It’s beautiful to see two stars collide, and even better when those two stars have so much to say. London Grammar frontwoman, Hanah Reid, and Aussie electro-pop extraordinaire, Phebe Starr are no different.
In light of the upcoming release of London Grammar’s third studio album, Californian Soil, we decided to have two worlds collide – and have an Aussie pop icon do our job for us.
Phebe Starr sat down for a Zoom chat with London Grammar’s Hannah Reid, to discuss the crux of Californian Soil, bodywork therapy, the interplays between music and femininity, and the inherent tightrope all pop-timistic artists must walk.
PHEBE: I have to confess, this is my first interview I’ve ever conducted. I’m not usually a journalist, I’m a musician. I got roped into this because Happy thought it would be interesting to have two musicians have a conversation on the process of making a record.
HANNAH: Oh, that’s amazing. It’s your first interview, so what do you play, what’s your background?
PHEBE: I make alternative pop music with organic and electronic production, and I’m a pop songwriter too.
HANNAH: Well, your name is Phebe Starr, I will look at your music straight away.
PHEBE: Let’s focus on you! I’m so excited to interview you because I love finding out about how musicians go through the process of making music. So let’s talk about your new album. Why is it called Californian Soil, and why is California such a big influence on this record?
HANNAH: Well, I wanted to go with Californian Soil as the title because it was one of the first songs that we wrote. It kind of meant the most to me and everyone was ‘oh, that’s a confusing name’. I was like, ‘I just really like it’. I just really love that song and it means so much to me. The actual song, Californian Soil, and obviously the song America… I consumed so much American culture growing up, obviously, it’s been hard to ignore everything that’s been going on in the world, and it all just ties in with my message of the album about my own personal experiences and something maybe not being quite as it seems.
PHEBE:So the symbolism of America being the superpower for so long and it has such a big influence on how we make music. I get that! Are you talking about the American dream in general, or was there a personal experience with America as well? Did you live there or did you only spend time there while on tour?
HANNAH: We toured that a few times, big five, six-week tours and I had never been to America before that, but I had consumed nothing but American culture growing up.
PHEBE: Yeah, totally. I think we’re all fed that culture to some degree!
HANNAH: It was kind of extraordinary. First of all, it was one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been, like the actual landscape, like the middle of America, when you’re driving through in the middle of the night and you can’t sleep on the tour bus, it’s really beautiful and I didn’t expect that. Then it also had some of the worst poverty I’ve ever seen, which I also really didn’t expect, so it was a bit of a rude awakening for me. I think I had grown up in a bit of a bubble.
PHEBE:Yes, it really can be such a culture shock! For me, living there was like peeling back the layers of an onion, exposing the American Dream as this facade. Do you think America is going to hold the same influence in the future?
HANNAH: I think that LA and the whole showbiz thing has always had a lot of power, whereas now it feels like actually I do believe that amazing art can now come from anywhere. I think that’s starting to happen more and more. And, just historically, that’s where the labels are, that’s where Hollywood is. It was definitely for us as well, we were quite a big band in the UK, or not huge but big enough and then, going to California or going to America and just being so overwhelmed by how massive it is and realising that you are just tiny, tiny fish in an enormous pond. It wasn’t really a battle that I was willing to try and break America, or anything like that.
PHEBE: Why do you think that is? Did you think you would lose out on something authentic by taking that on?
HANNAH: No, I didn’t think that. We toured there a few times and it’s definitely a very gruelling tour, and I think I felt like I just didn’t think it was ever going to happen for us and that’s ok. We have like some hardcore fans in America, obviously, which is amazing, but I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my health to break America. I do remember at the start of a career that seemed very important, you know, lots of people spoke about that.
PHEBE: I resonate with that. It’s funny how this industry tells you that being a bigger artist will bring you more happiness, and obviously that goes hand in hand with breaking America. I love working in studios on other people’s records and it’s such a contradiction because the American dream is meant to mean that you ‘shoot for the stars’. I hate touring and being a performer in a lot of ways because of the toll it takes on your health. I actually did some research on you (I’m trying to be a good journalist here), and it said that you’re into EFT [Emotional Freedom Technique]. I’ve done a lot of bodywork therapy in the past to help ground myself with my disabling fear of not living up to the American dream and it’s made me realise that I love being a smaller artist. What’s your experience with EFTs?
