Phillips Finds Her Rightful Place As A Front Woman With Vallens

Photo by Shelby Fenlon

Vallens may be a newer name in the Toronto music scene but Robyn Phillips shouldn’t be. The front woman of the hazy shoegaze project, had cast her shadow on the local scene playing with a number of different groups, while she honed her craft and courage in order to take her rightful place at the (metaphorical) helm. With her guitar, army of pedals, smokey voice and Dorothy Vallens inspired persona, she has made her mark while becoming one of the most notable front women of Toronto, all before the release of her debut album. In the year since Vallens came to be we’ve seen the name opening for heavy touring bands, widely featured by and in the good books of major music publications and listed in the roster of one of the most well known and supportive independent labels in Canada, Hand Drawn Dracula. After dropping the Shelby Fenlon directed video for Vallen’s first single “Tennessee Haze” the next step for the songwriter is the release of the first collection of haunting and fuzzed out melodies due out in the spring of this year. The Toronto based musician and London, ON native recently played her first hometown show at the third annual Winter Spectacular festival. It was there that I got to connect with Phillips and ask her about her path to Vallens, the incestuousness of HDD and channeling her inner Alanis.

Before you started Vallens you played guitar in a number of Toronto bands. What made you want to take charge and start your own project?

Robyn: I moved to Toronto when I was 18 to try and immerse myself in the music scene and go to school. At that time I had played guitar and been writing songs since I was 13 but I was extremely shy and secretive about it. One day a friend of my roommate was over and over heard me playing – she told a friend of a friend who had happened to be looking for a guitar player about me. If not for that I’m not sure if I would have pushed myself to start playing in bands. I was so scared that right before our first jam I legit cried to my roommate at the time.
My plan was always to start a project like Vallens but I needed to build my style and confidence. I had new songs all the time but they always sounded unlike what I wanted my band to sound like. So I kept writing while still essentially being a hired guns in several bands and gigging as often as possible. This was good because I got to develop my more wanky and riff-y (laughs) guitar skills in these bands, which helped me shy away from my more Nick Drake, and Elliott Smith song writing style at the time. I didn’t want to go down the singer-songwriter road but they are and will always be two of my all-time favourites.

You recently recorded your first album. Can you tell me about some of the recording process?

Robyn: The record has essentially been written for two years, and I have already begun writing the 2nd record. The first few batches of songs came a lot at once, and began with me writing bass lines and looping them, where I would, next write a guitar riff over it. Then loop that over and start singing, then write the keyboard parts. I highly recommend using a loop pedal for song writing. I used my TC Nano Ditto. I would do this until things stuck and then I would put more work into it, if they were keepers. “Tennessee Haze” was the first song recorded, and happened a little spontaneously when I went to visit my friend Jeff Berner’s (Psychic TV) old studio in Brooklyn. Then I did the rest of the songs at Candle recording, here in Toronto, with Josh Korody (Nailbiter/Beliefs).

You posted on your Facebook that you finished the album back in April. It’s not due out until this spring. Why wait so long to release your work?

Robyn: Initially, I had written the first batch of songs and recorded without even having asked any one to be in Vallens. Initially I saw it as a one man band sort of situation for live sets, but I ended up not wanting that once the songs became more realized. I did however want it to be my alter-ego, and took a lot of influence at the initial song writing stages from my favourite movie/movie character, Dorothy Vallens from Blue Velvet as well as from listening to Rowland S Howard, “Third” by Portishead and dark instrumental organ-y stuff alike. Once I sent those off to James Mejia, of Hand Drawn Dracula, he urged me to assemble a band and start playing a lot of shows. So it took time to build and gel with a band, while still recording the remainder of the album. Now, my band is more apart of the recording process and we are waiting on mixes and mastering and that sort of thing. I wish it could be out right now, and tour with it, but unfortunately all these little steps take time.

Vallens with full band. Photo by Aaron McMillan (Indie Underground)

Tell me about working with Hand Drawn Dracula. Both Vallens and Beliefs, which you play in, are on the label and they seem super supportive.

