Music is at the heart of Gilmore Girls, woven into its very tapestry. Amy Sherman-Palladino once talked about the role of music on Gilmore Girls, which is not the traditional “white noise” of television, but rather an “extension of the drama,” where each song helped “say a little something.” From the theme song to the La La’s, music became an important part of the storytelling in Gilmore Girls. When it comes to music, the Stars Hollow Troubadour truly embodies what Gilmore Girls is all about. He’s quirky, eccentric, opinionated and independent. Heck, he doesn’t even accept money for his music. I had a chance to speak with Grant-Lee Phillips, who donned the rig of the Troubadour, to talk about his iconic role and what it was like to return to Stars Hollow for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.
Grant began playing music in his early teens, forming the band Grant Lee Buffalo in the early 90s. The band stayed together until 1999, putting out several albums. Grant launched a solo career after that, with his latest album, The Narrows, being released just this past March. Although recognized for his career as a musician and songwriter, Grant also has a background in acting.
“I began as a child magician, a pre-teen escape artist, and that eventually led me to work in a professional dinner theatre,” shares Grant, “I spent my entire teenage years at a theatre in Northern California, whereI was able to do comedy and act, and eventually it led me to performing music on stage as well. When I left my home in Northern California to move to LA, I enrolled in film school. So, I had always harboured that interest in theatre and drama, as well as music. I was sort of seeking a way to draw it all together. Quite typically, when you have a lot of interests like these, when you’re younger, you’re yearning to tie them together or just pick one of them. Music was an overwhelming attraction for me, by the time I was in my 20s. So, the fact that they [Amy and Dan] reached out to me, was a great way of tapping into this thing that I love that I hadn’t really gotten to explore for all of these years, aside from making music videos.”
“They are obviously big music fans and they had followed my career both as a solo artist and with Grant Lee Buffalo, from very early on, and basically it all grew out of that,” shares Grant, “They reached out to me and approached me about this Troubadour role, which I of course jumped on, and I just sort of snowballed from there! Many, many seasons later and now many years later! I feel like it’s one of those rare gifts that just lands in someone’s life, maybe only once. I’m quite grateful.”
As other actors have noted, Amy and Dan often create characters that weave in elements of the actors themselves. The same holds true for Grant’s Troubadour. Amy and Dan knew Grant’s songs quite well, coming to him with a role that was fairly well developed, but possibly quite tailored to him.
“I have always held that it’s a cartoon version of myself. Although they typically write these scenes where the troubadour character is about to explode, for one reason or another: because his turf is being tramped upon, as in the case when we had the Troubadour Wars, or there is always some sort of bone to pick. He had a bit of an anger issue! I’m not sure where they got that from! Maybe it’s something that would be funny to lay over the character. Maybe it’s a projection? Maybe there’s some truth in it? There probably is,” jokes Grant, “But they basically had the script laid out and they knew my songs quite well. I was beginning to set out on a solo career at the time, when I first heard from them, and so there were all these new songs as well. As time has gone on, I have in many ways begun to embody the role of the solo-singer-songwriter. I always wrote 100% of the music with our band, Grant Lee Buffalo, but as time goes on, I find myself with nothing more in hand than a guitar, travelling the Globe.”
And so the character and actor have come full circle, in some ways. As a songwriter, Grant has had a hand in helping weave the musical tapestry of Gilmore Girls beyond simply acting his Troubadour role. Grant would be asked, often by Amy or Dan, for his input on songs.
Grant would get a call outlining the scene and situation, asking for his input: “They would ask me what I might have that might be appropriate,” Grant shares, “And I would make a few suggestions that way. A song that I had recently written, or a song that I had recently recorded that seemed to tie in just perfectly, almost as if my character was commenting, like a one-man-Greek-choir, on the drama. I really enjoyed that process and I’m thankful that they would open up that door for my input.”
With the new episodes being developed for Netflix for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, Grant was involved in the same way: “We have been working on the show over the last few months, and again walked through that same process: ‘here’s the scene, here’s the situation, let’s talk about the music.’ Yeah, it’s the same thing. I love that there’s such fluidity to the process of the show.”
Grant shares that not all songs were his idea, but loved how the musical choices helped create a quirky character for him to play:
“There were plenty of times where they had built the scene with a classic song in mind, like Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard or Be True to Your School, the Beach Boys song, and I was game for that as well,” explains Grant, “Sometimes it was quite funny. Given my own background, and the nature of my own songwriting, it was kind of a hoot. Wake Me Up Before you Go-Go, as the town troubadour?! Like why would he have that in his repertoire of songs?! But they seemed to really delight on those kind of dares, and I really loved it.”
Grant considers himself a disciple of Neil Young, whose music helped him avoid “too much head and not enough heart” in his songwriting, so it seems quite fitting that the Stars Hollow Troubadour was “discovered” by Neil Young, emanating in one of the most musically-intense episodes of Gilmore Girls.
