“You know you hate when I’m honest,” sighs Phem on ‘Honest’, the stunning Iann Dior collab that kicks off her new EP ‘How U Stop Hating Urself Pt. 1’. The person she’s talking to on the track might have a problem with her candour but, for anyone listening to her music, it’s one of her best features.
If you don’t feel at least a little bit uncomfortable after playing one of the LA native’s songs, you’re either not listening properly or you have your shit extremely figured out. She might make songs that invade your brain and refuse to budge – try listening to ‘Self Control’ once and not still be singing the chorus under your breath a week later – but her lyrics are unapologetically frank and raw, unafraid to call herself and everyone else out on their bullshit.
After her big breakout moment last year with the excellent ‘Vacumhead’ EP, ‘How U Stop Hating Urself Pt. 1’ reinforces Phem as one of music’s most exciting genre-blurring young stars; a mesh of lo-fi emo-rap, grungy guitars and pop in the vein of early Halsey. We caught up with her to talk about the EP, why she sees her fans as her friends and following your intuition.
This year has been pretty strange for everyone. How have you found it, especially given you had the ‘Vacumhead’ EP blow up last year and, I imagine, were expecting or hoping to do loads of stuff this year?
“Touring would have been cool, but it’s OK. I feel like I’ve gotten my own thing from it in a good way – I’ve extracted something really special from it. I mean, initially, it was difficult and scary and was like, ‘Who am I? Do I exist? What’s gonna happen?’ But I think now reflecting now that the year is almost over – which is so crazy that we’ve done this now for literally almost a year, it’s just bizarre – I feel OK about it. I feel like I’ve gained a lot of like knowledge about myself.”
Other artists have said that this time of not touring or having a packed schedule has given them time to rethink or refocus what they want to do with their music. Is that an experience you’ve had as well?
“I think I realised I just really want to help people. And that’s also because I feel like a lot of people need support right now, especially with mental health. So yeah, I definitely feel like I was like, ‘What the fuck? I can’t just be putting out songs, that’s not enough.’ I need to really think about this and have intention behind it, you know?”
There needs to be something deeper to it.
“Yeah there has to – for me, at least.”
Your new EP is called ‘How U Stop Hating Urself, Pt. 1’ and you’re talking about mental health a lot on the record.
“That concept, I think has been the theme of my year, which is crazy. I had a different name for it and then, in the process of mixing and finishing the songs, I was like, ‘Dude, I fucking hate myself. I don’t want to do this. I don’t like myself. I don’t like what I’m making.’ It felt like cathartic – making this project was part of figuring out how to not hate myself. I actually feel like, for the first time in a long time really happy. I haven’t felt like this probably since last year, the beginning of last year.”
You’ve delayed putting stuff out this year because of everything that’s been going on. We’ve seen artists have to make this very personal choice between sharing their work or holding back – why did you choose the latter?
“I just wanted to get it perfect. It just wasn’t right. We had built this whole set for a few videos and we had to end up putting it in storage because we couldn’t shoot anything at the beginning of quarantine. But the cool thing about waiting this long is I don’t hate myself anymore – at least it’s become better – and then we have a song on there with Iann Dior, who’s like one of the biggest artists in the world right now. That’s just so sick to me.”
How did that collab come about?
“So we made that song with Taz Taylor from Internet Money over a year ago. I was writing a lot with Iann Dior – I helped write a few songs on his album ‘Industry Plant’ that came out last year. And one of the songs that I started writing for him is ‘Honest’ and Taz was like ‘Dude, this is your song Phem, you need this. You sound amazing on it’. So we just were waiting for the right moment and what project to put it on and it just worked – it perfectly wrapped up the whole thing.”
Conversely, ’Self Control’ was the first song you released from the EP and it was described as being about the “struggle to ignore your inner demons and live up to your personal legend”. What would you say is your personal legend?
“I’m still finding it out! But I think it’s to help people and not be censored in a way that a lot of people want artists to be. Part of my art is to fuck with people’s heads – not in a bad way, but if I’m not making you think then I don’t want to do it. There’s no room for mediocre shit. I always think of my role in this as, like, I’m going to give you the honest truth when no one else will, but it’s going to help you grow.”
It’s important to have friends like that in your life – and you consider your fans to be your friends. As well as giving them this honest truth, you do fun things like movie nights and text with them. Why is that important to you?
