Photo courtesy of Daily VICE
Robyn Phillips has a lot to say about being a woman. The lead singer and guitarist of Toronto’s moody shoegaze band, Vallens, also has a lot to say about being a woman in music. Phillips performed as a lead guitarist for years in a number of projects around the city; tinkering in the background rather than putting out her own work. Now with Vallens, Phillips feels she can use the platform to discuss the issues most important to her. The band has steadily gained traction and focus since arriving on the scene earlier on in 2015. They are set to release their debut, Consent, on June 24th via Hand Drawn Dracula. The album deals with a significant amount of heavy material including, but not limited to, addiction, sexual and physical consent, and death.
Phillips spoke to Noisey at the band’s rehearsal space about their debut, the support of Toronto's DIY rock scene, and why you still shouldn’t read the goddamn comments. Vallens will also be playing Buzz Records’ first music festival No Fest this weekend in Toronto. Watch the interview below along with a full Q&A:
NOISEY: Shoegaze is probably the closest genre that you would be in. But I guess that’s just how music is now; that genre is becoming less and less a definable thing. It’s more about what innovation you’re willing to do as a musician. Do you accept shoegaze begrudgingly?
Robyn Phillips: Not begrudgingly. I just don’t think it is…quite right. Shoegaze is a nice shorthand because we use a lot of effects. I mean, I use too many effects, to be honest. I use a J-90, which is pretty synonymous with shoegaze bands. But I am just super into gear. I think it ends up sounding shoegaze. I use my trem bar a lot — the thing that makes it go in and out. But I’ll take it. I’ll take shoegaze. I think we have a lot more — you can hear my lyrics and we never have that wall of sound. For now, it’s what we’re gonna use, I guess. We have a really hard time deciding what our genre is just now with the album rollout. People working with me [ask], “what do I tell people what you guys are? What are you?” And I honestly don’t know.
Is there something that informs your music otherwise that you think would be better as a descriptor?
Musically? I don’t know. I mean, we really take from a lot of music. To be honest, I listen to a lot of pop music. We just went to New York and there and back we were listening to ABBA. I love ABBA! I think we’re super into anything that is melodic but has an undertone of darkness about it; maybe with their chord choices or their vibe. Honestly, I’m more inspired by movies, which is why I like to put a lot into our music videos and work with directors I really respect and put that extra time and effort into it. I think movies can inform music so much. Vallens is named after a character in a movie.
This movie called Blue Velvet. Dorothy Vallens: her persona is why I started this specific project. I wanted to make it almost like an alter ego of this character who is kind of an outcast. There’s something about her: she’s so mysterious and enigmatic. She’s not here to talk about sunshine and love and breakups. She has crazy experiences and things to say. As a character and an actress, she is an incredible woman. Also, I have a thing for Isabella Rosselini and for Ingrid Bergman, her mom. I like that aesthetic a lot.
How does it feel for you to cultivate that alter ego for your debut record and when you’re performing? What power does that give you?
It’s extremely cathartic. It’s a good escape. I find a lot of people are a little different on stage. I don’t know. It sort of informs how I feel about a lot of things. When I started out, I was a bit heavy handed on writing as the alter ego. Vallens and Robyn have to sort of become one person at this point. And I like that.
Your debut record is called Consent. That is a very powerful word. The way I immediately read it is in terms of [a woman’s ] body. But what I’ve read about your record is that it’s about these deeply emotional experiences. So is it a stretch to say here that consent also means you are consenting us to your thoughts and feelings?
That’s a cool way of looking at it. I think I would be lucky if anyone wanted to listen to my thoughts and feelings. I called it Consent because…this year has been crazy for a lot of stuff, especially things pertaining to being a woman. That definitely informed a lot of my writing. I have a lot to say about that. I also think that there are different forms of consent, other than sexual, that have to do with being a woman. Like, even if you’re allowed to talk to me, as intense as that sounds. The amount of times in a week someone feels they can talk to me—even though I don’t want them to—about how I look or don’t look. It’s also a huge feeling of how people don’t believe what women have to say, which is actually really what the song “Consent” is about. People just hear what a woman has to say and they question it no matter what or who they are or what kind of reputable person they are. It’s all about believe women. My motive for this is I want there to be awareness. People don’t take us for what we’re saying whether it’s something super serious like consent or even the amount of times I’ve been at a show and someone doesn’t believe I picked out all my gear or that I don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s small to large scale and everything in-between that women deal with on a daily basis.
How do you navigate that scene when there will be some man there saying, “you obviously did not pick out this gear yourself, somebody helped you.”
Or even just people questioning, to elaborate on that, whether or not I wrote the songs or if I play my own guitar parts; it also bleeds into other serious topics. But for me, I mean, I like to write about it. That’s the best way I can sort of alleviate that frustration. Mostly I surround myself with people I love and trust. I think that a lot of people who identify as male that I hangout with and trust would not do or feel the things I don’t like. I speak up a lot. I tell people how I feel. I will not take it lightly. I will not be afraid to be the person to say something. This doesn’t work for everyone but, for me, it’s just stand up for yourself and surround yourself with people who you trust.
I got into a fruitless—it turned out—Facebook fight about toxic masculinity. It ended with some dude saying “you have a lot of anger in you” for what you’re saying. All I said was it’s cute and wrong that you think I’m angry by simply expressing an opinion. Have you got any backlash for what you’re writing or performing; that you’re an angry woman and that’s just your archetype?
I have definitely been told by a few people that I’ve worked with as far as PR for this record that it’s hard to land. People think it’s a little intense we chose to name our record Consent and some of our lyrics are pretty graphic, to be honest. I don’t know — I just feel you have to do what’s right as far as stuff like that. Something I've had to teach myself is to not read the comments. I can’t. It’s such a strange landscape out there where you want to stand up for yourself and people are calling you angry. It’s like, well, yeah I am angry but I also have human rights you don’t understand. It’s a constant battle of people trying to see it from your perspective, I guess. Don’t read the comments is my advice.
You have curated such a nice group of people around you. Do you find in this scene in Toronto that people are bolstering you and your projects?
I feel it most among my female identifying friends whether they are artists, musicians, or whatever but honestly everybody. Which is why I am planning on not moving anytime soon. It feels good being in this time capsule that we’re in, whether or not anyone else notices. All of us are gonna look back and say, "wow, we really went for it.!" And came together, honestly! I hangout with a lot of and we’re not like, “my label is better than your label” or "my band is better than your band." It’s very supporting and earnest—that hasn’t worn off yet. What’s nice is that I don’t think a lot of people’s goals aren’t to make it. In this stratosphere of music nobody really makes it, not in a positive or negative way. It’s just people definitely get their music heard and that’s amazing to see. I love Weaves. Jasmyn, I’ll marry you. But she already knows that. I love Dilly Dally. I mean, I love a lot of projects. It’s interesting because when I think about when people ask, “who are you top five favourite Toronto bands”, like, I can tell you …a top 15. I don’t know if I can cut it down to five. I love the majority of what everyone is doing.
Sarah MacDonald is a staff writer at Noisey Canada. Follow her on Twitter.