Born in Stockton, California, Phillips began playing the guitar in his early teens and persevered throughout high school. At age 19 he moved to Los Angeles where he worked tarring roofs to fund evening classes at UCLA and the possibility of forming a band at weekends. He eventually dropped out of college and linked up with an old friend from Stockton named Jeffery Clark. In the late 1980s Phillips lived on campus at CalArts with future wife Denise Siegel, whom he met at a party through a fellow student and first Shiva Burlesque bassist, James Brenner. Phillips informally took art classes, went to public lectures, film screenings and immersed himself in the constant goings on of the school's World Music program until 1990. Shiva Burlesque released two LPs Shiva Burlesque (Nate Starkman & Son; 1987) before work on Mercury Blues (Fundamental; 1990) Brenner was replaced by Paul Kimble thus completing what would be the basis of Grant-Lee Buffalo. But due to the late 80s/early 90s Los Angeles obsession with spandex and glam metal, Shiva Burlesque made no commercial impact. Phillips and Clark disbanded in 1990. Phillips began playing solo around Los Angeles under the stage name Grant-Lee Buffalo.
Following those handful of solo shows at clubs around Hollywood, Phillips recruited ex-Shiva members Joey Peters (drums) and Paul Kimble (bass) for rehearsals as Grant Lee Buffalo in mid-1991. Phillips was now writing lyrics as well as music and the trio quickly built up a local following, selling out clubs on the strength of Phillips's intense performance. His political storytelling was delivered in a recently discovered voice: both a soaring falsetto and a nourishing drawl that matched his aggressive acoustic guitar stomp and pouting physicality. One song, "Fuzzy", was released on Bob Mould's Singles Only Label in 1992 to huge critical acclaim and led to Grant Lee Buffalo being signed to Slash Records. The debut LP, also called Fuzzy, was released a year later, upon which Michael Stipe of R.E.M. declared it "the best album of the year hands down". In 1995 Grant-Lee Phillips was named the critics choice for Best Male Vocalist of 1995.
A further three Grant Lee Buffalo albums followed. Mighty Joe Moon (1994), Copperopolis (1996), and Jubilee (1998) were all quite different and highly accomplished. A live performance of Mighty Joe Moon's title track is available online from the South by Southwest festival. Though all were heavily promoted through concert touring, they never escaped cult status largely thanks to a lack of support from the Warner Bros label compelling a frustrated Phillips to disband the band in early 1999.
Phillips signed to the Boston-based indie label Rounder Records and launched a solo career, issuing Ladies' Love Oracle online in 2000. The recording was later more widely released. His first full-length LP, Mobilize, was released to enormous critical acclaim in 2001. Being praised as much for its gentleness as much as Buffalo were for their rock, it featured Phillips's talents on many instruments, including both dreamy pop and dark but comforting ballads. Touring followed with sets containing solo and Buffalo material in equal measure.
During a short tour with Robyn Hitchcock, Phillips co-produced and co-starred in a concert film of the tour shot in Seattle titled Elixirs & Remedies, directed by Kris Kristensen of Scotopia Pictures in Seattle. Kristensen would later direct the video for "The Sun Shines On Jupiter", from Phillips' solo release, "Little Moon".
Grant-Lee Phillips is a registered member of the Creek Native American tribe (on his mother's side) and a direct descendant of those who walked the Trail of Tears.
Phillips is related to Chief John Ross on his father's side. Paternally he is both Blackfoot and Cherokee ancestry.
Phillips has been married only once, to the same woman for more than 20 years. He became father to Violet Thea Phillips, January 11, 2008.
Phillips has scored several films and TV shows as well as having a recurring role as the town troubadour on Gilmore Girls.
Phillips has a comedic background, having been a cast member in high school of the only professional theater in Stockton, Pollardville.
Phillips has co-written songs with numerous people, most recently with comedian Margaret Cho. He can be seen featured in her video "Asian Adjacent." The song being partially inspired by Phillips and star of Flight of the Conchords Jemaine Clement, who is part Maori.