I interviewed Phemale for Impose Magazine. The original article can be found here: http://www.imposemagazine.com/features/phemale-michael-donahue
A link to the Phemale mix that I made can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/jane-chardiet/sets/jane-pains-phemale-mix-for
I first heard Phemale through a friend, during a long car ride. We listened to A Root Terror, a perfect album for speeding somewhere between North Carolina and New York, very late at night. I was immediately transfixed by Phemale’s peculiar pop music, unbound by genre or pretension. It turns out that this was a very serendipitous introduction to the project, as I may not have found out about it otherwise. Mixed media artist Michael Donahue, who has been playing under the moniker Phemale since 2008, is sort of a secret. And that’s not because he’s unknown, as he is widely loved in certain underground circles. And it’s not because his music’s not readily accessible, as anyone can download all eleven of his albums for free via the WFMU free music archive. I guess it may be because he just doesn’t really promote himself. (Until recently he’s only self released small batches of cassettes for his close friends.) During our interview, he stated that writing updates about his project in all capitals on Facebook was about the extent of his efforts to promote himself and admitted to being ‘bad at it’. I simply had to speak to Donahue after devouring every one of his albums one by one, finding it hard to listen to anything else for weeks on end. I was obsessed.
Michael Donahue met me at the New Haven train station and greeted me with a hug. We were strangers but this didn’t feel strange. The reputation that proceeded him, according to several accounts, is that of “the nicest guy ever.” He speaks much more softly than I imagined, and hides his smile behind chain-smoked Pall Malls. Even when he speaks of a musician’s worst nightmare – having two full length unreleased album demos stolen from him on tour – he remains positive and poised.
Donahue chooses to split his time between New Haven (where he works) and Providence, Rhode Island. While the commute is expensive and time consuming, he enjoys gathering inspiration from both places. He likes the dingy inner city vibe in New Haven, and loves his job as an art teacher. In Providence, he gains inspiration from the rich musical scene and close friends.
When we reach his home, he immediately introduces me to his new kitten and roommates before we settle in the back yard. Donahue speaks so openly that soon I find myself confiding in him and engrossed in a long conversation before we even begin to roll tape. I must remember what brought me there. I had a chance to talk to Donahue about “Wet Hood” and those who dwell there, his celebrity sister, and his new album City Silk, which is out this month on Red Scroll Records.
Due to some problems at the pressing plant, City Silk will not be available by its original July 4 street date, but you can stream and download our premiere of “Plastination” as well as download a mix of my personal favorite Phemale songs.
tell me a little bit about the beginning of phemale.
I had been doing really crappy folk music for years in college, bad “new weird America”. I got bored of it; playing coffee shops… And got bored of people so… When I was in college I had written a little screenplay with characters with masks and I decided to make a project around that. Each of the characters would have songs about stuff that they cared about and this [Phemale] came from that.
so when you dress up in different costumes when you perform live, are those songs written in different perspectives that relate to those characters and costumes?
Yeah. There is one character, named Raymond, and he is obsessed with aliens and his songs are all about reptilian conspiracy and stuff. And there is the Helper, which is an eight-foot tall lady and she knows everything so she is really affected by that in a negative way. She is a very troubled person.
fuck, i never picked up on that. i can’t wait to see you live now. how many characters do you have?
I have eight and I am working on a new one. A six-foot-tall four-legged creature on stilts. His thing is that he used to be a lot taller but he shrunk down. He doesn’t fit in with the normal-sized people or the tall people anymore.
do your characters tell parables based in reality or pure imagination?
It’s definitely a mixture of both. Half of the lyrical content is purely from fictional events that my characters go through, and half is derived from actual events that happen to me. It’s definitely a defense mechanism thing, too. It’s easier to write about things that affect me negatively under the guise that it’s all fictional. The stories my characters tell are usually about obsession, whether it’s obsession over a topic, or over a person or a feeling. There are even fictional characters within the lyrics that represent real people in my life. It’s all a way of balancing being honest and keeping everything secret.
do you have a favorite character, and if so, what is their story?
My favorite character is definitely Raymond Braybyr. I even have his face tattooed twice on my shoulder. He works at the worm counting factory where all day he counts worms and makes tallies of the numbers. He lives, as all my characters do, in a small town called “Wet Hood,” where all the freaks live. He lives in a dark apartment with a rat named Meat. Although this all sounds very grim, he’s actually a pretty happy person. He knows deep down things will get better and he will find his true love. He’s my favorite because we share a lot of the same interests like aliens and beautiful women. And we’re both introverts.