HANNAH: It’s like I’m having an interview with myself. Well I mean, it’s really interesting, I’ve literally tried everything. I’m into alternative health and mental health and psychology and everything. I think the one thing I’ve noticed, I think artists tend to fall into two categories. The category that clearly we’re both in as a career, the people who seem to have some kind of genetic thing where they really thrive being on stage and get a lot of positive energy out of it. But if you’re an introvert, I think going on stage too much can take its toll because I think you’re just giving away so much energy that you can’t get back.
What I realised is that for me, a lot of my stage fright, a lot of my fear was actually I was just really, really tired. I couldn’t cope with the pressure. I know what you mean, once I actually let go I was like, you know what? London Grammar just is going to be what it will be. I’ve got no control over how many albums we sell, whether it sells as many as our first album did. I was like, ‘I actually just don’t care anymore’. I’m going to let it all go and not worry. I realised I never really had worried that much, but obviously, there’s just so much pressure within the industry because it is a business at the end of the day. What was kind of funny is that as soon as I let go of all those expectations, I actually feel like I made some of the best work that I’ve made in a long time.
PHEBE: Yeah, it’s interesting. I often feel that musicians should be treated more like athletes, because it’s such a physical job. The whole process is physical, from writing a song that comes from a deep place in your soul and the emotional toll that takes on your body physically, to touring which is very physical and is often an endurance race of countless late nights, early mornings, promo days, and travelling in between, to the energetic exchange between yourself and the audience each night. It’s treated like a business and there’s not enough discussion around the emotional and physical toll it takes on your body, and the actual well-being of how to be a musician. I think our generation is a bit like, ‘fuck off, I’m not going to lose myself just to become more, What am I doing this for?”
HANNAH: I was made to feel like I was really weak. I remember having a conversation with someone at the very start of our career who obviously we no longer work with, who was just like, ‘you really need to get stronger like you are too weak’, essentially. I remember being like, ‘well, have you listened to our first album?’ Like, first of all, obviously I’m not weak, but it was like I was kind of an introvert and not that confident on stage and I was like, ‘why are you working with us? I’m obviously not Beyonce?’
I get nervous, but there was this real focus on… basically I should be able to do as much stuff as they put in the diary. It’s funny, I have some of our old diaries, I used to keep diaries and have everything written down and I found one the other day and it would be; shooting a music video in London, did a gig, wake up the next day, go to Paris, do promo all day, do a gig, wake up the next day, fly somewhere else. The thing is obviously, I think you are so grateful for being successful and people play on that a bit as well sometimes, like, you’re so lucky to be in that position that you can’t complain. But the thing is, you need to protect the part of yourself, which is where the music actually comes from. I think for a lot of people, with that kind of lifestyle, I don’t think anyone really would cope for very long.
PHEBE: I totally agree with that. I wish I had worked this out when I was younger, how people shame you into thinking that you don’t know what you’re doing, and how that actually destroys your creativity because creativity comes from your inner truth. It’s such a bad way of managing creatives, but eventually creatives are going to work out, ‘oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about’.
HANNAH: You don’t have an unlimited supply of energy to have that kind of lifestyle and then keep making good music.
PHEBE:Yes! This year I dove head first into learning about my energy level. This is a strange tangent to go on, but during the quiet COVID season I learnt to tune into my body and my cycle more and it was such a huge breakthrough in my creativity. I’ve always been taught that I had to be on 24/7, but as women we have different seasons in our monthly cycle which affects our energy and creativity levels. It actually changed my whole view on creativity and how there’s a period of creativity, a period for working, and a period for rest. You just have to listen to your body and figure out how to make those phases work best for you. Women are actually way more creative because of that. We’re taught to be linear and work in a structured way, when that’s not actually how our bodies work.
