Loungin’ with Luna’s Britta Phillips
by David Chiu
Pop music has its memorable share of famous male-and-female pairings: Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Paul and Linda McCartney, Sonny and Cher, and Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart (we won’t count Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley). What makes these pairings so memorable is the chemistry between the principals that conveys a sense of true romance or conflict, like actors engaged in a love scene or going through the motions.
Joining that illustrious company are Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham. Alternative music fans will immediately recognize them as one-half of the band Luna. They are readying the June release of their solo record from Jetset called L’Avventura, a record that recalls mid ’60s to early ’70s lush and orchestrated pop records (think of French pop star Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin). It could also be considered a Valentine’s of sorts to lovers and the broken-hearted, with a few ingredients of regret, angst, and desire thrown in.
How would one of the principals describe the sound of this record? “Somebody said it was beautiful and sick,” recalled Phillips with a slight laugh. “Sick compared to what? It’s romantic, lush, mellow, pretty, and all that stuff. More intimate than Luna.
On the record, Wareham and Phillips debut a few originals such as the lovely “Night Nurse” (which recalls the aforementioned Sinatra-Hazelwood records) and even a surprising dance-styled track in “Ginger Snaps.” “I love that song,” commented Phillips, “pre-isco early ’70s sound, and it’s got some ’80s in there too.”
No doubt L’Avventura’s retro atmospheric and orchestrated sound was due to producer Tony Visconti, who helmed those classic David Bowie and T.Rex albums from the ’70s. “He’s great easy to work with, a fan of the music,” Phillips described working him. “That’s very confidence building. He did some great string arrangements, played guitar and a little bass, and keyboard. He was very organized; he liked accidents or mistakes the good ones.”
Originally L’Avventura was going to be a Dean Wareham solo project of all cover songs, with Phillips only appearing as a session player. It gradually developed into something more. “He had some new songs,” Phillips remembered, “and I had some songs, and he said, ‘Let’s do it together.'”
Aside from some material penned by Wareham, Phillips also contributed two compositions to L’Avventura: the dreamy, ethereal “Out Walking” and the jazzy “Your Baby.” Those songs brought Phillips’ sexy voice and romantic yet introspective lyrics to the fore. “I actually started writing [“Out Walking”] about ten years ago and I dragged it out a year ago and revamped it. “Your Baby”–I based it on a Lee Hazelwood chord progression from a song called “Your Sweet Love.” Phillips relished the opportunity on the record to showcase more of her lead voice as compared to Luna in where she sang backing vocals and maybe the occasional duet. “This is giving a lot more singing opportunities that ‘s for sure,” she acknowledged. ” I love to sing.”
Although he is Luna’s chief songwriter, Wareham has been known to indulge in a cover once in a while-for example, the band tackled a sleepy-version of Guns N’Roses’ “Sweet Child O’Mine”; when he was in Galaxie 500, that band covered works by the Modern Lovers, Yoko Ono, the Velvet Underground, and even the Rutles. On L’Avventura, he and Phillips tackle songs by Native American folksinger Buffy St. Marie (the trippy “Moonshot”) Madonna (the folkish-tinged “I Deserve It”), and the Doors (“Indian Summer”), all of them rendered in a dreamy, atmospheric sort of way comparable to Luna.
Phillips couldn’t offer a concrete reason for Wareham’s fancy for some those covers. “He had chosen ten that he was going to do for that album originally,” she said. ” I don’t know what his criteria really. I guess just songs that he likes [and ] I felt we could bring something to. They just seem to lend themselves.”
Not only is there a sophisticated mod lounge air to the record, but there is also, musically-speaking, genuine heat between Phillips and Wareham in both their duetting and harmonies on some of the album’s tracks, such as on the sly “Night Nurse.” On this record and on the last Luna album Romantica, Wareham has found in Phillips someone a musical partner in crime who can accentuate his songs of yearning and somber meditations. “I think it’s just a natural sympatico musically,” she explained about their collaborations. “We both respond to the same kind of things. It’s kind of just really natural and easy. I love his taste in music and we have similar ideas about things.”
