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How Success & Loss Fueled Phantogram's 'Ceremony'

Phantogram
Shervin Lainez

Phantogram

On Phantogram’s pulsating recent single “Into Happiness” from fourth album Ceremony, frontwoman Sarah Barthel can be heard crooning a melancholy, yet hopeful, chorus: “Fall into happiness / Wish you could be here / No more loneliness /You'd make it perfect.”

At a cursory listen, the song (currently heard in a plum spot for Apple TV+) could be considered just another simple ode to a long lost love. But with the knowledge that Barthel’s sister Becky lost her life to suicide in January 2016 after struggling with depression, those lyrics take on a deeper meaning.

Released ten months after Becky’s passing (Barthel credits Phantogram bandmate Josh Carter as well as friend and collaborator Miley Cyrus for helping her navigate through her loss), their previous album Three served as a brutal contrast for the duo, the experience of which heavily influenced their eventual path to Ceremony. While they were enjoying a new level of professional success with Three (the album entered the top 10 on Billboard 200 and produced the Alternative Songs top 10 “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore”), they experienced the career highs through the ache of their loss.

“It was exhausting,” Barthel admits. “Not just that album cycle, but the past ten years. We kind of put a lot of stuff on hold and it’s one of the main reasons why we wanted to have a normal life after Three. I had a storage space in Brooklyn with all of my shit in it that I hadn’t seen in like five years. I really wanted to just find that peace and friendship and love and family. I think that was really important for us.”

Rewind exactly one decade ago from this past February. Phantogram, then working out of a small upstate New York town, released their debut album Eyelid Movies. The energetic record immediately set them apart from their peers with a sound all their own: highly stylized, bursting with both emotion and melody while equal parts brash and polished. “If you were to go back to our first demos, you’d find that they’d have the same unique vibe our music still has today,” says Carter, who met Barthel when the two were growing up in the New York countryside. “There were more cows than people where we grew up, so we come from very humble beginnings. I think the reason why we were able to thrive is because there was absolutely nothing to do. There were no distractions at all, so we took advantage of that and wrote a lot of shit.”

The two were initially inspired by a melding of disparate influences including the Beatles and OutKast. (They'd later collaborate with Outkast's Big Boi on a 2015 EP, aptly dubbed Big Grams.) From the jump, Barthel and Carter had a very specific mission statement: to be genre defiant, living somewhere in the grey area between alternative rock, dream pop, trip hop and electronic. Notes Carter: “We wanted something very fresh and was a little sick of what was going on with a lot of elements of the music world at the time, whether it was indie or pop.”

That undefinable musical voice led to a bevy of placements, and the two quickly became festival favorites. But for a highly stylized act, a full decade churning out music is a lifetime when even a sophomore album is barely a guarantee and bands, trends and label deals disappear as quickly they arrive. (They’ve been with Republic since signing with the label in 2012 after a bidding war.) “We were thinking about that the other day,” says Carter of their playlist neighbors in the early days of their career. “Certain bands kind of pigeonholed themselves into a specific place where they couldn’t work much further. But also, we worked our asses off and we care so much about the band it’s like having a kid. Phantogram is our child and we’re trying to keep him, her, them alive.”

Barthel also points to her friendship with Carter as another foundation to their longevity. “A big part of it is that we’ve known each other our entire lives and we’re kind of like siblings. There's also no ego for us; there's not one or another. I feel like the reason bands break up is that that gets in the way. We’re going for the same things because we’re sharing them together.”

Keeping it fresh also involved the duo mixing their processes and lifestyles up, with both Barthel and Carter eventually trekking westward. After departing the countryside for Brooklyn (Barthel resided in Williamsburg while Carter was in nearby Greenpoint), they eventually packed up and moved to Los Angeles. The geographical shift provided a much-needed injection of both creativity and normalcy. “I think after years of touring, we wanted to assimilate to a regular life for a bit, and just be humans, normal humans,” says Carter, noting that Barthel’s new digs are in the midst of the hilly terrain of the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles. “It feels kind of, in a way, like recording in upstate New York. It’s pretty removed, except here you can drive down (into the city) and be in the thick of it.”

The break between Three and Ceremony allowed for a regrouping that exhibited itself in a renewed vigor and the aforementioned reflection. “In a Spiral,” with its guitar-driven hook, could possibly serve as a diary entry of the highly charged period Three encompassed, with a chorus that wails: “I can see the end is coming round / Every day, every day, in a spiral.”

“In a way I guess it’s true that Three was the highest we’ve been, but I don’t really feel that way when I look back at it,” muses Barthel. “Each album cycle and each record is just a different type of height and type of success, I guess. They’re each a success because we're proud we're able to do this as a career -- to be artists and write down what we’re going through.”

But while Barthel and Carter undoubtedly get vulnerable with what they choose to focus on their lyrics on, whether Becky’s loss or the ironies of fame, they make sure to skew from the hyper-specific. “In our style of writing, we try not to be too on the nose with anything,” says Carter. “We leave a lot up to the listener to interpret everything in their own way.”