Phem (stylized phem) is bloody knees and Jordans, tears, numbness, and dark levity. The Portuguese allude to the idea of saudade, a feeling or longing for something or someone that you love, and have lost. An entire type of mournful singing called fado music exists to illustrate this concept. There’s no direct English translation but the LA singer, producer, and drummer’s blend of R&B, beat music, outsider pop, jazz, and open capillary soul, supplies the closest analogue.
You’ve read innumerable contrived biographies that try to evoke mystique as a marketing scheme. But sometimes mystery is a very real thing. In phem’s case, the shadow supports the substance. As a human being, she exists as a state of fusion. Raised on rap, the LA native grew up a jazz drummer, playing professionally for years before switching to songwriting. Trips to Low End Theory helped expand already omnivorous tastes, where she often caught sets from her close friend and mentor, Flying Lotus.
Phem identifies with no sexuality, dating men and women, carrying a residual Catholic school guilt instantiated in the wounded tension and torrid conflict that haunts her music. Her opaque missives capture the chaos of the last few years trying to find a working artistic compass.
For the majority of 2016, she slept in a studio in the Crenshaw District, sleeping in her car, telling no one where she actually stayed for fear of being raped or preyed on by the people alternately and trapping out of the space. Richter scale bass from the other tenants interrupted her sleep most nights, which adds to the liminal and ethereal float of her songs.
During this period, she attempted to understand the fluidity of both her creativity and sexuality. Constant bouts of disconnect and alienation led her to bury herself in music, meditation, and prayer. Somewhere along the way, she sold thousands of “Did U Cry” shirts and other clothing from her line. Inside this claustrophobic window-less room, the answers started to slowly come, a splintered psyched re-configured itself through the discovery of the gifts of solitude. A divided self began to make sense.
These answers and the remaining questions are the core of phem’s new music. They’re the result of splitting from the dead weight of a band, countless sessions singing and writing topline melodies for other musicians (including G-Eazy, Gnash & Hayley Kiyoko), until eventually the damned chrysalis was over. Phem’s new songs wield a singular headspace and slink, occupying the uncharted shadowlands between Frank Ocean and Halsey, FKA Twigs and Swae Lee. They convey that feeling of being broken and empty but not hopeless. They’re about lust and misery, the search for meaning, the strange echo that reverberates from the void.