HANNAH: I’m so with you right now, I totally get it. It’s really interesting what you’re speaking about, I definitely write songs, I’m pretty sure I write songs when I ovulate. I will do two songs around that time and then on my actual period, I don’t think anything useful happens. I think I just actually need to like days like this, and I’m just going to be at rest mode for sure. I felt like it was almost like my femininity was almost a kind of a weakness, whereas I might know my femininity is so tied into my creativity. My creativity is definitely all to do with the fact that I’m a woman, it’s so tied into that for me. It’s not for everyone, I’m sure, but for me it is.
PHEBE: Haha, wow, we are so similar – maybe this is why Happy asked us to have this talk together? Embracing my femininity has been a big part of my journey for the last two years. In the past, I felt as if I had to push it down to be better at my job or to be taken seriously. Almost as if pretending that I wasn’t womanly and wasn’t fragile in certain ways was better for my career. Is that how you felt too?
HANNAH: I feel I am literally having a conversation with myself. Yeah, I had the same experience. It was like I really had to suppress parts of myself in order to feel like I could fit in with the industry that I was in. I think I kind of like un-feminised myself, or desexualise myself as well in some ways, like on stage. I think that’s one of the reasons why I just started to wear jeans and jumpers because I felt like… I don’t know. It’s funny.
PHEBE:It’s crazy! A friend of mine was saying recently that to be taken seriously in her job she has to wear androgynous clothing, otherwise it becomes about her distracting people. I think it’s a common thing for all of us and we do it, but it’s so wild that we have to pretend that we’re not women to be successful as a woman. I like the current conversations in feminist culture that talks about us being allowed to be women and still be taken seriously. Do you have any idols that you look up to in that sense?
HANNAH: I love Lizzo so much, because I feel like Lizzo doesn’t suppress any part of herself. Her sexuality doesn’t cancel out the fact that she’s an amazing songwriter and an amazing producer and the fact that she’s a producer/songwriter doesn’t cancel out the fact that she loves to go to strip clubs with all of her girlfriends and work in a bikini. You literally should just do whatever you want.
PHEBE: I agree with you, it’s so cool when someone just comes out and does something so true to themselves that changes people’s views about what it means to be taken seriously, especially in the world of pop music.
HANNAH: I also felt like I had to hide parts of my music taste away from certain people. So I love all music – film soundtracks, and classical music, and alternative music – but I also love pop music, like loads. But if I had worn a certain outfit, say, if I wore a really summery dress because we were going into a studio on a hot day or working on a hot day, and then spoke about how much I loved Justin Bieber’s latest single, I would be put in a certain box as not being a serious musician. Whereas I felt like with Dan and Dot, they could wear whatever they wanted to wear and then speak about how much they loved John DeLeon’s album or… ‘I actually love that latest Justin Bieber track, I think it’s great’.
But they would still be taken seriously as a musician, whereas for me it was like I have to be very careful at all times about how I manage, how I’m coming across. It’s really annoying. It’s like, ‘sorry, I am both’. I really love being very nerdy about like the most alternative music there is, but I also really love Justin Bieber and I don’t understand why I can’t be both.
PHEBE: This feels like the theme of our conversation – holding two opposing truths as a woman and being taken seriously! I write pop music for other people but my music project is really alternative and weird. I’m so used to censoring these parts of myself because people can’t handle you being more than one thing as a woman. But I actually noticed that there are some really cool and interesting pop elements in Californian Soil. I listened to it in the sun today and it was glorious – those melodies… congratulations on the beautiful new record!
HANNAH: Oh, my goodness. Well, we should do a writing session and I’m coming over to Australia, hopefully, next year. So if you’re still there, we should definitely hang out and write some music.
PHEBE: I would love that. It’s so lovely to chat to you about the complexities of being a woman in this industry.
HANNAH: Well, thank you so much. I had loads of fun.
Californian Soil is out via Dew Process on April 16. Pre-order or pre-save the album here.
London grammar 2022 Australian Tour Dates
Sat 19 Feb – Belvoir Amphitheatre Perth WA
Tue 22 Feb – Riverstage Brisbane QLD
Thu 24 Feb – Sidney Myer Music Bowl Melbourne VIC
Sat 26 Feb – Aware Super Theatre Sydney NSW
Tue 1 Mar – Entertainment Centre Theatre Adelaide SA
Get your tickets here.
London Grammar photos by Alex Waespi
Phebe Starr photos supplied