Louder Than War Interview: Phildel
Hailing from London with Chinese / Irish parentage, her music has been used in advertisements from Marks & Spencer to Apple and has been endorsed by the likes of musical supremo Trevor Horn and author Mariah Huehner.
Phildel has just released The Glass Ghost EP and has short tours of North America, Canada and the UK under her belt. It’s very unlikely 2014 will be a huge artist in 2014 so now seems like a great time to have a chat with her about her career so far and what the future holds in store for her.
Louder Than War: It was a great performance at Sacred Trinity in Salford a couple of weeks ago. What’s it like to play in a Church? Your experiences with your step-Father as a child are well documented, did you see playing there as some sort of exorcism?
Phildel: Thanks – I really enjoyed performing at Sacred Trinity in Salford. It always feels amazing to be performing in such a sublime space. I love the history that churches have within their very architecture and their deep association with inner reflection makes them a perfect place for an audience enjoying the kind of music I create. There’s definitely a tremendous power that comes with religious iconography, that’s something I’ve always been very aware of. And in performing in a church, I think to some extent the power of that context unites with the performance – even if it’s just the impact of the symbols interweaved within the architecture. I wouldn’t say it was an ‘exorcism’ as such – more of a uniting of forces, both musical and contextual – to deliver something visually and sonically powerful to the audience. I was actually raised as a (pretty liberal) Roman Catholic by my biological parents up until their divorce. The church Vicar actually asked me after the show in Salford if I felt comfortable performing at the church given my background – so I explained, yes – I did actually have a balanced religious life with a Roman Catholic lifestyle before a far more extreme form of religious framework was imposed upon me. And as this new framework instigated by my step-father was based on Islam – it involved mosques – so I certainly don’t have a phobia of churches or anything! They remind me, if anything, of when my life was more normal before the age of eight and in that sense too, it’s really lovely coming back to them now and performing my music.
The last time I interviewed you (see here), you said salmon teriyaki, pak choi and rice noodles were your favourite meal. What are you making me for dessert?
You’re not the first person I’ve met who likes to eat dessert after a meal ; ) Gotta admit, I prefer dessert – and Gluten-free Amaretto chocolate bread pudding with cream would be what I’d make you. Two friends of mine introduced me to it when they made it for me and it’s the best dessert I’ve ever had in my life … it’s a total chocolate overload … I think I gained about a stone once I discovered how to make it…
What are the pros and cons of having Chris, your partner, in the band with you?
Ha-ha! There are no cons in terms of our experience on tour … it’s amazing and we’re so thrilled to be able to share so much of the journey together. It’s been eight years now that we’ve been living together and working together. In fact on this tour we slept in a single bed together because there were four of us on tour and I’d booked two twin rooms. Normally the boys (Adam our drummer and Chris) take one room and the girls (me and Luca, our viola/violinist) take the other. But I just couldn’t get to sleep without Chris. So I went and knocked on the boys’ door at 2am and had to squeeze into the single bed with Chris! In that room, the funniest thing was Adam’s sleep-talking which had me in hysterics all night. He’d be snoring away and then come out with the most confidently, well-annunciated one liners, then go back to snoring. I’ve known Adam since college when we were 16, so we really go back. In terms of Chris and I though – we spend a huge amount of time together and we’ve never really had an argument. Chris nursed me through some incredibly difficult times too. We’re really sensitive towards one another. My only concern and I think the only con, is that Chris sacrifices so much time in helping me on tour – I worry that he’s not spending enough time nurturing his own passions (which are currently writing and art – for his last birthday I sent him on a ten week art course to Central St Martin’s though and he’s just about to do a screenwriting course, so I’m happy that his creative side is moving forward too. Chris is phenomenally talented in both fields as well as in the field of music and actually contributes to a very powerful online organisation called “The Good Men Project” – which aims to make the world a better place in a number of brilliant ways including encouraging men to be able to discuss their needs for emotional support as well as encouraging equal rights and bringing about an end to domestic violence, it has both male and female contributors and I absolutely love to read its articles). I think both men and women have suffered through history in terms of gender roles and sexism. Women have been denied political, social and financial equality and still are, there needs to be a lot more progress – but I think men have been denied emotional equality, which is also something that more light needs to be shed on. From a young age boys are too often raised to feel that they cannot cry, or ask for emotional help, without risking their ‘masculinity’. And that’s something I notice more and more and feel very sad about. It is a huge problem and I know statically, more men commit suicide as a result of depression than women. Largely because it is so much harder for them to reach out for help. Personally, I’m very open about the source of my songwriting, which often has stemmed from trauma and/or breakdowns I’ve suffered. I like to encourage that sense of openness. And I welcome, so much, those who approach me after my shows to let me know how much they identify with those things.
