Inside the return of Phebe Starr, Australian pop music's heavy metal flower petal
Armed with a new single and a debut album on the way, one of Australia's defining indie-pop artists makes a return with an exciting new edge.
The title Heavy Metal Flower Petal is one that naturally attracts attention, but for Australian-raised pop musician Phebe Starr, it's a phrase that seems to encapsulate her so perfectly that she's made it the title of her forthcoming debut album. It's a battle of contrast between the delicate and the rough; a contrast between the darkness that underpins many of Phebe Starr's experiences over the last decade - the 'heavy metal' side, per se - versus the way she's able to turn these experiences into glitter-y, joyful flower petals - the striking indie-pop that comes from her constant, songwriting-fuelled reflections.
Over the last decade, Phebe Starr has shown this rich contrast within every fibre of her art. As a musician once central to Australian indie-pop, her work often flourishes with a sense of tenderness and vulnerability, drawing you into her experiences and the rollercoastering ups and downs that naturally dictate one's lifetime. With that in mind, however, that tenderness isn't something you can often pick straight away - Phebe's productions swelling with nuances spread across electronica, indie and pop music, to the point where they typically become so joyful and bright that they disguise the darker meanings looming underneath.
It's something that she's constantly welcomed throughout her career, even in the last few years as she turned a focus to songwriting and production behind-the-scenes, moving to Los Angeles to become a go-to force for evolving, growing artists. Then, however, came the deterioration of her marriage and a global pandemic rolled into some kind of dystopian bundle deal, forcing her to look more inwards and emerge with a debut album of her own - next year's arriving Heavy Metal Flower Petal.
It's an album bound to showcase the many facets of Phebe Starr both musically and personally, soundtracking a tremendous journey of reflective evolution that's defined her last few years. Rollercoaster Man - a single which arrived earlier in the year - teased that, but her newly-minted single Air feels like an encapsulation of every strength Phebe Starr has to offer, officially welcoming back the long-awaited return of one of Australian pop's best.
Air is a moment that cements Starr's craftmanship in stone, using this jagged-edged vocal sample to lead a symphony of production that twist and turn throughout the single's duration, with the end result being this slick, yet authentically cutting-edge descent into what Phebe Starr does best. As she explains, the track was written alongside Cloud Control's Alistair Wright, who aided Phebe Starr in bringing Air to life. "We were jamming and this feeling just hit us both," she says on the single. "The song was written and produced in a matter of minutes. All attempts to improve on it took the humanness out of it and by losing that we lost the magic and the essence of what we created."
There's a sense of genuineness within the core of Air - this 'humanness' she seemingly describes - and after a near-decade of showing that through both her own work and other people's, Air feels like a heralding moment for Phebe Starr; a long-awaited return to force for someone that's been gone far too long. While you dive into Air and await the release of Phebe's debut album Heavy Metal Flower Petal on February 16th 2022, read our catch up with Phebe below, as she tracks her last few years and details the journey to her debut album's long-awaited arrival.
Hey Phebe! The last time we would've spoken to you would've been for the Ice Tea Liberace EP back in 2019, and obviously so much has happened since then. Can you tell us how you've spent the last two years?
Yes, I think we spoke when I had just moved to L.A. The last 2 years? Wow, has anyone been up to much other than trying to survive Covid? I came back to Australia in March 2020 for a tour, and then the borders closed on me with my passport at the U.S. embassy. Much of my time has been spent figuring out how to live, where to live and how to release music in this new world.
It's not all been bad. I got to spend 5 months living at my mum's house in Valla beach near Bellingen, NSW. It's the first time since I left home at 16 that my mum, sister, and I got to spend a lot of time together. It's beautiful up there. I was surrounded by nature, eating the best food from the garden, living a tranquil life. There is a quietness that is very intimidating at first, but it was such a full-circle moment coming back to the place I grew up and a fantastic way to finish off the creative rationale for this album.
I know that one thing that has come out of those last two years is your debut album, Heavy Metal Flower Petal. Can you tell us a bit about this record?
Heavy Metal Flower Petal is my first album. I always write to heal and learn more about who I am in the world, to transcend that pain into something positive. The title came first and encapsulated many themes and complexities I want to represent in my art. Life is full of complexities. We are often presented with extreme views, one side of the story and more than ever, the online world expresses and demands that to feed the bots and algorithms. I wanted to make something extremely human, and that expressed my doubts and fears and pain but in a soft and open way.
The main thing I went through writing this body of work was a transformation to learn how to encourage my feminine side. I was raised in a strong family, strong parents, I have a lot of strength in me in the cliche sense, but I'd come to a point where I had to face my fears about being soft and vulnerable, open to others experiences. There is a great need for feminine energy in the world right now, and this album was written with that desire and perspective.