He also has a large deformed left hand that he is very sensitive about, which ties in with my dislike of my own small hands. He also looks like a mixture of Nosferatu and Batboy, which were two huge childhood heroes.
how many full-length records have you recorded, and how many have you released? have you released all the recordings that you have made?
I have eleven available for download [With most released as Female. His moniker had to be altered not be confused with a UK producer]. Then there are two tapes that are gone, because they were stolen from me in San Francisco. Before then, I had twenty albums of bad folk music that only my sister and a few close friends are allowed to listen to.
are you tight with your sister?
Yeah, totally. She lives out in Pasadena, [California]. She is an actress. Have you ever seen House of the Devil? That’s her. The main girl.
wow, really? damn, that is so cool. and she likes your crappy folk albums?
Yeah, but she likes the new stuff more. She has always supported me no matter what and I love her for it.
do you rapidly write songs and record them? or do you do things slowly and meticulously? i just can’t move past the fact that you have so much stuff out there and it’s available to everyone for free.
It causes problems in my life because I don’t go out and people only see me at shows, because I hide away. And play. I have been constantly recording since 2008. But that came from a fear. When 2000 happened, and I was one of those people who thought that the world was going to end. So since then, I have felt like I have to get as much shit as possible out before the world is going to end.
is there anything else that compels you to stay inside, besides trying to produce as much work as you can? i know you told me that you no longer drink or do drugs. do you feel that this alienates you from time to time, or do you think you were more alienated when you did drink?
I only felt alienated during the period directly after I stopped doing that stuff. I went from living a life that revolved around that shit, to one that had nothing to do with it. For a short while I had a very negative feeling around individuals who “partook,” but I was just being an idiot. Everyone has the right to do whatever they want, and just because that shit messed up my life, doesn’t mean that it messes up everyone else’s. As soon as I got over myself and started being around people who drank again I began to find comfort in being the sober one. I’m no longer compelled to stay inside because of feeling left out or feeling alienated.
I’m usually tucked away because I’m working, drawing, or hanging with my BFF, Kylie. She has been great for my confidence when I moved to Providence. She gets me out of my cave and into the real world where there’s people and sunlight. I realize now that any alienation I felt was self-inflicted. It helps immensely that I have a great circle of friends.
you have albums that are more electronic and dancey and the albums that are more guitar driven and a straight noise record… but a common thread seems to be horror soundtracks and the supernatural. can you talk a little bit about that? besides, you know, your sister being a horror movie actress.
Ever since I was younger, my sister and my friends would pass along horror movie suggestions or burn me disks of old horror movies that were not in rotation anymore. I really liked that because… if people are still watching them, it creates some redeeming value to them, even if it doesn’t reach the masses anymore. I love camp and kitschy stuff. It has a nice ethereal value to it, especially the sound quality. I immediately recognize when I am going to sample something because I can hear the exact sound quality that I am making anyway.
in addition to horror, it seems like there is a lot of “world” influence, although i cringe at the use of that word to describe a genre because it is so vague.
Yeah. I remember that someone introduced me to Ravi Shankar at a really young age. I like percussion-driven music. I have always found that more interesting than Western music, even at a young age. I went from only listening to that sort of stuff and being sort of pretentious about it. I got over that phase and realized that every culture affects another culture. Then I got into American music that was really percussion based. A lot of my influence comes from Bollywood. Even to this day they prefer a tape quality sound. They will make multi-million dollar movies and still use a blown out sound. They have a dedication to that.
what are some american artists that you like the most?
I like Crash Worship. I don’t know if they are doing stuff anymore. They had a hippie vibe I wasn’t so into, but they make this really throbbing, gritty sounding music. I am recently getting into cleaner sounding stuff. I recently heard ELG. I heard about it because they were released on the same label that put out the Sewn Leather LP. It is clean sounding. Container, too. Oh and I listen to [Aaron] Dilloway’s “Modern Jester” once a week.
speaking to the diversity of your music, your forthcoming album city silkstrikes me as a little bit more somber than a lot of your other records and ends with a piano ballad titled “deeply personal”. you told me that you had to re-record the album from memory because the original demos were stolen from you on tour. how did that incident affect the album and your personal life? how much of the mood of the album relates to this time, or is its sadness coincidental?
It was not coincidental at all. I remember the original demos that I had recorded were much more harsh, and there were some rock and roll songs. I was really happy with them and when they got stolen it hit me really hard.
