(Photo by Alexander Uhl)
The Costa Rican composer, singer, and violinist Phoebe Violet opens up about her experiences as a freelancer and her new repertoire Entre cielo y tierra (Between Heaven and Earth). In her work, she explores the boundaries between illusion and reality, creating a fascinating sound aesthetic she calls Latin Chamber Pop, a mélange between Latin American, classical, and pop music.
- Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Phoebe Violet. I was born and raised in Costa Rica to a Costa Rican mother and British father. My main focus is music – I am a singer, violinist and composer. I currently play my own compositions/songs with a string quartet, am working on a musical, directing a dance performance and creating a series of performative art.
- What was your path to the arts? Was music easily accessible to you?
My family has an artistic background but only hobby-wise. Someone would always sit at the piano and perform something in family gatherings. On our walls we had oil paintings painted by my great grandmother, we would drink out of glasses and cups made by my grandmother and great grandfather. Being artistic was seen as something one would do naturally, so we were brought up to see the arts as something that is part of us. My mother and her siblings all learned to play the violin when they were young, so we did the same. My elder sister began when she was 5, and as impatient as I was (and still am), I felt I had to do the exact same thing immediately. Children under 4 weren’t allowed to take lessons, but I was so persistent that the director of the Music Conservatory in Costa Rica made an exception. I started with violin lessons when I was 3. I was soon singing in the choir, taking piano lessons and playing in the Infants Orchestra, it all just came naturally at a very early age. The rest of my time was spent dancing Ballet and painting. I remember being very busy, but truly loving it all.
- Why do you play your instrument? What does being a musician mean to you?
I don’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t play the violin, it’s a part of who I am. I love the challenge and discipline that writing and making music requires, the intensity and abstraction that sound means to the body and the mind. But my main drive as a musician is performing and especially being on stage. Being on stage feels like falling in love; you wish to show the best of yourself, your body is in full awareness and you take with you what you are till now and deliver it to somebody else. There are so many variables that come into play when one is on stage that allow the chemistry between you and the music to take place or not and I am sort of addicted to this feeling of “conquest”. About 5 minutes before I go on stage, I tend to have the feeling of absolute emptiness, can’t even remember what I am about to play and then it just suddenly happens and I am taken by this moment where nothing else exists. I feel dance, acting and any sort of performative art that can be staged share this “extreme-present-tense” experience, but music brings me to an emotional state that no other art can reach.
(Photo by Juraj Salak)
- What are some of your strengths and weaknesses?
I am very impatient and at the same time a perfectionist. It sort of doesn’t make sense, because my perfectionism wants me to do things extremely well, but my impatience doesn’t want to understand that perfectionism needs time. So I tend to throw myself out there before something is really ready to be presented. The good side of my impatience is that it makes me fearless, I don’t care in the moment and just go for it with total enthusiasm because liberating impatience gives me one hell of an adrenaline rush. But the perfectionist in me tends to ruin the experience afterwards because it makes sure I become aware of how “imperfect” it was. I am overly critical of myself.
- What do you stand for?
I stand for the authentic, the emotional and the rational. I think the stage offers a position where you can speak out, I don’t see why one should go on stage if one has nothing to say. I feel our society tends to criticise and underestimate emotions, making it practically an insult to call someone who is a professional an “emotional person”. It undervalues the power of the senses, something vital to understand other people and become more empathic, more open. Once a person talks of “being emotional”, it is immediately categorized as something out of control, overdramatization. I think this is ridiculous. The rational in me makes sure to almost scientifically depict the emotion that should take place in a certain situation. And authenticity is something I miss in our society. It’s all about status, representation, confirmation and therefore imitation of what others think is supposed to be “good” or “cool” or “successful." With my actions, my voice, I want to inspire people to find their own paths without looking for this constant approval of the masses.
- What are your dreams, and how have these possibly changed along the way as you have pursued them?
I used to dream of fame when I was young. I grew up with extremely high expectations of whatever I did, so it made sense to me to aim for the highest kind of success that society presents and that was being famous. Now I feel that has changed. My dreams and goals are set more to please my own expectations, not social ones. Artistically I dream of working with different artistic directions, collaborating with other artists, creating bigger performances that are not only about the musicians. Financially, my goal is to pay my bills with projects of my own, or projects, where I am asked to collaborate with my own artistic ideas.
(Photo by Andrea Peller)
- What has it been like for you as a woman and a foreigner, studying and working in Austria?
