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Once In Love With Amy, Always In Love With Amy
by Steven Foster
A decade ago, Amy Sherman-Palladino famously tweaked television by creating whip-smart rat-a-tat patter jampacked with pop cultural references, positioning the single parent as best friend, and practically giving an upstart fifth network a hip and profitable reason to exist. Unfortunately, Gilmore Girls influenced a generation of lesser literary talents who turned innovative dialogue into the Diablo Cody drop-speak that now dominates film and television to the point of ad(d) nauseum. But Sherman-Palladino’s one gift to culture that did not become bastardized or watered down was introducing millions to the music of Sam Phillips. In this web exclusive, the savvy, sassy writer talks about Phillips, how the critical darling came to define a unique television sound, and her own hot projects for HBO and SJP.
Amy Sherman-Palladino: So you’re writing about my wonderful Sam?
Steven Foster: Yes, I am. How did you come to find her?
Well, I was a huge Sam Phillips fan … my husband and I both were huge fans of her music. And when we got the crazy show [Gilmore Girls], we used a couple of her songs in the pilot, just as temp music. Then when it got on the air, we cleared it, and we were gonna use a song of hers in the show. When we were trying to figure out who did we want to score it … I mean, everything on TV makes me wanna blow my brains out … and we really wanted the music to have its own kind of voice and the voice for the girls [mother and daughter, played by Lauren Graham and Houstonian Alexis Bledel]. It was actually my husband who said, “You know, we could see if Sam Phillips would have any interest in doing this.” And I’m like [sarcastic], Yeah, of course. What a greeeat idea. But we were in that sort of mode where we’re like, let’s just ask everything of everyone and see who says no to us. Like the day before we said, “Let’s see if Carole King will do our theme song!” Like we were high on crack, we were so shocked the show got picked up.
So we literally just had someone in the department contact her manager or her peeps or whatever, and the next thing I know, Sam would be willing to sit down and talk about it. We were supposed to meet at noon. And I’m like, “She’s rock and roll, she’ll show up at four.” Noon she was there in her tiny little outfits and her little black whatever and looking all hip and perfect, and it was just like it was kismet. Maybe it was the right time at her life to join the insanity. And we got lucky!
Did you discover Sam during The Indescribable Wow or was it The Turning? Or was it before that?
The Turning we actually got after once we knew Sam. And we were like, “We gotta go back to crazy Christian Sam now!” Now we’ve stalked her all the way since infancy. The one she had just put out before we met her I think was Martinis and Bikinis. And we just loved her voice and her music. You know her voice is so specific and her lyrics are just so awesome. I have no idea what she’s talking about, but I love it anyhow. She’s just great. And the most delightful person to hang out with. She was a person. It’s weird. You know, she never pushed a piano out of a window, or beat up a model, or did any of those things I was expecting. She was really into creating this sound and it was a lot of … I mean, the music in Gilmore was very important to us because we have great respect for music. My husband and I and my friend Helen [Pai, co-producer] handpicked every single piece of music that went in there. We didn’t have a music supervisor. The one time they suggested something from the studio, the silence was so painful for them, they never did it again. It was very important that everything we put in there was personal. And we loved her so much. Her voice is so haunting. The first time we met, she cut a bunch of cues and one of her cues she sang on, used her voice on. And we thought Jesus Christ, we never thought about that.
Using her voice as another instrument. That just changed everything. It changed the way we thought about scoring the show.
You said her voice was so specific. Love that.
It is. Her voice might be my most favorite female voice ever. It’s kind of like Joan Didion’s writing to me. It’s a little, um, haunted. It’s a little stepped back from it, so it sort of creates this sort of mood and tone. There’s something about it that’s all-enveloping. I just love her voice.
Did you realize when you were working with Sam that the music would become this iconic? It was huge for that show. I mean the show was seminal, but the music… The show would not have been the show without the music.
That’s a very high compliment to Sam. And the other artists who played on it. But it’s true. We went into it with the feeling that we wanted the music to be that important. Because I think music on television is just uniformly dreadful. It is mundane, it says nothing. They use it to say, “Here’s a funny moment!” like everyone’s retarded, you know? It’s not an extension of the drama, it’s distraction. It’s like, “I’ll distract you, so you won’t know how shitty the show is.”
It’s like a laugh track.
That, to me, is what music on television is. They score everything from beginning to end so that after awhile the music is just like white noise. It’s not giving it its due, its place. Everything has its place. Shows would go by, and we wouldn’t put a lot of music in because to me the music was an extension of the drama, so if you just throw it in under everything, it’s like throwing a washing-machine sound effect in there, it’s not the point of it. It’s like having two characters have a long, not very interesting discussion for no other reason except to fill up screen time.