I was in San Francisco when it happened. Initially, my tour mate, Kylie [Father Finger] was more upset for me. She knew that I had worked really hard on them. I had to call my Dad because I was afraid that they would get into my computer, which was also stolen, and take passwords that he had emailed me or something. He is this gruff, old dude with a heart of gold. When I called him he was like “Fifty years from now, no one is going to give a shit”. I was like… “You’re completely right.” And five minutes later, I didn’t give a shit. Whatever.
that’s so harsh though!
Yeah, it’s pretty harsh, but it helped me get over it too. It’s funny because Kylie helped me out by saying, “You can write new songs, but the people who stole your songs will always be bad people.” But this all pushed the direction of the album to a somber place, because that is where it was coming from. The songs are slower. But the stuff that I sing about is happy.
Except for that last song, “Deeply Personal.” That is about pure hatred towards someone. I thought it was a funny way to end an album, with the biggest downer possible.
i thought it was interesting… the track being titled “deeply personal,”and the nature of the song almost make it feel like you are overhearing someone singing in the shower… sounds like you are accessing something you shouldn’t be allowed to hear.
That was the idea.
it is so rare, in this internet age, to stumble upon an artist who has produced so much but has as little information available about them as you do. do you shy away from self promotion?
I do. I gear self-promotion differently. It happened because of the product itself. Phemale is a brand. Phemale is the name of the pop star that writes all the music for all of these characters. He is a ghostwriter.
I guess the biggest move that I do, when promoting things online, is to write things in all caps. I don’t really know how to do promotion… I am not good at it. I recently started making more copies of stuff. I used to just make ten copies of a release and give them to my friends and then they would disappear. It has become a pain now, because when I want to listen to something, I have to track down people who may have it and have them make me a copy of my own recording. Now I am getting used to the idea that I have to promote if I want people to listen to my music. WFMU has helped me so much. I got the in from Mark [Angels in America]. It really helps to have a place where I can put all of my music.
i’m so used to people trying to do things…
“The right way.”
yeah, and it’s not like i am suggesting that you should not put out records or that you should not be paid well to play shows. i am not saying that at all, but i’m used to people putting more energy into promotion than substance.
Luckily, the record label that is putting out the new record [Redscroll Records] knows me personally, and they know that I have a hard time doing promotion. They are giving me the rights to the music, so I can give it away for free if I want to. The records will be theirs, but the music will be mine.
I even have a hard time with the pricing of the album. It is such a small run that it is going to be a little pricey, at least for me. So I made sure that the album comes with a little book of art and writing and a mask cut out, so it is not just a record.
how do you feel with this new record coming out? what do you hope to gain from your project? what role does it currently play in your life and what are your hopes for it in the future?
I want to develop the world of Phemale more. I want to make movies about the characters. The only people who know about the characters are people that know me personally and ask me about it. Hopefully after I sell some records, I can make a little money and buy a video camera and then I can film and flesh it out more. I am crossing my fingers, because I asked Carlos [Russian Tsarlag] to help me out with a movie in August. He is incredible. People who see me live know that I do little play pieces. Hopefully in the future if they want to know more about what I am doing, they can watch the film.
I’m also currently writing a comic about “Wet Hood.” As for the role that Phemale plays in my current life, it is all-consuming. The project has become my child, and all the characters are like family members. Its easily compared to any practice or trade where it takes up most of your time. Say if you’re an electrician, you start to notice if things are wired weird. If you’re a photographer, you begin to see things as if they would look good in a photograph. Whenever I see like a weird bump on a tree or funny looking dog, I’ll want to recreate it in a mask or costume or song. It’s like a really healthy obsession. An obsession that evolves and leads to output. And like most proud parents I like to show off my child.
Video for “Time Erasur”, directed by Allie Kern: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HHf93Vj2cs&feature=player_embedded
Profligate is Noah Anthony’s Philadelphia based solo project. He makes beat driven electronic music that may have some roots in early techno but certainly can not be described as ‘minimal’. His music is ethereal and layered, calculated and unexpected. I had a chance to chat with Noah before his impressive performance at Wierd record’s weekly party at Home Sweet Home. I learned everything from how to correctly pronounce the project’s name (whoops) to his plans to robo trip with Lazy Magnet.
You played sort of similar music under the moniker Night Burger for a while. What inspired the name change, especially when Profligate doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue?
