‘It’s really important that we move beyond equating the value of women to just the way they look. I always feel like there’s a real lack of women in certain areas of the music industry, like engineering, mixing, and producing.’ Says singer-songwriter Phildel.
For her own part, Phildel has had to overcome obstacles other than her gender to become the songwriter and musician she is today.
After her mother married a deeply religious man when she was nine, her access to music was restricted to a little piano playing at school.
Despite years of limited access to music Phildel left home at 17 and began to pursue her musical passions.
In 2010 she released her debut album Qi, which she followed up in 2013 with the Decca released The Disappearance of the Girl.
After a five-year gap in recording Phildel returns with her third album Wave Your Flags, which takes the electronica and neo-classical sound of her previous work to a more contemplative place.
Ahead of the album’s release we spoke to her about the challenges of her youth, the contemporary music scene, and much more…
What was the thinking behind Wave Your Flags?
It’s basically a collection of songs that are based on various parts of my life experiences over the last 10 years. So, those experiences have ranged quite a lot, from really difficult to euphoric and wonderful.
To kind of summarise what I feel the album is about when I look back on all of the songs now, I feel like it’s about human resilience, and yes, just having the resilience to come through some of the most difficult challenges.
What led to such a big gap between LPs?
It’s a few things, really. I had children, so I’ve got two-and-a-half-year-old twin boys. So I took time out basically to have my children, and the pregnancy was really, really tough going. I couldn’t get very much work done whilst I was pregnant, so that was kind of four years.
Then, a couple of years just before that, I was suffering from burnout. So, I took about, I don’t know, 18 months to just really focus on writing songs, but not do anything too much.
What the recording process was like for this record?
It was kind of fairly fragmented, I would say. I recorded most of the vocals and sort of rough song arrangements at home, myself. Then, brought various people in to do some additional programming, so Sean McGhee and Ben Jackson both did a few different synth programming parts for various songs. Then the live sessions for the drums we did with Adam Faulkner at his studio in London.
I’d mapped out a lot of the drum parts on laptop, as I usually do, and we kind of played the ideas to Adam Faulkner, and recorded those live then. But, I’d say I was redrafting… I always spend years redrafting songs, going through different types of arrangements. Just seeing and experimenting with different types of arrangements, and then living with what I’d done for a couple of months before deciding whether or not it’s going to be the final version or whether I could find something that just spurs the spirit of the song a little bit better.
So, for that reason, the process generally takes a really long time. I mean, I’d say between five and eight years is quite a normal amount of time for me to spend redrafting, and building the arrangements, and working on writing.
When you get to the point of going into the studio, are you very clear on what you want, or do you improvise?
Well, because I record in the comfort of my own home, I don’t have to worry too much about performing everything exactly correctly within a given timeframe. So, everything is completely spontaneous all the time. There’s nothing that’s ever thought out about the way that I work. That’s how creativity is sometimes I think. You just have loads of new ideas at any given moment, and then some days you don’t have any ideas at all.
So, it’s quite nice to have my home studio to kind of work and get things done. Although, it’s a bit more noisy nowadays [Laughs]. I think I’m going to have to build one of those studios at the end of the garden.
In a way it’s been quite sad, because so many studios have closed because of this. I remember recording this very first album I ever made, which was a piano album. I recorded that at Metropolis, so after I’d signed my publishing deal with Warner/Chappell, I took my advance and that was kind of what I spent it on, was recording this piano album.
I definitely noticed how incredible it is to record in a room, really beautiful, perfectly sound-treated space. It’s such a shame that how the music industry has changed over the last 15 years means it’s becoming less and less possible to afford those spaces.
How you first began making music?
Well, I don’t know if you know but my upbringing was quite non-musical. My mum married a really religious man when I was about eight, and he believed that music was forbidden in his religion. So, all the music that we had basically got thrown out of the house.
When I was 17, I left there and I started properly making music kind of on my own, just with some second-hand demo equipment and some stuff that my older brother had given me, because he was quite into music.
He didn’t ever live with me. He’s 20 years older than me, so he was doing music in the same way. So that’s kind of how things started, but during the 10 years that I lived with my mum, I didn’t have music at home. I did manage to do a bit of playing piano at school, because obviously, like everybody, I did music as part of the national curriculum, and there was a school piano there. I used to just basically play the school piano. I think I first started working on piano competitions then.
Do you think that sort of restricted access made you even more impassioned to follow music?
It’s really hard to answer that question, because I really loved music even before my mum married my stepfather. I used to spend hours and hours, when I was really small, just learning all the nursery rhymes that I knew by ear. Even my parents weren’t particularly musical, I think they just kind of didn’t really bother. But yes, I always loved it even back then, and I was quite obsessive about it.
