Fresh off the summer festival circuit and after almost two years of touring, Madison-based indie folk band PHOX is taking a break from writing their second album to play the Witching Hour festival’s inaugural run. Last week, I called Monica Martin to talk about recording, the festival and the way her voice has developed since she started performing a few years ago. We planned to talk for fifteen minutes, and hung up the phone after more than an hour.
Witching hour is a festival exploring the unknown. What does that mean to you?
We’ve been touring pretty solidly for two and a half years, and we are starting in on writing our second record. So we have a lot of unknowns right now. We have to figure out the direction of the music, and I have tons of lyrics to write, and we have a lot to arrange. The “unknown” feels pretty pertinent — right now the ideas we have are still vague.
Are those kind of unknowns a constant for musicians?
Yeah, I guess so — but while you’re touring it’s not something you tend to think about. When you’re on tour, there’s structure. It’s a weird kind of structure; there are a lot of changing variables because you’re in different cities, different venues, there are different people in the crowd. But, still, you wake up, you work from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and drive anywhere from three to eight hours. Wake up, drive somewhere, load in, sound check — we’ve been doing that for a long time, so now we’re adjusting to a new type of work and creating.
What’s your process when you’re working on lyrics?
I can’t really say that there is anything sure — I don’t have a set structure for that. The only thing that I know is that, while touring, I might write weird ideas into the notepad app on my iPhone, or I’ll record a voice memo. Just little melody ideas, you know? Something attached to what I’m experiencing at the time. Now that I’m at a place where we’re starting on the album, I can break all that stuff out and remember. It almost functions like a picture of a feeling I was having on a given day.
You recorded your first album at Justin Vernon’s studio in Eau Claire, right?
Will you do that with the second album, too?
This whole process is going to be different. Last time, we had a five song EP, then another EP, then we smashed them together into our first record before we went to Eau Claire. We’d written songs over the course of a year and a half, where as now we have thirteen blank canvases. And looking at thirteen blank pages is a lot different.
Yeah, but exciting too! I think it will feel more like a record, this project. Instead of collecting ten short stories, this will be like a novel.
That’s an interesting way of thinking about it.
Yeah, especially since so far there’s this overarching melodic theme we’re working with. Not to say the skeletons we’ve got now all sound the same, but they sound like they’re of the same family. Or litter.
My friends and I talk about perfect albums a lot — you know, those rare, cohesive records on which every song is essential and in just the right order. The antithesis of releases designed with .mp3 downloads in mind. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours usually gets a mention.
Oh, hell yeah. Yes. We talk about this all the time. Of course there will be a single or two off the record, but compared to the first? There’s a lot we want to change. Sometimes I’ll listen to the first record and I’ll think, “Oh, does this need to be here?” Not that a track is a throw away song, but placement matters. And, being a first-time song writer, I’m still figuring that out.
What do you think will change?
Lots of songs on the last record were about relationships, for instance — not specific people maybe, but feelings. That might be different.
If it’s there, why not use it?
Yeah. Not that I dated a lot in high school, but I wrote a lot about being lonely.
You just started singing a few years ago, right?
Yep! I was so shy. There was another interview — I don’t think it’s aired yet — and we ended up talking with my mom. Someone asked her what she thought about me being in a band. She was just like, “This is the last thing I thought you’d be doing!” I always loved singing, but I didn’t have much confidence. At all. It took until I was 23, when the band started. But singing every day, you get a lot better. I’m happy, I’m happy every day because even compared to our very first recordings — it’s like a baby great dane, you know? They way they trip over their own legs.
Like you hadn’t grown into yourself?
Yeah. And people say “Oh, those voice cracks are charming!” Well, my voice will always crack. It does what it does. But I can hear how strained I felt, and how nervous I was.
It sounds like your skill has caught up with your taste. Like your ability to control your voice has caught up with the standards you set for yourself.
And that makes me happy, and hopeful. I want to be the best singer I can possibly be. I think, even still, my breathing is bad, though. Classical singers will tell me that. I went to a doctor after losing my voice and was told that I’m working about three times harder than I need to and using maybe half my lung capacity.
How’d you lose your voice?
It was from singing while I was so tense. It was a bummer to hear that my nerves had affected me that much, but just hearing that made me loosen up.