[Noah laughs at me]
I had to question myself before I pronounced it…
Yeah. It’s pronounced prof-la-git. GIT. Not Gate. I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, haha. For Night Burger, I had never really played solo before and I really wanted to explore that zone. And it was really just a pile of garbage equipment strung together so it was a challenge trying to come up with these really minimal compositions with the most bullshit gear I could get. That fucking organ that I always used was something that the band Pedestrian Deposit found on the street when they were staying at our spot. We didn’t even see if it worked. We used it as a table for the grill for the entire summer before we even checked it out. Total garbage gear. I dunno, I’m mainly just interested in writing songs, so sure enough after a year or so of playing weird minimal dubbed out garbage, some vocals and straightforward tunes started to emerge from the Burger rig and that was when I sort of knew it was time to switch it up. Also all my gear died on me.
Guess that meant it was a time for a whole new sound.
Yeah, none of that shit works anymore. So, it was a clear indication that it was time to rethink some things. Social Junk had split up a while back also, and that was at one point my main vehicle for songwriting, so I needed another outlet. There is a solid line between the two projects in my view but the mood is sort of still the same, just more vocalized. “Videotape” was sort of where it started, with a heavy beat and a synth line. Actually, I played a lot of the songs from the Profligate records as Night Burger but they were always kind of fucked up and never sounded right.
The other day you posted “Not a Noise guy. Not a techno guy either.” What were you speaking to?
Just a basic statement of intent. No labels. No politics. No bullshit. I just don’t get why people make such a stink about using a drum machine. Please spare me your labels and politics. I just don’t care about it. Social Junk wasn’t a noise band and Profligate isn’t a techno band. The first instrument I ever bought was an Alesis drum machine back in 1997 anyways, so like I said who cares.
Sometimes I find myself wondering what the next big “wave” in music may be. Could you argue that anything important is happening right now in music with your Not Not Fun label mates like Father Finger and Maria Minerva? There almost seems to be a push toward “outsider-esque” electronic music…
I’m not really up on Maria Minerva’s music honestly so I can’t really say if there’s any connection there but Father Finger is really great. I guess there has been a “push” for a while now and it’s nice to see killer underground acts getting some much deserved recognition.
I was going to ask how your tour went with Father Finger last summer. I don’t know either of you especially well but it is my impression that you have pretty opposite personalities…
Yeah, we’re pretty similar in a lot of ways also though. We sort of acted like divas a bit, mainly at ourselves. She is fun and kind of wild but also has a real professional attitude toward music which I dig. She taught me how to wrap a cable correctly, HA. We had a great time. What can I say? We did a lot of drugs.
Did she get you into any trouble?
I wouldn’t say we got into any trouble. We didn’t get caught. It was a sick tour, I have to say. I can’t elaborate. Sorry.
Some buddies of yours released Come Follow Me joking that it was a “shared burden” between More Records and Hot Releases. Thought that was funny. Do you feel support from the noise community? What is it like living in Philly these days and making music…
That’s just a little Plotkin humor. Do I feel support from the noise community? Umm…
You might not be a “noise guy” but I feel like you might “fall into that crowd”. And a lot of people who follow noise music are seemingly the majority of your following. I am not sure if that is true…
I’m not sure either, but I’m down with it. To me, it makes more sense to refer to it as the underground community, rather than ‘noise community.’ I mean yeah, I have gone to most of the INC’s [International Noise Conference in Miami] but… It’s different. It’s all these maniacs losing their shit and just doing their own thing. It’s about total freedom. People doing whatever they want to do. I’ve never really felt like a part of the noise scene but I’ve definitely been inspired by the general attitude behind it.
What about Philly? I lived there for a while but by the time I moved back to New York I was feeling so lonely.
It is a quiet time for Philly. I’m mainly just trying to help my friends who come through with cool shows. I don’t feel like I am very active right now or really able to be. There are some sweet new venues though. Heaven’s Gate is one. It rules. There’s some new blood, and that helps.
Do you think that the people who are doing Heaven’s Gate have the power to rejuvenate the citiy’ scene?
Anything is possible, it is a new year, baby.
2013 is the year of Philadelphia.
But not for me.
Shifting a bit, it seems like you have adopted a pretty uniform saturated, distorted VHS aesthetic. Your latest record is called Videotape. Additionally, your girlfriend is a visual artist and has done some artwork/video work for you. How much of this was collaboration? Or were you giving her a lot of direction? Do you plan on continuing to work with her for album art and music videos? She makes really cool videos…
Yeah, she just got into it recently. For Videotape the artwork was her idea. She just sent me a weird cell phone picture at one point that I thought would make a great cover. We tried to recreate that cell phone picture by filming in our apartment and then grabbing stills from it. The original source footage was then used in the music video for the song.
