Anna Phoebe | website | facebook | twitter |
By: Gaz Cloud
Photos by Charlie Gardner
Anna Phoebe is a violinist unlike any other you’ve heard. In spite of her relative youth (Phoebe is 34) her long career has already seen her graduate from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and perform as a session musician with a host of famous names. Her most recent pair of releases, collaborations with the rock band Jurojin, have been making waves in the progressive world, effortlessly combining a host of global influences with jazz and rock. Echoes and Dust caught up with Anna and the boys for an in depth chat, covering everything from insights into their compositional process through to an exclusive on the future for Jurojin…
Anna Phoebe and company are in demand this afternoon. We do our best to politely interrupt two young females, with whom the group have just finished an extended interview. The girls in question first caught Phoebe perform live only a few weeks earlier, and upon hearing her became instant fans. It’s easy to see why so many people are falling for the trademark exotic sound Phoebe and her band specialise in. In person, they’re just as warm as the music they make. Funny, generous and eloquent (much of the text in the interview remains unedited), the group give the impression of having ample time, in spite of their impending gig, and seem sad to break off from the fans’ questions. After a brief round of introductions, we begin…
Anna Phoebe describes her sound as a ‘crazy melting pot’. Anyone acquainted with her early solo releases, EP Gypsy and the metallic Rise Of The Warrior album will already be familiar with her ability to transcend genre boundaries. Where did the Anna Phoebe sound come from? Born in Germany to a Greek-Irish father and German mother, Phoebe moved to Scotland as a young child. ‘My parents listened to Roxy Music, Peter Gabriel, UB40, and then a lot of jazz. Also I remember my dad always doing housework with The Pogues blasting in our house. And then my mum plays violin as well, so we always had a lot of classical music – my mother always used to take me to classical concerts from the age of four, so I was used to sitting still and watching full orchestras for two and a half hours. I remember my legs being really twitchy. I was brought up with a really wide range of music in the household.’ It’s clear from talking to Phoebe that music has always been a big part of her environment and a formative experience.
Taking up the violin aged seven, things didn’t start entirely smoothly for Phoebe. The problem was disciplined practice. ‘I’ve never been good at practice, to be honest, and I think I’m getting better. I remember doing a concert when I was 10 years old and doing a solo with a children’s regional orchestra. I got a standing ovation and I remember feeling this surge of power – it sounds really awful – I remember making the connection between having this influence over other people and practice. When you’re a child to understand what practice means is actually quite a big thing. You have 3-4 year olds who are taught Suzuki method – it’s a very difficult concept to understand. I think only now I’m starting to begin to appreciate practice for what it is, rather than just a means to get to be able to perform and play a piece.’
Of course, it’s not just hard graft that gives Phoebe a unique position in the rock world, but talent as well. I ask when she realised she was gifted, and she replies ‘When I was in utero!’ with an air of mock superiority. ‘I never wanted to be a violinist – it wasn’t something my parents expected of me. My mum had to really make me practise when I was running around, but she wasn’t strict. If you want to be a concert violinist you have to be playing eight hours a day. I’ve never been someone like that, actually I feel very insecure about my playing – only now I’m starting to feel confident. I feel now for the first time that I’m actually putting in the hours.’
Phoebe’s sense of performance goes much further than dazzling finger speed and agile bow work. She’s no shrinking wallflower. ‘I went from playing classically, and I worked hard at all my exams, to studying politics and just jamming with indie bands; most of the time you’re playing three chord music – there’s not that attention to detail in what I had to deliver. I went from that to playing loud rock music where people aren’t really listening to what you’re doing. It was much more about performance – I decided if I’m not going to be heard I’m going to be seen, and developed knee slides and the flamboyancy of performing. It was only when I found myself playing with Ian Anderson, also Jon Lord – taking it back to piano, violin: touring Russia with a full orchestra where I could hear a pin drop. It really made me want to go back to those classical roots.’
Her musical relationship with prog-rock royalty Anderson was a profound turning point, and to this day he cites Phoebe as a significant talent. I ask what in particular made the relationship with Anderson such a success. ‘(He is) such a perfectionist. He came up to me during the sound check on the day of the second show when I did a tour with him and said “Anna, the way you approach the fourth note of the third chorus in this song… maybe you could not slide up to it but just hit the nail on the head.” I’m thinking, “Oh my god, he’s actually listening to what I’m doing.”’
The quantum leap between the early releases referenced above and the more recent material is staggering even to early devotees. No longer simply transcending genre boundaries, Phoebe is now creating a musical canvas all of her own. A massive factor in this transformation was the partnership with Jurojin, a London experimental rock band that boast a tabla player amongst their rank. Jurojin share Phoebe’s passion for incorporating Middle Eastern leanings into their sound and, as importantly, display a willingness to experiment.
