On Its Confident Debut, Phox Puts A Reluctant Voice Front And Center

Jul 1, 2014
Originally published on July 1, 2014 7:37 pm

People hearing Monica Martin's astonishing voice for the first time might fairly assume that the Phox frontwoman has sung for rapt audiences forever. But they'd be wrong.

"I was really very private, I guess," the singer says. "I joined choir for one semester when I was a junior and I was afraid to sing — I wouldn't sing in that class. So I just sang in private, and then I felt pretty comfortable around Matt, becoming pretty close with him."

"Matt" is bandmate Matt Holmen, one of Martin's earliest supporters.

"I just heard a quality of her voice that I didn't hear in anyone else's voice," Holmen says. "Music for me is like a math problem, and for Monica it was clearly an intuition."

That voice and intuition have become the driving force of Phox, a six-piece pop ensemble from Wisconsin that has just released its self-titled debut. Martin and Holmen recently spoke with NPR's Melissa Block about the new album and how the members have grown together as friends and creative colleagues. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and check out a hand-picked playlist of Phox's influences on Spotify.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.


MONICA MARTIN: (Singing) All this leisure has got me tired. It's got me tired.

BLOCK: The band Phox jokes that their sound could be called lethargic pop.


MARTIN: (SINGING) I could come meet you, but I might wander. And you would wonder.

I've heard people say things like, yeah, it's like pop music for depressed people. And I'm like, oh my gosh. Or like - I've heard, like, nap pop.

MATT HOLMEN: That one's good.

MARTIN: And then I'm just like - I mean, I would describe myself as fairly lethargic. And maybe that comes through. Maybe people can sense that.

HOLMEN: We have a lot of blankets in the van.

MARTIN: Oh my gosh, napping.

HOLMEN: Yeah, it's cozy.

BLOCK: That's Matt Holmen and Monica Martin, two of the six members of the band. Phox, by the way, is spelled P-H-O-X. They're all friends who grew up in Baraboo, Wisconsin. And now they're out with their debut album. Monica writes all the lyrics, and it's her smoky, supple voice that pulls you in.


MARTIN: (Singing) Hold your tongue. We're having all the fun. Nowhere to run, so we can stay in bed.

BLOCK: As Matt Holmen told me, that voice pulled him in, too, as soon as he heard it.

HOLMEN: I just heard a quality of her voice that I didn't hear in anyone else's voice. Music, to me, is like a math problem. And for Monica it was clearly an intuition. And you'd hear this, like, one line of a song on the radio and then know the lyric and melody and be able to harmonize with it the second time the chorus came around. It takes longer for something to sink in, for me.

BLOCK: Monica, does that sound about right to you?

MARTIN: I think he's being generous. I mean, he was very much my first encourager, as far as, you know, as singing goes. You know, I was really very private, I guess.

BLOCK: Very private? You weren't - you weren't getting up on stage and belting it out?

MARTIN: No. I joined choir for one semester when I was a junior. And I was afraid to sing. I wouldn't sing in that class. So I'd just sing in private. And then I felt comfortable around Matt, becoming very close with him.


MARTIN: (Singing) Everything I do, I do in slow-motion. I don't know what to say. Everywhere I fall, don't know name or location. Baby I'll just find my way.

BLOCK: With the song "Slow Motion," how did that song start? What did it sound like when you first had the idea, Monica?

MARTIN: "Slow Motion" was one song that was just me singing a cappella, sort of, like - I thought about kids playing Hopscotch and sort of, you know, singing over it. (Singing) Everything I do, I do in - you know, whatever. I can't play an instrument.

HOLMEN: Double Dutch.

MARTIN: Double Dutch, is that what I said? I said Hopscotch.

HOLMEN: Hopscotch, too.

MARTIN: Well, Double Dutch is awesome.

BLOCK: Jump rope.

MARTIN: Anyway, jump rope.


MARTIN: (Singing) Everything I do, I do in slow motion.

