Rain Phoenix in person is much like her music would suggest – absorbing, unusual and self-possessed. The singer and songwriter behind papercranes, an LA-based “project” with an ever-evolving roster of collaborators (including sisters Summer and Liberty), grew up, she says, learning the ropes performing “uplifting songs” on street-corners with her famously non-comformist family to make ends meet. Inspired by these humble beginnings, Phoenix has continued to perform and compose music – this week releasing her second full-length papercranes album, ‘Let’s make babies in the woods’.
Phoenix is also involved in numerous high-profile charitable projects including famed political cabaret act, Citizens Band, started by filmmaker and stylist Sarah Sophie Flicker and make-up artist Jorjee Douglas along with supermodel Karen Elson and a 30-odd motley troupe of actors, dancers, contortionists, musicians, poets, political activists and trapeze artists; and Gift Horse Project, a non-profit creative collective raising awareness and funds for artist-driven charities, which she has spear-headed (and for which Joaquin Phoenix is on the board of directors).
The very lovely Rain Phoenix, while celebrating the launch of her new album from her home in Laurel Canyon, shares her thoughts on collaboration, charity, family and creativity with W.com
You’ve described papercranes as an “ever-evolving collaborative project” – how do you go about selecting people to perform and record with?
Rain Phoenix: Socially and environmentally… It’s about the people I’m around or have heard perform, or people I meet. Papercranes is an ongoing writing/studio/live project with various musicians and friends taking part including Michael Perfitt, Flea, my sisters Summer and Liberty Phoenix, Michael Tubbs, Robb Buono, Myles Matheny, Andy Lord, Michael Amish, Dave Lebleu, Norm Block, Kirk Hellie... It has had many incarnations in terms of "the band"; each has been as important as the other because of the learning experience and what each person brings.
Tell us about papercranes second album, ‘Let's Make Babies in the Woods’…
Phoenix: ‘Let's Make Babies in the Woods’ has a raw, organic feel. 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. With this album, Let’s Make Babies in the Woods, I wanted it to be more experimental and raw 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 as well as me. We often did only one take tracking, sometimes sacrificing performance for “vibe.” I wanted to push myself out of my usual comfort zone. Choices that in the past would have seemed too gritty or naked, I embraced. 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... My favorite songs are “Synapses” and “Dust Season.”
It’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.
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.
You’re involved in a number of charitable organizations including Gift Horse Project, which you co-founded…
Phoenix: Gift Horse Project, which I co-founded with photographer/artist/designer AJ. Mason, is a non-profit rotating artist collective that puts on concerts and gallery shows to raise awareness and funds for artist-driven charities. The rotating aspect allows for a wide variety of talent to be showcased. Joining us on performances have been Joe Sumner, Chris Stills, Flea, 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. 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 a cool example of artists helping artists.
How many Gift Horse Project performances have their been?
Phoenix: We’ve played seven shows in Paris, LA, and also in Marfa, Texas, and 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. It’s a pretty magical bonding session. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
You also dabble in acting – was that something you seriously 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.
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 – she has a label and New York boutique, Some Odd Rubies. 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.
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.