Phebe Starr reclaims and molds her creativity through grieving

Phebe Starr
Photo Credit: She is Aphrodite

“I really find people that are older who are creative still really inspiring.” I started talking to Australian singer-songwriter Phebe Starr right in the middle of how she was going to introduce herself to her new neighbors. We talked briefly on the de-aging or lively nature of creativity. “Just to see the world through beauty and love and able to express that in the way you dress and how you are as an older person. That’s what I want to be like, so tell me your secrets people.”

Creativity is a lifeline, and for Star it was what she held on to during a very difficult period of loss in her life. Her newest EP, Ice Tea Liberace was a testament of her endurance and realizations that she felt over a significant period of her life. Sometimes, grief knocks you down, but when you get back up, you receive a new and better understanding of your processes. This particular collections of songs are the outcome of Star’s introspective navigation.

I wanted to start off talking about “Touch XXX.” It starts off the EP and with love, we tend to think of it purely from an emotional experience. There’s a touch aspect to it as well that you convey. Being with a person for a while, there’s a physical imprint that they have on you. You also hint in the lyrics while a person may hint that everything is fine, your body will know that something is off. Take me through writing this song. Especially, because this was a relationship that you had since you were young. That will teach you a lot of things.

Ahh man, there’s so much in it. There’s so much in that relationship that I think I’m going to be unpacking probably for the rest of my life [laughs]. I think it’s really interesting how our emotions are connected to our bodies. We try not to feel pain in life. Like, it’s a natural instinct to avoid feeling pain. I’m really good at being positive to the point of avoiding all the negative parts of life. It’s interesting how my body was showing my heartache before my brain until I really realized it. How your body can tell you things that you are not mentally ready for yet.

I had some crazy things that happened. I had an accident. I kept getting sick all the time. I guess I really felt out of step with my body. I use music a lot to figure out my emotions and for two years, I couldn’t write without crying for myself. I knew something was wrong because I was like “who am I now?” I’ve always written songs and I always found it easy to write songs. Then, for some reason, I can’t write them.

I journal a lot and this mantra came to my head. “Keep it at the center of me now. For everyday, I have nothing to prove and everything to document.” As humans, none of us at least to my knowledge have been here before. We don’t know what we’re doing. I guess we’re are really interesting creatures in that we’re experiencing life in these timelines and it’s sort of projected on us that there’s a way that life should be lived.

No one throughout history has lived before, so we’re all just discovering it. I think that thought gives me a lot of freedom in the sense of being open to how I feel. Otherwise, I just tell myself how to feel, think and act. I think what we should be mediating on is being connected to our bodies to see exactly how we feel and letting suffering come through us. It’s the only way to get through it and that’s why I love music and art because it helps us with the pain and it helps us with the hard things in life.  It’s the only career that I can think of where you can take a big pile of poo and make it into something beautiful.

I guess that’s the long winded answer of one side of that song. It was the first song that I wrote where it broke my writer’s block. Ever since, I write a lot of music now.

It’s crazy. Sometimes in life, you feel like you’re a punching bag where you keep taking hit after hit. 

It happens to all of us though, right? It’s a part of life where you can’t control those things. Sometimes they come in waves and sometimes they come sporadically. I think I needed a moment to like process it. I just experienced a couple of years of..I guess just death in every way. Both my grandparents passed away. I had a couple of friends who lost their battles with mental illness. Then this relationship started breaking apart and I’m still trying to process everything that happened. It was like a comet came into my life and exploded it.

With your 2017 EP, Chronicles, you have a song called “Feel My Love.” It touches on being human and this sort of imperfect love. In love, there are just somethings you can’t control and I feel with , you find a realization with that. How do you feel now about the vulnerability of love? To love is to know the possibility of losing it as well. 

I think what you’re touching on is my definition of love. Love is giving people choice. A lot of us want to try to control and define what love is. It could be with a partner in terms of “they do this for me.” A lot of it, I found is giving up control. If you love a lot, I think that you’ll experience grief a lot, too. I think those feelings really marry each other.

