Rain Phoenix on the spirit of giving: collaboration over competition
The genuinely warm and down-to-earth Rain Phoenix is in person much like her absorbing music would suggest – soulful, individual and captivating. The singer and songwriter behind papercranes, an LA-based “project” with an ever-evolving roster of collaborators including her sisters Summer and Liberty, grew up in an unorthodox and thoroughly creative family, learning the ropes performing “uplifting songs” on street-corners to make ends meet. Inspired by these humble beginnings, Phoenix, who has just released her second full-length papercranes album, ‘Let’s make babies in the woods’, has continued to not only compose ‘uplifting’ songs, but to concretely “give back” through high-profile charitable projects including the famed 30-member-plus political cabaret act, Citizens Band.
As a reaction against the dismal outcome of the 2004 US Presidential election, filmmaker and stylist Sarah Sophie Flicker and make-up artist Jorjee Douglas banded together, along with supermodel Karen Elson, Rain Phoenix and a 30-odd motley troupe of actors, dancers, contortionists, musicians, poets, political activists and trapeze artists to form what has gone on to become a celebrated, and integral, part of New York City nightlife for the past six years. Drawing on early 20th Century European musical theatre, Citizens Band uniquely combines music, drama and dance with social commentary, politics and humour, with all proceeds going to a good cause – their most recent show benefitting The Blue Key Campaign, aiding refugees. Citizens Band also, rather impressively, happens to be represented by the iconic gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, of Deitch Projects.
Recently, Phoenix co-founded Gift Horse Project (GHP), a non-profit creative collective that organises concerts and exhibitions to raise awareness and funds for artist-driven charities. Phoenix’s brother, Joaquin, an avid supporter of her music, is on the board of directors of GHP, which has so far produced seven shows throughout Paris, LA, and Marfa, Texas, raising funds and awareness for BRAND AID Haiti, Silverlake Conservatory of Music (founded by Phoenix’s long-time friend, Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers), LAND and Art of Elysium's ‘Elysium Sessions’. Each show has a rotating roster of musicians, so no two are the same – and adding to this creative mélange, GHP will soon involve visual art, with exhibitions and performances planned for later this year.
Phoenix’s inherent altruism seems only natural, given the famously good-natured bunch of artistic non-conformists she grew up amidst. Helmed by her mother, Heart Phoenix, president of The Peace Alliance which lobby for a US government Department of Peace, Phoenix’s siblings are all involved in charity and the arts: Joaquin an acclaimed and multifaceted actor, sister Liberty produces environmentally friendly non-toxic building supplies as well as being a vegan chef, Summer an Actor and Designer for New York label, Some Odd Rubies, specialising in reworked vintage designs – and of course, the enigmatic late River Phoenix, a vegan and staunch environmentalist (back when it really meant something), who through his sincerity, vulnerability and incredible talent won the world over. In fact, he still has our hearts to this day.
As poetic as her name, the lovely Rain Phoenix, while in New York performing with the Citizen’s Band, considers the importance of sharing and collaboration with Indigo Clarke.
BON: You seem to have always been involved in, and surrounded by, music – what is your earliest memory of music or performance?
Rain Phoenix: Singing at home with my family. When I was three years old I opened my mouth and sang and my parents were like, “oh my gosh you have an amazing voice”. From that day on I would sing all the time with my family, in the early days we would sing on the street sometimes just to make ends meet, I learned a lot about performance. Sometimes I was singing for crowds of people and at other times just friends and family.
BON: Your siblings are all really creative too – what do they all do?
Phoenix: Joaquin is an actor, my sister Liberty owns her own business selling environmentally friendly, non toxic building supplies for homes and businesses and is also an incredible Vegan Chef (she's begun work on her first cookbook), and my sister Summer is an Actor and Designer. I feel like I was really lucky in that singing just came really naturally to me. It wasn’t so much a thought as much as a knowledge throughout my life that I could sing, and I knew this is what I wanted to do because I never felt better than when I was on stage. Those magical on-stage moments don’t happen all the time but when they do, you grow addicted to finding that moment again – it might be in another week, month or even year, but that connection you get with the audience when you’re doing what you love and you’re happier than you’ve ever been, it’s the best high ever. To me its always been in my blood and always will be. Even if its singing by piano when I’m 80, I will always sing, it is part of my joy and my bliss.
