The last decade has seen a minor renaissance in Christian sacred music, with countless artists and bands rediscovering the rich heritage found within common church hymnals (and beyond). At the forefront of this recent hymn-revival movement has been a Colorado trio composed of Latifah Phillips, Reid Phillips, and Dann Stockton, whose indie rock outfit The Autumn Film spawned an alter ego called Page CXVI to perform and release their hymnal-plumbing worship music.
Now, on top of those two bands and producing for other artists, Latifah is launching a new project called Moda Spira with a self-titled debut which mashes up genres ranging from epic, string-laden dirges to throwback R&B, to effervescent pop. Spirit You All spoke to her via Skype about her hero Imogen Heap, as well as Lord Byron and Lord of the Rings:
Spirit You All: Your first release as Moda Spira was a cover of The National's "Terrible Love" that was featured in a Lifetime movie. How did that come about? Did the producers approach you to cover the song initially, or were you already sitting on the recorded track (or maybe somewhere in between)?
LP: I was actually approached by the director/writer of the movie, and she was actually using some Autumn Film music in the movie already and they had actually asked to use Birdy's version. But for some reason it didn't work for them to use hers, and then she approached me about covering it, because she liked my voice from Autumn Film, and so I did it. But what was crazy is that The National had to approve it. Which is really scary. So when the director asked me to do it, I just sent her a voice memo, me on the piano real fast throwing it down and she said, "Yes! Let's do it" and then she was like "Okay, the only way it will work is if The National listens to it." And so I had to do the whole song and I paid a friend of mine to mix it and I was all in with the gamble of if they say yes or no. And it took them a long time because I think they were on tour in Australia, and they were just really busy, and my guess is their manager didn't even give it to them until it was a good time or something. So we were finished and we were waiting for almost three weeks and it was right before the film was supposed to go out. And then they said yes and it was like "yay!", and they used it.
It wasn't even supposed to be my first release as Moda Spira, but I knew that I was working on the record, and I wanted to do that project, and I didn't want to do something under Latifah Phillips, because that would be even more names and I already have so many band names. And it didn't make sense for Page or Autumn Film, so I thought, "I'll just put it under Moda Spira and that is that". So it was kind of haphazard, but incredible!
Spirit You All: Are you a big National fan?
LP: I wouldn't say big... you know, I am a National fan, but the only reason I don't say "big" is because I don't know all of their records, and I feel like to say "big" I have to be able to tell you every song from every record that I love. I have two of their records and I love them. The reason I know about The National is because of Dave from A Boy & His Kite - we worked together on Page CXVI and a bunch of other stuff, and he is like a mega National fan.
Spirit You All: The record is a musical grab bag - I hear vocoder vocals reminiscent of Imogen Heap (on the second single "In the Fight"), anthemic Top 40 pop ("Shaking the Walls", "We Belong"), and modern R&B (the closer, "Thread the Needle"). There are even some Motown-inflected vocal moments (the outro of "What You Need"). Was there a guiding aesthetic you wanted to inform Moda Spira at the outset, or did that emerge more during the writing and recording process?
LP: It kind of evolved... I will say this fast, since it's important to me: I am a huge Imogen Heap fan - mega. Like, obsessed with her. So when she did Speak For Yourself - that was kind of her big breakaway from Frou Frou - I loved that she mixed it herself, and she did it herself and she, you know, produced it herself. So that's when I thought (that was about eight years ago at this point), I have to teach myself Logic, I have to learn. I was already producing, but I wanted to do more, I wanted to engineer. So, huge shout-out to Imogen...
The voices on "In the Fight", actually, they're not vocoded. I sang all of them, and...
Spirit You All: Really?
LP: Yes! And I really wanted to do that, and I was obviously inspired by "Hide and Seek" - which is vocoded, Imogen does it beautifully - but I wanted to in a sense appropriate that skill and change it a little so I could make it mine. So I literally sang all of those vocals and edited them all, I massaged them all to have a certain feel. Some of them feel a little electronic or robotic because I'm singing them in that way. The lead is a clean lead and then there's like all these layers and I sang the low ends, I sang the high ones. My friend Jason who produced [The Autumn Film album] Ship and the Sea was texting me just a few weeks ago and didn't believe me. He was like, "Well, how'd you get them all so tight?" and I was like, "I just sang it that way!" [laughs] So I went, "Next time you're in town we can open up the session and I'll show you!"
