She adores George Gershwin. Randy Newman is her hero. And she’s loved the Beatles since she was 4. It’s their melodies that move her, and 29-year-old Sam Phillips is trying to carry on the tradition with her second album, Cruel Inventions. Full of her delicate, haunted persona — part little-girl dreamer, part dusky-voiced cynic — it has the same lushness and eclectic arrangements that graced her 1988 release, The Indescribable Wow. But Inventions is even darker, and its single, ”Lying,” is a smash on college campuses. Smitten critics have placed the L.A. native at the vanguard of a new generation of pop singer-songwriters.
”A lot of the album is about exploitation,” Phillips says, explaining her lyrics’ introspective quality. It’s a natural subject for her: She devoted her youth to studying religion and recorded Christian music under her given name, Leslie, before becoming disenchanted in 1987. ”Fundamentalism is a horrible human disease,” she says now. ”It has nothing to do with love.”
Phillips met singer-guitarist T Bone Burnett (The Talking Animals) at the same time she was leaving old-time religion behind. He became her producer, then her husband in 1990, and the twosome produced Inventions. ”T Bone is good at casting the musicians,” says Phillips, whose partners on Inventions include longtime Burnett collaborator Elvis Costello. Riding on the record’s good buzz, Phillips opened Costello’s tour dates on the West Coast and England this summer. Nevertheless, Inventions has received more acclaim than airplay. Frustrated, Phillips jokes that perhaps she should adopt a more formulaic style, the kind she wouldn’t ”have to take so much to heart.” Her fans, no doubt, would find that a cruel invention indeed.