BON: You must have learnt a lot from those early performances with your family…
Phoenix: Yes, I learned that the audience is an intrinsic part of performance and that you need both – it’s a consensual collaborative thing. I was very shy when I was young, and at a certain point, perhaps inspired by Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’ or Madonna, I realized that moving around and engaging with the crowd made the experience more fun, less frightening, and more elevated for both. The moment I started dancing when I performed I thought, “wow, this is a lot more fun...!”
BON: Were the songs you played original?
Phoenix: Yeah mostly my dad and my older brother would write them.
BON: So you wouldn’t perform covers like most beginners?
Phoenix: No we would never perform any covers, they were always original and uplifting songs about closeness of family or the knowledge that if you’re poor and not sure where you’re next paycheck is coming from, the joy of community is the most important thing. Pretty basic lyrics but always uplifting.
BON: You’ve also done some acting – was that something you considered pursuing?
Phoenix: Acting I never focused on really seriously because I was so into music, but I would love to do more of it. The role that I’m probably best known for was with Uma Thurman in ‘Even Cowgirls get the Blues’, I also did a movie called ‘Stranger Inside’ and the modern Othello called ‘O’ with Julia Stiles. I did some TV when I was young, and I did a short film just last summer that I’m really proud of called ‘3,650 Days’, shot in Tennessee about a woman who went to jail for ten years for killing her would-be rapist. But I’ve mostly been concentrating on music…
BON: What instruments would you play growing up, and now?
Phoenix: I played a little guitar, and now especially on this new record my guitarist, Kirk Hellie, insisted I take on some of the rhythm sections so I’ve been learning my songs on guitar, and I’ve been learning covers I didn’t know I’d ever be able to play.
BON: Which songs have you been covering?
Phoenix: My favourite recently has been ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ by the Velvet Underground…
BON: The Velvet Underground are great – actually, I can see you doing Nico’s version of ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’…
Phoenix: That’s funny, we've performed that song with The Citizen’s Band! It’s a really beautiful song. Another current favourite is ‘Orphan Girl’ by Gillian Welsh, because its really sad and affecting, and easy to play on guitar. I also love Neil Young…
BON: Neil Young is wonderful. Do you think that doing covers now and taking note of other artist’s lyrics and songwriting, is adding another layer to your own compositions?
Phoenix: I think it’s definitely opened me up – I used to refuse to do covers for some reason, I’d think, “Well that’s a great song, but it’s someone else’s.” Maybe because as a family we never performed covers, so to me it seemed kind of like the easy path, but actually learning to play other people’s songs has been really inspiring. Some of the most amazing songs are just three chords, and there’s something beautiful about the simplicity of that. It’s helped me with my own songwriting to realize I don’t have to have five very complicated parts to make a great song, it’s really about how you feel and how you connect with a listener that matters.
BON: What is your recently-released second album, ‘Let's Make Babies in the Woods’, like?
Phoenix: ‘Let's Make Babies in the Woods’ took a while to record because my band at the time was from Florida and we recorded it in LA where I’m based, and we all had different schedules and commitments. There wasn’t time for anyone to over-think their parts in the songs – it gives the album a raw, organic feel, which I like. I wanted this album to be more experimental than my previous record 'Vidalia' which was delicate and clean. A lot of the writing for this one was 'on the spot' for the musicians and myself. We often did only one take tracking, sometimes sacrificing performance for 'vibe'. I wanted to push myself out of my usual comfort zone. We wrote the record as we were recording it. It's really only now that we've gotten to play the songs live as a band. Which has been such cool way to continue working the songs...
BON: I loved how you described papercranes as an “ever-evolving collaborative project”. How do you go about selecting people to perform and record with?
Phoenix: Socially and environmentally… It’s about the people I’m around or have heard perform, or people I meet. I sometimes play with friends and family like my sisters Summer and Liberty Phoenix. Some musicians that I recorded with on the first album are on this one again, like the drummer, and through him I met some other really gifted people. Sometimes I’ll see a band perform and if I’ve liked their vibe after the show I’ll ask them if they’d like to do something together.
BON: That’s such an organic way to go about creating your own ‘band’. Have you been performing live?
Phoenix: I love performing live! Something wonderful happens between the band and the audience energetically that is indescribable. I’ve been performing songs from the new album quite a lot in LA and the audience response has been great. It’s been so nice actually to see my audience grow, to be really building my audience. I always recorded my music in LA but would perform out in New York, so I didn’t really have an audience in LA until recently.
