By Michael Smith
In 2018, singer-songwriter Jodi Phillis, best known for her work with The Clouds, released an album titled Becoming which was, as she tells it, “all about grief and transformation and the different emotions and stages I went through after both my parents died from cancer.” Four years on comes We Need To Be Free (Cheersquad Records), in which she addresses her transformative coming to terms with life after grief, a journey that personally changed everything yet produced perhaps her most remarkably beautiful – and sumptuously orchestrated – collection of songs yet.
“Damien Lane, my guitarist – we’ve been collaborating on a bunch of stuff – he just fuckin’ went mad on the orchestration,” Phillis laughs. “It blew my mind! I feel very, very lucky there. I didn’t have an obvious choice for producer. I just had a whole bunch of songs ready and didn’t really know what I was gonna do and I just sent him ‘It’s Not Love’, the first song on the album. I wasn’t even gonna ask him about producing – he’s never produced an album before – and he just really fell in love it and said, ‘Do you mind if I just have a go at producing it up and laying some stuff on it?’ And then it was just so great I said, ‘Do you wanna do the rest?’ And he said yes.”
We Need To Be Free is quite the sonic shift from the neo-romantic chamber folk pop of Becoming or Phillis’ other records to date with its orchestrations tinged with an almost Beatlesque psychedelic swirl and glistening shards of swooning choral harmonies. “I was more used to doing folk records,” she admits. “It just evolved from that first demo he did with the string arrangements. We just fleshed out a lot of the other songs that way as well. We got real players in to play the parts; a woman – [violinist] Megan Gould in New York – flew in her parts and [keyboards player] Me-Lee Hay in Katoomba flew in her parts – it just worked really well. It took a long time mind you. And with COVID and everything in the middle it was very stop start stop start stop, but we got there.
“I’d written all the songs before COVID started and the album is about inner freedom, it’s about being free within your own self. I always write about inner stuff basically. It’s not a concept album or anything. I tend to write very personally so it’s just a journey on from the album before. The songs come from where do you go after you’ve been through the worst of the grief? And who are you now? And how do you step into that new person that you’ve become because I’m not the same I was, that’s for sure.”
As sweetly divine as the melody and musical setting sounds, there’s not a little of the “murder ballad” within the album’s title track, which Phillis describes as one of the darkest and saddest songs on it. “A murder ballad? I realised that after I wrote it. Obviously it’s quite violent! Obviously metaphorical.” ‘We Need To Be Free’ and a couple of the other songs on the album were the result of the breakup of a long-term relationship, an inevitably traumatic experience for anyone, but what do you do when, as she admits, “You’ve become a new person; you’re on a different path. It’s as simple as that… But it’s not simple at all!”
Yet, for all the trauma, Phillis’ remarkable artistry and melodic sensibility has been able to wrap these thoughts and feelings in the most appealing – and uplifting – of ways. The album is a sonic swoon! And there’s even a dash of fantasy, of the fairy tales of childhood and of romance – literally in the song ‘The Beast’, though of course, here the story of Beauty and the Beast is turned on its head.
“I love Gothic romance, baroque, anything mythical, mystical and deep, not just from the style and aesthetic of all of that work, which I love as well, but just the stories, because they cut so deep to what we do with our lives and who we are and finding meaning, you know? So yeah I love fairy tales, and I like playing around with them too. Like in ‘The Beast’ I just wanted to explore the whole Disney romantic thing of the magic kiss will wake up the person, turn the person from a frog into a prince; all that stuff. What happened to fairy tales through Disney I think isn’t what they were meant to be in the first place… This is a giant topic that we’re touching on here, bringing in patriarchy and feminism and the whole thing!”
Phillis gets to step outside of her own consciousness into another’s in the two songs – ‘You Are Loved’ and ‘Summer of Fires’ – she cowrote with poet, environmental historian, museum curator and long-time friend Martha Sear. “She’s deeply poetic and it was just amazing to connect on that level with her after years and years. She sent me a poem that she had written for a friend who was going through a hard time and I was just looking at the words and a melody just came into my head instantly. I demo’d it in five minutes and sent it to her. The words are just transcendent – that’s ‘You Are Loved’ – and because that was so much fun and we felt was a successful collaboration, we went for another one.”
‘Summer of Fire’ expresses, through Mears’ words, Phillis’ rage at the former Prime Minister’s lack of action during the fires on 2019. “I had a melody and Martha came up with those great verses. It’s nice to be freed up from the lyric responsibility, even though I love writing lyrics, though that is definitely much harder. Like, a melody for me will just come out anytime – they’re always just there. But when I started composing orchestral music and screen music, I think that’s when I realised it was actually really fun to just write the melodies and the harmonies. So I’d already explored that. I worked with another poet Hillary Bell on an orchestral thing called Seven Stories and that was equally a beautiful thing because you can just come up with the most beautiful melody that you can imagine, that you’re capable of, and then that’s matched with beautiful words that you didn’t have to labour over or delve inside yourself for. It feels heavenly, just writing music,” she beams.
JODI PHILLIS – WE NEED TO BE FREE TOUR 2022:
Aug 7 – Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane; Aug 11 – Lazybones, Sydney; Aug 13 – Baroque Room, Katoomba, NSW Blue Mountains with King Curly (duo); Aug 18 – Brunswick Ballroom, Melbourne; Aug 19 – Archie’s Creek, Victoria; Aug 25 – Wollongong Music Lounge; Aug 27 – Smith’s Alternative, Canberra with Lisa Richards; Sept 3 – Mona, Hobart