Story by Monica Wolfe
Photos Courtesy of Scout Paré-Phillips
Scout Paré-Phillips’s music is like nothing you’ve heard before, which is refreshing beyond belief in a world where seemingly every song follows one of ten formulas in search of radio stardom. Scout’s music exists in its own world, somewhere between ‘60s folk and death rock, topped with striking operatic vocals. As a formally trained soprano, she creates sounds you’d never have thought you’d hear in folk music—imagine Grace Slick belting out high notes in “White Rabbit,” but with ten times the intensity, and sustained over the course of an entire album.
Her new album, Door Left Open, is out now on Dais Records, and it’s one you can’t listen to just once. Each song is single-worthy and will stay in your mind all day; it’s haunting in the best of ways. Not only does she have the voice of a siren, but she also plays eight different instruments, writes lyrics that could make the best poets weep, and makes beautiful photographic and fine art. If you’re ready to fall in love with Scout Paré-Phillips, watch her new music video for her new album’s title track “Door Left Open,” premiering here, and then read our conversation below to find out about her upcoming collaboration with Fender and her work with Jack White.
MW: It’s rare that I come across an autoharpist, and it gives your music such a unique sound. How did you pick up the autoharp? What other instruments do you play?
SPP: The most common, readily available association people make with the autoharp is the Carter family. It’s a traditional folk instrument that has become obsolete due to its simplicity (you are either limited to thirteen or twenty-one chords, based on the generation). The sound is also too distinct to be integrated into mainstream music, although I do find it layers quite beautifully. I first picked it up on a whim while I was in my old post-punk / country band, The Sterling Sisters, after finding an antique one for about ten dollars. I wrote a song on it that turned out to be my first solo seven-inch, Fields of Ash. It was too distinguishable to use in the band and our record label at the time was very into it and offered to release it separately for me. Since I do play autoharp, celtic harp, guitar, baritone, bass, keys, trumpet and french horn, and have always written music where I track multiple parts myself, it was due time that I pursued a solo project. I’d actually written and recorded a full-length solo album when I was seventeen.
Do you have any formal vocal training? (I’m sure you get asked this all the time, because your voice is UNREAL.)
I trained traditionally as a classical soprano until I was eighteen. I had always been very passionate about art and music in my studies, but at that juncture chose to continue with art school rather than something like conservatory. Singing opera is an exceptionally disciplined practice, and although my body is physically capable of making those sounds, it was never going to be a profession for me. When you get to a certain level of instruction in music, it’s your coach’s job to push you to your limit in every session so that before long, what was once your breaking point is easily accomplished and exceeded. Since voice is much more muscular than learning other instruments, the training is also more personal and can feel almost confrontational. Your heart really has to be fully behind it to pursue it. My solo music is my method of engaging with that part of myself in a more accepting way, without adhering to stringent methods.
Your lyrics are full of passion and introspection. Do you ever feel drained after writing lyrics from having put so much emotion into words? Or is it more of an invigorating feeling to have gotten it out onto paper?
I certainly experience both of those sentiments while writing music, that’s very apt. I write about incidents and emotions in my life concurrently as they proceed; it’s a way to privately process complex social and romantic situations deserving of more than fathomless rumination. I surpass what I can express in conversation with my songwriting. Since it’s a solitary activity, I have the chance to hone what I need to convey and present the message in the arms of a piece of art. I’ve often used my songs as tools to dispel and clarify ambiguous emotional circumstances in my relationships: odes to my partner, our life together.
I saw that you worked with Jack White on one of his songs and music videos. How did that come about? What was it like working with him?
I caught his eye via the country band I sang and played bass in, The Sterling Sisters. Initially his label, Third Man, contacted me, but dubiously without any indication of what kind of work they wanted me to do and a few weeks later I got a cold call from Jack. He was about to record “The World’s Fastest Record”, a project that entailed the band playing live in The Blue Room while recording directly to acetate that would be hand-delivered to his pressing plant, then distributed back to fans at the show in under four hours. He’d just come off of touring with two separate backing bands, an all female and all male lineups. For this project, he’d amalgamated members of those bands but needed someone who had soprano chops to sing on High Ball Stepper, Would You Fight For My Love, and Lazaretto. It was a magnificent experience working with and getting to know him and his team, so I continued to accompany them on a few jobs that followed that gig. He’s exceptionally sweet and makes sure everyone surrounding him feels welcome.
The music video for “Door Left Open” is pretty visually stunning. How much were you involved in creating the video?
I conceptualized and chose to film the video in the same house I shot the album artwork in to create the illusion that the record exists in a certain world. For the filming, I enlisted one of my oldest friends, Aidan Diekmann, to help me capture the images because he’d just acquired a beautiful Red camera in preparation for making his first feature length film. We shot on both of our cameras and I edited the film. Hogan McGlaughlin designed the surreal linen dresses used in the video and cover art and a French leather company I’d previously shot for, Teo + NG, provided complimentary accessories for the clip. There’s also a kimono by my friend Audrey Cantwell of Ovate, which is a nod to the past music video series we did together for my last album. The song, Door Left Open, recounts a moment in my life where I’d chosen to withdraw from my longstanding, arduous on-and-off relationship on my own terms. Although it was strenuous for him, I was adamant and my partner was ultimately supportive of this effort. I wanted the video to be representative of the feeling that often surfaces immediately after dissolving a momentous relationship: a mixture of uncertainty, love, longing… a sort of absolution with residual guilt. The narrative of the film is split into two elements: very honest domestic scenes from which it is suggested my partner has recently departed and I am dealing with the repercussions, contrasted with a dreamlike sequence in which I am delivering the message I need him to hear.
What’s your personal favorite song on your new album? Can you give me a bit of backstory on the inspiration or meaning behind it?
Probably Fire, due to its closure in the arc of the story I’ve written numerous records in order to tell. It was composed on the penultimate night of recording the album in the studio and tracked with some extra time the engineer and I had. I was apprehensive about the sudden antithetical plunge I was about to take in my life: getting engaged due to a mutual, obdurate desire to not fail in what we’d been fighting for for so many years, while birthing yet another record dedicated to our splintering relationship. Fire is an open letter to myself: a projection of what my life could be if I stay paralyzed in this relationship.
As I understand, you went to school for fine art and photography. Do you have a favorite medium to work with? And how do you balance all of these art forms? Are you just constantly creating?
Photography is my most inherent medium, although as I continue to practice all of the media I’m active in, recently there has been a convergence of aesthetic and intent. That’s very apparent in the music video. And as always, just as I’m getting comfortable with one pursuit, I need to add another one… I transferred out of my masters teaching program and am now chipping away at a clinical psychology masters in order to become an accredited therapist. Those two interests are inextricably linked for me, but counseling was ultimately where they had me land. How that will interact with my art practice is yet to be determined!
I heard that you’re collaborating with a fashion designer. Tell me more about that, and your personal style and aesthetic in general.
I was recently contacted by Jason Klein at Fender to be one of the unbelievably fortuitous artists to have the chance to partner with them for my equipment. It’s very humbling to be acknowledged by a brand I’ve played and supported my whole life. We have a fully custom baritone in the works to replace the bass I currently play which I modified beyond recognition. I’ll be working with a local designer, Eileen Halvorsen, on a shoot to compliment the new guitars and possibly some stage clothes from her breathtaking arsenal. Through performance, I explore my parameters of styling. When I was at school, I wasn’t learning enough new skills in the photo department, so I switched tracks and majored in textiles in order to utilize my time at university more productively. As a consumer, I’m most attracted to leather and pieces that push the limits of ready-to-wear. Those are what make dressing myself as a musician exhilarating.