Of the two people on L’Avventura, Dean Wareham might be the more recognizable name having been a founding member of legendary ’80s indie group Galaxie 500 before starting Luna in 1992. However, one may be surprised that Britta Phillips had been involved with music for nearly fifteen years before joining the band in 2000. How she got to where she is now is a story of interesting career turns and perseverance.
Phillips hails from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the daughter in a musically-inclined family; her father played the piano and trombone and her mom sang. “Elton John was probably my first record,” she remembered about her early musical tastes,” and later Blondie, Television, and Talking Heads. And I lived in England in the early ’90s I got into the shoegazing stuff.”
Early on Phillips wanted to pursue a career in music though professionally she started out acting. One of her first forays in entertainment was being the singing voice of the cartoon character JEM in the mid ’80s. Soon after in 1988, she got the part of Billy Swan, the blonde guitar player in the film Satisfaction. At the time, it was Phillips first major acting break. “I had a manager at the time. He told [the agency] that I was a good actress which was just totally made up. I hadn’t done anything. This was actually my first audition and I got it.”
Fans of those goofy ’80s comedies might remember that flick about a young mostly girl band who lands a summer gig, and the film boasted an impressive cast in Justine Bateman, Trini Avarado, Blondie singer Deborah Harry, and soon-to-be Hollywood heavyweights Julia Roberts and Liam Neeson Although the movie added precious little to the cinema, Phillips looked back at that experience somewhat fondly. “It was a blast–really fun. We knew the movie was going to be really silly once we started doing it, so we didn’t worry about it too much.” Other acting gigs for her included appearances in the short-lived ’80s TV dramas Crime Story and Nightingales.
In an ironic way, life imitated art because shortly after her brief acting career, Phillips did end up joining a real-life band called Belltower where she moved to London at the height of the shoegazing sound pioneered by My Bloody Valentine and Lush. “Music was something I wanted to do before [acting] but I hadn’t actually played with a band. It was mainly jingles and home recordings.” Belltower won critical kudos in the British music press (“…a sound that inspires the mind and pleases the body,” raved Melody Maker) and recorded an album Popdropper before they broke up in 1996. Shortly afterwards she joined another group called Ultrababyfat, which released Silver Tones Smile in 1998.
Then Luna’s longtime bassist Justin Harwood announced his departure from the band, during the release of their record The Days of Our Nights in 1999. “I had done a tour with Ben Lee,” Phillips said, “and Ben’s guitar tech also techs for Luna. And he knew that they were looking for someone to replace Justin on the tour and recommended me. I got a call and auditioned for a couple of times. They had me for the tour, and after the tour was over, they asked me to stay on.”
Phillips officially made her recording debut with the band on the Luna Live disc from 2001, but it was on the all-original Romantica where she was credited as a full member. Although considered the new guy (or gal) of the group, Phillips made her presence known, adding honeyed vocal harmonies on the record, bringing a pop element to the band and a contrast to Wareham’s melancholy.
Admittedly, Philips had heard of Luna though admittedly she wasn’t entirely acquainted with their catalog. “I heard a couple of songs but I wasn’t really familiar, much to my chagrin,” she said. “Sometimes when you are busy doing your own thing, you just don’t take the time to really listen to something. So I really wasn’t familiar, which is kind of good in a way. It made me a little less nervous. I’m a big fan now, and of Galaxie 500 too.”
Though music is now her full-time profession, Phillips still has the acting bug and has involved herself again in some film and television projects. “Having been back in New York for the last three years, I do have an agent who signed Dean and I up, and who has been sending me out on voice-over auditions. I actually did a Nestle’s commercial on camera for just the UK only.” Even Wareham has done some work on the silver screen such as on the upcoming indie film Piggy.
Depending on whether L’Avventura meets any varying degree of success or not, Phillips admitted she would love to do another of this sort with Wareham. Later in the year the two plan to tour behind the record and play in the major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. How are people going to perceive this retro, ultra cool record in this environment of prefabricated, bland corporate pop music? “I want them to fall in love it with it,” the singer/bassist said with a tinge of joking glee. “As long as it is something good no matter what. Hopefully Luna fans will like it as well as people who aren’t familiar with Luna.”