May 20 2016

Britta Phillips Finds ‘Luck or Magic’ in Los Angeles

Los Angeles-Standard Sounds
The iconically New York musician of LUNA and Dean & Britta moves west and discovers a new sound and a new sense of self.

For many people, it’s impossible to imagine Britta Phillips anywhere but New York. For starters, she lived there for over three decades—moving to the city as a teenager to pursue her dreams of rock and roll. In a more symbolic sense, the music she made with her husband Dean Wareham in their band LUNA (and later as Dean & Britta) is as deeply and intimately tied to Manhattan as Lou Reed’s. 

Three years ago, Phillips and Wareham joined the wave of long-time New Yorkers decamping for LA. Initially they made the move to be near Wareham’s son, who moved with his mother, but the change ended up fitting into a larger sense of transition that Phillips saw taking shape in her life.


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While still living in New York, Phillips had begun recording her first solo album with Scott Hardkiss, a friend and legendary figure in America’s early rave scene. “I had done a remix for one of his songs and it ended up in a movie,” the casually elegant Phillips says over lunch on the sundrenched patio of The Standard, Downtown LA. “I think he was like, I owe her one.” He then proposed combining her indie pop pedigree with his electronic experience to put their own spin on synth pop. “It was perfect timing,” she says, “because I had been thinking of it anyway. I love it when that kind of thing happens. You think about something and all of the sudden you start getting it from the outside world as well.”

Just days before her move, Hardkiss died unexpectedly at age 43. The project was suddenly on hold, and the move took on greater meaning for Phillips: “Scott died,” she says, “my dad passed away. I turned 50. It was just sort of depressing. 

Phillips and Wareham made themselves at home in a Hollywood bungalow. The couple works on music (including their score for Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America and Phillips’ theme song for the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) in the studio out back, and run their label from the office. “I'm basically a hermit now,” Phillips says. “I was probably the same in New York, but you can't be that way in New York because you have to go out and buy milk and you're around people all the time. And you walk. I do miss walking.”


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On the other hand, she says, “I like that [LA] has a sleazier side than New York now. It's still here, whereas in New York, I don't know—it's too expensive for the sleaze.”

They began exploring their new hometown, gravitating to landmarks of Old Hollywood–like the Hollywood Bowl, where the climactic scene in Double Indemnity was shot–and a shared love of unpretentious dining. “We're creatures of habit,” Phillips laughs. “Usually we're at home, tied to the computer or the studio. We go to Al Wazir chicken, and Tere's Mexican [Grill]—these little holes in the wall.”

Eventually, Hardkiss’s wife Stephanie got in touch with a recording from their earlier sessions—a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Honey I Sure Miss You”—and asked Phillips to complete it for her husband’s final project. Hearing the track again inspired her to team up with Eric Broucek, the former house producer/mixer for James Murphy’s DFA Records to complete the album. Together they turned the rest of the unfinished recordings into Luck Or Magic, her debut solo record.


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Hardkiss’s influence on Luck Or Magic is heard in the electronic flourishes and the unexpectedly funky grooves that mark a clear break from Phillips’s past work, as well as the selection of cover songs that make up half the album. But like Philips herself, the album was mostly transformed by the past few years of her life, and her new surroundings. Luck Or Magic is very much a classic Californian album, full of sun-dappled mellow vibes, references to the storied tradition of LA chamber pop stretching from Brian Wilson to Jon Brion, and a smooth sound handed down from the Fleetwood Mac era. Her cover of Evie Sands’s 1969 “One Fine Summer Morning,” with its hand drums, burbling bass, and pleasantly stoned mood, is enough to make you feel like you’ve wandered into a late-night party at a ’70s rock star’s Laurel Canyon crash pad—a long way off from the grimy urban energy that haloed her New York material.

Elsewhere, like the electro-influenced “Million Dollar Doll,” Phillips shows off a hard-edged rock star swagger that may surprise longtime fans who have grown accustomed to seeing her share the spotlight with Wareham. It’s part of the greater sense of self-confidence that she’s developed over the course of going solo, and seems to have kept after finishing it. “Dean & Britta fans might not like this, and I don't care,” she says, leaning in over the table. “Dean might not like it, and I don't care. I wanted to do something a little bit different, and sing a little louder.”

While she and Wareham will continue to collaborate, being a solo artist seems to suit Phillips well. So does her new location. “Originally it was just going to be for four years,” she says, “but we're liking it. I don't know. It might be hard to go back to New York.”

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Britta Phillips’ LA Inspirations:


Britta Phillips' LA Spots:

+ I love the arts district downtown. It reminds me a bit of Brooklyn.

+ I’ve been recording on Palmetto St. with Dean for his latest project, as well as LUNA so we’ve been frequenting a few places in the neighborhood.

+ Wurst Küche has amazing sausages…served in a really cool warehouse space.

+ Blue Bottle Coffee has the best coffee and great cakes and cookies. They make a real macchiato.

+ Pizzanista makes the best NY-style pizza I’ve had in LA.

+ Zinc Cafe is a fantastic vegetarian restaurant. Everything is great. They make the BEST pizza. Light, crispy gourmet crust and unusual toppings.

Photographer
Shelby Duncan
Writer
Miles Raymer