The lead 'Toad' leaps into a new solo career

Former Toad the Wet Sprocket singer Phillips writes darkly comic songs with jaunty exteriors

It's not unusual for musicians to list their favorite human-rights organizations and charities in a CD booklet, but Glen Phillips's endorsement of Citizens for Midwifery on his latest release, "Abulum," is surely a first among rock stars.

Penning personal CD liner notes is one of the few luxuries afforded by starting a new solo career: Phillips had been the lead singer of the now-disbanded Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that scored early '90s hits like "Walk on the Ocean," "All I Want," and "Fall Down."

These days Phillips is touring in a one-man acoustic show that blends new songs and old Toad the Wet Sprocket numbers. On the road, he carries with him only a copy of "The Lord of the Rings" and a camcorder.

In between playing some of his new songs in a Monitor recording studio recently (visit to see video of the recording session and hear interview clips), the songwriter explained that his former band agreed to split, because they felt they'd gotten stale. But starting over was difficult, as Phillips discovered when he sent acoustic demos to record companies.

"Everybody came back and said, 'male singer-songwriters aren't happening,' " Mr. Phillips says. "I'd felt entitled. I'd had this career and took for granted that I'd be able to start off where I'd left off." Then, characteristically switching from contemplativeness to trademark cheeky humor, he adds, "I found that I had to work for a living like everyone else."

It was only when Phillips stopped feeling desperate about whether he'd fit into the current musical climate that things began to move forward, he says. He recorded the album in his home garage, and it has since been picked up by Brick Red Records.

Many of the stripped-down songs on the album have darkly comic lyrics beneath their jaunty exterior. It was pianist Ben Folds of Ben Folds Five who turned Phillips on to the music of Randy Newman, which, he says, changed the way he writes songs.

"I like stuff that's really subtle, but there's this razor wit that no one who's yelling at you could really achieve," he says.

In one song on his new album, "Men Just Leave," Phillips playfully conjures up images of a deadbeat dads convention where fathers on the run meet in the desert and talk about other famous dads who've abandoned pregnant women. It's his way of making wry social commentary in a not-so-obvious way, he says.

"There's no point in saying, 'If you're considering leaving a pregnant woman, please stay home,' " Phillips says in a mock-TV-presenter voice. "That is a public service announcement, everybody knows that."

The artist feels strongly about parents nurturing their children, though. "As much as I have problems with ... the Dr. Laura set, she's right; people need to be with their kids," Phillips says, commenting on people who put career before their newborns. "I had a really profound experience with the first birth I went to," says Phillips, whose wife is a home-birth midwife. "[The mother] is picked up by the experience and taken somewhere far away, and [she] find[s] out that [her] limits are twice as far as [she] ever knew they could be. It is all about grace."

"Fred Meyers," the single off "Abulum," is a comic fantasy of a future generation living inside a Fred Meyers convenience store. It includes the refrain, "One hand must wash the other/ each man must be a brother."

"I liked the idea of neighborhoods happening again ... and people realizing that they need to work with the people next to them and pay a little attention to them."

The singer chalks up his interest in morality and ethics to an upbringing in Judaism. Now he's more inclined to explore other avenues of spirituality, like reading books on the Gnostics by theologian Elaine Pagels. "God is in the details; it's in the little things you can do to be compassionate to the people around you."

Phillips says the loneliness of touring ("I'm being a salesman," he quips) has been tempered by his fans' response.

"Having 'Toad' fans ... around has become more and more important to me," Phillips says. "The fact that anyone wants to hear [the new album] at all is sacred to me. I don't intend to take it for granted again."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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