You’ve been amazingly open about your anxieties about performance and confidence. It’s impressible, and really refreshing — you don’t put on this fake rock star bravado.
I think you need to be critical of yourself. That can be good. But at some point you can just leave yourself feeling so defeated that you don’t try. I think that was my entire adolescence. You start to feel like it’d be better not to make yourself vulnerable. And that’s a waste. So I hope more musicians and artists talk about their depression and anxiety. It’s very much brushed aside. It’s not taken seriously. And I think that’s really damaging.
Especially with any kind of art, be it music or visual art, people love to romanticize the depressed artist as an archetype. You know, the moody, brooding talent. But nobody wants to talk about the difficulty of working while… well. Working while having feelings.
Oh! Absolutely. And it seems to be this thing where it’s celebrated and romanticized until it takes ahold of someone. And then it’s just, “Well, Amy Winehouse should have known, and she was drinking all the time!” Not that I’m comparing myself to Amy Winehouse, but well, maybe she was really fucking hurting? And from that hurt a lot of beautiful music was made, sure. But the way people talk about it — “How heartbreaking! How beautiful!” — doesn’t work when depression really hurts someone.
It’s never “How could this have been prevented?” It’s “Well, she was a mess.” Well, maybe that’s because before someone falls into the trap of drugs, they try to self-soothe with drinking. And then when you’ve got all these people telling you just to pull yourself together, that it’s all in your head? “Well, thanks. I’mma go do some drugs now.”
Hey, drugs don’t tell you to suck it up.
But even still, that drug use can be and is glamorized. If Amy went off to do some blow and feel better, then that’s just being a rockstar. But God forbid she should try Wellbutrin.
Sure! Because you don’t need that. No, you can do it on your own!
It’s nuts. But what you said is true, she made some beautiful music from her hurt. But just think about how much music wasn’t made because of the same pain.
Albums and albums.
I think about that all the time. And of course, I hope to reign in my own shit. But because I think about this all this stuff all the time, I think that might be the thing that keeps me from getting myself into too much trouble.
Regardless, it’s a beast of it’s own. And Amy Winehouse — she had the Dap Kings, but they weren’t her band in the way that the six other guys in PHOX are in this thing with you. And you all live together, right? Does that sort of intimacy help keep you all pushing forward?
We lived together until last July, but we’ve been in a band together every day. We have to communicate with each other, make sure we have the support we need. We’re still learning that. It’s hard to spend that much time with anyone. Being in a band can feel like dating, you know, in this case, six guys.
PHOX is Monica Martin, Zach Johnston, Matthew Holmen, Jason Krunnfusz, Davey Roberts and Matteo Roberts — photo via The Englert
Yes. And no. It’s a struggle for all of us. And every band has it’s own dynamics. On the whole, most of us are pretty introverted. And there’s no guidebook, like sometimes someone doesn’t want to speak up when something’s bugging us because you don’t want to disrupt the energy. Then you learn the better thing to do is to say how you feel, but then again you want to maintain a safe space, but you don’t always know how to. At least not right off the bat. Sometimes things have to get sort of acidic before you can figure out how to be. It gets cyclic.
I’m just happy because we’re taking more about how we can communicate as we’re moving into this next writing session for the new album. It just needs to happen, so we’re making it happen.
Speaking of difficult communication, you’re participating in a discussion panel at the Witching Hour festival: “Black Art / White Space.”
Tell me about that.
I’m nervous. I don’t want to just want to get up there and cry — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but this is important and I’m afraid I won’t be able to articulate myself.
Having two black artists participating in that talk, in Iowa City, which is, as you can imagine, white as hell —
Ha! We’ve been there.
— Oh, cool, so you know.
Yeah, but we’re in Wisconsin, so that’s not foreign to me.
And that’s why I get the sense that whoever’s slated to talk might feel pressured to mitigate their speech. Talks like this can sometimes feel like they’re for the white space, rather than the black artists, despite all good intentions at the outset.
And on top of that, I’m aware that as a mixed race person, what I have to say might be taken with more weight, maybe just because I talk like this, because I’m from Wisconsin, because a white audience can more easily see a part of their identity in me. So I feel like I have to say even more, or speak up more for people who’s voice would be more easily dismissed.
