by Sam Smith

Phoebe Rings: Crystal Gazing

by Sam Smith

Phoebe Rings: Crystal Gazing

The rise of Auckland indie pop supergroup Phoebe Rings has been monumental. Within the space of two years they have gone from having not existed to opening for the likes of The Beths andLips, and just released their own self-titled debut EP. Sam Smith caught up with members Crystal Choi and Alex Freer to gauge what the ride has been like so far. Made with the support ofNZ On Air Music.

Fronted by singer-songwriter Crystal Choi, who also plays keys, Phoebe Rings are completed by accomplished musicians Simeon Kavanagh-Vincent (Lucky Boy) on guitar, Benjamin Locke (Sea Views) on bass, and Alex Freer (A.C. Freazy) on drums. 

Stemming from a desire to find an outlet for her pent up university songwriting and composition training, Choi formed the group in 2019.

“In 2015 I graduated from jazz school, and I had lots of internal struggles as to what kind of music I wanted to pursue in the future. Playing in other bands really helped me figure out what I wanted to play, and I started to write songs that weren’t jazz.

“My dream was to have a band where I could play my compositions. I used to have a jazz project that had like 10 people, but it got really full-on logistically! I loved that band a lot, but I kind of knew I couldn’t keep it going. So I thought, let’s try and do a pop project.”

And so Phoebe Rings was formed, with Choi at its heart, and adjectives like ‘lovely’ and ‘beautiful’ soon following around their performances. Choi had earlier played for the likes of Chelsea Jade and Princess Chelsea as a backing vocalist and musician, however, with Phoebe Rings she has taken centre stage as a bandleader, singer, and songwriter, a transition she says has not been that difficult. 

“Our band name is not the girls’ name Phoebe – the ‘Phoebe ring’ is the outer ring around Saturn, known to be not too visible, but the biggest! I think I was imagining our songs to be quite spacey, and was searching up Saturn on wiki and found the name very enticing!

“The reason why leading the band has not been as difficult as I thought was because the other members of the band are band leaders also, so they have all been there. They are the most empathetic band members!”

Drummer Alex Freer confirms Phoebe Rings is really Choi’s project, with the other members offering support and advice when needed.

“Crystal has been the driving force behind the whole EP. She brought all these songs to us. A lot of them were fully formed and fully realised, and it’s cool because I don’t think we changed that much from what she originally wrote. We are totally on the same page.

“I think going ahead, we are looking forward to contributing more though. I would say Phoebe Rings has been Crystal’s thing in the past, where now I think we are becoming more of a collaborative band which is really exciting. But this first EP is very much Crystal’s, and I think it is quite nice to have that as a template going forward.”

 “I think when you have more creative contributions, you feel like you belong to the band a little bit more, and I really wanted everyone to experience that,” Choi agrees. “So we are going to collaborate more on the next release.” 

The band’s self-titled EP, their first recorded project, draws on a style of music that is hard to pinpoint given its diverse nature. It’s hard to box Phoebe Rings into one specific style, with their music sounding like a fusion of dream pop, Japanese city pop, and even ’70s yacht rock. Choi says this is intentional, explaining that the EP tracks cover everything the band members enjoy. 

“Our sound does encompass different genres of music we like listening to. I am a big fan of Stereolab, which inspired me to think of the style for the song Cheshire, and I really am a big fan of Joe Hiaishi, who composed a lot of the Studio Ghibli films.”

It’s the eclectic nature of their sound that has garnered them a large following in Auckland, with Phoebe Rings already a popular live act around the indie scene, to the point they were headlining shows before having any music out. Freer says this gave the band confidence that what they were doing musically was working.

“I think it kind of confirms your ideas in a way. Especially with a newer song. Because Crystal came to us with the arrangements all pretty much there, and we have gone with it through the journey of playing it live and road testing that material in a way.

“They are both nice processes. Playing the arrangement as they are finished to people is really exciting because it’s like an immediate action. But it’s also nice to have this process of starting a song from scratch and every gig refining the arrangement.”

‘Phoebe Rings’ the EP is out now, recorded largely by the band. Tom Healy mixed tracks 1-4 while Bob Frisbee mixed the last, with mastering by The Beths’ Jonathan Pearce. Choi is already adamant an LP will follow.

“We really do want to make an album. I love everyone writing independently in this band, and it is just so exciting to have everyone on board writing because why not, they are such talents!”