Now shorn of their former vocalist, Jurojin’s instrumental quartet serve as Phoebe’s band and provide much more than a backing for her to solo over. It’s evident that Phoebe and guitarist Nicolas Rizzi, her main co-writer, are close – the duo regularly finish each other’s sentences and appear to share an unspoken understanding. Phoebe obviously holds Rizzi in the same sphere of esteem as Anderson: ‘(He has an) attention to detail and real precision in developing music and also listening to how something is played, especially in the studio. That’s really spurred me on to the next level and I really feel only now am I starting to feel a little less insecure.’
I ask Phoebe to distil the influences that make up the current Anna Phoebe Band sound: ‘All of us loving music; our influences are very varied as individual players. Obviously I play a classical instrument so have classical training. I bring folk influences, then I’ve played with rock bands and also I travel a lot to the Middle East, so that alone is a crazy melting pot. And then Nic loves jazz, metal and is also trained in Eastern classical. And then you’ve got these guys (gesturing at other band members) who’ve all got their own musical backgrounds – I think all of these things become the melting pot for the project.’ Rizzi picks up the theme. ‘I think it just creates a group of very open minded but also very mouldable musicians. All of us can adjust our playing to whichever direction we decide to take a track in and we’re very open to trying things outside of our comfort zone. That’s where the diversity in the tracks comes from: a little bit of everyone’s crazy ideas.’ The ensemble let out a hearty laugh that seems genuine and not nervy.
Whilst Phoebe conducts her gigs as though they are musical travelogues, taking the audience from one continent to another in their mind’s eye, one recurring musical influence is the Middle East. ‘I started going to Beiruit Lebanon age 22. At one time I was going out there pretty much every month.’ Phoebe’s relationship with the area was strengthened by an invitation to play for the Jordanian royal family, alongside gigs in Israel with Oi Va Voi, one of her many former projects. ‘It’s a crazy part of the world that I have a strange affinity to – it feels a very natural home for me. The way the violin is used in that culture. I love the Middle East.’ Is there anything she doesn’t like about the area? ‘The politics!’
The creative process for Rizzi and Phoebe varies from track to track, as Rizzi explains. ‘Sometimes the basis of a song gets written in one session. I’ll go round to Anna’s and we’ll get most of a song, at least the bare bones in three hours. Other times we’ll both have a riff or melody we think “How can we make this into a song?” and it can take a couple of months. It always stems from us being together. No-one in the band has brought a main song to the table and then we worked on it. It’s always feels like we’ve waited to be together. We might talk about some ideas or vibes we’d like to try, a style we’d like to use as an inspiration at the beginning of the writing process. If I tried to write a song then brought it to Anna, or if Anna wrote a song and brought it to me, it wouldn’t sound like anything we’d worked on together.’
Both Phoebe and Rizzi repeatedly use the word ‘trust’; it’s clear that there is a mutuality that stretches right to their individual melody lines. ‘I have as much influence on Anna’s violin lines as she does on my guitar parts.’ I am interested as to how the rest of the band contribute to the writing process. Rizzi and Phoebe are keen to talk up their bandmates’ contributions. ‘Franceso (Lucidi, drums) has got a really good ear for melody,’ begins Rizzi. ‘He’s had a lot of impact on the melody lines. There’s also rhythm interplay between the tabla (Simran Ghalley) and the drums that the two of them bring to the table.’ Yves Fernandez, the group’s bassist, isn’t able to make this gig or interview, but Phoebe is keen to sing his praises in absentia. ‘Sections will suddenly become a bass solo – he’ll jam something in the studio and we’ll love it,’ she opines.
It’s clear that the writing process is a very organic one. But the group also spend just as long refining their compositions. ‘We do spend a lot of time making sure every little transition is right, that every bass lick is in the right place, the drum fills are running with the tabla, everybody’s in sync. It varies from song to song but it’s as collaborative as possible,’ Rizzi explains. ‘If there’s something I feel strongly about the rest of the guys disagree then I try to just let it go.’ Phoebe laughs at this sentiment and you sense she’s making a mental note for next time there’s a disagreement in the studio!
Talk turns to recording. Here, the band are all united in their firm belief that they need to know what they’re doing before getting into the studio. ‘We learnt the hard way recording the EP (Emerge). This is the beauty of perfectionists – if it’s important musically we’ll do it, but that takes longer.’ So much longer, in fact, that the recording was delayed whilst members of the band had children!
The album Between The Shadow And The Soul represents a further progression of the ensemble’s sound, and garnered rave reviews from publications as disparate as Prog Magazine, the Guardian and this very site. The journey wasn’t entirely smooth, as Phoebe explains. ‘We changed the sound: at the beginning we were more similar to Jurojin and my previous album, with walls of sound and the vocal line or violin line sitting on top. I remember sitting in the car listening to the early demo, I remember thinking “I’m going to have to call Nic…” I remember that phone call, saying “Nic, I don’t like the sound of it. It’s not right.” We had a crisis, like a fork in the road moment where we realised we had to start again in terms of finding guitar sounds and what happened when we did that really opened up the sound, allowed the violin to not always have to be screaming and the tabla playing not always have to be fighting. It just opened up space – taking out some of the louder sounds. It changed our writing, I think – it made it much more of a tapestry where the instruments weave.’