BON: So nice to have loyal fans that spread the word…
Phoenix: Yeah it has been, and it feels really authentic this way.
BON: I saw that your brother Joaquin was at one of your performances recently – do many of your family members attend your shows?
Phoenix: Yes Joaquin comes to a lot of my shows, he’s a big supporter and will always comes to as many as he can if he’s in town. My mother too, and sisters, well all my family are very supportive. My mom was out in LA recently and came to a show I did in a small club, and when it was getting late I said to her, “Mom it’s almost midnight,” and she said, “I don’t care!” She was so excited to be there. She’s very earthy, has always been very environmentally conscious, and she loves what I do and always wants to see me play, it’s really sweet.
BON: Do you think that growing up in such a socially conscious and giving family, with non-materialistic values, has inspired you to give back to others, and be involved in numerous charitable organisations?
Phoenix: Maybe in a way it has always been inherent in me, that desire to give, I think it's in all of us. In the last few years I’ve grown attracted to giving back to the creative community in a really tangible way. Gift Horse Project, which I co-founded with photographer/artist/designer AJ. Mason, and my brother Joaquin is on the board of directors, was initially going to be a website – or home – that would allow artists to collaborate and share ideas. We wanted a platform that would offer a move away from the “me” generation in the arts, to allow established musicians and visual artists to connect with, help, or collaborate with younger, lesser-known artists. A well-known artist simply saying, “I love this artist’s work,” could instantly grow their audience. There are so many talented people out there that have yet to be discovered. When a famous musician or actor tips their hat in the direction of someone yet to be known, it can make all the difference. That fledgling concept soon became what is now Gift Horse Project. A non-profit rotating artist collective that puts on concerts and gallery shows to raise awareness and funds for artist-driven charities. The band concept for GHP is to rotate songwriters and all work together on each others songs. The rotating aspect allows for a wide variety of talent to be showcased. Joining us on performances have been Joe Sumner, Chris Stills, Ane Diaz, Angela McCluskey, Luke Rathborn, Royston Langdon, Emily Kokal (Warpaint), Cameron McGill, Antony Langdon and many more. I really enjoy working with fellow musicians and songwriters and knowing our efforts are benefiting artists in need. After covering our basic production costs, we give all money raised to whatever charity we've chosen (or has chosen us to perform on their behalf) for that show. So far we've given funds to, and/or raised awareness for BRAND AID Haiti, Silverlake Conservatory of Music, LAND (Los Angeles nomadic division) and Art of Elysium's ‘Elysium Sessions’. Flea has been a good friend of mine for some time, and when GHP played in support of his music school, Silverlake Conservatory of Music, he was our special musical guest. Which is another cool example of artists helping artists.
BON: I met Flea and Anthony Kiedis when I was a little punk teenager in Sydney, they were really cool…
Phoenix: Oh yeah? Wow. Flea’s the nicest guy. When was that, do you remember?
BON: I think it was ’95?
Phoenix: I was on that tour! I used to sing back-up for them. We went to Australia as part of the world tour. It was really fun. RHCP are a great group of guys.
BON: So you were just in your early twenties when you took part in the world tour with them?
Phoenix: Yeah I was only 20 or 21, it was amazing – it built my confidence a lot. That changed me and matured me as a singer because I had been hired by them and traveled the world with them for almost two years. It was great fun and I got paid to do it, so I learned to be a professional singer – I got the confidence that I could really do this as a career.
BON: How many Gift Horse Project performances have their been?
Phoenix: We’ve played seven shows, and we’ve played all over. We played in Paris, LA, and also in Marfa, Texas. For each show we rotate artists and charities, so no two shows are the same. Gift Horse Project is not only musically based, we have plans to introduce art exhibitions and art performance pieces into the 2011 roster. Something that’s worked really well with the music performances though, is the way that musicians who've previously never worked together have had a chance to collaborate on something really positive. My one rule is ‘never leave the stage – everyone participates’. So if your song is finished, then pick up an instrument and add to the next person’s song – everyone helps everyone else sound amazing, and the singer is always changing so the show is always moving. It’s a pretty magical bonding session. All the artists getting showcased while coming together to give back to something important – it’s not just about themselves. I always believe that if something is meant to be, then it comes easily – and that’s what it feels like with Gift Horse Project, its come together really seamlessly.
BON: Can you elaborate on what you mean by the "me" generation and your urge to challenge that way of thinking?
