Name: Phebe Starr
Occupations: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Phebe Starr's Heavy Metal Flower Petal is out now.
Recommendations: Book: Fear of Flying - Erica Jong; Artist: Polina Osipova; Big Mumma Thornton’s “Hound Dog” -- everyone should know the song Elvis stole.
If you enjoyed this interview with Phebe Starr and would like to know more about her work and music, visit her on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Australia. As a kid, we didn't have the Internet, and there were no shops around for miles, so we grew our own food, and my clothes were all hand-me-downs from the local charity stores. It was just my family and me on a farm with some animals, so I didn’t have many opportunities to play and learn. I taught myself by ear on an old Casio keyboard and a nylon guitar. Soo this really started it all.
Growing up in the country of Australia is like growing up in the 1970s and you only have access to music that my parents had. We would listen to Carol King, Joni Mitchell, Janis, Elvia, Waylen Jennings and Dolly Parton.
I guess I was lucky, but I always had a desire for pop culture, probably because I didn’t have access to it, it made it exotic. Music was a very natural love for me. I started early, like very early on, from 3-4 years old, I would be writing poetry and songs and my parents thought it was so funny. I was really disciplined and motivated by the feelings I got from art and I knew I wanted to make things like that.
Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?
Yes, music to me has always been such a transcendent experience when playing and listening.
I have always struggled with language in traditional form. I have dyslexia and synesthesia. This has always made sonic and visual elements and storytelling more appealing to communicate my narrative and connect with other humans. I am drawn to sounds, colours and imagery to explain my ineffability.
I like art that has mystery, complexity, symbolism. I like that art has the ability to speak into the emotion, the soul of society which makes it accessible to those who also struggle with language or feel colloquial language doesn’t explain the depth and complexity of their human experience.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
I keep saying through songwriting and my art I have met the stranger that is me that I’ve never met. I hope my art does that for others too.
Music has the ability to heal and comfort and for me, this project under my birth name has always been an exploration of that. It's helped me feel safe to be myself and discover parts of myself that I don’t think I normally would be brave enough to find.
This album was an exploration of yin energy or feminine energy. Learning how to be soft. It also showed me more and more how much I love vintage sounds, the past, but how much I want to be connected to the present and the future.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I think growing up where I did really influenced me a lot. We didn’t have access to pop culture and technology like most people, so most of what I used was vintage and retro. Even the clothing store was a general store that closed down in the 70s and then re-opened when I was a kid, so I would rock a lot of vintage clothing. This definitely influenced my used of analogue instrumentation too.
It also gave me a craving for pop culture because it was like, exotic, or out of reach, so I’m forever going to be like, WOW there is an actual music industry with pop stars. I think that is mind-blowing and I love getting closer to that.
Music has always, like for many artists, been a form of therapy for me, too. Its magical and I’ll never get over the feeling.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
I think I have one step in the past and one in the future. That informs a lot about how I write and the production techniques I use.
I like little imperfections and things that make my music feel human. I also love a good hook and the feeling of the music that explains more than words ever could.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
Can you have it all? I think there are certain universal truths that I engage in as a music consumer which inform how I write and make, too.
I’m interested in music made for humans which is music with soul and feelings. That’s timeless and something technology can’t give us.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
My Mellotron -- when I found this keyboard, I freaked out. It’s literally my music marriage made in heavy. It’s a beautiful vintage instrument that has perfectly been designed for modern life.
I love fiddling with vintage samplers and technology. I guess I have a huge nostalgia and joy for vintage technology.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
I’m an early morning person so I get up at 6:30am. I love food and the first thing I do is eat. I take regular breaks throughout the day. I can’t focus for long, so every day looks different, but usually revolves around food and the making of food.
I exercise regularly, too. I love low heart rate exercise and have been running long distance over the last few years. I make things and meet people every day.
Lately, I’ve been super into vintage lamps. I’ve been restoring them, designing and making them, selling them online, and also recently learnt how to code, so I’ve been playing with light circuits and integrating that into my music.
I read a lot, especially philosophy. Love the Brain Pickings blog and read it daily; economics, sociology and physiology. I always have a new book with me. At the moment, I’ve been reading The Black Swan. It’s about philosophy and probability.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
Basically, I just like to play. I like improvisation and create my own work through that process. That’s how I wrote this album.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
I think the saying goes there are two sides to every story and this has been a truth I hold onto even in creativity. It’s not one sided. Both my experience and the collective experience have worth.
When I’m writing for this project, it started just for me and then it becomes something bigger and you kind of have to birth a child you feel is yours, but then share her.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
I mean, sometimes that changes, but in this album, one of my goals that I repeated to myself was ‘be a whisper in the yelling’.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
I started writing music when I was younger, as it drew me into a world where feelings were okay.
I had a lot of undiagnosed sensory issues as a kid and some trauma, which made it hard for some big feelings and experiences to be processed. I guess I was drawn to music because it was a place of freedom and I am sooo thankful, as it’s become my oldest, bestest friend. I’m always shocked by the processes of writing and how much I learn about myself and the world around me.
I think there is a lot of BS in the music industry, but for me, music will always be pure and worth it, as it’s given me so much. This album was literally that -- processing so much. I’d just broken up with my husband who I had married at 21. That’s a lot to unpack and I wouldn’t be the same person without having this space to be free.
There seems to be increasing interest in a functional, “rational” and scientific approach to music. How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
I have a joke with a friend that whenever we discover something crazy about the world we say ‘WOW SCIENCE MAGIC’ because the world and reality is the weirdest shit there is. Do you know plants move like animals? They talk to each other? The more you know about science the more it seems UNBELIEVABLE.
But when it comes down to making things, I’m driven by feeling and intuition. The body knows things that the brain is too afraid to express.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I am an artist through and through and I literally just ordered two cups of coffee because the first one wasn’t good enough. It’s hard to explain to someone who isn’t as sensory. It may seem vain or extreme, but when you talk to someone who isn’t neurotypical, these things really matter.
I guess that’s why I am drawn to the arts. It’s a place where those things are seen as benefits rather than insane.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
I love this question and it’s something that I was just trying to explain the other day. It’s hard to explain these tangible experiences in common terms without having a better understanding of physics.
But … if I were to try and explain it, I’ve been thinking about cultures and spaces. For example, when someone visits a city and they say they have the best time or the worst time -- a city isn’t emotional, it’s just a place, but what it carries in its bones is the collective energies of the people who have been there. Those things stay.
For example, a hillside lookout carries the energy of people wanting to see things and get a view -- that carries meaning. So I think energy is real and scientific as it’s just the platform giving to us from those who have gone before us. It’s also wild that you can feel someone with a bad vibe. Humans pick up on facial expressions and so much subconscious knowledge instilled in us from our past experiences.