The realisation that less is more proved a key turning point for Rizzi. ‘This pushed me out of my comfort zone,’ he admits. ‘It was great, it really got me thinking about my parts, and it led me to rethink my role as a guitar player in the project. There’s quite a few songs where the bass, drums and violin are the only tracks and I’m just adding embellishments – textures as opposed to a driving riff or chord progression.’ I suggest the band see these two recent releases as the start of a longer process of development and Phoebe agrees. ‘Listen to ‘Awaken’ on the EP: it’s a full band; then listen to ‘Knives’ on the album – it’s obviously the same band but sonically it’s totally different. You can chart the progress and hear what we’re experimenting with. I’m quite excited to see where the next one goes!’
I am curious as to how the band manage to improvise live around such refined, carefully structured themes. A nervous silence descends and precedes the interview’s only uncomfortable moment. Phoebe admits that, actually, there is ‘very little improvisation live’, although Rizzi admits that there are looser sections and each band member is well aware of when they can ‘take liberties’. I wonder if the future may see an opening up of this tight live process, but given the band appear ill at ease discussing the transformation from the studio to the stage, I leave it there.
Phoebe and Rizzi also create music outside of the Anna Phoebe band, and alongside session work have been commissioned to write and record film soundtracks, with both documentary work and short film scores to their name. Rizzi is happy to expand on the difference between this and the band’s output. ‘Anna and I have a strong interest in film music and creating these compositions is completely different creative process.’ Often relying on the development of one main theme or idea and recorded in their home studios, Rizzi admits this work is ‘something we’d love to do a lot more of.’
Phoebe’s extra-curricular interests don’t stop with film, however – ‘I’d love to work with choreographers or artists for art installations.’ Describing her approach to such work as ‘David Lynch style, Laurie Anderson style violin’, Phoebe’s keen to build her experimental skills and sees the home studio as the perfect outlet. Are there any conflicts of interest? It seems these two meticulous sonic artists are somehow more comfortable releasing music that doesn’t carry their name, with Phoebe asserting ‘It’s not Jurojin; it’s not Anna Phoebe’, describing the ‘third part thing’ that allows them to ‘create and let go’. Rizzi sees this as a boon, adding ‘It’s important for us to have a completely different creative outlet. (It’s a) very different process when you’re writing textures and layers.’
With all this activity and the hype surrounding the Anna Phoebe project, I wonder if Jurojin have an independent future. ‘Do you know any singers?!’ jokes Phoebe. The serious answer though is a pragmatic one: with their vocalist departed and Anna Phoebe in the spotlight, they simply don’t have time. However, Rizzi does offer hope for the future for the ensemble: ‘Everything’s always been very DIY and self-funded. To really push Jurojin now would require too many sacrifices. However we did record a full studio album – 10 studio tracks mixed and mastered, two-and-a-half years ago, just prior to us parting ways with our singer. We spent time working with a couple of people but didn’t quite find what we were looking for. The most likely thing we’re going to do is release (the album) as a series of collaborations with various singers.’
With Rizzi describing this second Jurojin record as the band ‘finding our sound, as we did with Anna’, it’s obvious they would dearly love to put out the finished results. ‘We haven’t had a means to release it. I’ll never be able to live with myself if these tracks never get released. We won’t be able to put in the 200 gigs a year you need to break as a band. We have day jobs, careers, various interests and families.’ Ghalley adds that Jurojin ‘put everything we had into these tracks’. The loss of their singer must have proved devastating, but Rizzi is keen to focus on the positive. ‘(The) advantage (was) it opened us up to working with very different singers from very different genres that allowed us to explore sides of our music we’d never explored before. Who knows what will happen from there?’ Rizzi remains tight lipped when pressed for the names of singers, but Phoebe enigmatically throws in that they include ‘A couple of people E & D might know’. Rizzi, though, has the final word. ‘I can promise it will come out!’
So, where next for Anna Phoebe? ‘We’ve just started the writing process,’ opens Rizzi. It’s going to be different, but it’s too early to tell. We’re always going to try to do something different when we write together. It’s the beginning of the evolution of where we want to take our music.’ Phoebe jokes the results will be ‘avant garde!’ before adding ‘It’s not a dissimilar progression from Jurojin’s sound and Rise Of The Warrior and Gypsy to the EP and then the album – it all leads towards progression.’
Merely an hour or so later, Phoebe has ditched the casual attire and is in full-on performance mode. With Stephen Woodcock filling in on bass and Ghalley used sparingly, the set is mesmerising, with the crowd hanging on Phoebe’s every run and clearly in awe at her skill. As the band up the power, you could be forgiven for thinking a bona fide rock star was in our midst, yet as each song ends, Phoebe’s humanity is evident. The talent in the Anna Phoebe band is far greater than the ensemble’s ego. With high profile support slots as a duo for Anathema’s cathedral gigs, this jaw dropping full band performance at HRH Prog festival, plus other festival successes at Chiddfest and Rambling Man now under their belt, the future looks bright for Anna Phoebe and her musical brothers.