by Silke Hartung

NewTracks New Artist: Phnx

by Silke Hartung

NewTracks New Artist: Phnx

Along with fronting young Auckland indie band Ulterior Motive, 18-year-old singer-songwriter Phoenix Simpson recently started creating and releasing music under his own name, stylised to Phnx. His poppy, spring-appropriate debut single Alive features on NZ On Air Music‘s NewTracks compilation in August.

What’s your name, where are you from and what instruments do you play?

Phoenix Simpson, I’m an 18-year-old producer-singer-songwriter, born and based in West Auckland. I’ve been playing the piano since I was 4 (and I’ll be attending a grade 8 piano exam at the end of this month), and singing from the age of 6. When I was 12 I got Ableton Live, and have been producing ever since. I’m also currently in the process of learning the guitar and drums.

Was any high school or other music training especially important to you?

Music classes at high school have taught me a lot (and are still teaching me). Vocal lessons have been a crucial part of developing my singing technique, and the school’s contact with the MPGNZ has given music students numerous opportunities to talk with industry professionals on a plethora of subjects involving the music industry. Attending piano lessons since the age of 4 has given me a solid ability on this instrument and serves as a very useful songwriting tool. In fact, 9 out of 10 songs I write begin on the piano!

Any other projects that we might know you from?

I’m the lead singer and a songwriter in the band Ulterior Motive, which myself, Ben Hammond (drums), Will McIntosh (lead guitar), Sean Rolfe (bass), and Ren Honda (rhythm guitar), began in our first year of high school. I’m now stepping into the producer role for Ulterior Motive to deliver our first 4-track EP to Spotify later this year.

What’s the background story of how Phnx came to be?

From the age of 4 I’ve been writing songs with collaborators such as my dad and my mates. I grew up watching and listening to my guitarist dad – Dale Simpson writes original music with his band Canopia, of which I was invited to recording sessions from an early age. This was highly influential for my musicianship and taught me a lot about songwriting, the studio process, and communicating with people. Since I began producing my own music 6 years ago in Ableton Live I’ve released two solo albums and an EP to YouTube under the names Phoenix Simpson And The Union.

The Phnx project began in June of 2021 when Stephen Small was hired by my dad’s prog-rock band Canopia. Stephen heard some potential in one of the tracks I was working on at the time and put me in contact with producer-composer Dave Johnston (Villany, n1ghtmar3cat, The Zoup, Delivery Boyz, MISSY, Yoko-Zuna). Dave and I began work on cultivating 5 singles to later be collected into an EP.

How has your writing evolved from your beginnings in songwriting to now?

I’ve learned so much since I began songwriting, and still have so much more to learn. However, the main lesson I’ve learned is quantity over quality, which sounds like terrible advice to give at first, but I guarantee more can be learned from making 100 demos, than focusing on perfecting a few ideas. I’ve now fallen into the habit of writing at least one song a week, and after a few months I go back and finish the production of my favourite demos. I find this approach to making music valuable, as it gives me more opportunities to create song ideas. I then go back and cherry-pick the best ideas to then be perfected during a more detailed production process.

What made you decide to go with Phnx as your artist name?

Unfortunately, there isn’t really a deep and meaningful story to that. Initially, I wanted to be referred to by my name, Phoenix, however, the artist name Phoenix was already taken by a successful French band. Therefore ‘Phnx’ felt like the next best alternative.

Aside from this release, what’s been the big highlight to date?

A big highlight for me in this process has been collaborating with Dave Johnston. I’ve learned an incredible amount from him about producing, songwriting, musical psychology, and the music industry. Overall, I’ve really enjoyed our working relationship together and you should be seeing some more music from us sometime in the future! Another highlight for me was when Alive was played briefly on the TV show The Project on the 3rd of August (which ironically happens to be my birthday!). That felt incredible! Alive has also had a very positive reception when DJing the track at parties.

What makes Alive stand out for you as a single?

It represents many facets of my production – exploring the sounds of alternative electronica, EDM, and pop music. The lyrics of Alive are particularly special for me as they reminisce on my whole life, and tell the story of how I’ve come to be the person I am today.

What’s the story behind Alive?

I wrote it during a rough period of my life. I used the songwriting process of Alive as an emotional outlet to reminisce on my childhood, and life experiences. Alive explores the consistent ups and downs of life – the inevitable cycle of falling to the bottom of your world, to then climb back to the top of it. It’s usually the lows in life that give the highs all the more meaning.

What’s your favourite moment, musical or lyrical, of the single?

In terms of the instrumental, the syncopated synth rhythm that drives the song is particularly special as it was the first element I recorded for the song 3 years ago. Since then the song’s assumed numerous identities over this three-year writing period before me and Dave Johnston arrived at the version released today. My favourite lyric in Alive is, “I’m not half bad, and you’d think that I would know that by now.” The lyric references that age-old debate: is the glass half-full or half-empty? Sometimes it’s hard to take an optimistic view of yourself, which is why this lyric resonates with me as it serves as a reminder of self-positivity.

