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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014

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In Music

Phox's self-titled debut album was released Tuesday, June 24.

Phox's Monica Martin copes with the Wisconsin band's newfound phame


It began like almost every musician interview. The band's press rep connected my call to Monica Martin, the lead singer of Phox, and after the usual mildly awkward banter about the weather or some other mundane topic in the hopes of breaking the ice and easing into conversation, the interview was ready to start.

And then it wasn't. For Martin, something was wrong: The band's rep was still on the line, muted but still silently present and listening. In most cases, this is standard operating procedure, but this seemed to be the first time Martin knew about it – or at least the first time she wasn't prepared for it.

"I've been connected on calls before, but I didn't know that," Martin said, after we picked up the conversation on a different, infringement-free line. "Why wouldn't I just get your number? Why wouldn't I just call you? You're from Milwaukee; if I don't know you personally, I'm sure somebody else does, and if you mess with me, I'll find you. The whole thing was just weird."

It was a charmingly odd learning experience about the business for Martin, during a time when the singer is having to learn a lot about being a band in the spotlight – and fast. What once merely began as a little six-member folky neo-soul group started up in Baraboo and Madison has grown into a nationwide hit, one of the darlings of the Wisconsin music scene as well as the overall independent music scene.

Their lead single, the delightfully, dreamily unpredictable "Slow Motion," premiered back in April in USA Today after appearing on shows like NBC's "Parenthood" and FOX's "Rake." A few weeks later, the band premiered the video for the hit on Entertainment Weekly. All the while, Phox picked up buzzy press from NPR and The New York Times, building anticipation for the band's self-titled debut album, recorded with Brian Joseph up in April Base Studios in Eau Claire and released yesterday to the masses.

"I understand that there's good press – and I'm so excited and so grateful – but I don't know … I have no expectations," Martin said. "When I say no expectations, I don't mean I have bad expectations. I just have absolutely no idea what's going to happen because everything I thought might be of us playing music has already happened."

As for the album itself, the singer is very happy with it – or as happy as she can be with something that, according to her, will evolve several times in all different directions.

"I think every song on the record sounds great, but I imagine some of the newer ones might grow or change," Martin said. "It's representative of where that song was at that time. There have been times when we've recorded something, and where we marked it and captured it breaks my heart. But this is the first thing that we've done that I've been able to listen to, in part because I hate hearing my voice."

Still, it's a brand new world for Phox and its frontwoman, one both exciting and terrifying, clear and confusing, right in front of them and yet out of reach.

"I feel like I'm out of touch with what's actually happening to be quite honest," Martin said. "I have not processed what has happened in the last year and a half."

The sextet originally met as friends in high school up in Baraboo. Years later, the group got a house together in Madison and began performing around the city and recording demo tracks in their bedrooms. From there, the band grew and grew and grew, and really has yet to stop, a sometimes overwhelming sensation for Martin.

"I had crafted a fairly comfortable life in many senses," Martin said. "Living in Madison, it's pretty easy to create a comfortable space for yourself. I started working at a salon, and I loved the neighborhood I was in. And I'm not terribly responsible, so I've never planned anything.

"Now, everything's planned for the next six months and tentative stuff after that, and it has been that way for a little way. I'm busier than I've ever been, and I have no idea what's going on. I see positive things happening, but I don't really get it. It's a whirlwind. The reality is that you don't know what's happening until you sit down, but you never get that chance."

Emotionally, the past year has been quite a journey for Martin, one filled with supreme success and excitement, as well as struggle.

"I'm very excited because I know that's what I'm supposed to say," Martin admitted, "but really, there's a large part of me that's really scared because it's only just begun, and I'm not very good at handling even the mild parts of what this career has offered me."

Even with all their recent success, Martin confessed that she still has a hard time feeling valid, that her personal insecurities extend to the stage ("I love people, but they scare the sh*t out of me," she jokingly noted) where, according to her, she's not a natural showman. She admitted her use of alcohol as a "social crutch" is also a tough fit with the mental, social and physical rigorous demands of a band on the road and on the rise.

