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Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013

Phox's Blissfully Codependent Folk-Pop

Monica Martin talks about the band's big year

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Monica Martin is setting goals for herself. She’s never had to do this before.

“I had some small dreams, like owning a hearse,” said Martin, the soul-singer-voiced front of the Wisconsinite psychedelic folk-pop outfit Phox. “And then, ‘Oh my God, I might have a career.’”

It’s been a big year for Phox and 2014 will be even bigger. This New Year’s Eve, when they take the stage at Riverside Theater, they will be mid tipping point. The show comes at the heels of opening for The Lumineers in London, performing at Lollapalooza and being hand-picked by Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz for a SXSW showcase that brought them industry notice. A month from now, they’ll be recording their first nationally anticipated release.

Phox is a seven-piece band that sounds like a seven-piece band. Martin is the only one singing but all seven people seem to have a voice on each song; their music is layered with distinct instrumental lines enthusiastically pulling the songs in seven different directions. It’s the delightful chaos of a kindergarten birthday party.

The band members are all from Baraboo. The band is not. Each moved independently to Madison, where the band formed two years ago. It wasn’t just the first time they played together. It was the first time they knew each other socially.

“I knew all of them from around town even though we span around five years in age,” said Martin. “It’s such a small town. I had a cooking class with Zack [Johnson] and failed a math class I took with Matteo [Roberts]. But Matt [Holmen] was the one I was close with.”

It’s pure luck that Holmen was the juncture between the seven Phoxes. Though their sound is full of independent parts trying to break free, most of Phox isn’t as bold. The band, says Martin, is introverted to the point she worries people mistake their awkwardness for pretension (“It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you after the show! It’s that I’m terrified!”). But Holmen is a nurturer, the kind of person who could encourage a band to come together.

That nurturing was particularly important for Martin, who had never fancied herself a singer, or much of anything. She never sung in public.

“I didn’t sing in front of him for two years into our friendship,” she said. “He was playing with a different band and he was like ‘What was that?’ From then on he was really persistent about whether I wanted to write songs. I was really struggling with what I wanted to do with my life and he was a dreamer, willing to motivate me in any direction.”

The band calls Holmen their “camp counselor.” Which makes sense; the band itself is a lot like a summer camp. They live together in a Madison house, recorded their demos in a home studio and write songs together with the secret ingredient (says Martin) of “codependence.” Martin will write lyrics and a melody and then the band will pass it from person to person, adding bridges, musical arrangements and, in general, expanding it into a song.

Phox are currently finishing songs for their January recording sessions at Justin Vernon’s April Base studio. Not all of it will be new' much of the album will come from their demos. The songs have improved as Phox have kept playing them.

That’s where her goals come in. Phox is the first thing she’s been encouraged to improve.

“There's a certain point where I stopped doing well in school and didn't flourish in anything but arts. I was living with my grandmother who didn't appreciate the few things I could do. I wasn't singing in front of people because I was really shy. By the time I graduated from high school, I didn't think I could do anything,” she said.

Martin thinks her voice has improved with her first few years of practice along with her songwriting. But she’s looking to improve more than rote musical skills. A lack of ambition lead to a lot of lethargy; she could sleep an entire day away. She started jogging, her first real effort to get her body and mind ready to perform.

“I would never put myself in a place where I could fail because I knew at my core that I was a failure,” she said. “Now it's really scary because I'm surrounded by people that I really care about that could hold me accountable.”


Phox play the Riverside Theater on Dec. 31 with Trampled By Turtles.

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