Interview – Glen Phillips: Appetite For Empathy, Or A Fillip For Integrity

July 23, 2017



Glen Phillips, once and occasionally present Toad The Wet Sprocket frontman, has released a poetic, honest new solo album called Swallowed By The New, on which he examines heartbreak, depression, grief and, ultimately, hope.


You’ve talked about – as part of the processing of life after Toad – sabotaging your career; of not wanting to be set up for another heartbreak. Swallowed By The New is partly a response to the end of your marriage, obviously another difficult period. How were you able to proceed, in creative terms, off the back of both those scenarios?

After Toad was so long ago I’d just be making it up if I tried to answer. After the end of the marriage, I needed to keep my head straight. These songs were about keeping myself on the right path and not succumbing to bitterness or blame. I’ve known too many divorced men who still have a wheel stuck in that ditch. It was important to me to close that chapter of my life with dignity and gratitude, and doing it publicly was both a great way to hold myself to higher truth and hopefully help others along similar journeys.


Did the “post-sabotage” context allow for less stress or pressure from expectations? There’s a fine line between purposefully giving people less to invest in to remove that sort of weight and aiming for success on your own terms…

I’m not sure if I’m entirely post-sabotage yet. It’s a process and old habits are hard to break. I’m certainly trying to be more focused on the work itself and generous motives as opposed to career thinking. When I get career-minded, things don’t work at all. Part of getting out of self-sabotage is just avoiding the territory where I know I’m conflicted, so the more I concentrate on service and art the better life gets. I can tour enough to make a living and the less I stress about the business side of things the more things seem to open up creatively. There’s a lot of pressure these days for everyone to think like an entrepreneur. I think we could benefit more if there was some better encouragement for just being a citizen, a helper and healer, a good friend, a member of a community. I realise there’s a power to money and success that can make things move in the world, but for most of us the work is less abstract, more about the people we touch and the love we give.


The music industry clearly hurt you – as it does so many great artists – but not everything can be done alone or independently. How does your current professional support system differ from what you had from a label?

Well, the current system is much smaller. The kind of music I do doesn’t get funding as art, so it has to manage in the world of commerce, and it does so marginally. It supports me and is a labour of love or supplemental income for those who work with me. The size of the outfit definitely limits its opportunity for growth, but it’s limited more than anything by where I choose to put my efforts. I’m getting a little smaller, a little more local and a little more private as I age. I’m trying to figure out ways of making a living when I’m not touring – I’m pretty late to that game, so it’s a frightening shift. The label days were great, but they are gone for good, at least in the way they used to be. The world of music business has shifted mightily, and new models are just beginning to emerge. It remains to be seen if the new ways of doing business will actually benefit artists or not. There are some immediate improvements, but there has also been a consistent devaluing of intellectual property. I think the battle has just begun. I’m also of an age where I might be happy to duck out and not worry about such things. We’ll see.


Toad The Wet Sprocket music is, or was, often referred to as “college rock”, which for some has connotations of irresponsibility, partying and all the rest. But it’s generally so much more profound than that – lyrically, certainly, but also in the arrangements, keys and moods chosen. How does getting your musical output defined by others sit with you? And do you react differently now to the way you did when Toad was at its peak?

We were a college band when we came out. I was only 18 before we were on commercial radio and we were touring college campuses and being played on college radio stations. I don’t mind the label as our starting point, but at some point everyone does graduate or drop out… College isn’t just partying, right? Before there was football there was philosophy, lest we forget. Others will always define what you do. It’s the nature of the beast. I make music and other people get paid to talk about it. We were never darlings of the press, so as part of my post-sabotage self-care regime I am trying to concentrate on the smaller but hopefully deeper impact of the work I’m doing now and act like the media doesn’t exist – except when I have to type out answers to a journalist’s questions.


In terms of picking your battles when it comes to your musical legacy and the way it’s interpreted or used by others, what are the areas where you draw a line in the sand that nobody should cross?