“There was an episode some years back where my character had gone off and was allegedly discovered by Neil Young and taken on the road, so now all the troubadours around the country had caught wind of this. It was the ’New Seattle,’ the place to be discovered if you were a busker. The fact that they [Amy and Dan] would roll with such a great out-of-the-blue idea and run with it, I just loved that. Such elasticity to the process, it’s just like Wow! And they wrangled in bands like Sonic Youth and Sparks! I just kind of marvel at all of it. It’s amazing!”
Grant shares that the unique role of music on Gilmore Girls has also exposed many people to music they would otherwise not know. “Music is essential,” says Grant about Gilmore Girls, “I love the idea that a young person – not just a young person, but any person – could come to a show and be turned on to stuff that they might not normally be exposed to.” And for artists such as himself, this hand-picking of songs and artists to be a part of Gilmore Girls has its own benefit, “It’s a great wonderful Trojan horse there, for artists such as myself.”
I know for myself, the Stars Hollow Troubadour is a favourite character, and I asked Grant why he thought so many fans loved the Troubadour: “Well, I can’t be certain! I hope that’s the case! I’d like to believe it’s the case! Maybe it’s because I’m in and out of there very quickly? I don’t linger too long by the lamppost or the old Oak tree, you know? Short and sweet is key to a long career.”
I think there’s more to it than that! The Troubadour, as such a quirky character in Stars Hollow, has been a part of many fun episodes. For Grant, his favourite episode was The Festival of Living Art:
“The Festival of Living Art episode, where great pieces of art were produced three dimensionally. I was cast in the role of Judas,” laughs Grant, “and Kirk as Jesus, and we were constantly at each other! That was a really fun one to make. It was kind of a grind for the make-up team, I remember that. All those layers of make-up, costume and that! It was quite an undertaking, but really quite impressive.”
Truly one of my favourite episodes as well! Moving forward, I know we are all hoping to be as delighted with the new episodes in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. Grant shares his enthusiasm for the revival, saying “I think fans will be delighted. Absolutely delighted. Most certainly. I am!”
Grant initially did not expect to see a comeback happening, despite hearing rumblings over the years, but shares that he’s “excited that such a thing has happened. It’s so rare, that this kind of thing happens. It’s amazing.” As for being back in Stars Hollow? “That was the most beautiful thing,” shares Grant. “To set foot on the sound stage: everything was exactly as it was left. Everything was down to the last detail, just as we’d left it. Or at least it appeared that way. And even, as much so, the characters themselves and the actors; it was just a really warm reunion and it was so cool to see everybody to fall into the natural dynamic that had been established between all these characters and the relationships. The sense of continuity was really impressive.”
We pick up with Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life in real time, meaning that nine years have passed for all characters. What does Grant think the Troubadour has been doing all these years? “On the road! House concerts. A few gigs in the Arctic Circle. The usual,” he laughs, sharing that for the Troubadour, “I can tell you that little has changed, that’s really the most assuring thing for my character: that little has changed.”
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life has allowed many actors to come back to a show they thought long-over, making the moments on set quite special. For Grant, this has made the experience more relaxed than before, “I was probably more relaxed this time around,” Grant shares, “maybe because in the back of my head I realized ‘This is a brief moment, I really want to saver every bit of it. Be present for every bit of it.’ That is really the key to ‘acting’ – to be present – but I’d say this time around, that feeling was even more so.”
Grant shares that he has maintained long friendships with many people he worked with on Gilmore Girls, particularly those in “clips” working on the sound and music as well as with Amy and Dan, “They have the big book. It’s a vision that they have brought to life. So, I quite loved being able to jump in that sand box with them,” shares Grant about his relationships on the show. “It really is like a family when you set foot on the show, especially given the number of years that I spent working on it! So, yeah, I love seeing all of those people. There are probably certain characters that I had more lines with over the years… Michael Winters; it seems like we always had a few lines; that was an interesting kind of contrast as well… my wacky troubadour and his firecracker of a character. But I love all of it.”
If we do see Gilmore Girls return for even more episodes, something buzzing around right now, Grant would love to be on board. “I’m always game. Always eager to return,” says Grant. As for the ultimate question I ask all those whom I interview, whether they are Team Jess, Team Dean or Team Logan, Grant shares that he gives solidarity to Dean, “I’ve always held that I’m Team Dean. It has to do with when I came into the show.”
Grant-Lee Phillips has a new album out called The Narrows, which you can buy via a link on his website or directly through Amazon. The album features all new songs described as “roots” and “contemplative,” reflecting on his life growing up in California with some great reviews. You can also catch Grant on tour coming up across the US, then off to Europe and then Australia.
Photos: TheWB and Grant-Lee Phillips