Interview: Jess Green/Pheno talks about crowdfunding her debut EP, Dragon Year

We chat with Aussie musician Jess Green, who has been working away on her anticipated EP release, Dragon Year. The seasoned musician has been part of the Australian scene for years now and as we learn, her career has brought her a wealth of musical experience, from jazz right through to composing for dance works.

This, Dragon Year, is your first EP under the name of Pheno but you’ve been performing for over 20 years.  Can you tell us a bit more about your career to date?

Originally, when I was 16, and dreaming about what sort of career I’d like to have in music I was imagining being a singer song-writer and composer, but I also really wanted to study music at university, I fell in love with Jazz, and ended up majoring in Jazz guitar at ANU, and in my 20’s I focused a lot on either working as a freelance musician or composing (mostly instrumental works for large experimental jazz ensembles).

I led an eight piece band for several years (The Green Septet/Jess Green’s Bright Sparks) and we recorded two albums. I performed with my bands in Sydney as well as a touring down the East Coast occasionally to Melbourne. My work as a freelance guitarist includes regular performing with  The Catholics, Jim Conway’s Big Wheel, The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band (Re-Ignited), Petulant Frenzy, more recently with Alyx Dennison and Jessica O’Donoghue.

Around the second half of the 2000’s I started returning to singing as a front woman and writing songs again. I was gigging a lot in Sydney with a four piece rock/funk group called The New Dynamites, this was working closely with Tim Curnick (Ngaiire/Tim Freedman), Arne Hanna (Jackie Orszaczky/Deni Hines) and James Hauptmann (Blue Juice/Elana Stone),  and we recorded and EP of original tunes.

Other work I’ve done as a freelance musician includes recording for television, and I worked a lot for producer Cameron Bruce as a session guitarist for Channel 9’s Love Child series and for the past past five years, I’ve worked very closely with composer/violinist Nick Wales (Sarah Blasko/Sydney Dance Company). Most notably collaborating as part of a large ensemble for a dance work called Am I (Shaun Parker Dance Company). This work toured all the major arts festivals in Australia as well as Europe and Asia, and the experience has influenced me greatly, working not only in great highly professional settings as a guitarist and singer and percussionist, but also forming very strong musical and personal bonds with Nick and the rest of the band.

These days I still  work as a freelance musician, but a little less regularly as I try to keep aside most of my time and energy for Pheno, and given that my husband also needs creative time (he’s a painter) I can’t jaunt off for every tour that comes along. Most recently I toured throughout QLD for Katie Noonan’s Songs That Made Me project, which was incredibly exciting working along side some greats of Australian songwriting (Deborah Conway & Clare Bowditch) as well as making new friends in the all female band.

You’ve collaborated with Bree van Reyk and Alyx Dennison on the EP.  What led to that collaboration? Does working with other artists make you examine the way you express yourself at all? 

Yes! Alyx and Bree are both brilliant composers as well as musicians, so right from the beginning it was a very special team. They are both part of the Am I ensemble (Shaun Parker Dance Company ) and that’s how I first met Alyx. We clicked straight away, musically and as friends, and she invited me to be part of the live band to tour her album in 2015. I had already heard the album and been completely blown away by her singing and songwriting, so I was thrilled to help her bring it to life. It was during working with her in Am I that I first mentioned my ideas for Pheno and she has been cheering this project on from the start.

Bree and I have actually been friends as musical colleagues for over 20 years! My very first band was with Bree, and I am as equally in awe of her drumming and musicality today as I was back then. She trained at the Canberra School of Music as a classical percussionist, the same time as I was studying jazz, and we played sort of funky jazzy rock together. Part of that same group was the great bassist and singer  Zoe Hauptmann who also appears on a few tracks on the Pheno EP.

Working with other artists absolutely makes me examine the way I express myself. Both Bree and Alyx brought so much to the songs, and without them, the EP would sound completely different. Alyx has had invaluable feedback on lyrics, delivery of vocals, and aesthetics in general. We played the songs live a few times together, workshopping parts in rehearsals. Hugely important are the synth sounds and parts that she plays and I love love love singing with her. I’ve actually never really worked with a ‘synth player’ before and she has all these great old 80’s synths…I have huge love for music of that decade and she helped me bring that to the Pheno sound – I even bought myself my first synth!

Bree is listed ‘creative producer’, she was heavily involved in the shape of the songs from the beginning as well as collaborating as a composer. In Slingshot, we basically recorded the track to mirror the initial mashup version she created when I first showed her the demo. On “Shadow in the Water”, Bree convinced me to make some form and meter changes which changed the song a lot; “There Are Voices Out There” features her cool vocal arrangement throughout the songs. I’d started with a vocal riff and then she developed the idea and re-arranged it. This is something she’s done on other recordings we’ve worked on together, using things I’ve sung and cutting them up. We definitely blurred the lines between co-writing, arranging and production.

Although Bree and I have played together for years, and she has contributed musically to previous recordings, this was the first time we’d worked together so closely. There are two things that stand out for me as special working with Bree, one is is her exceptional understanding of rhythm and feel. Not only because she is a drummer/percussionist, but because she has worked in such a variety of musical settings. It just makes her so unique! She really has her own sound. Also, I see her as an Artist with a capital A, beyond making songs or playing drums. Bree turned me on to bands like the Velvet Underground as well as composers John Cage and Steve Reich, artists that go beyond the notes on the page or on the recording, who see themselves more like painters or theatre makers. 

