Phew is the performing moniker of Japanese avant-garde vocalist, whose eclectic career has consistently attracted collaborations with the cream of her contemporaries in left-field popular music. Phew creates droning environments thick with texture and stillness. Her speak-sing is alternately distorted or pure, spoken or shrieked, guttural or graceful or sometimes both.
Whether somber or bewitchingly cackled, passionate or dry, Phew’s vocals humanize her experiments, making her work an ensemble of herself.
Inspired by seeing the Sex Pistols she first fronted Osaka art-punk band Aunt Sally, releasing one coveted album on Vanity in 1979. Ryuichi Sakamoto then produced her debut single as a solo artist and her subsequent classic self-titled LP features the propulsive backbone of CAN’s Jaki Liebezeit and Holger Czukay. The next three decades took her from post-punk with members of Einstürzende Neubaten and DAF to experimental pop with Jim O’Rourke , her stoic voice remaining unmistakably Phew throughout. In recent years she has come full circle as a solo musician, a scrupulous obsession with vintage hardware lending her new minimal synth work a metronomic aura reminiscent of the early Phew material, but now fully under her control.
Phew creates droning environments thick with texture and stillness; they can feel ecological, overcast or humid, as if dew is forming on notes. Her hyper-present voice cuts in from any side of a track. Phew’s speak-sing is alternately distorted or pure, spoken or shrieked, guttural or graceful or sometimes both. She beams in from somewhere other. Whether somber or bewitchingly cackled, passionate or dry, Phew’s vocals humanize her experiments, making Voice Hardcore sound like an ensemble of herself.
Phew is often considered in the context of her better-know collaborators. In 1981, she bridged the worlds of Japanese punk and German motorik by recording her essential eponymous debut with members of Can at Conny Plank’s studio. She has worked with members of Boredoms, Bill Laswell, and Jim O’Rourke (somehow never with Sonic Youth). And yet, on the radically self-contained Voice Hardcore, it is inspiring to hear Phew alone. Last year, Phew noted how, despite her experimental pedigree and breadth of experience, she has resisted honing skills for the sake of them. “I am not an athlete,” Phew wrote, “I’m a musician.” She welcomed the freedom of limitation. “It also made me ask: ‘What is music?’ There is no correct answer.” It is, as ever, a blank space to be filled, a question mark to linger.