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Phoebe Gunson: "I was always meant to be Your Girl Pho"

Your Girl Pho on discovering the nuances of femalehood through the music industry. She describes finding herself, processing conflicts, and how her experiences serve a reference point in empowering other individuals through performance.
Phoebe Gunson:

by SAND Magazine

November 27, 2018

Cover Photo: Rodrigo Álvarez

Phoebe Gunson prides her musical ego as a sassy and fun persona who brings on sweet jazz pop. Having played shows as Your Girl Pho for over two years, Phoebe had her start in music with her previous band, Phocal – which she describes as ‘very electronic, Purity Ring-style music’. It was then, that she picked up ‘Pho’ as her main character and creative outlet.

Listen to Too Big Too Bright by Your Girl Pho here

Based in Perth, she has collaborated with producers from her city and Mexico – namely Ukiyo and Tayrell. “For a long time, Your Girl Pho was a project that I did toplines with; you sing something for another producer and they put on their track, cut and edit it however they want,” she explains.

Today, she stands with a strong individual presence. Even the collaboration pieces emit a sense of ownership from within herself. In Stop By with Tayrell, her unique flavour instantly registers – explained by the voice and style of singing that she has so immaculately crafted.

Is Your Girl Pho something you have always envisioned?

I suppose it’s what started it. All my life I’ve done performance – music theatre, dance, acting in school. I took part in talent shows actively. After that, I studied music for three years – that really helped me decide whether I wanted to go the cover band or original music route. I decided that I wanted to create original works. I wrote lots of music when I was studying as well. Perhaps imbued with my love for performance, there’s this obsession with being the center of attention too.
While performing, I would get so nervous and anxious – so much that I found that whole thing to be quite an out of body experience. I would come off stage and ask myself, what just happened?
I never could remember what I did on stage. It was almost like I just blacked out. I talked to people about it and they would say, oh! It’s your alter ego, that character that you put on stage. That was how Your Girl Pho came about. 

She’s that diva that I portray when I’m on stage, and she’s everything that Phoebe is not – sassy, unapologetic, confident, sexy. Me as Phoebe, I’m quite goofy and awkward and I try to be funny all the time. Over time, I’ve become Your Girl Pho in my everyday life and now I don’t even see her to be that different to who I am as Phoebe. I’ve just grown to be her.

Photo: Dawn Chua / Music Matters Live Singapore 2018
Your Girl Pho led me to my comfort zone on stage, and allowed me to connect with audiences better. 
How long did it take for you to fully come out of your shell on stage?

Most of the time when I’m writing, it’s from Your Girl Pho’s perspective. When I first started, I was often writing about other people and their lives as there wasn’t too much happening in mine. I really desperately wanted to tell my own stories, and I kept finding, pushing myself in situations with other people so I could learn and build my own experiences to write about. Writing as Your Girl Pho meant that these songs were hers, and perhaps Phoebe couldn’t sing them as well. I honestly think that the combination of nerves and adrenaline were the cocktail or potion that brought out Your Girl Pho on stage.

It all comes down to the outfits and makeup too. I wear different things to what Phoebe wears on a usual basis. Even meeting people off stage led to a sort of questioning – am I being Your Girl Pho in these interactions, or am I being Phoebe? It was very confusing for me for a while, who do I want to be in this situation?

From where you are now, do you view Your Girl Pho to be an inner manifestation that you had yet to fully realise then?

Totally. When I was in Singapore for Music Matters, I attended one of the conferences about authenticity. It was about the idea of being an ‘authentic’ artist, and how you are able to connect with your audience more when you treat yourself with honesty. You're right.

Your Girl Pho was not just something I manifested out of nowhere. She was always inside of me. She’s someone I’ve always wanted to be, and I think I was always meant to be her. She taught me to have the confidence to be who I want to be without having to apologise for it.
Speaking of authenticity, how do you keep yourself focused on your artistry while representing your influences?

I suppose the thing that keeps it real is the fact that I’m writing my opinions from my own heart. When I face writer’s block, it’s usually because I’m not feeling anything about a situation or anyone – that’s what Feelen was about. I was in this absolute rut, filled with a void. I just came out of a classic break up feeling heartbroken and unpassionate. Having that experience reconnected me with my music again and made me explore how I could write.

I don’t really write with people either. That’s how I keep it true, always. By having sounds that might be drawn from my influences and divas but with writing, lyrics and melodies entirely from myself.

Apart from freedom of choice, what are the greatest pleasures of running your own career?

The best part of it all is the performance. I love bringing something I’ve written in the studio on stage and crafting it from there. My songs always change from a studio version to stage get up. I find that a piece of music that might sound great on headphones may not necessarily connect or interact with a live audience instantly. Sometimes, there’s a form of chemistry lacking – so then I scrap it and start again.

Photo: Dawn Chua / Music Matters Live Singapore 2018
I’m more about the performance than song release side of music.
Often, I do performance writing where I arrive at a show with an instrumental ready without the lyrics or melody, and I’ll improvise and sing whatever that comes to mind. It’s like a freestyle, and I find that always goes down better with an audience because I’m reading the room, and I’m throwing at them the energy that they’re throwing at me. Most times I record my sets, and go back to write what I sang that night.

How does the culture in Perth inform your approach to music?

I’m still trying to figure out the difference between Singapore and Perth. I spoke to a taxi driver the other day – he said that in Singapore, if you choose to make music or be in the arts sector, you are agreeing to not make money.

In Perth, there are so much music and heaps of labels. We have live music almost every night in our city and if anything, it can get too much. Most parents are happy to support a career in music or arts, and there are lots of degrees you can pursue to keep them happy (laughs). I studied music because my mom told me that I couldn’t sit at home all the time. Besides that, it felt like I was taking music seriously. She did end up asking if I was gonna teach music though.