David Trumpmanis, who recorded and mixed the EP also contributed massively to the sound of the record as well as helping to choose parts, takes, and provide feedback on delivery. David is a hugely musical engineer (he also performs and records music of his own) and towards the end it was often Just he and I in the studio together, playing around with ideas. It makes a big difference having someone who is patient, sometimes it can take a while to articulate what you’re hearing in your head so that someone else can understand!

Can you tell us more about the EP itself – are there any specific themes or concepts?

Many of the songs cover the theme of conception, pregnancy and motherhood. I actually had started working on “There are Voices out There” when I was pregnant with my daughter Frankie. This was the time when I first began dreaming about Pheno as a concept. I knew that becoming a parent meant big changes to how I would be able to work as a musician, and I felt like it was time to get more focussed on what’s really important to me. I wanted to sing and play, I wanted to make music people could dance to, I wanted to have songs I could perform in a band setting or solo..It was around this time I first got exposed to Tune-Yards and St Vincent, and I was also super inspired by how those artists make intelligent and challenging music that is really fun.

It was extremely important to me to investigate how to write about motherhood and still make the music edgy. Coming to motherhood from an artistic life can really challenge your sense of identity. I needed to create a safe, loving, stable environment to nurture a young life, but I’m still interested in the exploring the dark and the light and the thrill of rock and roll. When you literally have trouble getting out the house some days, you get exposed a sitcom-beige version of parenthood and I wanted to challenge that…. I feel that making a human is very weird and cool and incredible, and there is definitely enough conflict and drama to write songs about it. I have a love of sci-fi soundtracks, so between thinking about the weirdness of growing a human inside me, and all those 80’s synths, the EP  came out sounding the way it does. 

There are two songs that explore other themes – “Shadow in the Water” was originally inspired by “Shark Girl” (Madison Stewart) an amazing conservationist who has dedicated her life to the preservation of sharks.. I’m a big fan of conservation in general, and love to Scuba Dive. Lyrically that song is exploring the primal fear we have of sharks, and the ocean and how that plays on our psyche, especially as we are supposed to have evolved from living in the sea. “Slingshot” is an often re-occurring theme through my songwriting. The frustration you feel sometimes when you’ve been working at something for a long time, and you can see success but you just can’t get there.. Sometimes I just want to cut off my head and fling it into the crowd and say
“I’m here!!”, but it’s also a song to keep myself revved up and motivated – you have to be your own cheerleader!

I understand the EP was enabled by a crowdfunding campaign – is there any sense of liberty in being able to create an album that way?  It must also be a difficult path going up against large labels with their marketing capacity?

I raised about 60% of what I needed to make this EP through Pozible. Liberty – a good question, but to tell you the truth I don’t know what it’s like to have a label fund a record, so I’ve always felt pretty free! My previous releases have been funded by a mix of grants, my own cash, the band chucking in, or through the ABC Jazztrack program (another great loss to Oz culture with the slashing of ABC music)

I don’t really even see myself in the same world as an artist with label backing, and these days it’s so normal for people to record themselves and create their own labels, from what I hear, the indie labels don’t have a lot of cash to throw around anyway (but it sure would be nice to have that support!). It is incredibly hard to sustain a recording career financially, it still amazes me the disparity between what people are willing to pay for recorded music (which is usually nothing) and how much it costs to make and album. Particularly if you want to use professional studios/engineers and pay your musicians.. supporting those costs with a low artist wage is really really hard.

One of your many talents is being a music educator and you’ve got a varied and notable background in that area.  What are the challenges and rewards in that?  

The main challenge is having enough time for my own creative practice so that I can remain an enthusiastic and energetic educator. I teach the best when I have a good balance in my life between being creative, working with other musicians and the educational stuff. I do genuinely enjoy teaching, it can be incredibly rewarding and humbling. I tour a lot for Musica Viva in schools, and performing for children is amazing. You can see the what a huge impact interacting with live musicians makes, sometimes these concerts can even be life changing. I’m lucky to have a very varied teaching practice, from guitar lessons, to school shows, to tertiary education to community  workshops, and this variation helps keep me stimulated and. I feel privileged to be able to help others feel more confident in making and enjoying music.

You launched the EP with a mini-tour but do you have any other dates on the cards and, if so, where can we find you?

Yes! I was the recipient of an Australia Council Contemporary Music Touring Grant, and I’ve spread the tour out before and after having my second baby (due any minute).. In November the band will continue to promote the EP, heading to Brisbane to perform at The Powerhouse Livespark! series as well as over to Eumundi for a special workshop at the Eumundi School of Rock. This will be followed by Sydney and Canberra dates in Dec. March 2018 will see us trundle down to Melbourne via shows and workshops in Wangaratta.

PHENO AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES

November 25th | Imperial Hotel, EUMUNDI
November 26th | Powerhouse, BRISBANE
December 9th | The Street Theatre, CANBERRA

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