Phoenix: It may mean a different thing for different people, but I guess what I mean by the "me" generation in the arts is... Well, you know how there's a lot of talk about transparency for corporations and companies? People want to know who their aligning with and to what end, well I think as an artist now what I would like to be a part of, to see in our community, is also transparency. I'll use myself as an example. I'm a singer and because I write the lyrics and it's "my" band then it would stand to reason that I'm the main focus. When in fact, I wouldn't have my songs realized, the melodies spoken, without the great musicians that play with me, I wouldn't feel comfortable onstage without the clothes my sister’s label Some Odd Rubies makes for me, I wouldn't have lyrics to write without the people and experiences that have shaped my words. In short it's not about me. My life as an artist includes a wide array of other talented artists and collaborators. It's my hope that we may be moving towards this artistic convergence and mutual appreciation for the ways we all affect each other. And not be afraid to say it, give credit, elevate and appreciate each others work and efforts. I will say Gift Horse Project has allowed us to explore this idea and expand it.
BON: Do you feel that within the creative field people are more inclined to share in recent years – to collaborate rather than compete?
Phoenix: I do. I think for our generation it’s in our collective unconscious o collaborate and share. I honestly don't know why I think that, but I truly believe it. Maybe it has something to do with the internet. I like to think of the internet as our modern day campfire. We all sit in front of our glowing computer screens sharing stories, photos, work and experiences. The challenge is to manifest this 'campfire' idea in what we do collectively in the world.
BON: Can you tell me about your involvement with the amazing Citizen’s Band with filmmaker Sarah Sophie Flicker and model Karen Elson?
Phoenix: It’s been six or seven years since Citizen’s Band was started. I’ve been involved since the beginning, our first show was in a warehouse in Brooklyn. In the beginning it wasn’t a completely realized idea but still had all the elements that is the Citizens Band: political cabaret and topical commentary. It gets an important message across through musical entertainment, song and dance rather than a terrifying shove-it-down-people’s-throats kind of way. We’ve covered healthcare reform issues, the environment and gasoline crisis, displaced people… Citizens Band is a charitable enterprise because we are working off the topics of now and singing the questions we all have about the government, or environment or international wars and disputes, anything that we feel is kind of messed up right now. Our most recent show in New York benefited The Blue Key Campaign, an important campaign set up to assist refugees.
BON: There are over 30 very-diverse members of Citizens Band right?
Phoenix: Yes so many people. Sarah Sophie Flicker is our tireless leader. Sarah and Jorjee Douglas came up with the original idea and brought their friends and other performers together, including myself and Karen Elson, and that was the beginning. It was very organic and effortless, one of those things that was just meant to be. And now The Citizens Band is such a wild production with amazing hair and costumes and sets and make-up. It’s evolved so perfectly. It’s exciting because it’s grown in popularity every year, which is definitely a good sign. The more that something grows, the more you can give back, and when you’re doing something charitable you want to expose as many people as possible to what you’re doing.
BON: How does the setlist for Citizens Band work? Does each artist perform their own songs?
Phoenix: We either write our own or Sarah [Sophie Flicker] may pick an old 30s song to cover – like the one we talked about earlier that Nico also covered, ‘Wrap your troubles in dreams’. In the last show I played a Russian immigrant, so I co-wrote a song with Mark McAdam (who is in the CitizensBand) specifically for that character. My grandfather was of Russian descent, so I wrote the character based on his mother.
BON: Sounds like so much fun! Does being in character allow you to perform differently on stage do you think?
Phoenix: It's great to perform in character, it definitely allows me to challenge myself and be braver. When you’re just being yourself it can be a little unsettling, because you can feel quite vulnerable. I don’t have any affectations when I’m performing in papercranes, whether I’m shy or angry or however I’m feeling, I can’t fake it, whatever I’m feeling inside is going to come out. But I love acting, and The CitizensBand is a chance to be someone else while still not faking it, I’m being real in someone else’s skin. That’s a whole different experience for me, I get to do things I would never usually do like tap dance!
BON: You’ve collaborated with other musicians from way back – do you have a stand-out memory of singing or performing?
Phoenix: I’ve been so fortunate with the opportunities I’ve had to sing. One that comes to mind though, is when Michael Stipe asked me to perform the female vocal on a duet he was doing for the 'Bring 'Em Home' concert event in NY. It was a benefit concert for the Iraq War Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace. There were amazing musicians playing, and the song I sang was really moving, the collaborative experience was really memorable and something I loved. Another was when we opened for REM a couple years back at SXSW. That show was crazy!