Our culture is really booming. Being one of the most isolated cities in Australia does mean that it’s tougher for us to get on the line-ups of big festivals, so often most musicians will do all they can in Perth and move to Sydney or Melbourne to pursue their career.

This year I got to play a festival in Mexico. It was crazy, and the people love pop music, reggaeton and American culture. The fans there are similar to you guys in Singapore. In comparison, Australian audiences are tougher to play to – I honestly think so. We’re a difficult bunch to please. We’d come to your show but it’s your job to win us over. I signed someone’s receipt in Singapore last night – that would never happen in Australia.

Photo: Steven McNeilage
We are very critical when it comes to music and art. I think it’s because we have so much good music and food here that we only want the best.
Is moving out of Perth in the pipeline for you?

I’ve definitely thought about it. What terrifies me is the massive pool of talent in Sydney and Melbourne. At least in Perth, I’m the only one doing my style of music, which is probably not the best move. I guess my biggest obstacle is myself.

I also have a full-time job which pays me to live out of home, my music gear and do things like play shows in Singapore. It’s a great job, and it’s a back-up plan, you know? I think what I really need to do is make the huge leap and do music full-time.

At The Aussie BBQ, you mentioned that ‘I Can’t Take It’ was about being a woman in the music industry. Would you care to tell me more?

The situation has improved in Australia because we are all calling out bad behaviour. There used to be a lot of underlying sexism, such as festival line-ups having no female acts.

Photo: Dawn Chua/ Music Matters Live Singapore 2018
Gender representation is something we fight for, and we go to the extent of boycotting festivals. We push and push until there’s change – it’s a really powerful movement.
This was not always the case, and some issues are still prevalent today. As a female, I used to get sound guys undermining me. Imagine rocking up to the venue with your gear, with two male band members (who are incredibly supportive of the feminist movement, by the way), and the sound guy goes past you and walks straight to your drummer just because he seems the most assertive, and asks ‘what’s the set up for tonight?’

My drummer would go, ‘I couldn’t tell you! Ask her. It’s her thing’. By this time I can tell the sound guy has sort of shited his attitude, and he goes ‘alright, what have you got, love?’. I’d tell him what I need and what I’ve got. The same guy would later tell me how to set up my own gear. So he sets it up, and I watch that he’s done it wrong. He starts to soundcheck and goes, oh what’s wrong with this? It’s not working! At this point I’ll say, can I set it up now?

I get that at the end of the day, they just want to get the show going with the best sound and all – but it’s unconscious bias.
That’s where I Can’t Take It came from – dealing with people in the industry who take one look at me and pass judgements.
Just because I’ve got a full face of makeup, my hair’s done, I might be wearing leopard print, I’m instantly attached to a role of a diva or a bossy bitch. If a male were to come in looking all assertive, he’s a powerful rockstar.

That brings me to how I used to get shows. Before I had Hayley [Ayres] as my manager, I used to book my own shows which I found really stressful. Just sending in requirements such as set timing and payment would get me labelled. So what I did was create another email account under a unisex name, and did all of my bookings there. People who assumed I was a male treated me much better than when I booked shows as Phoebe. Because all of a sudden I’m a male doing this, and I get instant respect instead of people trying to barter me down.

Watching your show, I felt that you represented women who constantly feel different and face difficulties working their way around it.

Absolutely. Your Girl Pho is the person I wish I had met three years ago when I started playing music. I guess you need life experience to finally get over certain feelings of anxiety.

There are people who will come in and tell you what to do just because they feel like it. I remember a particularly strong incident that unleashed ‘angry’ Your Girl Pho – when someone offered to ‘fix’ my Ableton. This was before I had a band. All I had was a laptop and microphone. When I started playing the show, my laptop had a meltdown and I was all panicky in front of the audience. I felt like I went from this sweet, innocent girl to feeling all sorts of annoyance. I said into the mic, ‘Whoever it was that came and touched my laptop before, can you please come back and undo it?’

Photo: Neil Graham 
That experience really taught me to own my equipment.
How do you think people can come together to bridge gender bias?

Conversations are important. If you hear someone saying something inappropriate, you don’t have to yell at them or make it awkward. You can pull them aside and let them know why it’s wrong. I think it starts with education. Yes, sometimes it’s exhausting to have these conversations. Like, why is it my role to educate you? Why can’t you just figure it out?
Yet discrimination and bias are embedded in some people their whole lives. It’s all about finding the right way to get around it.
We face a complex situation here. At the end of the day, I’d say if it starts to take an emotional toll on you, know that you're not obliged to explain yourself. Sometimes, it’s also important to cut people from your life.

How do you see Your Girl Pho evolving? As time goes on do you find it more difficult to channel energy from your influences?

I grew up listening to a lot of Lily Allen, Gwen Stefani and other hot divas. While I try to channel all of these energy, I’m not so fussed if I become more distant from them because I’m creating my own style. Maybe one day someone else can channel that. It’s cool, like coming up with your own cocktail recipe. You’re not just another duplicate – that’s the last thing I want to be. I also hate it when people say, she’s like this artist. I’m my own artist.

Photo: Meow Magazine
Someone once told me that if we went to a music festival, there would be folk, rock, pop and then there would be Pho – ‘you’d have your own genre’, she said.
Before you go, do you have any final words till the next time we meet?

I want to say that despite the negativity that exists throughout the music industry, there are also incredible people doing good work who will support you. You need to find them. I was just in this situation in which I worked with the wrong kinds of people with misshapen ideals. I hope that I didn’t come across too negative about what I do because I love it.
Today I work with amazing, supportive people. Don’t be disheartened if you find yourself in the wrong company. Just keep going and the right people will be drawn to you.

Stay up to date with Your Girl Pho here
Listen to her music here


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