I’m fine if people don’t like my music. It bugs me when my intentions or sincerity are questioned. We lost the battle with the taste-makers a while ago, and were not considered the cool kids. If I’m bugged by that, it’s the teenage part of me that still wants to be cool. That’s mine to deal with. The fact is there isn’t much of a legacy. I think my music will be forgotten pretty soon. That’s just the way it is. Most people just last a little longer through their children and then fade away. I don’t think I’ll be very different. If you feel entitled to some kind of immortality it kind of sucks the passion out of making the most of the few days you have. The living days are where the gold is. The nice thing about getting older is nobody has to worry about whether it’s ok to like the music they like, they can just go ahead and enjoy it.


You’ve said that Toad’s music “props a lot of doors open”. How do you relate to what you wrote 25 or more years ago?

I enjoy the perks of being a musician. I get to meet really fascinating people. It blows my mind when I think of the people I get to call friends, and most of them I would not have met except through music. I can relate to a good deal of what I wrote back in the day. I’m happy that my subject matter was pretty consistent with my current values. It’s strange sometimes touring with the band because the service we provide is mostly centred in reactivating a connection to who they were when they were in their teens or early twenties. It’s vital to remember that passion and clarity. It’s also true that my internal experience of making that music was very different than their experience hearing it. If I want to go back to those memories I would have to go see the Waterboys or Replacements. My own band wasn’t what I was listening to in those days, it was what I did. When I play solo shows I can carry people on a journey that’s a little more current, and I think my experience is closer to that of the audience. Both experiences are valid, and they complement each other.


The song Grief And Praise is another high water mark in terms of your ability to match thematic heft with accessibility. “Sing while you’re able, in grief and praise”: can you share something of the philosophical journey to the place where you’re able to sing that line? 

Grief and Praise was a concept taken from

Martin Prechtel. He did a talk on the subject and later expanded it to the book The Smell Of Rain On Dust. He says that in the Mayan language, “grief” and “praise” are the same word, and refer to the outward expression of love in the face of inevitable loss, so grief is praising what you love and have lost, while praise is grieving what you love and will lose. I was deep in grief and the divorce literature wasn’t working for me. People like Mr Prechtel, Pema Chodron, Stephen Jenkinson, Mary Oliver and David Whyte really got me through.


Do you have to be hurt to sing about hurt?

David Whyte says that heartbreak is the inevitable by-product of loving anything deeply. I tend to agree. I have really big dynamic range. I love deeply and I crash hard and that’s just the way I’m built. I’ve spent a lot of effort trying to fight that truth or medicate it away, but the more I embrace it the more I can experience the painful parts without letting them define me or injure me. It’s all part of the journey.


Do you know when you’ve written something profound, or does that only become clear via responses from listeners?

Sometimes I get surprised, but I usually know if a song works. If I can’t sing it without crying and have to train myself to make it through cleanly, then I have a pretty good idea that it will translate.


Are you compelled to share – through your music – every “soul moment” (for want of a better phrase) you have, or are some things to difficult or sensitive to give away?

I have my secrets, and ones I keep for others. It’s my job to share the feels, though. So I do.


Part of the writing for Swallowed By The New happened via a songwriting group – being sent a title and a deadline and need to respond. These are intensely personal songs catalysed by being involved with a group. Why do you think that particular paradox occurred – is it the question of art not having meaning unless it’s observed,something you refer to in your song Unwritten on the album?

Creativity requires limitations. If there is no container then you have no idea where to start. It’s not really a paradox. Art has its own meaning. I write some songs that never have to be shared. I prefer the ones I can bring outside, though.


What are your other songwriting cues, usually?

It’s whatever is going on in my life. I usually store up a few subjects I want to address and then let the muses throw it into alignment.


Does it matter if these new songs endure like Toad’s Walk On The Ocean or All I Want – or is that a question you can only answer much further down the line?

In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter at all. We are a little miracle planet on the outer spiral arm of an average galaxy among billions. If the songs serve a few more people then great. If not, that’s ok too.