Amazing – we had a fantastic time. People were so incredibly appreciative of the music and I hugely enjoyed meeting everyone after the show. Many people had driven for hours or taken flights from far away places to come to the concerts. I’m often moved to tears when I speak to supporters at the meet and greets, (which I do after every show). They often speak of how the music has helped them through tremendously difficult times and it makes me realise the much bigger picture that stretches far beyond my own creative process. Because I spend so much time alone, working on the music – it makes touring an incredibly powerfully moving experience, as I get to connect to people, it makes me realise the extra value my music has and the role it can play in people’s lives. That’s the best thing about touring for me.
I suspect the last twelve months have been a bit of a whirlwind for you? Is that correct? What have been the highlights?
I think finally having “The Disappearance of the Girl” released and being able to get a dialogue rolling with the outside world was the highlight of the year. For me, music is my most effective means of communication – I don’t articulate myself that well when I speak. So my music is really my favourite method of communication. Then the touring and being able to connect with supporters is also a huge highlight.
The Glass Ghost EP has more of an electronic feel than your previous writing – is there a rationale behind that or is it just the Phildel sound evolving?
I loved the electronic side to “The Disappearance of the Girl” and had loads of fun with Moonsea. So, yes – I wanted to experiment more with that, which I really did with “Celestial”. Although, I wouldn’t say necessarily that this is the path I’ll exclusively go down. I think “The Glass Ghost”, “Porcelain” and “Heaven: An Introduction” are very acoustically orientated. So, I suppose in my view – the EP overall balance between electronic and acoustic feels reasonably similar to the balance between them on the debut album. But yes – I think “Celestial” is a track that stands out to people on the EP and it is very electronically orientated.
Your experience at Glasgow train station and the following coach journey to Manchester seemed plagued with bad luck?
Yes, actually after our Manchester show someone pointed out I do seem to court disaster generally in life. The night I played Glasgow – ironically just after I performed “Storm Song” the worst storm for 60 years hit the UK … being most severe in the North – with Glasgow included as one of the worst hit places unfortunately. We went to our hotel after the show and listened to things crashing down off the hotel roof all night, then in the morning got ready to catch our train from Glasgow Central only to find that as we made our way there – the storm was ripping the roof off the station and shards of glass were falling down onto the station floor from the glass roof. They closed the station and all trains and flights out of Glasgow were cancelled. So in a bid to get to our Manchester show that night, we took a detour and booked a coach. Things seemed to be back on track when suddenly, I saw on the road ahead of us a fallen tree. We were probably going at about 40mph – and I glanced at the driver expecting him to stop (or at least slow down), but no … we continued on, at exactly the same speed and smashed right into the tree. The windshield was totally shattered … Adam asked the driver what had happened later and he explained, “I thought it was a fir tree…then I hit it – it wasn’t”. So, a replacement coach was sent and we finally rolled in to Manchester nine hours later. I had to perform Storm Song again that night – it always feels uncomfortable singing “I’ll send a storm…” as a storm batters and destroys parts of the community around you.
I find Funeral Bell a very emotional song and almost cried when you sang it. You also looked slightly shaken.
The response you felt to the song is one many people tell me they feel too. Funeral Bell comes from a very core place – well, all the songs do, but I guess the difference with Funeral Bell is that it was written during an incredibly desperate time. I think there’s a place that’s so deeply emotionally personal – it actually begins to become universal – because there are these basic raw feelings at the core of all of us. And that’s the place I tend to write my music from. When I wrote Funeral Bell, I was suffering my first nervous breakdown in my early 20s, which I attribute completely to the trials of my upbringing. I was suicidal, my quality of life was incredibly low and I just sat at the piano and cried. And I feel I wrote that song, when I really was at the very edge, just hanging on. I just couldn’t see how I was going to live on if my state of mind and physical state (which by then was also greatly affected as I’d lost so much weight) – didn’t significantly improve. And though the song is a measured hymnal in its form – it’s a controlled prayer out to the universe and a plea for mercy, to let me live. I’ve performed it in the past and not been able to complete the song because I couldn’t hold back the tears. But it’s been a little while since my recovery now – so I can perform the song comfortably these days as I do feel out of the woods. But, I love the song for how much space it holds to express that human weakness and each time I perform it I consider our vulnerability as human beings, very deeply.
