Songwriter Jodi Phillis is perhaps best known as one of the frontwomen (with Trish Young) of early 90s power-pop sirens, The Clouds. The Clouds played six Big Day Outs, garnered three ARIAS, gained a worldwide following, sold bucketloads and were critics’ darlings – all the time consistently producing literate, highly idiosyncratic music which seemed to draw equally from the glittering perfection of 60s pop, the fuzzbox muscle of 90s rock and European art and poetry.
Their most memorable song – Phillis’ ‘Hieronymus’ – is an ode to the 15th century religious phantastist painter Hieronymus Bosch which astounds to this day for its depth, power and pop smarts. (It is relevant that Phillis is a fine illustrator as well, as her songs seem to shimmer with highly visual imagery).
Bestowed by Rolling Stone Magazine the prickly mantle of ‘a national treasure’, Jodi Phillis has never stopped creating (what truly creative soul can?), working as a film composer as well as currently with vocal group The Glamma Rays and duo Roger Loves Betty with husband Tim Oxley.
Her new solo album – Sonum Vitae – has nothing to do with all of that, and yet everything to do with it all. Six tracks – six improvised tone-poems – charting impressions of life from conception to adolescence, Sonum Vitae is a remarkable body of music from the mind and heart of a truly remarkable musician.
Phillis stresses that Sonum Vitae (‘The Sound of Life’) is ‘art, not pop’. The pieces are lush and evocative in a cinematic sense, shaping six surprisingly complete sound-worlds for each of the six life-stages (so far) – ‘Conception’, ‘Incubation’, ‘Birth’, ‘Infancy’, Childhood’ and ‘Adolescence’.
‘Conception’ sounds as mystical and mysterious as is the biology of that life-stage, with luminous vocal incanting before a steady rhythm begins a pumping incessance – the rhythm of sex but also reminiscent of Stravinsky‘s ‘factory of nature’ from The Rite of Spring – the rhythm of growth and life.
This regular rhythm rises again and again across Sonum Vitae – a metaphor for the hammer of time that drives us through life, as well as the pulsing pump of life that won’t – can’t – let up. ‘Birth’ takes up the rhythm with cyber cellos pushing life out into the world and then – aaaaaaahhh – massed vocal like the light of the world outside the womb, and the warm love of mother.
It may be ‘art, not pop’ but Phillis’ songwriting smarts cannot be helped – the nursery rhyme harpsichord that intros ‘Infancy’ and the Debussyesque wonky piano of ‘Childhood’ evoke these times of life where discovery is a minute-by-minute thing. ‘Childhood’ also has a spoken word conversation between Mum and Dad on the meaning of Life and love, a conversation that is perfectly placed and apt.
The final tone-poem ‘Adolescence’ is a pink-cloud 50s doo-wop vibe, mirror-ball flecked and romantic as romantic gets. The chorus ‘I’m just sitting on a cloud‘ evokes the opposite of what one would expect from a modern, angsty adolescence. But Phillis writes with such authority that we go with her vision wherever it may lead.
Sonum Vitae is a remarkable work from one of the masters of Australian music and worth a deeper listen. It is available from rogerlovesbetty.com and can also be accessed thru www.facebook.com/jodiphillismusic
Prior to posting this review I asked Jodi Phillis a handful of questions about Sonum Vitae. Here are her responses:
TheOrangePress: Firstly, and most obviously, where did the idea and spark for Sonum Vitae come from?
Jodi Phillis: Do you want the naked truth? Ok here it is. I was going through a bit of a low period, what with being a broke, middle aged songwriter without much hope of making any money out of my songs anymore, on and off the dole with my songwriting husband for 15 years, 2 kids and insomnia, so unable to tour very much… washed up, jaded, depressed… but unable to give up the addiction to making music… completely incompatible with working a ‘real job’ or studying anything that would help with that.
I shared my frustrations and my creative desires with my therapist. He suggested I just follow my instincts and create the album that was brewing in my head, without any thought of how it would be received, or whether or not it would even be released.
What a good idea I thought. Fuck it all, just express yourself.
So I did. I didn’t actually have the idea of making a musical autobiography until I sat at the computer and ‘Conception’ came out. I knew then what was happening and just had to follow the story.
TOP: You mention that the pieces were virtually improvised from out of the blue – why did you choose this way to work?
JP: I made sure I didn’t conciously brew the songs in my head before because it instantly broke the spell. I found that if I just sat there and started with a vocal or an instrument, the music would just come out. I would just kind of go into the zone of how I felt as a toddler or child or whatever the age was. It got harder as I got older. I think the first 3 tracks were easiest and best because they came from a completely spiritual, transcendant place. People who know me have said that it’s surprising how chilled the ‘Adolescence’ track is. I was a very rebellious teenager, so I think I expected it to come out jagged and angry and loud… but it is also when I got into marijuana and acid, so the mood was definitely altered.
TOP: Sonum Vitae is ‘art, not pop’ but as a writer and performer who obviously relishes Pop, the sensibility must be a background radiation to everything you do.
JP: Of course, you can’t help where you come from and you can’t ignore all the music you have made, heard and loved over the years. It was very nice though to have a break from having to come up with something that I would be proud of… melodic, wise, original, soulful… give me a break!
TOP: Sonum Vitae is six tracks from ‘Conception’ through to ‘Adolescence’. It has left me (and I am sure almost everyone else who listens to the album) with a painful case of ‘vitae interruptus’. When can we expect Part 2?
JP: I agree it is a little bit short. I was going to sit on it and finish my whole life, with a funeral at the end but I have recently bought a new computer, so I have all these new sounds to use so it would sound too different.
I really just felt that those 6 songs were a complete unit. I will revisit and complete the journey for sure but it won’t be for a while.
I am so busy becoming a film composer and playing with my groups The Glamma Rays and Roger Loves Betty and going to my kid’s dance concerts, it’ll have to wait. But I am so glad that I did it.
TOP: And finally, what are your thoughts on current music – of your own genre/s and others?
JP: Current music is awesome… anything goes, it’s changing every second it seems. The possibilities are endless. It seems that art is all there is to do in this world now that there aren’t many jobs for people. It’s an incredibly exciting time for us humans. Create, it’s great!! Now I gotta make that t-shirt!.
Published November 2013 on theorangepress.net