“I learn a lot from my fans – like, a lot. Lowkey when I was going through a breakup and was isolating myself this year, I felt like they were the only people I could really turn to. These are people all ages, all types of people from all over the world and like the Discord we have is so geared toward mental health now. I have five or six moderators that are always in there, checking in on people and it’s just a safe space. Also, those are the types of people that really know me. If you listen to my music and you see what I post on Twitter and you know me, great, we’re already friends, you already fuck with me. You don’t think I’m weird, you’re not judging me – you’re celebrating that part of me that I feel like I’ve had to hide for so long or even just in day jobs or around other types of people, or my parents or something. It’s all broken down at that point and we can just communicate as really me, myself, and that feels safe and cool.”
What has making ‘How U Stop Hating Urself Pt. 1’ EP taught you about yourself?
“It taught me that I love making art. I don’t want to live unless I’m creating, it’s the only thing that’s important to me. It’s the only thing that will ever be constant. Relationships will come and go, but making art is the highest form – it’s like a spiritual experience. It lives in another realm. It’s like a meditative state to me. I’ve also realised that all the things that I wanted to hide and was ashamed of are all the things that are now being celebrated within Phem. It’s a really extreme extension of myself and all the parts of myself that took forever for me to feel confident enough to show. The moment I said ‘I don’t give a fuck, I don’t care who listens to this’, people were just loving it. Being queer and talking about my sexuality – all these things I didn’t feel safe to do – I just did and then I was congratulated for it. I feel like, if people could just realise that the things that they’re afraid to show are actually the coolest parts of themselves and the most relatable, the world would be such a better place.”
Agreed. You get described as “queer indie” or “queer pop” a lot – how do you feel about that part of your identity being used to define you as an artist?
“I think that I don’t need my music to be described as queer pop – I don’t know what that is. But as an artist, it’s part of the narrative. I do talk about sex a lot. I talk about sexuality. I talk about God. I talk about my mum. Those are themes that I would say make up the bullet points of Phem. So I don’t mind being described as a queer artist, I just don’t think it needs to describe my music, you know?”
Because being queer isn’t a genre in the same way pop is.
“It should never be a genre [laughs]. What does that sound like? I don’t even know – a squeal of happiness?!”
You’ve written and worked with a lot of big names like G-Eazy, The Used, Machine Gun Kelly, you work with John Feldman a lot. When you met Machine Gun kelly on tour, you said you were going to work with him and then you did. Are you someone who makes things happen instead of waiting around for them to find you?
“Yeah, I get everything I want. I literally do. It’s crazy. Everything I’ve ever wanted – big themes, you know, not stupid shit like, ‘Man, I really want that car’. When I look at where I’m at right now, I’m exactly where I want to be and I feel like part of that is my future self looking backwards. I saw this thing on TikTok about intuition. It was like, what if intuition is just yourself from the future telling you to do it because it already knows that it’s happening? I try to follow that. Anytime I have a weird pit feeling in my stomach, that’s like, ‘Dude, what are you doing? Ditch this shit, you’re supposed to be done with this. Why are you still waiting around?’ The universe will come in and just swoop me up somehow and be like, ‘OK you’re done. You didn’t make the move so I will for you’, and cut me off from something or throw something new in, or my life just gets really fucked up and dark. I feel like when you’re not following your personal legend, that’s when depression goes crazy on you and anxiety. If I don’t follow my intuition, I just suffer immensely, mentally.”
You’ve been in the studio lately – are you working on stuff for Phem or with other people right now?
“I’ve been working a lot with Royal And The Serpent and then I’ve also been working with this actor who’s also a musician, Tyler Posey. He was on the show called Teen Wolf. He has a lot of really cool songs coming out and we have one together called ‘Shut Up’, and John Feldman produced it, and Travis Barker’s on it. I also did some stuff with Kenny Hoopla last week – oh my God, I’m gonna die. I love Kenny! I feel like I have so many cool things [coming up].”
Exciting! Now this year is almost over, what are your hopes or goals for 2021?
“I just want to continue tapping into my true self and I want to be really consistent and want to put out a lot of music next year and a lot of art. And I want to fucking change the world. I want to just change the idea of what a female in music can be and just fuck some shit up. I want to piss people off, dude. I want to piss people off that should be pissed off. And I want to make people happy and fall in love who deserve that too.”
How do you want to change what women in music can be?
“I just think the lyrical content and talking about things. I’m a person of extremes. It needs to be extreme otherwise I don’t care. So I think just trying to push the envelope as much as I can without my managers being like, ‘You should really delete that tweet’ – which I get a lot.”