BLOCK: So, Matt, when Monica brought you that melody and those lyrics, describe what happened after that because this song has so many layers that build into it. I mean, we hear whistles. There's a mandolin, a clarinet. I think an oboe comes in, banjo. Everything kind of stacks on top of itself.

HOLMEN: We ended up improvising a lot on it. So everyone just took a crack at it. And at the end of it, it was just a huge train wreck.

BLOCK: (Laughing) In the best way.

HOLMEN: Well, no.


HOLMEN: We considered cutting it. About two days before we finished the record, it was going to be cut 'cause we didn't like how it turned out. The arrangement was too cluttered. And I just - I kind of took a razor blade to it - cut out some drums, here, would minimize piano parts, took out my guitar part here and there, until it has more of a synergy. And a lot of it was reductive editing that made the arrangement makes sense and come together.


MARTIN: (Singing) Ooh-oh-oh. Ooh-ooh-ooh.

BLOCK: I'm talking with Monica Martin and Matt Holmen of the band Phox. Monica, I've heard you describe yourself as shy. And you've talked about your fears and your anxieties. And I do wonder how that meshes with being the lead singer in a band and going out on stage and performing. How do you overcome that? What do you do?

MARTIN: It's actually my biggest goal and struggle right now. So, honestly, I've kind of, like, fallen into a community in Madison. And what am I trying to say? I drink a lot. I don't know. I don't really know what to say. Like, the only reason that it became a problem, or that maybe it would, you know, end up being a problem for me is that being on tour for a long amount of time, you don't get a ton of sleep, even when you're being good about it. So, like, that mechanism - even though it's very mild for me - I'm not trying to insinuate that, like, I'm, you know, a booze hound by any means. But, like, I had to get rid of that. So sort of, like, having social anxiety and being on stage, like, it sounds really absurd. Like, when you're saying it, like, it sounds so absurd. You're just like, these people do not want to be listening to this. Like, it seems so extreme.

BLOCK: Oh, that's what's going through your head.

MARTIN: Yeah, so it's, like, my biggest goal right now to just, like, have my reasonable self just, like, constantly reminding me that it's OK to be there.

BLOCK: Well, Matt, how do you and the rest of the guys in the band help Monica get past those fears, those anxieties? I mean, if you're about to go out on stage, Matt, what do you do? What do you say?

HOLMEN: Typically we have a preshow ritual, which involves Jason giving a clear-eyes, full-hearts, can't-lose, you know, cliche, sports movie speech. Jason is our bass player and guitar player. He was a youth soccer coach before he joined the band.

BLOCK: Does it help?

HOLMEN: I think it helps because he's the guy who assumes everything is going wrong all the time. And then to hear him, like, the minute before we go on stage just flip 180 degrees and be the positive, shining energy in room is like, oh, man. That's actually really nice. He's doing it for us to know. You know, I appreciate that a lot.

BLOCK: Monica, does it help you to hear him do that?

MARTIN: I think, yes. I've got to give myself little, you know, Jason speeches, myself - just be like, Monica, you can do this. It's awesome. Like, Jack yourself up, I guess.

HOLMEN: Yeah, got to embrace it, right?


HOLMEN: But on the other hand, you know, I dragged you into this. And honestly, I feel like we could all have more open communication with each other, no doubt about it. We could all be more supportive of each other. My goal is to be a musician. It always has been. But more importantly, I want to have friends. I don't want to end up without friends and with the job.

MARTIN: Right.

HOLMEN: That's not a goal of mine at all. So...


MARTIN: (Singing) Weeding a million nightmares and I chanced one dream. It was in mint condition...

BLOCK: Monica and Matt, thanks so much for talking to us.

MARTIN: Thank you so much.

HOLMEN: Thanks, Melissa.

MARTIN: Thank you, I really appreciate it.

BLOCK: Monica Martin and Matt Holmen of the band, Phox. That's also the title of their debut album. All six band members have put together a playlist of their favorite songs. You'll find it on Spotify. Search for @npratc.


MARTIN: (Singing) Of lost actuality, or seeing what's real, or dodging the problematic way you feel...

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.