Thandi Phoenix has hit her stride
Sydney’s Inner West is home to a cultural mecca. You can read and feel it everywhere. From the street art of Newtown to the warehouses of Marrickville, there’s a creative aura about it that is fuelled and fed by an up and coming generation of artists stepping outside of the mould and working hard to find their ‘thing’.
Sydney’s Thandi Phoenix has come to find her ‘thing’ and these next few months will prove it.
Phoenix is gearing up to release her debut EP very shortly. The six-track affair details a journey of pursuit. Although she’s been putting out music since 2015, 2019 is the first time we’ll see a fully-fledged body of work from her. It marks a journey towards realisation and self-awareness; both of her self and of her dreams. Her previous singles, ‘Cleopatra’ and ‘Say It’, mark a new era of musical confidence. Both tracks show that her vocals are that little bit more powerful, the instrumentals that little bit more considered and her overall approach that little bit more self-assured.
What began as a schoolyard hobby has since grown into something much more encompassing for her. Phoenix began as a clarinetist and vocalist attending the Newtown High School of the Performing Arts, but that wasn’t what she had intended. “I wanted to be the sax girl – because Lisa Simpson, hello – but apparently the band already had enough sax players,” and so naturally, she took up the clarinet. Her vocal experience extended mostly to choirs, “I liked being in choirs, singing in a group I was cool with, but being in the spotlight, I was terrified.” That was something that she felt she really had to work on.
She reminisced on the performances, saying that “it was just absolutely soul-shakingly, terrifyingly horrible.” But what she gained from doing those performances outweighed how terrified she felt in the moment, and it was here that she knew that she had to pursue that feeling. “After the performance, everything was gone and I was like, this is good shit. I need to get rid of these nerves, so I would force myself, I got myself a gig.”
Her live performance career first began on King St in Newtown, close by her old digs as a student. She’d set herself up in the corner while people ate, quietly strumming and singing away. “That was okay because I was in the background.”
Once she began to get comfortable, she grew restless, wanting to see what else she could experience, and so she began to head out to jam sessions with other artists. “When I first started, I was doing covers and stuff, just building up that performance aspect, learning how to be on stage and how to be in the spotlight. I loved Amy Winehouse, kind of RnB, poppy things I’d do, and then I listened to a lot of jazz,” she said.
Though her music now feels like a rapid departure of these descriptions, you only have to look to her earliest work to see the parallels. Her 2015 debut ‘Come Around’ hears her croon longingly over an ambient instrumental that gives her the space to be the track’s main feature. Her voice embodies the rawness of Winehouse’s sound and infuses it with the fluidity of RnB. “I listened to it the other day because I was kind of like, what’s going on? I tried to listen from the outside perspective, because obviously we still perform that song live and it holds a really sentimental place in my heart. I wrote that with upsidedownhead, he was my tour support. All those many moons ago, we wrote that with my drummer.”
She also noticed something else when listening back. “I actually had nodules when I recorded that song and I didn’t know, so listening to it, I’ve noticed the development of my voice and how it’s strengthened and grown.”
Nodules must be every vocalists worst nightmare. It’s mind boggling that a tiny growth of tissue can prevent or hinder you from doing something that means so much to you. She went down the specialist route, finding a way to get rid of her nodules so she could get back to singing. From here, she was sent to a speech pathologist to essentially learn to change the way she was speaking. “[It] was a bizarre thing to try to change how you speak, because it all stems from how you speak. Obviously singing is an extension of that, but that’s like the core foundation of it and how we use our voice and to project.”
She took that period as a means for growth, saying “I feel like I’ve learned some hard lessons in my younger years that have taught me okay no, if you want to take this seriously you have to warm up your voice.”
“I had a couple of lessons when I was younger, but I was never full-on trained growing up, so I think I just took it for granted. There was no preparation or thought behind it. It was good to learn that lesson and just go from there.”
If there’s one thing that struck me about my conversation with Phoenix, it’s her keenness to do just that: learn and grow as an artist. Though her career began with her feeling terrified at the prospect of performing, her sheer willingness and drive to overcome that is inspiring in itself. I asked if she’d always known that she would be a performer.
“As fun? For sure. I didn’t necessarily know I’d want to do that for work so when I left high school, I started doing modelling and cafe jobs, bar jobs, all that sort of stuff,” she explained.
“It wasn’t until I started going to these jams and meeting some of the Sydney musos in the local scene, I was like oh, they’re doing gigs like every week, so I started to pick up a couple of gigs here and there. After that, I realised that I could do this, for real.”
Since her time working the Sydney circuit, she’s come into her own and spent the last few years solidifying herself as a pop force to be reckoned with.
There are few artists who have been able to successfully make the crossover between the commercial world and the ‘triple j’ world, but there’s a new generation of female artists, like Phoenix, who are breaking the mould and doing just that. I genuinely feel that there has not been a better time to be a woman in music than right now.
If there’s one thing we have learnt about representation, it’s that diversity is important. Diversity in both sound and artistic identity. The industry is changing, and what people want from the artists that they listen to is changing alongside it. Authenticity is what matters most to people now, and it’s artists like Phoenix who are paving the way.
“I think in the beginning, I did kind of get annoyed with the whole blueprint that I was told, you know like you’ve got to sound like this to be on triple j or commercial radio… I just want to do what feels right… If you get on board, amazing, if you don’t, seeya,” she laughed.
In saying that, this past year has seen Phoenix step outside of her comfort zone as a musician and explore a myriad of sounds we’d been yet to hear from her. Phoenix’s 2018 collaboration with Rudimental ‘My Way’, and her 2019 releases, ‘Say It’ with Sigma and ‘Cleopatra’, have seen her powerful voice paired with monstrous electronic backings, all with at least a hint of UK influence.
“It’s so funny, I’m an absolute fiend now just for dirty, sweaty tracks,” she explained. “I’m like wow, I’m not listening to many songs that have words in them anymore. Nothing’s changed, but it’s just going round and round and it pumps you up. It’s really connected with me… If I’m into something, I try and incorporate it in what I do.”
While ‘My Way’ saw Rudimental inject their signature drum n bass flavour into the instrumental, Sigma brought thumping 90’s house into the mix on ‘Say It’ and ‘Cleopatra’ presents a different electronic mix altogether. All of these tracks are unified by Phoenix’s infectious vocal, focussed entirely on projection, self-assurance and lasting impressions.
It feels like musically, Phoenix is hitting a peak in her career. Her debut EP will feature six cuts, all of which were written and recorded between Sydney, London and Sweden, where she ventured out on a writing trip last year. Her memories of the trip are largely defined by the smell of cinnabuns (“I was a machine”) and the fruitfulness of her writing experience.
It’s a huge deal for an artist to give us their first fully-realised body of work, and Phoenix feels that way too. She said “I just feel like it’s a really beautiful first offering, where I’m really being who I am as a person and where I’m at as an artist.”
“I could have put stuff out before, but I feel like this is a really cohesive representation of where I’m at as an artist,” she explained.
“What does it take? A lot of work, a lot of hours. Also, a lot of the songs are things that I’ve learnt, so yeah just having that life experience and having stories to tell.”
I asked if she felt like she was ready to share something like this with the world.
“I do. I just want everyone to take it [laughs]. I’m very excited for it to be out.”
Words & photos by CAITLIN MEDCALF