There’s nothing like a powerful, honest, authentic conversation between two women coming to terms with the cold, harsh and heartbreaking reality of sexism. We always thought, “If I just do my best, that’s all that matters.” No. Our best never matters at all. In one such conversation, brave and brilliant Phebe Starr spoke to WildnFree about music industry sexism, fighting stereotypes and the soul-crushing moment behind fab new track They Keep Telling Me. Phebe’s frank assessment of the industry, based on experience gained over several years, is the most honest and enlightening conversation WildnFree has ever had about the biz, and she thinks it’s a crucial one. Young women navigating music industry careers – reach out and get support from someone like Phebe. We’re all in this shit together, and we all have to help each other.
Phebe shares: “I wrote this track after the worst co-write I’ve had in my life. Two sexist jerks told me to sit in a room and shut up while they wrote a hit for me. It was humiliating and demoralised the purpose of creativity and the hard work I’ve put in to creating a life filled with it. It’s horrible to have been treated as a stereotype or having to live up to one to be accepted. I wrote this song about my quiet rebellion from those expectations which seem to chase me through life.”
“It was that moment, when you hit your mid-20s and you realise, ‘Wow, it really does exist’, reflects Phebe. “My mum’s a very strong woman, so I’d always felt very affirmed. I avoided the conversations on sexism because I kinda thought they didn’t apply to me, I thought my mum was just jaded!”
With the benefit of hindsight, she can now spot the super sexist nature of interactions she had with music industry types early on. “I got through it thinking,”Oh well, I’ll just do my best, that will be enough,” she shares. “Also, in that co-write situation, I thought maybe it was my personality that was the problem, or I’d done something wrong.” she says, doing that internalising and self-blaming thing we often do. “You don’t think that people actually believe that women aren’t equal. The attitude’s just inherent. Over time, I’ve come to understand I’m not allowed to behave in a certain way because of my genitals.”
Could it get any worse? Yes. How about this? “Talking about my long-term relationship is something I’ve avoided, because it’s caused so many problems,” says Phebe. “The first manager I approached refused to sign me because I was really young, in love and thinking about getting married. He said, ‘If you get married, I won’t sign you’.”
Isn’t that illegal?
“We cannot win” agree Phebe and WildnFree. “We cannot do a job other than being a woman.” Are we Bronte? Are we Austen? Are we Woolf? That sentence belongs firmly in the 19th century, yet here are, saying it and writing it down in 2017. Holy fuck.
Now how about this:
“We were at a songwriting camp, and there was a young girl hooking up with an older guy, just normal music culture stuff (groan), and I made friends with an older man, who was a former music manager who’d managed some really famous bands,” Phebe recalls. “He said something to me, almost in a grandpa type of way that changed my life. He said “Phebe, I’m telling you this, just for your own good.”
”The thing is, the world isn’t ready for a strong woman. Unfortunately, you go into situations thinking you’re an equal, and the reality is, you’re not. I’m telling you this because songwriting is a male dominated industry, and if you want to get ahead, you have to play your cards so closely to your chest, and manipulate the situation, because that’s what the successful girls do.”
“I cried out in the street.” said Phebe.”It really hit me, because I work my arse off, and I’ve had such struggles in this industry, because I thought I was equal. I didn’t realise all the conflicts I’d had were because of it.”
Don’t cry, but it really is true. We’re fucked.
Phebe’s story however gets a little better thanks to a few redeeming heroes coming to her aid. “The great part is, the next week I went to my new manager in New York, a strong, kick arse African American, and she totally gets it,” says Phebe. “She put me in a session with two amazing guys, so vulnerable and honest, and they asked me what I wanted to write about. So we wrote They Keep Telling Me. I’d been carrying that pain since that session, and they helped bring it out of me.” Thank God for the good guys, the ones who stand by our sides supporting us with love and strength. “I don’t think they understand how frustrating it is for us” shares Phebe, “and how valuable they are to us.” Amen, agreed.
They Keep Telling Me isn’t just for the girls though. “It’s to say ‘Screw you, I’m doing it’ to all the idiots in the music industry who think they’re creative but they’re not.” says Phebe. Her quiet rebellion, though not so quiet throughout this conversation, seems the best we can do with the odds so stacked against us. Any other ideas?
Phebe’s got one, she’s now focused on connecting with a very different audience. Sick of the creepy messages from guys who think she’s the pop star airhead stereotype (it doesn’t help being a blonde called Phebe, geez), she just wants to write great music, have real conversations and play a live show without being sexualised. She’s not a cool girl pop singer, a flirty girl pop singer, or an edgy girl pop singer for fuck’s sake. “Who is actually doing the job of creativity?” asks Phebe, rightly. “It’s always stupid people putting money behind stupid things and perpetuating these stereotypes.” And it’s not just in the music biz, in WildnFree‘s experience, the suits, bean counters and control freaks across all industries like to shut down and control the creative types. We’re a just a little too wild and free for this world’s liking.
Like a true creative, Phebe’s songwriting process is beautifully intuitive and mystical. Her new EP Chronicles, releasing soon, will be full of songs she’s quite sure just had to be released for reasons known only to the universe. “When I write something, I often feel a lot of confidence, even if the song sucks, that it’s meant to be released,” shares Phebe, giving WildnFree tingles and goosebumps. “It’s a weird thing, it doesn’t matter if the song’s good or bad song, the main thing is that I know it has to be out there. That gives me a lot of peace.”
In that case, They Keep Telling Me must be important indeed. Listen and see if it speaks to you in just the way you need: