phem is the queer indie darling mentored by flying lotus
With her debut EP 'Can’t Kill Me' released on Valentine's Day, Phem leads us on a personal journey into the many parts of sexual fluidity.
Photography Michael Tyrone Delaney
“I think that I’m an alien, I don’t know who I am, some days I love my women some days I say ‘Hey what’s up man,’” Phem sings on “Blinders” the opening track of her debut EP Can’t Kill Me (produced by Roget Chahayed and Taydex) , a liquid smooth blend of R&B, beat music, hip-hop, jazz, and outsider pop. Identifying with no sexuality and dating both men and women, Phem (Liv Marsico) explores her sexual fluidity, delving into a personal space between guilt and relief, numbness and ache, guardedness and transparency. An L.A native, Marsico grew up playing the drums and listening to Flying Lotus who became a friend and mentor. After drumming professionally for years, she switched to songwriting and has worked with artists such as G-Eazy and Gnash. Previously recording under a mysterious guise with the band Liphemra, Marsico now takes the spotlight and reveals herself to us.
“Everyone talks about being queer, gay — but do we really break down that feeling of not knowing? Everyone needs a definite answer,” says Marsico. “It’s like, ‘what do you mean you’re not gay? What do you mean you’re not straight?’” She spent time in a small studio in L.A.’s Crenshaw District, isolated while exploring the fluidity of her sexuality and creativity, leading to the conception of the three tracks on Can’t Kill Me.
The opening track “Blinders” sways between sexy slink and rhythmic bounce before sliding into the smooth pulse of “Don’t Giv Up on me Yet.” Marsico takes us to unexpected places on her EP, and it’s an intimate ride. “I don’t know where I’ve been but I know where I’m going, if you wanna come along, yeah I’m going, I’m going,” she sings, having tapped into a place of acceptance and personal truth, where there is no right or wrong way to love but a willingness to go wherever it may lead.
Your previous project felt a bit more shrouded in mystery while your solo endeavor with Phem is more direct. What led you to Phem?
I had the band, which was awesome and great but I got to a point where I felt that I had a lot to say and I really wasn’t able to with other people involved because I needed the project to reflect everyone’s truth. Now that I’m on my own, I’ve newly realized what I have to say and why it’s important. I’ve stopped becoming shy about it and feel like part of my journey is owning it in a public way. That’s my challenge and my fear that I had to get over. I was really afraid to play it for people and finally was like, “It’s a really good song and the producers are awesome. I’m so happy and proud that I have a song with them.” I felt like it was my duty for myself. In order to grow I had to just face my fears. I spent a lot of time really isolated and thinking about what kind of person I want to be, what kind of artist I want to be, and I don’t wanna be like a fraud.
Was there a specific moment leading to this shift in your life?
It was last winter — October through December, I was just really alone and had sort of a writer’s block. I was trying not to edit what I was saying. With “Blinders” for example, when I wrote that song it was really different for me — kind of scary and almost like an experiment. I wanted to see what would come out of my mouth, and that came out and I was so shy to play it for people because it was very different. I was like, “You know what, fuck it. I’m only going to be alive for whatever short amount of time.” There are so many artists that I’m sure have self-doubt and wonder if people are gonna like their shit. I just felt like it was the next step in maturity as an artist to own my truth and not be embarrassed by who I really am or try to conceal it.
The EP opens with the lines “I think that I’m an alien/ I don’t know who I am/ some days I love women/ some days I say ‘Hey, what’s up man.’” With that, can you reveal the story of this EP and what you want to convey?
It’s a lot about my sexuality of course. For a long time I was nervous about talking publicly about my sexuality even though everyone that’s known me has known that I’m a queer person. I came from a pretty conservatively Catholic family, but in a progressive way. I grew up meditating and going to Hindu temples and such but it wasn’t okay to talk about it freely all the time. It’s strange when the people closest to you might be weirded out or disappointed, in a way, at you being so open about sexuality, which can be a private matter whether you’re gay or straight. It’s kind of weird to broadcast who you have sex with or like to have sex with, it’s not like everyone’s going around being like, “I like guys, I like girls, I like both.” Maybe with a close friend you get to that point but it’s really been a huge part of figuring myself out.
You draw on your different musical interests like jazz and hip-hop, which I can hear throughout the EP.
I come from a really hardcore jazz background in drumming and did a lot of that growing up — jazz musicians are also a weird group of people who are very serious about one thing, and if you stray you’re the outcast. At a certain point, I was like, “I really like playing jazz drums but it’s not gonna be my whole life.” It’s very important as a foundation but I also love hip-hop and very dirty sounding music. But I think that jazz and hip-hop are essentially the same in many ways because they are both based in improv.
How did you feel going back and listening to the whole EP since it’s your solo project - was it freeing?
I fucking love it. I finally feel like I can breathe and say everything I feel I’ve needed to say for so long, and I know in my heart that it’s real and that means so much to me to be able to be as real as I can. People are accepting and encouraging of it. It’s awesome.
What keeps you motivated to continue in this direction?
It’s kind of like ripping off a band aid. It’s so scary but now that I’ve done it and it’s out there, there’s nothing I can really do to retract it and I’ve had so many encouraging emails and messages from people who are like, “Dude these songs speak to me and they’re helping me.” That’s such great encouragement, it’s out of my hands now. My duty is to be a voice – if that’s what I can do then I’m gonna do it.