Wisconsin indie-pop ensemble PHOX and their meticulous creative process 

PHOX and Friends

PHOX and Friends

"It takes me a lot of energy, I think, because I came up in the age of MySpace."

Monica Martin, vocalist for Wisconsin indie-pop outfit PHOX, is on the phone from the road, and we're talking songwriting. Her sextet's self-titled debut on Partisan Records has just hit stores and it sounds like one of the most effortless and natural records of the year. PHOX, despite its complexity and rich, textural arrangements, is as uncluttered as a Danish furniture store — as wide-open as desert highway. The band members, who have shared roots that trace back to childhood, have such a delightful and natural chemistry it's tough to believe this music is much more than reflex — to see them perform live is to witness a single 12-armed, six-voiced creature make beauty from mystery before your very eyes.

"As a young person I thought it was normal to put your diary in public," says Martin of her nascent writing process. "There was this weird pressure where you were writing for yourself, but you were writing for an audience. I put an unnecessary amount of pressure on myself at that time when I was doing something that was generally sort of personal. When it came to songwriting, it was so, so overwhelming — I was like, 'Oh, no, I've got to write for other people to digest this.' But songs come together for me now."

Maybe it's their Midwestern demeanor, but the PHOX folks are a decidedly humble bunch — the songs don't just "come together," but rather radiate positive vibes and project a joie de vivre that doesn't come from working with hired guns. That same intangible energy that makes people more than just peers and acquaintances, that buzz that comes from a sweet hang with a righteous crew — that is the thread that connects PHOX. More than the string swells or the horn solos, the languid grooves and Martin's gorgeous voice, the truly unique thing about this band is the way they play around and with each other rather than over one another. There's an ebb and flow to the songs that feels more tidal than thought-out. There's a hazy vibe, like a half-remembered memory, rippling through PHOX that gives it a gauzy scope and ethereal ambience.

"There was a time when I thought that if I had a melody that I really, really like I would forget it," says Martin. "After losing so many melodies I thought were so cool I ended up just getting an iPhone. Being able to record those voice memos is really, really, really important, even if it's not as romantic as actually remembering something.

"I think the artist's mind — not that I want to be like, 'I'm an artist,' so I guess I'll just say 'my mind' — is fairly flighty. Before I had an iPhone I would call one of my bandmates and leave him voicemails, like, 'Sorry, here's another song.' "

Regardless of their origins, songs like "Evil," with its doo-wop-and-banjo motorik, and the canyon-esque "Satyr and the Faun" have an immense romance floating through every bar. Like running through golden fields at dusk or sitting atop a mountain at dawn, it is not difficult to grasp the beauty that surrounds you when PHOX hits the stereo. The band paints a broad picture with simple strokes — strokes like the few bars of fuzz guitar on "Noble Heart" before the song's girl-group shuffle, or the oboe solo on "Slow Motion" — and achieves radiant results. There may be a lot of energy going into these songs, but there is even more coming out.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.


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