Phillips was born in Glendale, California. She began her musical career as a vocalist in the early 1980s, singing background parts for Christian artists 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 and White in a Grey World and, finally, The Turning, which teamed her with producer and future husband, T-Bone Burnett. Throughout the Myrrh period, Phillips wrote an increasing number of her own songs and several were Top 10 singles on Christian radio.
Since Cyndi Lauper was popular at the time and also had a 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 Myrrh-styled persona.
Like many Christian artists before her, she expanded into mainstream 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 and Bikinis was widely praised by music critics and was even nominated for a Grammy Award; this was Phillips' second nomination (the first was as Leslie Phillips).
In 1995, Phillips made her film 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; however, 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 featured a song cowritten by Phillips and R.E.M.. Phillips made a cameo in Wim Wenders 1997 film The End of Violence singing a brief snippet from the song "Animals on Wheels" from Omnipop. After releasing a contractual obligation "best-of" album for Virgin in 1999, the label dropped Phillips from its 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's 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" from the Fan Dance album. In 2004, she released A Boot and a Shoe, another collection of acoustic cabaret songs in the same vein as Fan Dance.
After the release of A Boot and a Shoe, news spread that Phillips and husband/producer T-Bone Burnett had divorced, although they continued to work together to finish the album.
Phillips's latest album, Don't Do Anything, was released on June 3, 2008 and produced by Phillips. It is her first self-produced album and her first post-Myrrh album not to feature Burnett on any instruments, although he is credited in the thank-you section of the album credits. To promote her concert appearances, Phillips released extremely brief silent movies, made to resemble vintage Super-8 shorts, in which she held up signs indicating venue and date information. Her utilization of older forms of photography was also present in her tour poster imagery, composed of Polaroid snapshots.
In October 2009, Phillips launched "The Long Play", via www.samphillips.com, a year-long subscription program offering five EPs and a full-lenth album release to be recorded and released digitally through the coming year, and did this without a label. Subscribers may also view her signature silent movies, and other materials. The first EP in the series, Hypnotists in Paris, was recorded with the Section Quartet, followed by the Christmas collection "Cold Dark Night," "Magic For Everyone," "Old Tin Pan," and "Days of the One Night Stands," followed by the full length album "Cameras In The Sky" in early 2010. In Spring of 2011 she issued "Solid State," a CD release available to the general public comprising 13 songs taken from the 42 available through a "Long Play" subscription.
Over the Rhine
The Republic Tigers
Grant Lee Phillips
Willie & Lobo
The Slow Show