So as far as the musical genre-bending on the record - I love how you identified them all... You know, I was with Jordan, and we were doing "Bet on Me", and that's super R&B - I think it's the fifth track - and Jordan stopped me and was like, "Um, I just want to make sure that you're aware that this song is really R&B and you're not going to wake up tomorrow and freak out that 'this is not the direction of the record! What are you doing?'" And, you know, I told her that this record is about guilty pleasure sounds with really earnest content and I wanted to give nods to all the things that I love and reappropriate them in a way that made sense for me. So I listen to Motown, I listen to 90s R&B all the time, I listen to neo-soul, I listen to, obviously, indie pop, I listen to indie cinematic rock, I listen to classical music, I listen to jazz, I listen to Brazilian jazz... I love all that stuff, you know? It's funny, sometimes I get worried, will people think the record's too all over the place, but it kind of makes sense to me, it has a fluidity that I'm really proud of. And I think for the next Moda Spira record, I'm going to push deeper into the R&B vibe. We'll see. But I feel like I have to take some jazz piano lessons before I commit to that. [laughs]
Spirit You All: After co-producing The Autumn Film and Page CXVI's albums with Dave Wilton (of Loud Harp and A Boy & His Kite) for the last 10 years, how was collaborating with (Nashville producer) Jordan Brooke Hamlin on Moda Spira a different experience? How did you two get connected, and what unique qualities did she bring to the project?
LP: Jordan has toured with an artist named Katie Herzig for a number of years, as her kind of multi-instrumentalist. And she produced the latest Indigo Girls record... but I had heard about Jordan through Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken because Page did some touring with Derek, and I did that electronica record with him called Sola-Mi. They'd been singing Jordan's praises to me for a while, and then when Katie came to town, she said to me, "Oh, you should come down to the green room after the show and hang". So I went down and Jordan was there, and I in the back of my mind already knew that I really wanted to work with her. But I was just like, I should see if I really like her, I should see if she likes me, and so we poured some whiskey and talked for five hours. [laughs] And by the end of the day we were putting her on the calendar to work with me for a day to see if we like working together. So she was in town two months later, and we worked on "We Belong", and it went really well and I kind of fell in love with her work style. And she's awesome because she's just an amazing, amazing guitar player. And then she plays french horn, trumpet, clarinet, bass clarinet, and she plays accordion, and she's really good. And like me, she also builds beats. And I've never gotten to work with another female before! So that was just a blast.
Spirit You All: Can you talk about the inspiration for the name Moda Spira? I read that it was partially related to asthma you had as a little girl.
LP: Yeah, so when I knew I wanted to have another project, I got some advice from friends who have their name, their personal name, as their artist name, and they both were like, "Don't do that!" And so I knew I wanted a different name, and I wanted the name to be meaningful, and I found that moda spira, in Latin, means the mode of or the continual act of breathing - inspiration. So I was talking with my husband about it, thinking about the name, and thinking that it's really rad that as a child - you know, I was a really sick kid, and I was on a breathing machine at night because I just had such horrible asthma (and I had asthma up until I was about 17, which was much more manageable than when I was a little girl). I think it has to do with the idea that I used to have really weak lungs, and now I have really strong lungs. And, you know, the story of something getting redeemed, I love stories like that... Ultimately, I believe that peace and shalom will come to the earth at some point and it will redeem all things, and so I like the idea of that being my artist name.
Spirit You All: Your last Autumn Film release was four years ago, and Page CXVI's mission to give fresh exposure to classic hymns naturally involves a high level of reinterpretation. Without the "scaffolding" of preexisting music/lyrics or even the clear purpose of devotional music, was it strange or unfamiliar to return to original songwriting?
LP: [sighs] No, it was really life-giving. I really missed it. I mean, I love what I do with Page, and I actually have another Page project on slate for later this summer, early fall, and I'm excited to get back to that. But it's just exercising different muscles, different parts of your brain, and they develop different areas of your artistry, and I want to have balanced muscles, so, you know, it just felt really good, man. And it felt really good to just be able to write something out of my personal experience and not having to temper it with the fact that this could potentially be used in an environment that involves many people and many ideas. And it was really fun to be able to make whatever kind of sounds I want and not think about, is this going to be something easy for people to sing, you know? I could just sing whatever I wanted.
