Phox Is The Pop-Folk Breakout You Need To Know

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Monica Martin hadn’t heard of “The Rock Doctors.” It’s a segment on the popular music-geek podcast Sound Opinions wherein hosts Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis prescribe records for listeners in need of new tunes. On a recent episode, DeRogatis recommended the self-titled album by Martin’s buzzworthy band, Phox, for Dr. Michael Frumovitz, a Houston cancer surgeon who digs indie rock in the OR. The doctor favors music that’s lively yet not too distracting — you know, since he’s cutting people open. And, when we told Martin of the experiment, she was thrilled her group was included. “It’s much better than if I was trying to operate on them myself!” she says.

For all we know, Martin would be a heck of a surgeon. Before bandmate Matthew Holmen convinced her she could sing, the shy, self-effacing beauty had no designs on being a musician. She was cutting hair in Madison, WI, not far from the band’s hometown of Baraboo, and she was happy to express herself with scissors and combs. Holmen thought she had more to offer, though, and man, he was right. Martin isn’t just a fantastic singer — she’s also a terrific lyricist, and her wrenching tales of lost love and family drama contrast nicely with Phox’s light, bubbly, left-of-center folk-pop sound. She chatted with us at the Newport Folk Festival and dished on songwriting, hairdressing, the rigors of stardom, and her secret ska past.
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There are six of you in the band. Did you ever consider playing ska?
"Oh my god! First of all, I love ska. When I was in high school, I had a really big crush on Matt Holmen, who plays trumpet in our band. We were in a bowling league — different teams, different sides of the place — and I remember looking at his hat. It said 'RBF.' I was like, 'What is this?' This was when I was a freshman in high school. And, I looked it up: Reel Big Fish. And, it was like this whole new world. I was listening to emo music at the time, which I still love. I have a nostalgic place in my heart for that.

"I think there are two of us in the band who hate ska, but a lot of us were really into ska and punk, like the Casualties and Rancid. And, I played the trombone in high school, so I loved ska. Part of me is like, 'I would love to stop singing and play trombone in a ska band.' I don’t know if I’d be as successful. Or, I don’t know if anyone would want me in their band. But, it’d be fun."

Well, the songwriting is working out pretty well for you. You’re new to this, but did you write poetry and stuff like that in high school?
"I didn’t really apply myself, to say the least, in high school. But, there were times I liked to keep a diary and write about things that were very close to me. In a sense, I’m doing the same thing now. I had a lot of fear of sharing [my] writing in classes. It just takes so much energy to process feelings for me — and, for a lot of people, honestly. But, since I dodged processing a lot of these feelings and experiences, really getting in there and turning it into writing has always been stressful, so I’ve mostly avoided it. I think that’s why I did so poorly in school."

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Being that you’re a self-professed shy person, is it hard sharing these super personal songs with the world? Does it help that they’re often somewhat cryptic?
"I didn’t think anyone would hear these. Sometimes, I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, this is totally nonlinear.' Within one song, there’ll be the literal explanation [of something I experienced], and then maybe referencing one person in my life that was a part of that. There’s one song in particular where I’m talking about a tendency of people I’ve experienced. And, I talk about one person I’ve experienced this with. Then in another verse, I’m talking about a different person I’ve experienced this with. And, this [distinction] doesn’t really come clear in the text, I’m afraid. It wasn’t my intention to be cryptic, because it was just so clear to me."

As the band becomes more popular, do people put the spotlight on you? Not to come back to the ska thing, but is it ever like No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” video?
"I understand just by the nature of being the songwriter and the lead vocalist, there’s [a focus on me]. Then, there’s also, 'Oh, you’re the only female.' I think that’s natural. There’s going to be a little focus there. But, it’s important to remind people that it takes an entire team to make something like this work. Especially in this case, where I would not have done this in the first place if it weren’t for Matt Holmen — ska hero — being so encouraging, and the rest of the boys, too. It freaks me out a little, especially when I know there are other people in the band, and we all have our own story to tell. I look forward to having them write songs as well. I always say, 'Wouldn’t it be funny if Phox’s next album had someone else doing the lead?' And, I’d play trombone."

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You used to be a hairdresser. If you’re on the road, and you notice the guys are getting a little shaggy…
"I cut their hair. Sometimes, it’s a struggle to get them all together. But, I usually sit in the last row of the van, so I can see all their necks. If it starts growing, I’m like, 'You need a haircut. We’re doing your hair tonight.'"

Do they tip?
"It depends who it is. I’m just kidding. They’re sweet to me. Usually, it’s just that I’ll cut their hair, and the next time we go out, they’re like, 'I’m getting your beer.' I love that I went from one job where I get to be myself unapologetically to another one where, as far as careers go, I can pretty much be myself. I have anxiety about being myself, but as soon as I accept that, I think it’s gonna be really awesome. I just have to accept myself."