Interviews

The City chats his new EP, navigating relationships, and retro influences

The City has returned with a self-titled EP that blends indie, funk, and dancefloor vibes. We took five with the artist to chat about the release.

The City is a multi-talented songwriter who has brought all of his influences to bear on a brand new self-titled EP. It represents a levelling up in maturity and confidence as the artist (also known as Phil Hanlon) explores a variety of emotional terrain in this new body of work.

We caught up with Hanlon to talk about how he builds his songs, the surprising influences that are incorporated into the EP, and saying goodbye to the past.

The City

HAPPY: Hey there Phil! Whereabouts do you find yourself today?

PHIL: Hi Happy! I am in my hometown of Newcastle, NSW at the moment, slightly out of lockdown and going to shows which is great!

HAPPY: About that name, ‘The City’ — where did it come from?

PHIL: I was on my way to Sydney and someone like my brother or mum called me and they asked “whereabouts are you?” and I replied “I just got into the city,” and I thought to myself that would actually be an okay name because everyone says it and (hopefully) my project would come to mind. So yeah, just playing mind games (laughs). It’s kinda like when you name a song after something everyone says like One More Time or Fuck You by Lily Allen.

HAPPY: Massive congrats on the release of your self-titled EP. Tell us a bit about it.

PHIL: My first EP was mostly written around three years ago, and sonically really displayed how I was and what I was doing at the time, my level of writing, and also what I was listening to. It was quite erratic, loud, big, three-minute indie-pop hits basically. And it took me around two years to release it so by the time it was out there, all three of those things had completely changed. So, I wanted to write an EP that showcased where I was currently at, and that is The City. Also hence the self-titled name as this felt like where the project was at that time.

However, the ‘catch 22’ is now that I’ve released this I am musically, mentally, and socially in a different state, so technically this is not where The City is (laughs).

It’s a lot slower, moodier, and there’s a lot more emphasis on the songwriting this time around, instead of just four bars of verse then four bars of chorus. The Grey is one of my favourite tracks, and it made the cut because my whole band and everyone who had a hand in the recording were massive fans of the structure – which I’ve never been complimented on before — so I thought that was deciding factor in whether it makes it.

HAPPY: What are you hoping your listeners take away from the EP? Was there a particular message you wanted to get across?

PHIL: To be honest, I just wanted to put on display where I was at this time, and songwriting-wise, I am a lot more than what I was three years ago. I love the first EP, and I am so proud of it and it sounds great, but this was to just say, “I’ve got a lot more to offer than just indie-pop tracks.”

Lyrically, songs like The Grey and Puzzles speak of specific relationships either going or having gone south, and I think the title Puzzles really says it all, as navigating these hard times after a hugely important relationship (in Puzzles’ case, my brother’s marriage) can be a really precarious, confusing time, not to mention sad – and I hope that if people listen to these they too know that they’re not alone. These songs also have a whole new meaning to me too as I recently lost my relationship of two years in lockdown, and it’s shit. I don’t offer up any advice lyrically but I guess my message is to seek help, friends, anything, because you’re not alone.

 

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HAPPY: The sounds on these tracks feel so nostalgic. Who were some sonic influences on your sound?

PHIL: One of the biggest that I didn’t even realise when writing was Franz Ferdinand. I grew up on an over-indulged diet of The Strokes, Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party, and Franz Ferdinand, and obviously a lot of those things subconsciously stuck.

But you’re not wrong, at the time I was listening to Huey Lewis and the News, The Alan Parsons Project is constantly on in my parents’ house, and stuff like Duran Duran. However, I needed to maintain some sort of indie rock vibe about it, and modern influences definitely came in to fill that hole. The slow RnB groove of AM from Arctic Monkeys, Holy Holy’s guitar-driven pop sound is a huge inspiration on both EPs, and early The 1975 always shine through in my songs I think as well.

HAPPY: Your EP strikes an incredible balance with emotional storytelling and colourful dance tunes. How did you create a blend between the two?

PHIL: I found that slowing it down a lot helps massively. I’m a drummer by heart so everything’s got to have a beat, otherwise, I’d get bored (so would my drummer). But with the first EP, you can’t tell a story very well when the song is going at 150 bpm. So, when I slowed it down, it’s so much easier to get a word in, and I obviously found myself having to throw in more lyrics so I used that opportunity to speak more. And I found myself going down that funky dance vibe, so it continued on it but made sure I could at least lyrically say more.

 

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HAPPY: What comes first for you, the lyrics or the tune?

PHIL: Most of the time, the drums. This whole EP it was the drums actually. I think of what beat I want the song to have, so like, four to the floor, or simple rock groove, or the Tempted or The Grey beats and I go “cool that’s what I got now let’s just chuck everything on top.”

But once I have the basic music down in a demo, I play it on a loop and figure out lyrics over the top of it. Only lately have I begun a song from the guitar or piano, as it sits next to me while I work from home, so that stuff is what is coming next!

HAPPY: What can we expect for the future for The City?

PHIL: At the moment I’m writing and I’ve booked in recording for early next year. I’ve gone back to what I enjoy writing and performing the most, and I’m recording what I want to record. And it’s actually crazy how much that has an effect on the quality of the product, these songs are like the best I’ve ever written and I’m already super proud of them, so that’s something to look forward to in the new year.

As for the rest of the year, I have about four local shows booked, as booking anything outside my hometown right now is just not gonna happen. But I hope next year I can get to more places to play as this year was so disjointed. I’ve gotten all the recordings out for this year, and I’ve got an idea of what my listeners like and want more of, so I’ll work on getting that to them next year.

The City’s self-titled EP is out now. Stream it here.