Spirit You All: Speaking on the theme of the album, you say it's about "what it truly means to be in relationship to somebody else", and how despite our best intentions for our loved ones, "what people really need is love, patience, and space... if you suffocate that space, it does the opposite of what you hope for." Your husband Reid is an integral member of both The Autumn Film and Page CXVI, but he's absent from the credits on Moda Spira. Is that part of the "space" you're talking about, or maybe just another effort to step outside of your comfort zone, like the change of producers?
LP: [laughs] It's so funny, I never even connected that... But Moda Spira, for me, it's my love letter to Reid. You know? And so I didn't want him to be on it! [laughs] It's like making something for somebody and then being like, hey, can you help me make it for you? So that wasn't an emotional decision. I just wanted to make something by myself - you know, I didn't even bring Jordan in on the project til a year in. My goal was to make the whole thing totally by myself (like Imogen Heap because she's so cool) but then I realized I'm extroverted and so I got super lonely and I just needed people around and somebody else to care about it as much as me.
Spirit You All: The 6-minute track "Remember Love" has some really epic sweep to it, and feels like the album's emotional centerpiece. Can you talk about the inspiration for it and how it came together musically?
LP: Absolutely. So, I wrote that piano progression, and I wrote that melody - I had it for a year before I had lyrics for it - and I loved it, it was so moody and so cinematic, like, I already knew what it was going to be in my mind when I wrote that first lick. I knew it was gonna be tons of strings, and, like, timpanis and the whole deal... But I liked it so much I needed to wait for the lyrical content to be just as meaningful to me, if that makes sense.
So I co-wrote about half the record with Jordan, and I had just finished - Reid and I watch the whole Lord of the Rings Extended Edition twice a year. It's, one of my most favorite stories ever told. And I love those movies, love the books, and I had just finished watching the series, and Jordan came the next day to do some work. I was telling her that I was listening to the score for those movies, which I also love, and feeling like the music for the song "Remember Love” (which didn’t have the title at the time) stirred those same kind of epic feelings. I told her that one of my favorite scenes is in the third movie where, basically, they march upon Sauron’s Gate and you see them surrounded by these men and, you know, Aragorn turns around and says, "For Frodo.” And we were like, “Ahhhhh!” But he gives that speech where he talks about how, “Today is not the day where we lay down our courage! We need to fight for what’s right, even if it means we are forging into imminent death!" I love that idea of courage. I think that we need courage in our life. I think that we need courage in marriage. I think we need courage in loving ourselves and loving our neighbor. Even if it doesn’t mean that we will get love back, that is still, in my opinion, our creed. We need to do those things. I just love that idea.
So then Jordan and I were talking about how do we transpose that idea into this song. We were Googling lyrics about despair, and lyrics about hope, poems, just to get inspired. I don’t know who found it first - it might have been Jordan, because she was an English major in college - but she found a poem by Lord Byron that’s called "Darkness". He basically writes - we read the whole thing, and it’s horribly depressing and sad... This is a real historic event in 1816, or something. A volcano erupted in Indonesia, and it blacked out the sun in Europe, so the sun didn’t shine for a year. Because they didn’t have, satellites and all the technology that we have, they thought that it was the apocalypse. The world’s ending. So he’s describing real events - men were just giving up on living, people started burning their homes for warmth. They had no hope that they were going to live.
So I wanted to juxtapose that kind of despair with the kind of courage that you see in Lord of the Rings. Then, in essence, lay that over the concept, the foundation of what that looks like in regards to loving someone deeply. Because I think that we have similar feelings in difference circumstances - despair, and hope… And do we move forward when things feel really dark and hopeless, or do we give up? You know, the record starts with "She Whispers", which is a song based out of fear. The idea of laying in bed, for me, at night and in the morning and having those dark thoughts and feeling like, “I’m just going to surrender to the darkness because it feels too hard.” So that was like our anthem. It’s like, “I’m not going to give up! We’re going to go for it!”
Moda Spira is out May 13.