Who did you record/produce the single with and where? 

Alive was first conceived around three years ago when the brilliant session musician Stephen Small left his keyboards at my dad’s house overnight. I remember staying up until the crack of dawn making the most of my time with his equipment!

Among the numerous song ideas I recorded that night, the main driving syncopated synth riff for Alive was founded. After working on the song for two weeks straight on a family holiday, Dad (Dale) and I collaborated for a number of months, establishing the structure of the song.

Dale contributed numerous guitar melodies as well as lyrical and melody ideas for the track. A year later Dave Johnston and I set about to further develop the track, changing numerous aspects of the song’s production. Roughly once a month, over the course of a year, Dave and I worked together on shaping several demos for release. 

What would you like listeners to take away from this song?

Alive is a song about reminding yourself of the good things in life, no matter how small. I think it’s important for my listeners to reminisce on the life experiences they’ve had that have moulded them into the people they are today. It’s easy to get caught up in the daily rush of life, but I think it’s always important to take a step back, acknowledge your own ‘wins’, big and small, and remind yourself of the amazing person you’ve become.

How do you generally work out what song would make a good single?

Ever since I can remember I’ve been writing songs, but I think you always know when you write something special. Alive just felt like one of those songs for me. Dave Johnston taught me the importance of writing a lot of music rather than dwelling on one track for an eternity. He and I probably went through 30 of my songs before settling on the 5 tracks to release for my debut EP.

Who else is in your team?

Other than those two collaborators I am a completely independent artist, which comes with its swing and roundabouts. I love having the creative freedom that comes with being an independent artist, but at the same time the workload has been huge to release this EP, especially when having to balance it with high school and the other projects I’m involved in.

What other musical endeavours should we keep an eye out for?

Other than my work as a lead vocalist, composer, and producer for my band Ulterior Motive, I am involved in numerous other musical projects. I’ve recently stepped in as a DJ and organiser in a pop-up rave project with a focus on drum & bass music, and am working with producer Jayden Lonia-Hughes on an electronic dance album – to be released sometime next year. I’m now actively involved with Canopia, stepping into the role of producer and songwriter for their third album. Finally, I’m in the process of shaping up six piano pieces and other exercises to be played in my Trinity College grade 8 piano exam towards the end of this month.

Can you please name three other local tunes that would fit well on a playlist alongside your song. 

  • n1ghtmar3cat: High Hopes
  • Broods Ft. Trove Lo: I Keep
  • 33 Below, Isaiah: Cycles

Have any previous NZOA applications not gained funding or been included on NewTracks? Got any advice for others?

Alive is the first single I’ve submitted to NewTracks. My advice for others is to honestly just get involved and make as much music as possible. You’ll be amazed at the doors being actively involved in music will lead you through! It would be nice if NewTracks mentioned on their website, or kept you updated, on where and when they are sending your music. But apart from this, I am so extremely grateful for the opportunity that New Tracks has given me and other aspiring artists to get their foot in the door of the music industry.

Are there any musical blogs, Youtube channels or podcasts you’re super into?

I enjoy listening to music production/songwriting podcasts on Spotify. My two standout favourites are: And The Writer Is…’with Ross Golan and Tape Notes. I find these two podcasts complement each other quite well and both feature well-established artists. Tape Notes focuses more on the production and mixing of music, whilst And The Writer Is… explores songwriting and musical psychology. I’ve also found Jacob Collier’s Logic Session Breakdowns on YouTube to be highly valuable in inspiring my songwriting, production, and music theory abilities.

Who did you make the song’s musicvideo with?

Created, directed, and edited by Phoenix Simpson. I settled on making an intimate hybrid lyric/music video for Alive, showcasing photos and videos from all parts of my life to reflect the reminiscent theme of the lyrics. I’ve been filmmaking since my parents gifted me my first camera at the age of 6. It started off by making short films and fun videos with friends but slowly evolved into a business for me last year when New World and ME Support contracted me for filmmaking jobs.

Any last words?

Alive, is the first of 5 singles to later be collected into my first EP under the alias Phnx. The next follow-up single to Alive is called Running, and it is to be released on the September 8. This track highlights my exploration of alternative EDM, fused with pop, drawing inspiration from new wave to craft a refreshingly modern, yet nostalgic-sounding track. Running explores themes of betrayal and deception – in the telling of a breakup story which focuses on the emotional aftermath, inevitable after a relationship flatlines. Written and produced by Phnx and Dave Johnston, Running channels inspiration from artists such as The Weeknd & Flume, combining a driving rhythmic pulse, nostalgic synth swirls, and layers of creative vocal production to invite the listener in on a world of sonic experience.