Just a few hours before his opening set, Phoelix is relaxing in his green room. The Theatre of the Living Arts (TLA), where Phoelix is set to open up for his friend and frequent collaborator, Smino, is sold out and will shortly become the scene for a raucous crowd. Earlier in the day, Phoelix says he spent the morning watching Willy Wonka, which he praised for its film score. He doesn’t necessarily have a pre-show ritual, but after sitting on the couch for a few moments, he walks over to his bag and pulls out a book. Fittingly, it’s a book on solitude. He says he’s read three quarters of the book four times, and it’s offered him a great deal of help. But, for now, the book will serve as a surface for him to roll his weed.
A native of Fox Valley, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, Phoelix is the son of a pastor. For Phoelix, growing up in church served as a critical development ground, it was his first gig, and the place where he learned the invaluable lessons of harmonic structure. If you’ve ever heard Phoelix’s music, then you will easily be able to recognize his roots. Crafting a sound that blends Soul, Gospel, Funk, and Hip-Hop, Phoelix has become the go-to guy for artists like Noname, Saba, and Smino. And just last year Phoelix helped executive produce, and compose many of the songs for Noname’s critically acclaimed sophomore album, Room 25.
A self-described introvert, Phoelix prefers the solitude of the studio over the stage, but that’s starting to change. Over the course of the last few months, Phoelix has taken the opening slot on Smino’s Hoopti tour, performing his original music. Before his set, I got a chance to talk with Phoelix about his transition from accompanying other artists to becoming the frontman, how his Mom has helped him grow musically, working with Noname and a bunch more! This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Stanley: You've supported a range of different artists on tours including Noname, Saba, and Smino, but this is your first time doing your own music on tour. What's that experience been like, being the person up front?
Phoelix: It's been wild. First of all, like the journey, the transition from just being a producer and musician to being up front is a real test of truly believing in yourself. It’s been a test of what I’m capable of doing and following through with the performance. You know, even if it looks weird, and not what I’m used to, all those things. But, being a performer, as opposed to playing, I feel like my whole perception of music has just changed in a lot of ways.
Stanley: Really? In what ways?
Phoelix: I think that I think about people more than I did before. Before it was more about like, how I'm feeling, which is fair. But there's another aspect to it that I wasn't really honoring as much, and that's fascinated me to want to go and make more music.
Stanley: Do you think the next time you get in the studio – or whenever you're working on music again – you’ll be thinking about the relationship between artist and audience?
Phoelix: It's like learning different language or learning a different culture. It's a different part of making my own music that I wasn't aware of before [touring]. Like, I've seen how fans react to artists, and I've been on tours, playing, but it's different when it's like something that's you and they're receiving that a certain way. And also finding your own personality. I'm an introvert, a studio head, but now it's like, I'm giving this to y'all, and y'all give it back to me. It's a different type of thing than just being on my laptop. It's fire, it's been crazy.
Stanley: What's been your favorite, or most memorable, tour stop to this point?
Phoelix: Atlanta was probably my most memorable show - my mom and brother came out. It was her birthday that weekend, that was dope. Denver was probably one of the most lit shows that I ever played or been a part of. That was just crazy. I'm shocked the way a lot of these shows are going. Being the opener, the crowd reactions are crazy to where it doesn't feel like I'm opening. It's a blessing for it to be like that.
Stanley: You started off playing in church, and that influence is evident in a lot of your music. How do you see the role of music played in church having on your musical identity?
Phoelix: You just can't neglect that influence. I saw Ari Lennox say something like, I'm so glad I stopped running from neo-soul. You can't neglect the things that created you, inspired you, or helped you hone your craft. My mom directed the choir, my Dad's a pastor, and I was always at church doing something. So, that music, more than most things, was keeping me occupied, and out of other stuff I had no business getting into. In a sense, it's a part of me. As much as people make it corny now, I just can't neglect the essence of it.
Stanley: Who are some of the people that were influential for you?
Phoelix: My mom was a huge influence. I think watching her perform when I was growing up, I always had a sense of admiration for her, because of how she carried herself and how people responded to her, and how people respected her. From what I saw growing up, she had a lot of respect everywhere she went.
Another place I get a lot of inspiration from is movies, film is a huge inspiration to me when it comes to sound. I loved scary movies growing up. I used to do this thing where I would sit and watch movies on mute, but I realized that it wasn't scary anymore. Then I realized it's the music that's making me feel a certain type of way - it's the music that's leading to certain types of emotions: fear, sadness, whatever. That's what got me into making music - trying to create emotions.
Stanley: On Noname's album, there's a song, Blaxploitation – which is a reference to a genre of films made in the '70s. Did that song stem from your connection with film?
