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MUSIC Gretchen Phillips: A DIY performer
by Sarah Terez Rosenblum
2009-06-17

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Out lesbian performer Gretchen Phillips knows how to relax, although the amount she has accomplished over her decades spanning career would seem to indicate otherwise. Boasting a resume fairly bursting with genre-busting endeavors, Phillips has done everything from forming and dissolving iconic bands Two Nice Girls and Girls in the Nose to writing and performing a one-woman show to designing her own cover art.

Set to perform at Sappho's Salon's one-year anniversary bash at Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark, Saturday, June 20, as well as a Green Note Productions house party Sunday, June 21, Phillips chatted with Windy City Times about her writing process, Katy Perry's man-centric pseudo-lesbianism and her own well-earned downtime.

Windy City Times: You'll be playing a house concert in Chicago. You have such a DIY ethos I'm guessing you'll be right in your element.

Gretchen Phillips: Well, I'm comfortable in lots of different elements. My first house concerts were punk parties in the early eighties when, in lieu of being able to find a venue, you'd get people together and just play a kick-ass show. What I'm doing now feels like going back to the basics of childhood, where you put on a show in the living room for anyone you can rope into watching. That's the spirit of a house party.

WCT: You do some spoken word when you perform. What intrigues you about that format?

GP: Oh, just that I don't have to write a song; it's just easier. It's not even spoken word. I think of spoken word as like, you have up-talk? At the end? Of every line? It's just me reading prose. I can write something that day and read it at a show that night. Writing songs can take a while, so that allows me to cut to the chase.

WCT: What's your writing process like?

GP: I do morning pages, which I've been doing for years: three pages first thing. I write longhand and go back and reference my journaling. I was always a good but somewhat reluctant student when told that we would have homework. If there had been a way that the teacher would have said, don't you dare open your books when you get home, the rebel in me would have done my fucking homework. When I know I have a deadline, you will find me doing anything but that task. I've always been a person who needs for the lightning bolt to strike me in my brain and then I can furiously work but, otherwise, I'm a big fat procrastinator.

WCT: How has the music scene changed over the course of your career? Is it easier now to be an out lesbian?

GP: It's changed enormously and I think it's way easier. With Katy Perry's version of I Kissed a Girl on the radio, you have a younger generation for whom homosexuality has been way more normalized. And then you have everything that's been so helpful about Girls Gone Wild. [ Laughs ] I'm kidding.

WCT: What are your thoughts on Katy Perry's song?

GP: I hate the ahistorical notion that you can just transfer another hit song by the exact same title. Maybe you don't know that [ Jill Sobule's original song I Kissed a Girl ] existed, but there is another song. It's also interesting that in order to have a hit song about lesbianism, there's gotta be a guy involved. Even my song, I Spent my Last Ten Dollars on Beer and Birth Control, it's all about a guy. The hits have a man, if not at the center, at the margins. A song that's girl on girl, there's no dude involved, its not even a coming out story, its just about how much I love you—it just hasn't happened yet.

WCT: What about being a woman in the music industry, has that gotten easier?

GP: So much easier. One of the most challenging things back in the day, was just not to be treated like shit by guys at music stores who had this incredibly condescending attitude about my choice of pics and strings. There was a lot of discouragement when I started to play, and that's not the case now. People are getting more used to seeing women rock. That's thrilling.

WCT: Speaking of rocking, you're cross-disciplinarily creative: one person shows, songs, album art. When an idea comes to you, how do you know which direction to take it?

GP: That's a very interesting question; I've never been asked that. The ideas are pretty specific. I generally know where they're gonna go. I like to do so many kinds of things. I can't just do one thing, and I always have new creative interests, I'm always trying to be more proficient.

WCT: What does relaxation look like to you?

GP: Oh honey, that's what I was doing before you called. I was reading a book and lying down. I spend a tremendous amount of time lying on my back … reading. And I totally enjoy television.

WCT: What do you watch?

GP: I love your traditional lesbian fare—Buffy, Xena. I like The Sopranos. And Lifetime? I love Lifetime movies so much. I have such a dream of being able to act in some of those, and maybe me and Kate Jackson are neighbors and of course her daughter marries the wrong guy and he turns out to be a killer, and maybe I come in at the last minute and either get mercilessly hacked to pieces or perhaps save the day. Lifetime is such a great channel: one cautionary tale about how women should never interact with men after another.

WCT: Back to your work, you say your latest album [ I was Just Comforting Her ] is meant to be listened to as a whole, in this day of i-tunes, a less achievable goal than it may once have been. As an artist, what's it like to know that while you may have a particular vision for your work, your audience's buying habits or even individual quirks may undermine that vision?

GP: I think ultimately everything we try to control gets out of our control. All I can do is put that idea out there, say, this is my plan, or just say that I personally listen to stuff as an album, because I still actually buy albums. But I can't control shit.

WCT: It sounds like you're able to disengage from how your work is perceived.

GP: So much of the joy for me is in the creating. I just feel great that after this amount of time there are still people who are interested in what I'm up to.


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