Sam Phillips’ A Boot and a Shoe is, like her 2001 Nonesuch debut Fan Dance, fiercely intimate in atmosphere and seriously stripped down in arrangement—not so much unplugged as beautifully unvarnished. Although Sam has long been admired for her coolly modern take on Beatles-esque songwriting and studio craft, she decided to move away from elaborate pop production and 21st century technological upgrades with Fan Dance. Since then, she has stuck to this road less traveled.
“I think the human is all that’s left in record production,” Sam explains. “We’ve been through all kinds of technology and tricks. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use those things, but the music has to come from who you are as a human, what you like, how your heart beats, how you move, what you feel. That’s what I think makes this record interesting in this digital age. So much of what’s out there is musically airbrushed. This is not.”
On A Boot and a Shoe, Sam composes her songs with the terseness of an exceptionally smart screenwriter, one whose words alone are as powerful as any picture. She sets a scene, establishes a conflict, hints at motivation, and allows us to conjure up the rest. Her material may be highly personal, but she’s never been a blatantly confessional artist. The weight of what’s not been said or sung or played hangs in the air as dramatically as any third-act revelation.
The seemingly innocuous album title she chose, for example, harbors multiple meanings—some of which only became apparent to Sam herself once the record was completed: “The title represents a lot of things. Usually, I write first and think after. This one seems to be about men and women, opposites, the pairings of things you wouldn’t expect, of people you would never expect. If I want to get conceptual after the fact, it’s about a world of contradictions. But it started out just as being off-balance, walking in a boot and a shoe. As one of my friends said, when you’re thrown off balance it can be funny, but it can distract you from what’s next”
Sam calls this record “the other side of Fan Dance, its twin,” but there are marked differences between the two. The earlier album had a darkly alluring, not quite contemporary, late-night-L.A. feel. In fact, an NPR reviewer remarked, “James Ellroy wrote whole novels in this mood.” A Boot and a Shoe is perhaps more cinema verite than film noir, with its melancholy tales of love betrayed and desires detoured unfolding before what sometimes sounds like a smoky, after-hours jam session. Fan Dance focused on guitars, strings, and ominous bass; this time, Sam and producer T-Bone Burnett turned up the drums, and recorded lots of them, often simultaneously, with Carla Azar, Jay Belarose, and Jim Keltner. The primitive, shuffling rhythms of “Draw Man,” for example, recall the slightly weird, offhand beat of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”
“I completely fell in love with the drummers,” Sam confesses. “”They’re all wonderful drummers—the best that I can think of, totally capable of playing a song by themselves. I don’t know why, but we just had to have two on almost every song. It was a thrill for me, because they all have their own rhythmic personalities.”
Sam plays guitar throughout, and is accompanied on several tracks by the Los Angeles-based Section Quartet. The strings were arranged by Sam’s newest collaborator, multi-instrumentalist Patrick Warren—best known for his work with Michael Penn on No Myth. As Sam explains, “Patrick recently started arranging strings. I loved his playing and sense of melody and I was really excited to get him to arrange some strings on this. I think he did a beautiful job. He was very economical with the strings, which I really like.”
The sessions, Sam explains, were shaped by intuition: “We were in the studio sometimes, at home sometimes. It was very friendly. It took a while to figure out where we were going and it took a while to figure out when we had arrived. That’s the trick: to know when to stop. I hope we stopped at the right place, not too soon or too late.”
Sam has more or less done exactly what she wanted over the course of seven albums produced by T Bone Burnett, including the Grammy-nominated Martinis and Bikinis (1994). She’s followed her unpredictable muse down a zigzag path, gathering inspiration from a wide range of sources: folk, pop, vintage rock and roll, literature, philosophy, the movies, and all the technical marvels a recording studio can offer. That has made her hard to categorize and market, but also that much more fascinating to follow.
Her unadorned, almost-straight-to-tape work for Nonesuch has been perhaps the most startling and rewarding of all her permutations, and she’s planning to take these songs on the road. Although she has performed at clubs in New York and Los Angeles, Sam hasn’t embarked on a proper tour in several years.
She describes herself now as a torch singer, albeit a rather non-traditional one, since she’s more inclined toward brooding than belting. Like her album title, torch is a word Sam applies metaphorically: “Torch can mean tortured, or carrying a torch for someone—meaning you love them, they don’t love you…and all that comes before and after that.” In Sam’s world, “torch” can also meaning holding a light up against the darkness. As she points out, A Boot and a Shoe concludes on a tentatively hopeful note: “ ‘One Day Late,’ in the end, sums it up. I think something good can come out of our pain. I’m not sure if it arrives on time or not, but I do believe that eventually good will win out. Call me crazy.”