Robyn: I have had a really good experience with HDD and am very glad that this label existed for us, as our Canadian label. James is a good friend of mine, as well as others on the label, and is really supportive of the Toronto music scene. It’s nice because of the genres that HDD houses, we have some nice attention from Europe, even just by being on the label. HDD is great because we all help each other out a lot, and play within each other bands. For example, as you mentioned I also play guitar in Beliefs. Jesse Crowe of Beliefs has her own solo thing on HDD too, and is in Rolemodel. Josh Korody of Beliefs is in 2 other bands on the label, as well as his electronic project Nailbiter. So it is in the best way incestuous.

Part of the huge fuzzed out, shoegaze sound that Vallens creates is thanks to your huge pedal board.  What are some of your favourite pieces of your collection?

Robyn: Oh man, I love them all! I have a pretty good sized collection. After like 4 years of collecting, I have finally found the perfect board for Vallens (which is different for Beliefs). It is also shaped by my amp JC 90, and all the modifications I have made to my guitar, for the sound I want. I even dial it in the same every show. I have a lot of extra pedals that I have at home for more song writing purposes and do do some swap outs if the venue is smaller or bigger. But my favourite few pedals are my:

  • Fuzz War by DBA –  I really use this one a lot despite of how jarring it can be. If you dial it in correctly in your chain it is perfect for a boost with a the best fuzzy texture. The company is my favourite pedal company, which is run by Oliver Ackerman from one of my favourite bands, A Place To Bury Strangers (we recently opened for them which was awesome to use it that show).
  • Space Echo – essential for me, and is always always kicked in
  • Mod Core by NUX – pretty much my favourite, it’s a really low priced and random brand, and a mode on it is like my secret ingredient
  • Freeze Pedal by EH – this is also a good one for song writing, but it also is really useful live to fill out the long pauses that can happen in between songs while tuning, or in some instances shade the guitar in to sound a lot like all the synth stuff that is happening in our songs.

You got dress up as and perform an Alanis Morisette this Halloween. How amazing was it to fill the shoes of someone who’s such an inspiration to us 90s girls?

Robyn: It was actually the best night of my life (laughs). The rehearsals were just so fun, and I was glad that everyone I asked was able to say yes. They were all people I really wanted to work with, but hadn’t yet (except Marta of course); Carlyn of Ice Cream and Slim Twig, Simone TB, drummer of every good Toronto band ever like Fake Palms, Darlene Shrugg and Highest Order, Vallens’ keyboard player Marta, and my old friend Laura of Twist. It was really hard for all of us to decide on the set list, as it was limited to 20 mins, but we ended up just picking songs off Jagged Little Pill. The day of the event, it ended up being the 20th Anniversary to the day of the release of Jagged Little Pill so that was a nice coincidence as well. I decided to dress up like her from the “Thank You” video in a nude body suit and threw out a lot of tampons before we played the last song “You Outta Know” which was great to see people swinging them around during the song. It was also the biggest crowd I’ll probably ever play too! Lee’s Palace was sold out and we were on at the prime time! I had also never performed without a guitar in front of me to hide behind, and in most of the bands I was in I was usually just playing guitar and not the front person. So it is still a thing I am very much getting used to in Vallens as we reach our one year anniversary of being a band.

Who were some of your other inspirations. Which women shaped you musically?

Robyn: A lot of women have shaped me musically, this answer could be very very long. Alanis was an artist I listened to at a very young age. I really look up to Nina Simone and Bjork maybe the most. PJ Harvey and Kim Gordon fall very close to them. Their albums are ones that I have always gone back to and have never gotten sick of. As far as my large affinity for straight up pop music and great voices, I really look up to Patsy Cline (my favourite singer other than Roy Orbison) Ronnie Spector and Whitney Houston. I’ve been listening to Whitney pretty hard this winter. Such great voices. New female artists I would say I am really inspired by US Girls, FKA Twigs & Chelsea Wolfe for a few years now.

The debut album from Vallens is due out in the Spring of 2016 via Hand Drawn Dracula.


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