But I haven’t taken those college courses, you know? I don’t have the vocabulary. I just know my own experience. And I’m not sure how to put words to all of it.
That’s frustrating. The idea that without the right lexicon, you can’t access or describe the feelings that go with these complex circumstances.
Right, because if you speak about being a black artist in a personal way, then someone who doesn’t want to consider what you’re saying can just go, “Well that’s your experience, and I’m a white person, and I don’t hate black people! So it’s okay? It’s okay!”
Yeah, and what do you say to that? “Thanks, dude, but it’s not about you.” And it’s not about me, either, specifically!
But that’s the interpretation one risks by talking about the political via the personal.
And yet the onus is still on you, the black artist in the white space to tell the white space how that dynamic works.
And I’m suppose to do that using somebody else’s terms, even if they aren’t the best fit to describe what I feel!
You know, though, it’s been that way since I moved to Wisconsin. I mean, I love folk music. Because I grew up in Wisconsin. And I embrace that Americana culture much more that pop R&B. Since third grade, I’ve kind of disengaged from a fair amount of what’s considered “black culture.” My dad listened to soul music, and I did when I was at home, but when my friends parent’s were like “AC/DC!” I wasn’t like, “The Persuasions!”
But I was talking about this with some friends yesterday: [In high school], I straightened my hair every single day. I wore my foundation too light. And feeling compelled to do that, that’s such a horrible way to feel. It effects everything, and then there’s just being a woman and all of that embedded shame.
It’s that evil process of self-mitigation that, if you’re a woman, you go through anyway but if you’re ethnically or racially other than white, it’s compounded because you’re trying to get to the closest approximation of what every other woman around you looks like. It’s a survival technique, but it’s exhausting, emotionally.
Do you think that has something to do with the critic in a female artist’s own head? Like we’re so busy trying to smooth out the edges of our sense of self that creating something new is all but impossible? So much of making art is about embracing whatever uniqueness one’s voice carries, but that’s the very thing we’re taught to stamp out.
God, I think you’re right. And that’s important to hear — important to remind oneself about. I think about this, too, every day. Take performing: I end up being the hair dresser. I love doing hair, I love doing makeup. But I’m really good at those things because I hate how I look. So now I can reason with myself and say, “This is just a fun way to express yourself!” And it is. It is. But I’m continuing to alter my natural state.
In a way that skews away from blackness?
Sometimes. When it comes to this stuff, hair and make up, if I ever have a daughter, I’ll tell her to use it if it’s fun, but I hope she’ll know she doesn’t need it.
There are just so many things like this where you don’t know. Like, when are you doing it because you have to? When are you doing it because it’s fun? Bold blue eyelids: That’s dope! I feel bad that men are shamed into not playing with makeup. It can be awesome. But it can become a routine, and it can become a way to hide yourself.
Earlier you talked about your voice and the way it can crack and squeak. Has accepting that natural timbre been a part of not hiding yourself?
In part. Mostly it’s unlearning the tenseness. Going between my chest voice and my head voice, often there’s a break in the middle, like if you’re hearing someone yodel. Yodeling is pretty tacky, though, I don’t know if that’s the right way to explain it. It’s campy.
But it’s sweetly campy. Midwestern campy. Sincere tackiness.
Right, like you’re just singing on a mountain. Wait, why are you on a mountain? Anyways: I know there’s that hard break in my higher register. But when I started listening to Brandi Carlile, she has the biggest lungs ever but her voice still breaks at a certain point. It’s not a yodel because it’s not alternating between two notes, but it ends up being a beautiful touch. I remember hearing that and I said, “Well that’s what my voice can sound like.” It’s beautiful. I celebrate it with myself.
Male critics complain about that characteristic of female voices, though. I’m thinking of responses toJoanna Newsom, for instance.
Yeah, and so people try to combat that to be taken more seriously. They take the tone out of their voice. That’s what ends up happening — it’s like musical vocal fry and it can wreck you. I don’t think it’s necessarily conscious. In fact, I don’t think it is at all. But when I started losing my voice a bunch, one of the first doctors I saw looked at my vocal chords and said, “You know, it’s not as bad when you’re singing. Your vocal fry goes away.”
Yeah. I should go back for more treatment. But I need health insurance.