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“This is not the end: it’s the start of a story.”
I fall back onto the couch, looking out of the window at the misty Cumbrian landscape of the Fairfield Horseshoe, as ‘Only Awake’ – the final track of The Phantom Sound’s eponymous debut album – fades from my headphones. I contemplate those parting lyrics; a proclamation of artistic relevance… and I smile in agreement.
I know that I’ve found something special.
Marisa Schlussel, an American musician currently residing in London, is the solo artist behind The Phantom Sound. I can feel a nervous energy crackling from my laptop screen as we exchange messages on Twitter; her enthusiasm for my enjoyment of her music is tangibly warm and lovely to behold. Her lack of ego is refreshing, showing genuine interest in my own band and insisting that we compare notes on each other’s work.
For someone who has worked on her new album with both Ken Stringfellow of The Posies and Clem Burke of Blondie, you’d expect some prevalent form of horrendous narcissism to reveal itself (SPOILER ALERT: it doesn’t).
I ask her whether working with such big names in the industry was intimidating, and she admits that it certainly started that way. “I was a fan of [Ken and Clem’s] before we [worked together],” she explains, “and to get to work with [them] was a dream come true.” She goes on to say that bands like R.E.M. and Big Star have heavily influenced her, as have The Posies, and Ken has played with them all. “You almost have to just ‘get past it’,” she says, “or otherwise I don’t think I could’ve opened my mouth in front of him at all!” She continues, elaborating on Clem’s entrance into the recording process: “One day we were working on the single ‘Get To Me’, and I mentioned to Ken that I had heard a Blondie-style backbeat on that song. He said “why not ask Clem [Blondie’s drummer] to play drums?” [And] about an hour later Clem replied to Ken, asked to hear some of the songs we were working on, then he said he would do it! Since he was in L.A. and we were in Europe I never got to be in the studio with him, but I still feel so lucky to have worked with one of my idols.”
It’s now a few days after Christmas as I communicate with Marisa, and it quickly dawns on me that, to The Phantom Sound artist, the 25th of December this year must have felt like every other day: this is a woman who has managed to push past all the limitations besetting her. She has worked with artists who have not only influenced her but fundamentally altered the musical landscape for many others around the world. I look back out at the Fairfield Horseshoe hovering silently above the white haze of the morning; an elevated curve of rock and grass, soaked by fresh dew. I see in my mind’s eye a gigantic fist, pale in the dulled December sunrise, forcing itself into the curve, defining the apex with its knuckles, dirt and stone crunching together in futile defiance against that determined pressure.
That was Marisa: the mountain mover.
The Phantom Sound is the self-titled album produced through Marisa’s incredible collaborations, and you can hear the benefits in the results. The first track, ‘Get to Me’, is a classy blend of Blondie attitude (courtesy of the drummer) and Noel Gallagher balladry. Marisa’s soft vocals undercut the guitars and grungy harmonies as they are punctuated by that drum backbeat, departing at measured intervals for melodic diversions that keep the listener excited and captivated. It’s not long, though, before we’re hit by a sweepingly electronic track called ‘Silent Hush’, again featuring Burke on drums; it’s a pop song worthy of Bowie himself, edged by harsh guitar and a simple vocal performance that ride the synth waves all the way to the finish line.
I ask Marisa if she can remember the first song she fell in love with: “I can’t really remember the first song, because so many touched me in different ways, but I can tell you that I am a huge Bowie fan. I love the music of the late 70’s and early 80’s New Wave, because I think it really paved the way for a lot of the music we are hearing today.” This makes sense to me – more than anything else in Marisa’s songs I can hear that 80’s vibe, songs like ‘Falling Out of the Way’ and ‘Devil at the Door’ (a fantastically dark song that alters the tone of the album wonderfully) screaming Julian Cope and David Bowie influences. What really intrigues me about these songs, though, is how you can have a track sound so solidly Bowie-esque yet still reminiscent of the likes of Oasis and Alanis Morissette. Frankly, it defies logic, but it’s there: ‘Factual To Me’ wouldn’t sound out of place on Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and ‘Over From Here’ sounds like a sophisticated iteration of what could well be a Gallagher-composed anthem. It’s fair to say that what The Phantom Sound produces is not innovation in modern music, challenging all previous conceptions of the art form, but instead embraces the old to create the enduringly new and exciting.
I ask Marisa why she named her act The Phantom Sound, enquiring what it meant (if anything), and her response surprised me: “My interpretation of it is that it’s a sound that you hear within a mix of other sounds. It may not even actually be there, but your brain just hears it, almost like you are hearing voices… But, in the bigger picture, to me, it personally means a new discovery, something that was lost, and is now found, but in a more beautiful and significant way.”
That, for me, defines Marisa’s work on this album: a melding of the old with the new. The Phantom Sound is, at the root of it all, a LP that employs the talents of an old world: a mysterious world; one before the Biebers and the Swifts. It sends it crashing into the new of Marisa Schlussel, a woman with one foot set firmly in two eras – the past and the now – to create something staggering.
The sun is up above the Fairfield Horseshoe, but it’s raining. The day is grey and I can hardly see out the window with all the drops running diagonally across the pane. The final days of 2015 are upon us; New Years is right around the corner.
“This is not the end: it’s the start of a story.”
I sure as hell hope so, Marisa. I really, sincerely do. 9/10
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