Come Follow Me was made in the same style. Filming, processing and taking stills. I gave her some vague idea of what I wanted and she made it happen by just tossing some fabric up in the air to 2 seconds. I think it’s really fitting for the record. It was exactly how I wanted it to look. It just clicked.
Do you think you are going to stick to this style? Or do you just like the way it looks and are not particularly dedicated to it?
Yeah, I think I will stick to what works. You’ll probably see more of that. We did something similar for the Form a Log LP that is coming out soon.
The video she made for the Form a Log video is so fucking insane.
Yeah, it’s so fucked up and creepy. I love how well it goes with the music. There’s a part where she stabs a strawberry and there’s a ‘squish’ sound that we thought was from filming, but it’s actually in the music! It’s perfect.
You included the lyrics to the record which I feel like is becoming increasingly rare. Is there any significance to that? How much do you think about your lyrics?
I definitely wanted to include them. They’re important to me. It makes me feel a little exposed also, and I’m into that. I did that for both of the records, even though on Videotape there’s only one line so it was easy. Personally I just like staring at a lyric sheet while listening to a record. I wish Russian Tsarlag LPs came with the lyrics.
Musically and otherwise do you think about where you want to be and where you want to take yourself with the project? Any frontiers you have considered exploring with the project? New approaches to song writing? Gear you’d love to obtain? Collaboration?
I like to limit myself with gear. I don’t want to go crazy. I don’t want too many options with my gear, I like to try to get the most out of what little I have. I tinker around enough as it is and have a very backward way of recording that I like to stick to, at least until I can get inside a real studio. I recently bought my first synthesizer, but I really haven’t even touched it. It’s just sitting in the corner. It’s a beast that I’m not ready to tackle yet. The most I’ve done with it is record some pan flute for Form a Log. My goal for the winter was to get it set up, but “lazy boy winter mode” is sort of hitting me hard.
There are a couple more shitty cold months ahead of you to get that done.
Yeah, there’s plenty of time, so I’m just taking it slow. I have a lot of ideas that I’m excited to try out for the new songs I’m working on. Hopefully I’ll walk away with something. The challenge of integrating rock guitar into dance music is one for example, does it ever work? I want to find out. Also, in terms of collaborating with other people, the door is open. Especially with vocalists. I have been trying to do that for a while at this point. I’ve asked different people… It never ends up happening, haha.
Who are some of these people?
I had better not name names. They know who they are. I definitely want to get more people involved. But that one song would’ve been so much better! [shaking fists] Ha Ha. Just kidding.
I thought it was really cool that you included re-mixes that your friends did of your songs with the last record. It’s also a cool way to interact with other musicians without compromising yourself/songs as a solo act.
I have some really talented friends! These songs are just sitting there. And I am just sitting here. And maybe they are just sitting there. We should just jam each others shit, come up with some new stuff. Some new old stuff. Haha. What am I saying? It is really refreshing and rewarding to play solo but I definitely love getting other people involved. Maybe even turn this into a full band at some point, it’s possible.
Besides Outmode and Toe Ring and some of the people you have worked on remixes with, who else are you really into right now?
Well, everybody knows Human Beast is the best fucking band around. Everybody knows that. So, there you go. Human Beast. The best. Moth Cock, from Ohio makes some of the strangest music I’ve ever heard. And also, Daryl from Meager Sunlight’s new solo project Samantha Vacation is really fantastic.
I’ve never seen her solo; I have only seen her with Meager Sunlight.
Really? She is out of control. So good. Honestly, I have to say that the East Coast is filled with some real freaks who are blowing my mind constantly and there’s probably a lot I’m not even aware of. It’s great to be a part of it.
Yeah I feel like for the first time in a long time, I want to be where I am.
Totally. I lived in Oakland very briefly and didn’t have a lot of time to dig deep into the scene which was unfortunate. I feel like I’m pretty out of touch with the West Coast in general, and hope to fix that soon. I’ll bet there is some crazy shit happening over there.
Speaking of working with others, you are about to go on a tour with Lazy Magnet and I read that Jeremy is enlisting a lot of help. What are you anticipating with this tour?
Probably a lot of cough syrup.