"Being a bit rougher around the edges and the message a bit more fucked up speaks to people a lot more than it did in the past"
If you're not already familiar, may we introduce you to phem.
Further developing their own brand of no-holds-barred pop-rock and releasing some of their most damning and decadent tracks to date, they've had an absolutely incredible year that is closing out on the road with Waterparks. But it's been quite the journey to reach this point, with plenty of soul-searching and self-examination along the way.
As we look to the future, we look back on that journey and how it feels to be at such an inspiring and incredible point in her career...
Let’s go back to the very first moment that phem started to come to life. What was it that sparked the vision for you? What was it that you wanted the project to represent?
"For me growing up, I always felt like I didn’t know where I belonged. My sexuality was a big part of that, and within music, it was always weird knowing where I would fit. I grew up playing jazz and didn’t fit in with the jazz kids. I liked other types of music, though, but never felt like I needed to subscribe to any one thing. I never felt like just one sort of kid. I wasn’t an emo kid or a hardcore kid, or a hip-hop kid. I was just into weird shit, and I don’t think my parents understood me or my aesthetic either. It was confusing for so long. But then, when I started making music, I realised that there were people who liked what I was doing. It was the first time that I felt like I belonged anywhere."
And how did that build into the sound and persona that we see today?
"The thing is that once you discover yourself, you almost have to do it then again three or four more times. You all of a sudden have more and more people in your ear telling you what they think is right and what it is going to sell, but you reach a point where you step back and learn to trust your intuition again. That’s always the thing that wins. You always have to follow that voice inside of you telling you what is suitable for you. Everyone has their trauma or story that they are bouncing off that may have nothing to do with what is happening for the rest of the world or the general public."
It’s about figuring out where the root of your comfort comes from and building your community around that, rather than what anybody else’s community looks or feels like…
"To be honest, in terms of with other artists, I still feel very alone. But that’s okay. I have friends out there, and we support each other. But more than anything, some fans just find you. I honestly can’t believe some people understand me in such a way. It’s so awesome, and I feel like I don’t have to try and be anything with them. I do have to be anything in particular. It’s so interesting because everybody thought that a pop star had to be manicured and perfect, and that’s cool, but it’s changing. It’s more unrealistic these days. Being a bit rougher around the edges and the message a bit more fucked up speaks to people a lot more than it did in the past."
As your music has developed and you’ve started working with other people, what sort of things has worked in such a way taught you that has helped them to grow?
"I think that goes back to instinct. It also depends on who it is. When I was working with Tom Morello, I had direction from him, and I was very aware and respectful of that. But if I’m working on some of my work with somebody, I just let it happen now. I don’t like to labour over it. I want to let what needs to come out come out. It’s easy not to have too much judgment when I’m writing something because if I think it over too much, it just kills it immediately."
But as well, the more you feel comfortable in that process, the more you are comfortable in the reason that you are even making music. And the things you then put into that music feel more comfortable, especially when you’re writing something that feels pretty brutal and sad, and how they then help people who are listening to you feel comfortable too…
"I don’t think about it too much, especially the effect those things have on the people listening to my songs. But it does keep me going. It keeps me getting up in the morning when I feel tired and thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It helps, but I can’t be a saviour and gear my music to assist people too much. It goes back to the judgment part of creating, where if I say something, in particular, will it help or hinder someone going through this thing. It would be too stifling if I were trying to be that, and I have to forget about it when I’m trying to make something. But it absolutely does help in the grand scheme of things."
How does it feel when you consider where you are as the person you are right now compared to those first moments of trying to figure out precisely what this is?
"I’m a lot happier, and I’m a lot more confident in who I am. It does help when people are into what I’m making because it reminds me that it’s not stupid and that I should keep on making it. I feel like I know myself more, and I’m more trusting of myself and what I want to make."
It feels like ‘flowers’ is a perfect example of that. A song that continues to grow by the days, and that shows that what you have been working towards is the right direction…
"I worked on that song for so long, like a year. I knew it was special from the point that It was just guitar and vocal. Ultimately I followed my gut on it once more, and there is no one else on it. Just me. It’s the first time that a song like that has done what it has done, ever. That’s the coolest feeling ever. Before, it was all collaborations. So having it as my No.01 song was a bucket list moment, and it’s my favourite song I have ever made. And the video is weird, and it needed to be like that. I’m glad that everybody trusted me, that I knew what I wanted and what I needed it to be."
And it’s the lessons learned along the way that have allowed you to make sure your foot is down and your vision is realised…
"It’s like a domino effect. It keeps on piling up, and then all of a sudden, you’re on fire. And nothing can stop you then."
So what does looking towards the next year and possibilities that 2022 have feel like for you right now?
"I’m just going to keep on one-upping myself, all for myself. I don’t understand how not to be creative. If I’m not being creative, I die. So I’m lucky that I can do that and then go out and perform and meet so many amazing people because of that creativity. It’s all about art in every aspect, and being able to indulge that in every aspect is a blessing."