you specifically and also what’s your perspective on how the industry has changed?
Well, the industry certainly has changed in that the market is flooded with bands and monetary advances for bands are tiny to non-existent – at least in my indie-world. Obviously, there are bands that are doing well – or at least they “look” like they’re doing well. I got a really big advance back in the 90s with my first band, The Belltower. I’m putting my album out on my own label so I’m spending about 90% less and doing more than double the work. But it’s worth it. I spend a LOT more time promoting myself on social media and pledge music these days. It was difficult at first but my Twitter skills have improved. And writing all the updates for pledgers on pledge music was eye opening. The more I write, the more I see and understand what I’ve done, what I’m doing, and what I want to do next. Otherwise, these motivations and ideas stay a mystery even to myself. Doing a solo album is a world away from playing in Luna where I just show up with my bass. And even with Dean & Britta, Dean always did more interviews and was more involved in the business end of things so this has been a real learning experience for me, being at the center of it all… and being the one with all the responsibilities. It makes me nervous but it’s also thrilling.
You’re a multi-talented performer and artist. You’ve worked on a number of disparate projects, including — I just discovered — some of the voices on Moral Orel. Is your work outside of the music something you actively look for or does it find you?
My friend Dino Stamatopoulos created Moral Orel. He told me about it when Luna was playing our last show in L.A. on our “farewell tour” in 2004 and I reminded him that I was also an actress and that I’d love to audition. So I sent him my Bloberta voice and he said it was just what he was looking for (I ended up doing a lot more voices on the show as well as his next show, Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole). But I don’t have a VO agent in L.A., so…. unless I run into someone at a show…. ; )
What do you have planned for after the album is released? Will you tour? Do you have a follow-up project in mind?
I don’t have a tour budget so unless I have a radio hit or sell a lot of albums, I don’t think I can afford to tour. But I will be opening shows for Luna and they will be my band along with keyboard player, Marte Solbakken! I want to do another solo album for sure but I’ll need to find the time!! I think it’ll be easier/quicker the second time around. I really didn’t know what I sounded like as a solo artist before. Now I have a jumping off point.