Thandi Phoenix On Creativity In Isolation & Everyday Activism

Thandi Phoenix is characterised by duality. On the one hand, the Sydney-based singer is something of a slow burn. Phoenix has been on the music grind since 2013, if you were on it you would have caught her on Aussie producer Ta-ku’s “Wasted Time.” Seven years later, fans finally got her debut EP. The self-titled Thandi Phoenix released late last year glitters with a bang-on blend of electronica and pop underpinned by lyrics that are soulful, real and empowering but never preachy. That said, even without an EP Phoenix has somehow been everywhere.

She’s performed with the likes of Vera Blue, OneRepublic and Rudimental, hit #1 on Spotify’s viral charts, and is regular on the local and international festival circuits. Speaking of internationals, she’s also been endorsed and praised by the likes of Jhené Aiko, Tinashe and Tinie Tempah. It’s a testament to Phoenix’s dedication and her diverse appeal.

She is far and away one of Australia’s slickest live acts, so what happens when you release your EP, only to be hit by a year nobody in live music could predict? After a summer of bushfires that saw numerous festivals across Australia cancelled and then a global pandemic that shuttered venues across the nation, even the most adaptable artists would be thrown off.

Syrup sat down with Phoenix to chat about her time in isolation and the role music plays in an era when activism is in the mainstream.

Your debut EP has been a long time coming, how does it feel now that it’s finally here and do you have an inkling of where you’re going next?

I’m really proud of the EP and I’m so happy to finally have a body of work out there. Obviously, I’d love to be able to perform it more. But, you know, we’ll get back to live shows whenever we can. I think a lot of the music that I write is a depiction of what’s happening in my life, things that I’ve been through or stories that I think are important to share. Whether that be for personal reasons, or just because I feel like other people need to hear those stories.

I’ve been working on a bit of music during lockdown. I’ve been listening to a lot of disco, Donna Summer, Chic, like old-school disco and funk, so I’ve been playing around with music that nods more in that direction. But still keeping my electronic pop sensibilities with it. I just want to make music that makes you feel good and that expresses what I’m going through. I want to help uplift people because, for me, music is such a joyous thing. It makes me so happy, so I want to be able to make other people feel good as well.

As well as being unable to perform how else have you been affected by the pandemic?

Initially, I was really shocked and overwhelmed because so much of my joy comes from doing live shows and and performing. So having that completely taken away and not having a date, like, “oh, at least I’ll know when I’ll get back to it,” was really hard. Having the diaries completely wiped of something that I love so much to do and that’s become so much a part of me was definitely a hard thing to adjust to. I think I’ve just given up any sense of needing to control that now, it will happen when it happens. It has been an interesting time learning to adapt to the situation that we’re in at the moment.

I was a bit nervous and anxious, initially, I wasn’t that keen on doing sessions online. I really crave human interaction, face to face.

Had you ever done online sessions before?

Never. I was originally meant to go to Melbourne for a writing trip and then the severity of COVID-19 really hit. I had to call it off days priors to me leaving, when we all realised we shouldn’t be travelling. It was a weird adjustment period. Now I’ve kind of come to the place where although it’s not the preferred method of doing it, it’s really cool to know that we still can do it, regardless of where we are in the world or what constraints we have.

I have still been able to get on Zoom sessions and write music from scratch and collaborate with people I’m just meeting for the first time. I have a different mindset to it. Although it’s ideal to be face to face in the same room creating with someone, it is still possible to do it online and it kind of blew my mind. I was working with a producer based in Melbourne the other day and he’s got it down to a fine art where we can literally be recording real-time, simultaneously putting ideas into the same session that comes up on his screen and comes up on mine. I felt like, “whoa, I am living in the future.” I’m a bit of a technological dummy sometimes, but like when people know what they’re doing, it’s amazing. We can honestly do anything.

Are there other ways limitations right now have forced you to get creative?

It’s also been a great time for me to work on things that I probably wouldn’t do or just skills that I no longer get to do. Usually, when I work in a studio, I’ll have an engineer or producer who will record my vocal takes. I work with a producer who’s on top of all the software equipment and stuff, but me having to do it from home is great because I’ve been like playing around with production again. When I first started I would do it all myself from home, and then you just get out of the habit when you think someone else does it better, and I stopped doing it as much. Being forced to stay inside, you really fine-tune those skills that maybe you were giving to other people for a while.

I also did a really great mentoring program through The Push, I’ve never done anything like that before. We’d have sessions on Zoom with different young emerging songwriters. We’d work through their songs and I’d give them some tips on songwriting or answer questions they had for me. That was something cool that I’ve discovered I can do as well, which I don’t know that I would have done otherwise if wasn’t during this period. I even had a shoot at my house as well. It’s just funny when you’re like, “how have I done these things from my loungeroom or from my bedroom? Wow.”

On the subject of mentoring, do you think about uniquely inspiring people as a South African Australian woman in the music scene?

