I like to support upcoming and/or neglected fellow creatives, as we’ve all needed that leg-up or boost at some point. I’ve recently come across a very talented young musician/scholar down in Portsmouth, where I taught a couple of years ago. She’s Eilis Phillips, and she’s recently launched a new EP, Moon Heart. I’ve reviewed it and asked her a few questions below…
Moon Heart – a Review
If there is such a thing as Space-Folk then Eilis Phillips’ new EP ‘Moon Heart’ is it. Through its five slickly-produced songs, Phillips charts a moonshot of self-empowerment, loneliness, and a stardust-sprinkled wanderlust. Alternating between the defiant and melancholic, the collective effect is of a boldly pioneering but vulnerable spacewalk. Phillips songs are like messages from an astronaut stuck in orbit, strumming in her tin can. In the jaunty opener, ‘Boneshaker’, she breaks free of the conventional shackles of relational expectations and gender roles with lines like ‘I say nebulas when you say nurseries…’ and wordplay that transforms ‘captive’ into ‘captain’. She asserts in the chorus, ‘I’m not your barefoot woman…’ and we’re left with a sense of her striking out into her own uncharted space. In ‘Moon Hearted Bird’, the mood becomes wistful as she reflects on ‘…a dream you once had…’ while evoking a ‘whippoorwill cry’ and a ‘reckoning sigh’ and it would be easy to assume she is singing about herself. In ‘Malcolm’ things seem to take a personal turn, anchored by the down-to-earth specificity of the name, and mentions of ‘no jobs for PhDs’, yet the dreaming persists in the face of reality, with ‘tall ships passing by’ and ‘dreams of being an astronaut’. A sense of lost opportunity pervades this, and the ethereal vocals create a sense of evanescence. In ‘Bellerophon’ the ambience reaches its most spaciously sublime, with a song referencing childhood, backlit with glimmering sunshine vibes. This paean to the famous Greek hero who killed the Chimera is, not surprisingly, intershot with Hellenic references – Daedalus, Icarus, and of course the eponymous monster slayer himself. And in the final song, ‘Maru’, the armour comes off and Phillips offers the most personal message in a bottle, as she sings of inchoate wishes of simple pleasures and intimacy. Nevertheless she asserts she is ‘not afraid of being alone’, while evoking a lonesome mood. Yet, as with all her songs, there is a haunting melody and catchy refrain that lifts the register to escape velocity. This sonic space capsule beams back some quite beautiful messages from the existential abyss, and bodes well for future transmissions from the depths of Eilis Phillips’ distinctive creative solar system.
Interview with Eilis Phillips
by Kevan Manwaring
So, first of all, could you say a little about yourself? What’s your background and how did you get to this point in time and space?
I’ve spent most of my working life as a gigging bass player & singer-songwriter playing round Northern Ireland, England, and some other more far flung parts of the world when the opportunity allowed. I’m from Hong Kong but I grew up in Belfast. In 2012 I enrolled at the University of Portsmouth on an International Relations and French undergraduate degree, but that has somehow morphed into a History PhD, which, all being well I should submit next year.
You seem to be actively engaged with things in Portsmouth – DarkFest, etc. Can you tell us about the scene there?
Ah it’s great! Portsmouth is fairly small and contained, but that hasn’t stopped a really vibrant & open creative culture from developing. Darkfest had its third incarnation this year, and every year it seems to bring out new people and events. It’s a month-long celebration of the macabre, the noir, the weird, the supernatural….We embrace all kinds of styles: immersive theatre, storytelling, gigs, art workshops, academic talks, film screenings and kids events. My wonderful PhD supervisor, Dr Karl Bell, created the festival with the help of some really talented local artists, writers, and promoters; it’s thanks to him that we have this vibrant festival that brings out the best in our town’s culture. I’m very lucky to be able to work with him, and the rest of the Supernatural Cities team – our research group based at Portsmouth Uni. We are always cooking up new ideas for how we can link our research to what’s already going on in the local arts scene.
It looks like you’re into some fascinating stuff. Can you tell me about your research?
Thanks, I’m studying nineteenth-century cultural history. Much of what I research is about folklore formation and people’s religious, supernatural or what were deemed ‘superstitious’ beliefs or stereotypes. In particular, I research stories about different kinds of monsters. I’m mostly interested in learning about why different members of the working-class were depicted as monstrous in the period’s press. I’ve done case studies on ghostly miners, demonic arsonists, goblin servants, and currently I’m looking at cannibal sailors. So never a dull moment…
I would love to hear about your creative outputs – your music. What inspires it? Does it intersect with your research in any way?
Yes, I think my research always creeps into my writing, but it’s not always an overt theme in the songs. My previous record, Fear No Faerie Voices, was very folklore-based, and the personal themes – what I was experiencing in my life – were hidden very much beneath the fairy tales. Fairy tales have always been allegories, that’s what they are for, largely. To convey complex life lessons using repeating, familiar motifs. Moon Heart is the other way around, the personal reflections are front and centre, and the folklore (and Sci Fi) references are just flourishes really.
You have a distinctive look in your videos and publicity photos – each seems to be a different character. Can you talk about them/your approach?
I guess the looks tend to be quite expressive and they are definitely their own characters. I feel more comfortable playing a role in photoshoots than I do trying to be me only ‘fancy’. There is so much pressure on women to look a certain way – I try to avoid and subvert that when I can. For the Moon Heart shoot I wanted minimal make-up, and an androgynous look. Album artwork should be iconic, to me. It should give the listener a feel for what inspired the music. I have to give full credit to Kris Telford at Silent Canvas Media for most of my artwork throughout the years. He makes incredible art and can turn even the most prosaic scenario into something really eye-catching.
Who are your inspirations, creatively, critically, and in life, generally?
Astronauts. Teachers. Brave, kind, compassionate people. Musically, I am going through a real Frank Sinatra phase at the minute. To my mind, he’s the greatest singer of our age. The amount of feel and pathos he could inject into even the most throwaway line, is just incredible. My main influences growing up were Simon and Garfunkel, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan…just great songwriters.
What’s on the horizon for you? Any exciting plans or projects?
Quite a few exciting collaborations on the agenda for 2019. I’m very lucky to be co-organising our fourth Supernatural Cities conference – Magical Cities – which will be hosted at Portsmouth Uni in June next year. Our CFP is now live and we are accepting submissions until 31st January. I’m also heading back to Northern Ireland in January to gig with Jackie Rainey & the Sweet Beats – always fun – and to hopefully will be recording a new music video and sneaking in a photoshoot. So that’s exciting. Other than that, people can keep up to date with my events and gigs at my website eilislaphillips.wordpress.com.
If you could sum up your ethos, your approach, or ‘mission statement’ what would it be? What key message are you trying to get across?
An interesting question – I suppose my mission statement would be to embrace curiosity, and live tenaciously. Strive for the best in yourself, always. See it in other people and encourage them not to give up on their hopes and dreams.
Any final advice to those starting out creatively &/or academically?
Focus on what makes you, personally, want to write and create or research. Don’t do it for other people, do it for yourself. Make yourself proud.
Oh, and I suppose I should say something practical so…musicians, you never know when you’re going to need gaffer tape so always keep some handy – don’t be afraid to spend money on spare equipment. A bag of spare leads and a mic are a life saver.
Thanks for the interesting questions, Kevan!
Find out more about Eilis, her research and her music, here: