Phillips began her musical career as a vocalist in the early 1980s, singing background parts for Christian artists such as Mark Heard, Randy Stonehill, and others. After a short time, Phillips was signed to a solo contract with Myrrh Records (under her given name) where she went on to record four Christian pop albums: Beyond Saturday Night, Dancing with Danger, Black & White in a Grey World, and, The Turning, which teamed her with producer and future husband T-Bone Burnett. Throughout the Myrrh period, Phillips wrote more and more of her own songs and several were Top 10 singles on Christian radio.
Since Cyndi Lauper was popular at the time and also had an high-pitched, idiosyncratic vocal style, Myrrh insisted on promoting her as "the Christian Cyndi Lauper." Phillips was never comfortable with this image, and it was a bone of contention between her and the label. She began using the name "Sam" professionally in 1988 when she left Myrrh Records and signed with Virgin Records, partially in order to distance herself from her somewhat embarrassing Myrrh-imposed persona.
Like many Christian artists before her, she expanded into more secular content at the new label. She released The Indescribable Wow, which featured the orchestrations of Van Dyke Parks. Cruel Inventions, which was released in 1991, included a guest appearance from close friend Elvis Costello, and she (with her husband) supported Costello on his 1991 tour. 1994's Martinis & Bikinis was widely praised by music critics and was even nominated for a Grammy Award; this was Phillips' first nomination.
In 1995, Phillips made her silver screen debut in the Bruce Willis blockbuster Die Hard With a Vengeance, in which she played a mute terrorist. She was originally supposed to have a speaking part in the film but it was decided that her character would be silent, since it made her appear much more imposing and lethal, although it also placed her in a more stereotypically femme fatale role at the same time.
In 1996, Phillips released Omnipop (It's Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop), which was more experimental musically and ended up being her worst-selling album to date. After releasing a contractual obligation "best-of" album for Virgin in 1999, the label dropped Phillips from their roster.
In 2001, Phillips signed with Nonesuch Records and released a stripped-down acoustic album called Fan Dance, which featured some of the most critically acclaimed songwriting of Phillips' career. Van Dyke Parks contributed string arrangements for a track or two. Phillips also began writing music for and scoring the television series Gilmore Girls, and even appeared on-screen during the final episode of season six, performing Taking Pictures. In 2004 she released A Boot and a Shoe, another collection of acoustic cabaret songs in the same vein as her previous album.
Sam returned with a new album don't do anything in 2008. In October 2009 Sam launched Long Play, an exclusively web-based membership site which promised subscribers 5 digital EPs and 1 full-length digital album over the course of about one year. A physical "best of" compilation of Long Play songs, titled Solid State, was released in June 2011.
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