So, I don’t know. I think it definitely affected my relationship with commercial music. I’d say that I don’t find it natural to just go to a record shop and get really excited. I kind of feel like I don’t belong there, I still feel like I need to work out how you go about finding music. It just wasn’t part of our culture growing up, so there is that element that’s definitely changed my relationship with music.
What are your primary influences and inspirations?
I think ever since I got out of there, sort of age 17, I’d say coming across any artist who’s really pioneering and does something quite different or bold with their sound has always been something that I really loved. I had a real natural pull towards artists like that. So, I’d say Tori Amos was probably the first artist like that that I heard around that time.
Then, I heard Wuthering Heights come on the radio, it was like on Heart FM or something a few years after that, and I really love Kate Bush. Radiohead as well. I really loved Imogen Heap when her first breakthrough album came out. So I just find really imaginative song writing and arrangements incredibly intriguing.
How would you say your own sound has evolved since your first album, The Disappearance of the Girl?
I think the first album was quite dramatic, it had a lot of formal string sections and choirs, and it was still quite electronic, but I think just the level of drama was a lot higher, which probably reflected my age at the time, because I was quite a lot younger when I was writing all of that stuff. And also probably reflected what had been going on with my life with leaving home and whatnot.
Whereas, I think this album is a lot more calm in general. It’s still got quite a lot of emotional intensity, but the arrangements offer a lot more space, so there isn’t the same level of choirs and string sections, reaching really big crescendos. It’s a little bit more subdued, but I feel like the drama is still there. It’s just kind of more implied, rather than overtly stated.
What’s your take on the position of women in the music industry currently?
To be honest, I’d say that I personally haven’t had very much experience of facing inequality. But, I think it’s because I’m an extremely DIY artist.
I actually work with very, very few people. As an onlooker, I’d say that the objectification of women in the media in general is still something that really upsets me. I feel like it’s really important that we move beyond equating the value of women to just the way they look. I always feel like there’s a real lack of women in certain areas of the music industry, like engineering, mixing, and producing.
Again, it comes back to, “it’s okay for women to be the front, the face of the project that gets photographed and sings beautifully”, but then for some reason, women aren’t making it through to all these other roles, which are generally quite male-dominated roles, I’ve found.
How do you feel about the digital age we’re living in and how that’s affected music?
I think that, in general, it’s a really fantastic time, because it’s so empowering for artists who are just starting out to be able to get their music distributed globally through something like Tunecore. No longer is that something only open to people who fulfil a certain set criteria. In fact, this is a really good point as well, because it allows women to just have global distribution and not necessarily have to take part in the whole kind of label framework, and sort of major label framework, as used to be the case.
Obviously, there is discrimination out there, because that occurs for women in pretty much every workplace, in patriarchal society. So, it’s quite empowering, I think, for people and for women to have that kind of digital, global distribution at their fingertips. I can probably end up really doing a lot of research on this point actually, because you begin to wonder how much of women’s experiences documented through music are allowed on to the worldwide media platforms, and how many of those experiences are filtered because they don’t meet the sorts of values of patriarchal society.
There are more avenues to get exposure, singing about real-life female experiences, which could cover things like sexual abuse, assault, things that actually form a sad normality for so many women. That, I think, is a theme that’s generally brushed under the rug quite a lot.
Do you have any advice for emerging artists?
I think that emerging artists should just try and be as resilient as possible to the various knockbacks and setbacks that you come across on your way. The most important thing is to find a solution to every challenge that you come across. That’s advice that I basically took from a grandmaster of Chinese philosophy who I worked for when I was 18, really randomly. His name was Master Simon Lau, and I was like an administration assistant for him at the time.
I said to him I was growing up basically without music all this time, “I can’t really sing, I’ve got a really weak voice, and I just don’t believe that I belong in music.” He said, “If you have that really strong inkling that music is your destiny but you’ve got all of these obstacles, you’ve just got to overcome the obstacles. It matters more than anything else.”
Something just kind of cracked when he said that, and I just thought, “Yes, I can do this. I’m just going to take his advice and live by it,” and yes, I have, and it’s just been brilliant. So, that’s the best piece of advice I think I would pass on to emerging artists.
What else you’ve got in store for the rest of the year?
We’ve got a tour that we’re sort of in the midst of planning, so that should be a UK tour around sort of September, October time, in the autumn. Wave Your Flags will be out on 3 May. We’ve got a new single coming out called Glide Dog, which will be out 5 April, so that’s just around the corner.
Wave Your Flags will be released on 3 May via Yee Inventions.