The acid pop singer/songwriter born Leslie Phillips earned the nonsensical nickname "Sam" as a child; only when she was recording her debut album did she finally hear of the other, more renowned Sam Phillips and learn of his legacy as the founder of Sun Records, the label which launched the careers of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. In retrospect, however, her relative distance from the history and conventions of pop music may have been in her favor and accounted for the fresh perspective her work offered; a critic's darling, Phillips sold few records, but her songs won widespread praise not only from the press but also from her fellow performers.
Born in 1962, Phillips was raised in Glendale, California. As a child she became fascinated by philosophy and religion, primarily fundamentalism; she began writing songs at the age of 14 as an outlet for exploring her Christian beliefs, as well as for coping with family strife. In 1984, under the name Leslie Phillips, she released her first LP, Beyond Saturday Night, on the contemporary Christian label Word. Within the limited framework of the Christian rock community, Phillips became a star; her records, which also included 1984's Dancing with Danger and 1985's Black and White in a Grey World, regularly sold upwards of 200,000 copies, and she was a tremendous live draw while touring churches and coffeehouses.
With the aptly titled The Turning, released in 1987, Phillips first teamed with producer T-Bone Burnett, a renowned pop producer who also helmed Bob Dylan's voyage into Christianity. After the album's release, she publicly denounced her label as a right-wing propaganda machine, and announced her retirement from CCM; disavowing all of her previous work, she adopted the name Sam on a permanent basis and, with Burnett's assistance, landed a contract with Virgin Records. With Burnett again in the producer's seat, she emerged in 1988 with her secular debut, The Indescribable Wow, which earned vast acclaim not only for her powerful vocals, penetrating lyrics, and gorgeous melodies, but also for the record's lush, Baroque production.
Phillips and Burnett married prior to the release of 1991's darker, more experimental Cruel Inventions, which featured a guest appearance from Elvis Costello. With 1994's Grammy-nominated Martinis and Bikinis, her sound flirted closely with Beatlesque popcraft; the album's finale, a cover of John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth," further drove the comparisons home. After making her feature film debut in the 1995 blockbuster Die Hard with a Vengeance, Phillips returned with 1996's Omnipop (It's Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop), another departure which touched upon lounge pop and industrial sounds; on the song "Slapstick Heart," she even shared songwriting credits with the members of R.E.M. Zero Zero Zero: The Best of Sam Phillips followed in early 1999.
In 2001, Phillips began rethinking her approach to music, and that year she released Fan Dance, her first album for Nonesuch Records. Produced by Burnett, Fan Dance abandoned the ornate pop sound of their previous work together in favor of spare and casual semi-acoustic settings. The album was a critical success, and a similarly styled follow-up, A Boot and a Shoe, appeared in 2004, followed by Don't Do Anything in 2008. After that release she left Nonesuch and began a project called Long Play, where she spent a year and a half releasing EPs every two months (five in all) and an album (Cameras in the Sky) at the project's end in 2011. Along the way she shared videos, outtakes, and extra tracks on her website, and self-released a compliation of tracks from the project called Solid State: Songs from the Long Play. Around this time she began working on her friend Amy Sherman-Palladino's new TV show Bunheads, scoring each epsiode, just as she did on Sherman-Palladino's long-running (2000-2007) show The Gilmore Girls. At the same time, she also began work on a new album, Push Any Button, which was released on her own Littlebox label in summer 2013. ~ Jason Ankeny