Glen Phillips’s penchant for creating introspective, affecting music that addresses some of life’s weightiest themes has been apparent since he founded Toad the Wet Sprocket as a teenager. While the casual observer may have considered the chart-topping ‘90s band to be light-hearted, indie-pop fare, serious listeners knew that couched in Toad’s jangly, upbeat melodies were Phillips’s lyrics that questioned faith, the future, and one’s place in the world.
For the better part of three decades, the singer-songwriter – now in his mid-forties – has been honing his craft, releasing solo material and collaborating with renowned musicians from all walks of life, including members of Nickel Creek in the bands Mutual Admiration Society and Works Progress Administration. Now Phillips is back with his first solo full-length in a decade, Swallowed by the New, which tackles some of the weightiest subjects in his career to date.
Newly divorced after 25 years of marriage, Phillips found solace in addressing themes of change, mortality, and letting go of old identities. This is evident in the tune “Leaving Oldtown,” which Phillips says is “very much about being in between,” as the video, premiering right here on Yahoo Music, illustrates.
“It’s about not being sure where home is or where the future’s gonna take you,” Phillips explains. “There are so many ways to lose a home – people losing a job, losing a relationship, political upheaval. Being cast out from a place where you were comfortable. You have to be brave and face the unknown.”
Phillips found his own bravery, confronting this difficult transition in the song’s poignant lyrics:
I’m leaving Oldtown/With no direction, learning how to be alone/Learning how to stand on my own two feet/I’m getting good now/A recollection, hollow as a sparrow bone/Mythic as the stories our parents told.
Striking in its simplicity, the “Leaving Oldtown” video captures people in transit as filmed from the window of a moving train. It turns out that Phillips and his daughter shot the footage while traveling in Japan. “We hit record against the window and then played it back in slow-mo,” he says. “There was a perfect loneliness and transition to the slow images of people in the train stations. I came home and edited it and it felt right. It’s amazing what you can do with a phone and a laptop.”
Although Phillips admits he has been grappling with loneliness and depression throughout his career, he has recently found happiness and peace in ways he hadn’t expected. “The album was recorded in May of last year and I was too much in the middle of the narrative,” he admits. “The songs were harder to play I was still in that wounded initial period [after the breakup]. It’s interesting looking back at it now. When the marriage broke up, I had to get really honest with myself. I wanted to survive that change. I didn’t want it to just be an ending. Two years later I’m really happy and in an amazing relationship. I’m grateful to my former wife… I would have stayed no matter what,” he says. “It took such bravery for my wife to say it was over. I now see the other end of it. Both of us are happier now.”
It’s been an eventful couple of years for Phillips, not only on a personal level, but professionally as well. In addition to completing his solo album, he’s been touring the country with Toad the Wet Sprocket in support of the 25th anniversary of their 1991 hit album, Fear, which went platinum after the ridiculously catchy pop-rock tune “All I Want” shot up the charts. Although they appeared to be a close-knit, clean-cut crew, Phillips admits that the band had their fair share of problems.
“Toad is not without complication,” Phillips confesses. “We got together really young. There were years when I had a lot of trouble with Toad. But last year when I went on the tour, I gave up trying to change anybody. This year I was able to appreciate everybody and the audience and that everyone wants to hear those songs. It’s easy to look at Toad and think that everyone wants it to be the ‘90s again. But you can appreciate the past for what it gave you and for what it gives you now. I finally have some gratitude about the band that I haven’t always had.”
As someone who has grappled with some of life’s most melancholy and mysterious aspects in his music, Phillips seems to have come to terms with the fact that he’s not necessarily a pop artist for the masses. “I’d like to make joyful music, but it might not be what I’m best at,” he says. “I had a reckoning when I asked [myself], ‘What am I doing it for? Is it ego? Is it narcissism?’ I realized I talk about difficult stuff in a way that resonates with people. Maybe less people now than I used to. But if I can help people feel like they’re not alone when they’re vulnerable, it’s worth it.”
Phillips will continue touring with Toad the Wet Sprocket this fall and has several solo dates lined up in support of Swallowed by the New.