"There are moments when I feel so comfortable (on stage), and I turn into a total ham, and I don't know what it is," Martin said. "There's this large part of me that's very, very scared and sad and doubting, and there's another part that comes out when I feel understood. Once I feel understood, I maybe start to believe that people like me and like me for the right reasons."

Some other things, however, are just out of one's control. 20 minutes before sound check at Phox's big gig at Lollapolooza, Martin found out her father was in the hospital, comatose. She wasn't able to call him that morning or afternoon, and a few days later, he unfortunately passed away right before the band's first European tour. As a result, during her father's funeral, Martin was on a plane to Norway.

"It was just this really f*cked up … before that happened, it was like I had one foot in this totally surreal thing and the other foot in this really serious family sh*t and really serious social/mental uncomfortable stuff," Martin said.

Making things even harder is the ability to talk about these problems. Martin said it's hard to talk about the struggles and problems of being in a band with those outside of the business. After all, being in a band – a successful, buzz-worthy band at that – is an extremely rare career path that most people almost consider a privilege, something the singer is very aware of.

"There are these landmarks that you know you should be pumped about, but the whole time you're freaked out," Martin said. "I need to change how I'm experiencing all of these things that to me sound so f*cking cool on paper, but I couldn't experience them in that way. If I was looking at it, I'd be like, 'That's really f*cking cool,' but I was there, and I was freaking out and crying, or getting super drunk. It's such a dreamy life; I need to experience with clear eyes because it's something that a lot of people do want to do. So I feel badly about not always feeling comfortable because of myself."

At the time of the interview, Phox had just finished a month-long tour of Europe. For many up-and-coming bands, this would be a time for gleeful celebration. Martin, however, found herself battling and contemplating her own mind, thoughts and emotions.

"I realized in Berlin that I maybe have to take my mind and my sanity a little more seriously," Martin said. "Basically, there was a long period of time where feeling low – like very low – was really normal. Then, at one point while we were overseas, I was like, 'Oh my god, I'm in f*cking Berlin right now. People think that I'm worthwhile and this band is worthwhile; I need to seriously find some clarity in my mental space.'"

While that moment was a mild revelation for Martin, over time, the soulful singer has been gradually finding a bit of that clarity and time. For one, she and the rest of Phox have been able to meet and talk to several fellow musicians – Blitzen Trapper, Justin Vernon, San Fermin, John Cameron Mitchell – hearing about their experiences in the industry and how they manage to keep their minds right.

"You start seeing parallels in other people's experiences that, when we first started playing out, I thought it was inappropriate to feel this way," Martin said. "To hear another person's human experience inside this really interesting world, this really f*cked up world of music, that a lot of people from the outside think is rolling around in gold glitter and booze (laughs). That would be awesome, but the reality is such a wide spectrum, and getting to talk about that wide spectrum of feeling without feeling guilty that you're maybe ruining somebody else's of what it is takes a huge load off of your shoulders."

Martin is also helping herself adjust to this new life and the new path she and Phox are on. For one, she's growing more confident and comfortable on stage.

"I'm getting more used to having my more reasonable self say, 'It's OK; they want you here. You can do this,'" Martin said. "That was a lot of it; feeling really uncomfortable on stage was taking tons of energy from me – and it still does – but I'm getting used to that."

She's also working on her schedule and diet, making time for sleep, cutting back on drinking – a challenging thing to do when you call Madison and Milwaukee home – and taking her physical and mental health more seriously. With all of this going forward, Martin is hopeful for the future of Phox and her future just in general.

"I learning a lot about myself, and it's really cool. I see myself on an incline with all of that. I'm feeling better and better every day about it. I need to do the best I can with this. The past year or so has just been trying to figure out how to make this the best time ever, because on paper, it is the best time ever. It's slowly becoming that."

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