There’s a really beautiful quote that says, “grief is the proof of love.” I feel like I’ve experienced a lot of grief in life, but on the other hand, I’ve really experienced a lot of love. If you want to love, then you have to be willing to suffer. Great love is conditional and it empowers people with a choice. When you put parameters around how to love, you try to control someone to perform something in your life and that’s not really love.

I find the title and the title track of the EP really interesting. The song itself has a trap-808’s bounce element to it. There’s a sarcastic, funny element to the lyrics, too. Where did that come from? 

The biggest thing that I learned is in my process of writing. I’ve always written alone with the songs that I’ve released before. With Chronicles, I came to LA, started doing lots of sessions and felt really uncomfortable with how the music session world works. It’s such a different process for me. When I started writing again, I started to get comfortable again and was able to identify what went wrong.

A lot of it is that I use this meditative process where I’ll jam on something or sit by the guitar or piano and wait for this inspiration. Some days, it comes and some days, it doesn’t. It’s like being blindfolded and feeling your way through your home. You know where the light switch is. You know where the lounge is. You can feel your way through, but you’re still blind.

I sit by the guitar or piano and just improv. I’ll get lost for hours, even. What happened with this song is Xavier Dunn, we would watch old school movies. We were watching an old John Wayne movie and we sampled part of that movie. I had the sample on my phone and I would meditate to it. I was improving and we recorded it and the main hook was just what came out. The main chorus, Ice Tea Liberace.

I don’t question what I say because the subconscious is so much stronger in creativity because it doesn’t have any expectations. I let myself say whatever, haha. I didn’t really know what I was meaning the first day that I had it. The next week, I took a look at the chorus and thought it made perfect sense.

Here’s my deconstruction: Ice Tea is a metaphor for the consumerism of our generation. I get a coffee everyday. We constantly use very disposable items. Liberace is about creativity. He’s a big character. Costumes and big shows. He represents the creative culture that I live in. The whole song is a commentary on society and where I fit into it. It’s not really negative or positive. The bridge is definitely negative. It’s my frustrations with the old school, Hollywood men that are like, “hey pretty little lady!”

The way I’ve always done art is very community focused. I just want to keep writing songs, release them, and do what’s next. I’ve always had these old men A&R’s be like “let’s put a big structure around you.” Giving me a release plan that would take like three years to get out what I was trying to say. All I want to do is make things everyday, release them, and have a bunch of friends around me. I’m not trying to sell millions of albums. I just want to make authentic art.

You mentioned working with Xavier Dunn. How was it working with him on this EP? 

I love him so much. He did this EP and we’ve done an album together as well. We did a whole month and we got a lot of music out there. I was telling my friend about the writer’s block and he introduced us. My friend asked what I was looking for in a producer. My two references was that I loved The Gorillaz and Lana Del Rey. I like this classical approach to electronic music. It’s actually hard to find people who understand that.

The first session we ever had, we watched an episode of Rick and Morty. Then, Xavier produced one of my songs and it was so easy to communicate with my words. Our whole process mirrors each other’s values which is eating good food, watching vintage movies or cartoons, and writing music. It definitely healed any fears of working with someone and being that vulnerable around them.

In reference to the visuals for the EP, they are both unique and different. With “Touch XXX,” there’s a black and white noire look. “Bad News” is an animation story of the song. Did you consciously make a decision to have two distinct feels for both? 

Last year, I was watching a lot of country western and vintage movies. I grew up on country and westerns. Even musically, it’s a huge influence of mine. I love Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. My dad is a country gentleman. It influenced a lot of my music with some references to a lot of famous country songs. Everything I make is really DIY. It kind of always mirrors those things of vintage aesthetics.

The first video was made by my next door neighbor. Most of it is film and pictures of us hanging out in the street with another friend. It wasn’t really a huge amount of intention behind it. When I was going through all this stuff, he came to my grandma’s funeral. Everything that he caught was really authentic.

I also love cartoons, but there’s a theme with “Bad News.” A kind of outlaw, Robin Hood feel. I love anyone that steals from the rich and gives to the poor. I think there’s a theme of being a social outcast and wanting to make the world a better place. Destroying the patriarchy or the people who don’t understand what it’s like to suffer.