The interaction with your audience seems key to your performance, and I noticed a huge cross section of ages. Your music seems to have broad appeal.
Yes, I think different people find different things in the music to enjoy. There are various layers and dimensions to it. There’s obviously the fantasy/imagination influence – especially in songs such as “Storm Song”, “Afraid of the Dark”, “Beside You” and “Moonsea”. And I find that topic appeals to young adults and “Afraid of the Dark” featuring in the USA’s teen fantasy drama “Ravenswood” recently, confirms it. But there’s also an older adult audience who really enjoyed the actual musical arrangements, the interaction between the strings, the voices, the way the songs gel together, I think songs like “The Disappearance of the Girl”, “Funeral Bell” and “Moonsea” have arrangements I’m really proud of. I heard that “Holes In Your Coffin” was an anthem this year for the UK vampire community … and made its way on to the Vampire Charts. But they’re such an underground community, (please excuse the pun) it was hard for me to get clarification on that! I think the one thing that appeals to all groups, however, is the emotional charge of all of the songs, and the quality of the arrangements.
You seem to have a lot of control in what you do. How important do you see that creatively?
It’s everything to me. I think if you don’t have creative control over what you do, you’re not the artist. I would rather have no money and have complete creative control then have someone else do the creating and have a higher income. I have no interest in popularity or celebrity – all that matters to me is creating music that’s genuine and of the best quality I can manage with the resources I have available. If I get to a point where people’s expectations of me promoting my music takes too much time away from my process of creating it – I’ll scale everything back until I have the right balance.
Kath Bush released an album about snow, and now you have released an EP partly influenced by the same thing. The video for Comfort Me is in an outdoor snow-scape. What’s the fascination?
I haven’t actually heard Kate Bush’s album – and I’m not sure I’d ever create an entire album inspired by a season, or an artefact from that season. For me the EP, “The Glass Ghost” was an exercise. There’s something incredible about the changing of the seasons – it’s not just Winter I’m fascinated by. I’m working on a new work entitled “Monument to Life” which will be a more Spring inspired work and which I’m enormously excited about. I feel incredibly closely connected to the changing of the seasons and draw huge inspiration from the landscape. As a British person I count myself incredibly lucky to enjoy living in a country with such dynamic seasons and such fertile, lush landscapes. It’s beautiful to behold. So, with “The Glass Ghost”, I wanted to capture the atmosphere of Winter. Winter has such a fairy-tale quality – it’s visually stunning, flakes of soft snow falling from the sky and settling, glistening on the ground. Everything sparkles – it’s like living in a fairy-tale. I wanted to capture that. The sound of ice and glass became a key thing I also wanted to explore – as I felt those sounds were emblematic of Winter. The brush-drumming in “The Glass Ghost” brought me closer to the feel of rushing through a snowy landscape. And the various glass sounds I obtained from the charity, “Friends of Glass” also provided an excellent glass sound bank resource, some of which I used raw such as in “Heaven: An Introduction” – and others I used as starting point before altering them to create new synthesized glass sounds, such as those featured in “The Glass Ghost” and “Celestial”.
Where will you be spending Xmas?
In Bristol with my father, big brother, his twins and Chris. My brother Nathan always cooks an amazing roast with the best pork crackling ever. And we catch up on music news together – my brother is in a grindcore band called Acid Shark and is the one who gave me the first music equipment I ever owned when I was about 20 – which was actually his previous computer equipment. My brother and father are very liberal people and weren’t directly involved in the ten years I suffered living at my mother and step-father’s house. So they form the core of my family now along with Chris.
What do you hope 2014 brings?
More of the same … more exciting creative exercises … more fun music video shoots with my team and more great adventures on the road. Hopefully a few less storms…
All words by Paul Scott-Bates. More of Paul’s writing on Louder Than War can be found here. Paul’s website is hiapop Blog. Paul is working hard to save Radio Lancashire’s On The Wire, the BBCs longest running alternative music programme. Follow him on twitter as @saveonthewire for all On The Wire news or follow hiapop Blog on Twitter, @hiapop.