I think that’s a thing related to growth and understanding the power you have as an individual. I mean, we’re all powerful people if we come into our own and into our strengths and own who we are and understand the impact we can have.

I think that mentoring helped open me to that. Initially, I was like, “Oh, I know, what can I tell them? I’m just me, I write songs I didn’t get taught this, I just kind of do it.” But working with these emerging artists who were in a different place in their life and career, I was able to help them with things. Because I’ve experienced things already or I’ve lived through them. That was something that was nice to me to know, that they were taking a lot away from these sessions. I would love to do more of that.

If I can help anyone realize their potential and their power then, I mean, why would someone not want to do that, you know? But I’m not walking around saying “I’m a poster child for this, I’m a poster for that.” But I also understand in Australia as a woman of colour, I know the power in young people seeing people that look like them. That’s why I gravitated towards certain female artists when I was growing up, because when you can see someone that looks like you you can see that it is possible.

I want to just do what feels right to me and I want other people to understand that they are worthy, able and strong and they are capable of doing whatever makes them feel excitement and joy.

There are threads of drum and bass and other historically Black genres through your music and you’ve posted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, how are you processing this moment?

What’s happening in the states leaves me with a heavy heart. It also makes me angry, it makes me incredibly upset. But I think it’s important that these conversations are being had and that yes, it’s in the mainstream media now. I just really hope that ripples across to government and I really hope that the injustice that Black Americans and Indigenous people face is rectified. There are so many injustices that Black people and Indigenous people have been suffering for so long now. Sometimes people forget that—people get on with their lives. If it’s not affecting them directly, it doesn’t really exist.

Unless it’s something as eye-opening, confronting and horrific as a video. It’s not shocking to me, these things happen and have been happening. All the amazing activists and civil rights activists working in America, the same things have happened in South Africa with apartheid and the anti-apartheid movement. It’s only because of people speaking out and fighting for their equality that anything changes. It’s very necessary and it will be necessary until racism is eradicated and systemic oppression has ended.

It seems ridiculous that we’re still having this conversation but we still need to have the conversation because oppression is still prevalent, but it’s the reality of the society that we’re still living in. Even after so many of my people have fought for their rights and for equality, they still need to speak about things that are important to them. People need to keep speaking out because it’s not gonna change without us doing anything.

Do you feel that music has a social responsibility?

I don’t necessarily think that all musicians have to go out and use their music for activism. Everyone has the right to create what they want to create, but also, we can use our voices in different ways. As artists, we have a platform, but activism doesn’t have to be exclusive to people with a “platform”. It could be people just conversing at the coffee shop. I think it’s just about calling things out when you see them and not allowing things to continue.

It would be a hard thing to straddle without it becoming performative or tokenistic.

Exactly, I took a while to speak out about it, because it is overwhelming, it’s draining, you know. I was so cautious of that performative activism. There are people who continually challenge the status quo and continuously speak out about these things. So I think we should be giving more attention to them. But we all have the responsibility to speak out, to keep people informed, to call people out. I have liked to see the ripple effect even just here day to day things. With all the casual racism that goes on in Australia, it’s cool to see people just going “Nah, man, that’s not cool. You can’t do that.” I just hope it’s something that creates a bigger change and impact.

On the topic of being overwhelmed, how have you been practising self care at the moment?

I’ve been having lots of lows during this period as well, as everyone has, it’s been a really weird time. I’ve just been trying to do anything that makes me happy. I’ve been having lots of lows during this period as well, as everyone has, it’s been a really weird time. I’ve just been trying to do anything that makes me happy, you know? I missing going out and seeing friends and being able to get on the dance floor and let loose. So, for me, I’ve been putting on lots of music all the time dancing around the house. I’ve also been loving to do things around the house. I’ve been getting into DIY things. I got a secondhand chest of drawers and then I like buffed it, painted it and put new knobs on it. Got a new bed. Yes, honey. She’s been busy. Just doing things that you’ve said, I’ll get to that at some stage,” but actually finally doing it and having things that you could look at and still be proud of.

I’ve been able to find some comfort in knowing I’m not alone. Everyone has been feeling weird, maybe going through bouts of anxiety or depression. It’s been a collective shock to the system. But I try my best to be optimistic and to find the joys, the small wins, that we can have day-to-day. There will be a time where I’m back on doing everything that I love to do, crazy schedule, non-stop, but it’s okay to also embrace a moment of peace and just slow down. I think that was something that I really was trying to embrace in the beginning and go, “hang on, sometimes you just need to sit still.” I think we’re so used to, especially in my industry, back to back travelling, shows and so on. Sometimes it’s nice just have a moment to, to be with your thoughts and to be centered and just to slow down.

Stream Thandi Phoenix’s EP on Spotify and watch her latest collab with The Inspired Unemployed and Tuka for Klarna below.

Monisha is a writer with a background in publishing and digital media. A chronic Pisces, she’s into trying to be a better person and sparkling water.

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