The thing about Sam’s music is it sounded like it was coming out of the girls’ heads. It really felt connected, for me. For me. I don’t know about anybody else. And I really don’t give a shit about anybody else. But for me it felt like it was an extension of their thoughts. And if they had music going in their head during a certain emotional thing in their life, if they were real people, this would be the music that was going on. And I think that is what elevated the show. Because it wasn’t a wasted element in the show. Everything was trying to say a little something, add a little something to it.
There were so many moments in the show where there was this little “la la la” that broke your heart.
Do you find her lyrics resonating with you as a person, as a writer?
Well, her music inspires things. It has made me write scenes for the music. It’s like you’ll be walking around sometimes and something will happen and you’re like, “Oh, I got a story out of that.” Or I’ll have a fight with my mother and I’m like, “I’m writing that crap down. Somebody’s saying that in a week and a half.” Her songs are the same way. Her songs inspire emotion and they make you feel a certain way, so it makes you think, as a storyteller. Hey, I love when a talented anybody comes along. It’s great. But especially music, women, I don’t know it’s like … there’s just not many talented people in music. [Both laugh]
It’s so goddamn hard. It’s so hard, because the ones who have talent have no support system. If you can’t be propped up by a machine, they really don’t know what to do with you nowadays. But there’s something about her. And the thing is that if you know Sam, she’s … the first time I saw her perform I saw her at the Roxy and she stood up there in all of her black—and you know she’s got that blonde hair and that pixie fairy face—and she stands there and she looks at the audience like, “I f–king hate you people.”
“Don’t talk. Or f–k around. Drink your beers quietly. Because I’m here to do my shit and then I’m gonna leave.” There was something about it. There was nothing she said to the audience, there was just a presence. And when I met her, I’m like, “My God, you hated us!” She’s like, “What?!” And if you meet Sam…
Yes, she’s nothing like that.
She’s a delight! With a great sense of humor and she’s fun to go have burgers and fries with, and she likes fancy cocktails, and she likes to shop and talk about purses, and yet there’s this … this gravitas to her onstage that’s like there’s this whole other side to her that is melancholy and angry, and it’s wry and it’s ethereal, and it’s not full of shit. Like a lot of female songs can be full of shit. There’s something of such weight to her when she sings that you just don’t dick around. It’s serious stuff.
You’re dead-on. On a lighter note, lemme ask: How did the bathroom come into play? (On the cover of Don’t Do Anything, Phillips is photographed in a bathtub. Sherman-Palladino is thanked for the tub in the liner notes.)
Oh, Jesus Christ, that’s my bathtub! Dude, this is Sam’s loony-tune world and welcome to it. We got a call. We weren’t even here. We were in New York, and she was like, “I wanna take some pictures in your house.” And I’m, “Okay, baby, I don’t even know what condition the house is in. I don’t know if it’s clean. There might be a rat in the attic. But you know, go.” Because we’ve got this big old crazy house that is way too large for us, and it’s very silly, and it’s got a lot of things in it. So Sam’s just like, “I just have to take a couple pictures. I won’t even go in the house. Lemme just go in the back yard.” And I’m like, “Alright, you do whatever you want.” And then later on I hear, “Oh, my god, I was in your bathtub.”
Whaaaat!?! And sure enough, there’s a picture of Sam lying in my bathtub. And I hope it was clean. I think it was clean. I think the cleaning lady had come. But, God love her. That is the world of Sam and the mind of Sam. It’s an interesting mind. Sam Phillips sitting in my bathtub. That’s it. I don’t need anything else. Bono could come up to me, and I’d go, “I have no need for you, because Sam Phillips sat in my bathtub.”
What are you doing now, Amy?
Well, I just wrote a movie for Sarah Jessica Parker that we’re trying to set up [The Late-Bloomer’s Revolution, which Sherman-Palladino is also slated to direct]. But the movie industry! Whoo! That takes a long time. That’ll suck your soul outta ya.
And I’m writing a pilot for HBO. I’m just workin’. I’m payin’ bills.
I heard about that. A famous writer and her three writer daughters. Love it. Next time I’ll do a piece on you.
Oh you’re very sweet. And you’re adorable. And just the fact that you’re interested in Sam Phillips makes you a god in my eyes. She’s as good as it gets, man.
Steven Foster also interviews Cheyenne Jackson in this issue of OutSmart magazine.