Phoelix: That was all Noname. That was her decision to put that clip in the song. But yeah, the whole idea was to make it cinematic. That was one of the things we wanted to do. We wanted to add strings as well to make it feel more like a movie, so we did that.
Stanley: You played basketball in college. I was wondering if you could compare how you approach music with how you approach playing basketball?
Phoelix: I would say having a common goal is a key connection between the two. Like in sports, you have to be unified and be on the same page. Everyone has to agree on a common goal and buy into the same strategy. In music, there are a lot of singular aspects that aren't in team sports, but if you're in band you have to know how to mesh with other people -- you can't do everything by yourself. You can iso all you want and score 60 points a game and still lose.
Stanley: You play piano and bass. Which one came first?
Phoelix: Piano came first.
Stanley: How old were you when you started playing?
Phoelix: I was like 5, and I started playing bass when I was like 16 or 17. It wasn't until I was playing keys a lot more that I got an appreciation for bass. Like, at my church we didn't have a bass player, and I used to wish we had a bass player. But then I just said to myself, why don't I just learn how to play the bass. And I loved it.
Stanley: That's interesting. You do a lot of chording when playing bass. Where's that from?
Phoelix: That's just the piano seeping through. That's why I appreciate learning piano first, because it comes out in everything. That's the foundation of theory, and taking those skills to any other instrument, or voice, just helps. So, like, with chording, I just hear harmonies. Even when I'm recording, I can hear a bass tone, but I also hear a piano chording.
Stanley: When you're writing a song - does it matter where you start, like on bass or piano?
Phoelix: Not really. I try not to think about "how." Like, how am I going to do it. If I start something and I like it, I try to keep going, or I'll try something different. I try to keep my head out of it and try not to think too much. I can overthink something and take myself out of it.
Stanley: That's interesting. I've heard a range of perspectives on how people write songs...
Phoelix: Yeah, and certain things, like writing, I have to have a pen. But like Smino, he can just freestyle, Bari will go in the studio and just have it. I'm a very methodical writer. But at the same time, it's about feel too.
Stanley: When did the writing become a part of what you do?
Phoelix: I've been writing for a while. Like poetry, little rhymes and raps, stuff like that. But I wasn't recording anything. I was in this band, The Art of Cool, and I was doing a lot of the production and arrangement. I was singing some background, some harmonies, and they were like, man you need to like sing or rap or something. Then I asked myself why I haven't I been doing this the whole time, you know what I'm saying? It wasn't until probably 2013 or 2014 that I started recording myself a lot. Then in 2016 and 2017, I really tried to do my own stuff.
Stanley: Wow - so, only 2 or 3 years?
Phoelix: Yeah. And I wasn't trying to sing at all. I sang in the choir when I was little, but I was not trying to sing at all. I was not trying to rap, then it became so fun to me.
Stanley: Did you know that you could sing?
Phoelix: Yeah, I just never did it. I honestly wish I never stopped from when I was in choir, because I can just imagine where I'd be now. But you can't think of it like that. I knew I was capable of doing it, but I don't know what it was - I just didn't want to. Once, I started singing, Smino and Saba would encourage me. When we did Shadow Man, Saba was just like, "we should just let Phoelix in the booth to do his thing."
Stanley: It's almost like everything has been gradually building on each other. Like, being in the choir -- you don't think much of it...
Phoelix: Yeah, you don't. Especially when you're like 6 or 7, and you're learning your part and having to remember it.
Stanley: It's basically like teaching you harmony.
Phoelix: Facts. My mom, being the choir director, really influenced me. Her teaching parts, rearranging music. I remember in choir rehearsals, if someone was singing a wrong part she would go through each person. She would eventually find the person and sing the note with them. She was really meticulous. Those things inspire me with all this.
Stanley: Earlier you mentioned working Smino and Saba. Beyond those two, there's just a lot talent from that area. Could talk about that environment, and what's helped you all grow as artists?
Phoelix: It's just been really organic. We'll meet and it'll just be on some cool shit, like not even music related all the time. We made music obviously, but a lot of the time we're just hanging out, playing video games, talking. It was all really about having a friendship. It wasn't like, I want something from you, you want something from me type thing either. We were just kicking it. And if we make something, we make it, but it doesn't always have to be that way. That made it easier to want to create with that person. And it helps because you don't feel that pressure to constantly produce, or every time someone sees me they're like "yo, pull out that beat." It's blessing that it's happening that way.
Stanley: If you could tell your younger self something, what would say?
Phoelix: I would say just slow down and take your time. And to trust yourself. I feel like I doubted myself a lot early on. A lot of people around me weren't as supportive as I maybe wanted them to be, but I would tell younger myself to take my time and to trust myself.