Britta Phillips is a siren, but she’s not necessarily leading us to swift and certain danger. It’s more complicated than that. It’s more like she’s daring us to a more challenging yet accessible way of hearing music.
In person, Phillips is a physical study in contradictions. She’s in her 40s yet appears ageless.
She’s a wildly beautiful woman — petite, fit, with delicate facial features, piercing blue eyes. She’s the personification of a uniquely New York sense of sophistication and fashion that she effortlessly makes her own.
There are, however, signs of her rock ‘n’ roll pedigree. For instance, faint traces of veins reveal themselves on her forearms, protruding just under the skin, the result of lean muscle mass accrued from playing bass and guitar for many years.
Phillips is admittedly shy, yet she is also dynamic and animated once you get to know her. In the interest of full disclosure, we’ve been friends for 17 years.
At the moment, she is standing on a sidewalk in Park Slope, Brooklyn, shading her face from the bright spring sun with a coat. She’s trying to politely wrap up a phone call as she ducks into the shade before heading to a coffee shop for our interview.
As one half of the indie-pop duo Dean and Britta, Phillips and her bandmate/husband, Dean Wareham (the pair were also in the band Luna together), are bringing their loose and dirty yet quietly elegant pop to Charleston to accompany 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests at Spoleto this year.
It has been many years since the former Charleston resident has been back to the Lowcountry.
“I think it’s been since ’96 or ’97,” she admits as she settles in and takes a sip of coffee. She lived in Charleston with then-husband Jody Porter (of Fountains of Wayne fame) from 1993 to 1996. She continues with a laugh, “I’ve moved so many places that [those] three years seemed like a really long time.”
Indeed, she has lived in several places during her life — New York, Los Angeles, London, Atlanta, Charleston, and, finally, now back in New York for the past 10 years. But it’s not surprising the first thing she says she’s most looking forward to in Charleston is the beach. She’s almost giddy when talking about it.
“I keep thinking about Isle of Palms,” she says as she reminisces of the time she and Porter lived there. “We used to have a house on the beach, and I have a terrible memory, but I can picture every room in that house. I think this was in my introverted period, but I would go upstairs to a room on the third floor and read Eastern stuff and maybe meditate and then I would go walk out on the beach. I have so many good memories of that place.”
It’s obvious why Dean and Britta were selected by the Warhol Foundation to provide the soundtrack for the artist’s famous collection of “Living Portraits,” which became known as his Screen Tests.
At first blush, the pair’s music is immediately evocative of the Velvet Underground, who played loud sets at Warhol’s Factory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side when these films were first shown. But Dean and Britta are much more than a pastiche of one particular group or era — they’re an interesting melange of the psychedelic drone of Velvet Underground, the Smiths, and Serge Gainsbourg, with shades of Francois Hardy lilting throughout. It’s a heady concoction to say the least, and so are the films.
These “screen tests” aren’t the kind an actor does for an audition. This is a collection of short films that bring both the famous and unknown into sharp focus to capture each personality either statically sitting in front of the camera or performing a mundane task, such as when Jane Holzer brushes her teeth or Lou Reed sits behind his trademark dark glasses drinking a Coca-Cola.
Wareham has admitted in the press that the Screen Tests are a challenge to sit through. Like the Velvet Underground, Dean and Britta’s material for this project is largely droning, which fits the static nature of the images on screen. But the material is much more accessible than he’s letting on.
From their sparsely arranged yet nearly wistful interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” to the darkly sinister “Knives From Bavaria,” one of the stand-out tracks — an atmospheric meditation on the creepiness of love turned ruminative obsession — 13 Most Beautiful is a gorgeous record.
The critical acclaim of this album coupled with Warhol’s legacy has translated to large crowds. As a result, the duo has performed in many nontraditional performance spaces. “We’ve done a lot of museums,” says Phillips with a laugh.
Word spreads fast in the museum community, and when a major work like Warhol’s Screen Tests has been resurrected and spruced up with a modern score, curators are keen to open the doors for as many people as possible.
The band has a full schedule through the summer. As Phillips tears off a small piece of coffee cake, she ponders the next few weeks before arriving in Charleston. She and Wareham are in the throes of starting several projects, but the first they must immediately address is due in a few weeks.
“We have to score a film called Price Check with Parker Posey,” says Phillips. “It’s an indie film, and we have to write it in about two-and-a-half weeks. So, that’s where my mind is this month.”
Additionally, she and Wareham are working on another album together, as well as respective solo albums. This is uncharted territory for them both, and Phillips is very motivated to explore herself artistically.
“I want to get away from analyzing things over and over and get to a point where I’m touched — and I don’t mean being moved by something. I mean physically touched by something. Like someone reaching out and grabbing you,” she says, eyes wide, as she reaches in front of herself and grasps an invisible shirt collar. “Sometimes you can hide behind a good voice. There are so many technically good singers. But then look at Bob Dylan or Lou Reed who are just talking to you. I don’t want to show off. I want it to be real. The music comes so naturally to me, but the lyrics are different. I want to write lyrics this time around and then go into a room and sit down with those stories and write music to them, rather than to try to fit them into a particular arrangement.
“I always feel like [I could fail],” she continues. “At the same time, I’m confident. I’m much more confident musically than I was, say, 10 years ago. I just don’t think I’ve done the best stuff I can do, and I think that’s probably the way you should go to your death. So, yes, a little fear — a little danger — is always exciting.”
Larry Queen is the City Paper’s founding music editor. Now he’s a music journalist and television producer living in New York City whose work has appeared in Metro.Pop Magazine, ModernRock.com, and the New York Post.