Was there anything that pressured you or pushed you into making a record, or was it something that happened quite naturally in the songwriting process?
I was trying to choose an outfit for a photo shoot. I'd just moved to L.A and my housemate Mallrat was helping me get ready. I held up a pink dress and said, 'no, this is too girly' Grace replied, 'what's wrong with being a girly?'. A spiral of questions went through my head, and I knew there was something bigger going on to explore.
Over the last few years, I discovered that I was terrified of pink, terrified of being perceived feminine and acquainted soft and having needs with being powerless. So often, the archetype of a woman is presented in a binary narrative of strong and capable or soft and submissive. We as humans are more complex than archetypes, and we play a range of roles in our life. If we get stuck believing we should be someone, we miss out on who we really are.
My album Heavy Metal Flower Petal was about this journey. An exploration of soft narrative, the vulnerable side that I am proud to say I could embrace and find power in. I discovered that the world I know and its people are in desperate need of the feminine.
Was there a moment where you were like "this is an album I'm writing, and this is what it's going to be centred around?"
Definitely, when the album title came, which was before I started the record. While in L.A., my housemates Mallrat and Allday encouraged me to explore a new direction. I would sit on the lounge and spend hours writing music, and they would say to me, 'You should release the kinds of songs you play live; they are so much better than your recorded material. You're such a heavy metal flower petal' I guess that gave me more confidence that I had something to offer. I've always felt so discouraged that my music sounds nothing like the music in my mind. Having a creative community where I could see those doubts and conversations in other artists that I admired gave me the strength to try again to get closer to creating the music in my soul. That was the start of this season.
After sharing Rollercoaster Man a couple of weeks ago, you're now sharing another taste of the album in 'Air', which is absolutely stunning. Can you tell us a bit about this track?
Air was such a cool track to write. I'd just broken up with my husband, who Id married at 21, and I was listening to lots of Lana Del Rey at the time because she understands what it's like to be a sad girl. I had this idea that I wanted to write something that both expressed the sorrow I was going through and encapsulated the feeling of freedom I was experiencing. I have always loved the Beatles classic Come Together. They are 2 strange references, but lyrically I wanted the track to have the same feeling as that Beatles song and the verse to have the yearning of a Lana track. When I was writing it, I imagined walking through the streets dancing with headphones.
It was written alongside Alister Wright, from VLOSSOM and Cloud Control. Can you tell us about how you two came together, and what that writing experience was like?
Alister and I met on an ice skating rink, and we must have done 50 laps while talking and connecting on everything from Rick and Morty to our love of nature, trees and mushrooms. I told him that I grew up surrounded by 70's jam musicians, and my mum would always ask if I could join in. I would jam for hours in some weird meditative zone, and it was transcendent.
I always imagined that becoming a professional musician looked like jamming with Prince till 4 am every night connecting with your community, but that was far from my experience. I told Al of my frustrations that I'd never had that experience in the music industry with younger people in Sydney. Alister was quick to assure me that it was possible to experience that connection. I was flying to L.A. the next day, and we ended up staying up till 4 am jamming together. We wrote the song very quickly, but the jamming experience was so transformational to me.
Heavy Metal Flower Petal - the album - is still quite a while away, so in preparations for its arrival, is there anything you want people to go into the album knowing? Whether it's about the album itself, how it was made, or about your relationship with the album?
Yes, lol, three months is far away. I guess today's promo standards is an interesting conversation in itself. Release plans are so full-on and extreme these days, filled with intense, stupid, unrealistic social media content plans on 20 different platforms with ideas like cooking shows and makeup tutorials. WTF does that have to do with music. Isn't my music enough?
I have slowly been releasing the album, single by single, because, unfortunately, that's how we consume music these days—feeding the bots with constant content. It's so stupid, in my opinion. I'm a lover of the album, of giving music time to hit you, to sit with it. Unfortunately, we want the album concepts to translate in a week of intense promo and cooking shows on TikTok. It makes me so angry as most of the albums I love were humble in their self-promotion. They sneak into your heart with concepts and ideas that are the ultimate new corners of the mind. It's my hope by drip-feeding this to everyone that some of the more profound concepts translate. There is a complexity to my ideas that words should not be able to explain.
Aside from the album, what else have you been working on? What else does 2022 hold for Phebe Starr?
2022 hopefully touring this music. Oh, the idea of that is exciting.
What else? I'm planning on having shallow fun for a while to rid the heaviness of covid away. I've written a bunch of tracks for other artists, too, that are coming out, so that shall be fun.