It wasn’t long ago that Los Angeles’ musician and G-Eazy collaborator, Phem, was playing drums on major hits by folk-rock and indie artists alike. Not that either experience could ever come close to defining her musical career.
Since picking up the drums at an early age, Phem explored a galaxy of sounds, from jazz greats to hip-hop to Flying Lotus, who eventually became a friend and sounding board. But there’s something about Phem’s music that can’t come from anything she’s experienced secondhand. Her lyrics read like a mix between a young girl’s diary and the crude walls of a public restroom. With them, she touches on topics that should be addressed more—like how it feels to question your sexuality at a young age—and how good it feels to be feeling yourself. On her own, Phem’s holding nothing back, and quickly finding that fans are loving her for it. Here, writer Nikki Volpicelli chats with Phem about staying true to herself, her biggest influences and being a creative.
What artists or genres have had the largest influence on the work you’re creating today?
I grew up playing jazz drums, so I listened to a lot of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. That kind of started a trend of experimental things; naturally, that led me into listening to people in the beats scene. And I grew up going to Low End Theory [in Los Angeles] every week, which is when I got more into hip-hop and worked my way around different genres.
How is your solo project different from the music you made with the bands and artists you’ve worked with in the past?
Phem is a mirror image of my inner subconscious stream of consciousness, which is a complicated way of saying that it’s a project where I’ve been trying to not block anything. To not have too much judgment on what I’m writing, and not try to curve it to anyone’s taste. It’s been therapeutic to be able to do that. I’ve learned a lot about myself through it. It’s rewarding, and people react more positively to it. Now I’m like, “Oh shit! I should’ve just been myself the whole time.”
So it’s coming from a more vulnerable place.
Yes, and that’s everything to me right now. I don’t want to go through my life pretending that I’m not feeling things anymore. For a while, my sexuality was something that was just an overtone and now I’m like, fuck it. At a certain point, you just have to know who you’re making your work for and you can’t let everyone else affect you too much. Cuz that’s life, right? No one’s going to like your shit all the time. So it’s better to just be yourself and be like, “Okay, I can go to sleep at night knowing I was as truthful as I possibly could be.”
What’s something you wish more people knew about you, something you might reveal on future records?
I grew up with an interesting family dynamic, which was a very weird and kind of challenging thing for me, and I’m leaning toward talking more about in my work. Talking about the confusion of growing up. Of thinking about who your parents are now that you’re older, and looking at all the other people in the world. And thinking about all the things that happened to you when you were little, and wondering if you are who you are because of that. It’s something I’m still trying to work through.
What’s something you believe in that other not everyone else does?
God. I believe there’s a higher power that can channel through people—especially creative people—and I’m not afraid of thinking about and knowing that. I’m not talking about spirituality in my music. If anything, it’s actually pretty crude, but it’s my process that works for me. And I know that I feel closer to God when I’m being truthful to myself.
I feel that a lot of the things I write are not mine and that they’re being channeled through a different entity. Because I don’t listen to my shit and say, “Liv, you fucking killed that.” I listen to my shit and sometimes it feels like I don’t even know where it comes from. Sometimes, if you let yourself be a vessel, a lot of magic can come through.
I think some of the best work, especially creative work, is born that way. Almost as if someone else is working through you. Unfortunately, it’s something you can’t just really turn on!
Yeah. Well, it’s like, being a creative, that’s a hard life. You’re not going to make a lot of money. Your family is going to be like, “What are you doing? Grow the fuck up.” Your friends are going to be like, “I’m getting married and having children.” And you’re like, writing poetry or a trap song about eating your girlfriend out. So we don’t do this because we have a choice. We do this because it was given to us. If we had a choice, we would’ve stopped this a long time ago. It’s how we eat, otherwise, we’d die. We don’t eat normal food!