It has been a long process. I didn’t study music so I used to be incredibly insecure when freelancing with ensembles filled with academic musicians. I guess in part that was another reason for me to start doing my own projects, because I felt that was the one thing I could do best. The foreigner part never bothered me because I feel as a foreigner even in Costa Rica. I have never felt that feeling of “roots” that people talk about, something that used to cause sadness in me. Nowadays I feel people, my friends, are my home, so the concept of “being a foreigner” is part of who I am. Being a woman is something I was more aware of when living in Costa Rica. Men seemed to be a threat there, which made me aware that I wasn’t one. Austria has been wonderful in that sense. The fight for equal rights is very present and active, something I deeply value. I love how the fundamental things work here, the extremely high life standards, the concept of solidarity that seems to be a priority for most people. I love how safe it is, how the arts are valued as something that is part of the culture of the country, even though some politicians try sometimes to underestimate it. Civilians get it. They go to concerts, to museums, they find abstraction necessary and are constantly searching for it. As a freelance musician that has her own thing going, I feel Austria as a mass tends to be afraid of innovation, of change, of something different. They love what they know and it’s very difficult to convince them of trying out something new. I find this exhausting at times.
- What is most rewarding to you about being a freelancer?
I used to play gigs in different formations, mostly classical or classical crossovers. I loved tours or unusual projects, random events where I suddenly was 10 meters away from Gaddafi or playing with Serj Tankian, lead singer of the metal band System of a Down (one of my favourite bands as a teenager, by the way). The “not-knowing” effect of being a freelancer never seemed to bother me back then. I think it would now that I have children. But now I have a completely new perspective of what freelancing means because I do all the work. I write the music, I manage the quartet, I book the concerts, I organize the musicians. So I am trying to offer people new music that they don’t know. I don’t write background music, I don’t play pieces that the public already knows where they can say “Oh, I’m going to this place to listen to Schubert’s Trout Quintet”. It’s all new information and it’s so much work it’s ridiculous. I have to do a lot of work before I can actually get to do the thing that I love most, that is performing my music. But once everything works out, everyone says “yes” and I actually get to go on stage, it’s my favourite feeling in the world.
- Tell us about your personal projects like ENTRE CIELO Y TIERRA. How do you conceive and execute things like this?
I write songs since I am 13. I remember learning to play guitar at that age and seeing that singing covers just didn’t work for me, I started writing my own songs. Composition has been a long road of trial-and-error, I am autodidactic. Entre cielo y tierra is autobiographical. I was going through a hard time and sort of exploded through music. I wrote the whole repertoire in 3 months. Of course, some extra editing happened later, the music matures and you want to change some things along the way. All my music used to be connected to experiences of my life. But I am starting to find interest in doing research about certain topics that interest me and then writing music based on what I read.
- Do you feel that most orchestral musicians are innovative enough? Do you think there’s enough encouragement in our field to “think outside the box”?
I like believing that a vocation, cultural or educational background is not what decides if one is innovative or not. I have met fantastic, creative orchestral musicians and very dull ones too. The concept of playing in an orchestra has the tendency to decrease the potential of musicians of expressing music through their personal impulse; the main aim is to play together, you play someone else's music in the way someone else tells you to, something that feels a bit too militant for me, also one of the reasons why I never aimed to be part of an orchestra. I think generally speaking our society does not offer anywhere the impulse to "think outside the box". It's something you decide to do on your own. They offer you the tools through academia, libraries, teachers; but it's pretty much up to you. I must say, though, that in my experience, people who play other genres of music and not only classical seem to be more flexible, more interested, and friendlier when they see you trying something new. I don't know why this is. I tend to think that composing and playing an instrument in the classical field is something that is very far away from each other. Most classical musicians play pieces written by world wide known composers. Musicians in genres like jazz and pop are always writing their own music and playing in the bands of their friends that also write their own songs. I feel this aspect makes a huge difference in the way how one approaches music.
- Any advice for young musicians trying to “make it” in this field? Especially now, during the changing landscape of the performing arts during the pandemic…
I haven’t “made it” myself so I don’t know what advice is good advice! But I can tell you what I am trying to do to “make it” at some point. I believe passion and determination does most of the work. I think the most important thing is to do it for yourself, not to try and compare it to anyone else’s process. If you can compare yourself to someone else, I think you’re doing something wrong; maybe I’m being too harsh when I say that it might be lacking your own identity. Everyone ticks differently, everyone experiences life differently ergo everyone should be able to sound differently. So the road is yours to discover, but discover it by staying critical and knowing that you can do better. I think the worse mistake one can do is to be 100% satisfied with what you are doing. I feel that being an artist is feeling that you never get to the point where you want to be. This feeling of inadequacy is what makes you strive for perfection, and striving for perfection is what makes you keep getting better. Of course, one should never forget to enjoy the learning process, even if it feels like the worse performance you have ever played. One learns and that is the real beauty and passion of it.