Britta Phillips is chatting about her career over coffee on a sidewalk-adjacent patio, music pumping through the speakers out onto Vermont Avenue. She pauses when Earth, Wind and Fire catches her ear and briefly moves her shoulders to the rhythm of “Let's Groove” before continuing to talk about her time in '90s alternative rock band The Belltower.
There's a dichotomy that comes up frequently in the course of a 45-minute chat: mainstream and indie music, rock stars and working musicians. Phillips is best known in the indie world, but she's not averse to the mainstream. She's not instantly recognizable — out on the patio of DRNK in Los Feliz, there are no more interruptions than one would expect for people sitting alongside a main street — but you've probably heard her work.
A singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Phillips has had a long and fascinating musical career. In the 1980s, she provided the singing voice for cartoon rock star Jem for the TV series Jem and the Holograms. She spent the 1990s playing with alternative-rock outfits The Belltower and Ultrababyfat. Today, she's perhaps best known as the bassist for indie-pop band Luna and as half of the duo Dean and Britta, which she formed with husband and Luna frontman Dean Wareham.
On April 29, Phillips will release her first solo album, Luck or Magic. She splits the album's tracks evenly between original music and covers. Of the latter, the standout is her rendition of “Drive.” Written by Ric Ocasek and sung by bassist Benjamin Orr, it was The Cars' big mainstream moment, a song so ubiquitous in its time that covering it might seem a little strange. In fact, Phillips had her doubts about tackling the tune on her own album. “How can you add to that?” she asks rhetorically.
After hearing a mix of the cover, though, she realized, “Wow, that's cool.” Phillips' version of “Drive” is ethereal, with her voice sounding distant, almost ghostlike, against the synths. The song was suggested by producer Scott Hardkiss, who was also the catalyst for Luck or Magic. “I had been working on stuff and recording little bits and ideas over the years, and I had it in the back of my mind to do a solo album,” Phillips says. However, she adds that it wasn't until Hardkiss urged her to release a solo effort, and offered to produce it, that the project was set in motion.
Sadly, Hardkiss died in 2013, about a year into the progress of the album. Phillips, who had moved from New York to Los Angeles at around the same time, continued work on the album on her own with a drum machine, keyboard and loops, then finished it up in a studio with co-producer Eric Broucek. Phillips plays bass on all the songs and guitar on several of them as well.
She learned to play piano and clarinet as a child and spent a good chunk of her youth in choir. Still, it wasn't until Phillips was a newly licensed teenage driver in Pennsylvania, belting alongside the Pat Benatar and Donna Summer tunes that popped up on late-1970s radio, that she noticed the power of her voice. In the privacy of her car, with the hits of the day serving as her personal soundtrack, Phillips heard herself loudly reach the high notes.
Her teen years had been tumultuous — “I dropped out of high school, did a lot of drugs, moved in with my grandparents and went to beauty school,” she summarizes. But at 19, she moved to New York with a big goal. Phillips wanted to be a “rock star.”
She tells this story now with a hint of embarrassment in her voice. “I was just really young and I kind of went from being really timid and shy to just having this super robust ego, like I can do anything,” she says. “When I got there, I simmered down a little.”
She adds, “The older you get, you sort of realize that it's really about making music. It's not about being a rock star.”
In a Park Slope apartment that belonged to her father, Phillips played on a grand piano as she worked on making the dream happen. She recorded lots of demos. She also recorded as a duo with musician Ned Liben of Ebn-Ozn (of the early-'80s synth-pop hit “AEIOU Sometimes Y“), but they never played live.
Then she landed the Jem gig, a role for which she still has plenty of fans. To this day, she often meets Jem fans at Dean and Britta and Luna concerts. “I had no clue at the time that anyone would ever remember it,” she says. She's excited by the response of Jem's now-adult fans, although she says that her singing has improved since then. “Some people argue with me that the Jem singing is awesome … but my tastes have changed,” she explains. “I was more of a showoff singer then.”
Early in her career, Phillips also appeared in the film Satisfaction, where she learned to play guitar. She still occasionally turns up in TV and film roles. Phillips was a voice actor in the Adult Swim series Moral Orel and appeared in the film Frances Ha. “I think acting is really great for singers,” she says. “You can find parts of yourself that are more authentic by doing that.”
In her first band, Phillips played the guitar until she was moved to bass. She thought it was a step down at first, but she ended up falling for the instrument. “It's really my favorite instrument to play in a live situation,” she says. These days, she's grown closer to keyboards, as she does her songwriting on the instrument and can use it to play solo. However, she still prefers to write a song starting with the bass.
Phillips gives a rundown of her bass heroes; Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and Bernard Edwards of Chic are at the top of the list, along with master studio bassist Carol Kaye. Phillips picks up the pair of white, retro sunglasses that sit on the table in front of her. “These are, like, my Carol Kaye sunglasses.”
She talks about how her taste in music has changed over the years, from heavy metal to the big pop songs of the early '80s to her “hipster tastes” that developed later in the decade. She adds, “I still like really pop stuff, though.”
Her expansive swath of influences can be heard on Luck or Magic, where “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” a respectful yet modern-sounding cover of a song previously performed by ABBA member Agnetha Fältskog, sits next to “Ingrid Superstar,” an original track on which Phillips channels The Velvet Underground. Her passion for both styles of music is obvious.
Phillips recalls a formative moment when Dean Wareham played Kylie Minogue's hit “Can't Get You Out of My Head.” She says, “I was already in love with Dean, but that made me, like, you are awesome for playing this Kylie Minogue song … I never thought I would like a Kylie Minogue song. I still listen to that song.”
Britta Phillips' solo album, Luck or Magic, is out now. She plays School Night at Bardot on Monday, June 20. More info at brittaphillips.com.