BON: What are the papercranes songs you write generally about?
Phoenix: This record is pretty dark, I noticed that afterwards. I’d gone through a divorce before writing and recording it so that makes sense. As divorces go, it was very pleasant and we’re still very close friends, but we’d been together for 13 years and when you’ve shared so many years with someone it’s difficult to let go. When you’ve lived with someone for that many years, you experience an intense loss - and a lot of my record was about that. It wasn’t about divorce or pain, it was really written in the spirit of letting go. Being sad, being angry, being honest and being me. Finding myself, letting go of being a couple and accepting being on my own. It was very cathartic, I was opening up who I was and just letting go – that’s the only way I can put it.
BON: How would you describe your music?
Phoenix: Ah I’ve always hated that question, I can never think how to describe it…
BON: (Laughs) It should be me describing it right? I know I’m being lazy asking you to do all the work…
Phoenix: Yes exactly you should!
BON: I can’t it’s a Q&A!
Phoenix: Oh no! Well, I love that this record has two drummers playing two very different styles on each song, so there’s a lot going on. I’d pretty much just say what I create is rock, but that’s not a fair description! I’ll just say I’d prefer to leave it up to the listener to decide for themselves what my music is like, and what my lyrics mean. I love the idea that a song I may think is dark might be interpreted by someone else as exultant and vice versa. Perception is everything. I love that it's possible to have completely different interpretations of the same song.
BON: What is the area you’re living in LA like?
Phoenix: I live in the Laurel Canyon area, which has it's own inspiring folkloric history in terms of the many musicians and artists who have lived there. I live in an old 1930s guest-house with amazing views, and there is a lot of nature around – especially compared to New York. I find, lyrically, that love and nature come into my songs all the time – it’s really those two themes. I’ve been writing songs for the next record and finding inspiration at the moment in prose and poetry books.
BON: Have you read ‘The Prophet’? That’s really all about the spirit of giving…
Phoenix: ‘The Prophet’ is one of my favourites – my parents inscribed a copy for me one Christmas when I was a teenager, it’s so beautiful. Thank you for reminding me, I feel like I need to read it again. It reminds you of what is most important, but sometimes forgotten in our culture, the simple codes we should live by to evolve and move away from our history as humans of war-mongering, of competition and petty jealousies. That’s what the creation of Gift Horse was all about – for artists to share with one another rather than compete or feed jealousy. Politically I think one of the most important things for us to move away from is our urge to dominate. Our urge for violence. My mom is president of The Peace Alliance. They help lobby toward a Department of Peace for our government just as there is a Department of Defense. I think that's so important. You have to balance the dark with the light. I think it would make our country more sane. Less extreme.
BON: What are you most looking forward to for 2011?
Phoenix: Besides continuing to give in a charitable context, I hope that all the seeds I planted in 2010 will begin to grow and flower. I look forward to it being another step up in every way – collaboratively, spiritually, artistically. My ultimate goal in life is to be a better person all the time, to give and enrich the lives of those that enrich mine, to evolve and grow. We’re at an amazing point in our culture where we could all band together and evolve, our children could grow up in a different world if we worked for that. It’s like we were saying earlier – collaboration not competition.
BON: What are your interested in besides music?
Phoenix: I also love photography. I have a definite hobby in taking photographs.
BON: Favourite film?
Phoenix: Woody Allen’s ‘Love and Death’.
BON: Favourite book:
Phoenix: Wow. You know I want to say ‘The Prophet’.
BON: Favourite song:
Phoenix: ‘Thirteen’ by Big Star.
BON: Favourite food?
Phoenix: Thai food – the Tom Yum soup I’ve been eating now!
BON: Favourite city?
Phoenix: New York! Although Paris is pretty awesome.
Phoenix: Doggy. My brother has rescue dogs and I see them often, I’m obsessed with them, they’re so sweet.
BON: Favourite piece of clothing?
Phoenix: The floral shirt I’m wearing by ‘Some Odd Rubies”, I love it! My sister Summer is a designer and has this boutique on Ludlow Street in The Lower East Side, New York – the shop’s name is a fusion of my sister Summer and her co-designer/partner Ruby Canner. The shop is so sweet, it’s like a boudoir, and they’ve just created their own line of clothes, in addition to their one-of a kind reworked vintage. They've been so gracious in custom making clothes for my live performances with papercranes.