Anyone coming across singer-songwriter Phoebe Day and her smooth, sultry, jazz-infused soul music, which brings to mind artists like Amy Winehouse and Melody Gardot, would probably have a hard time imagining that the first song that she ever sang in public was a heavy zeibekiko, associated with Paschalis Terzis and Natassa Theodoridou.
“It was on my mother’s 40th birthday,” the singer remembers, laughing.
“She had this karaoke thing and asked me to get up and sing. I was 10 years old at the time and nobody had ever really heard me sing before, and I went up and sang ‘Den thelo tetoious filous’. I don’t know why I chose that. It was in a mixtape of Greek songs that we used to listen to in the car and it stuck out to me. The melody was so beautiful and it’s about a heartbreaking story, singing about not wanting someone who’s going to hurt you and make you cry. It struck a chord with me”.
Every Greek Australian can relate to that memory of listening to Greek bouzoukia songs in the family car, but not everyone grows up to become a soulful singer, developing a taste for soul, blues and jazz music. Again, Phoebe cites the Papatheodorou family road trip soundtrack as an influence.
“My dad was listening to old blues and jazz music, to artists like Nina Simone and Herbie Hancock, but also Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Beatles, so I fell in love with all this music I was exposed to and all these vinyl records that he kept around the house,” she says.
“I remember feeling so overwhelmed and saying I want to be like that, to hone those skills and be able to do what they are doing.”
In fact, it was her father who gave her her stage name.
“He nicknamed me Phoebe Day when I was young,” she explains.
“Billie Holiday is also an idol of mine and she was often known as Lady Day. So it was nice to also pay homage to one of my greatest inspirations; she inspired me to connect with my voice in a way that no other singer has,” Phoebe says. “The importance of not necessarily being the greatest technical singer in the world, but having the ability to connect to what you’re singing about and who you’re singing to.”
A third Generation Greek Australian, Phoebe Papatheodorou was born in Sydney to parents both born in Australia – and it was in fact her grandfather, born in Larnaca, Cyprus, who was instrumental in her getting ahead with an education in music.
“I was in a car with my grandfather and we were listening to the radio and a song came on and I was singing along in the back seat,” she recalls.
“And my grandfather was so moved that he started crying; then, when we got home, he said to my parents: ‘I think Phoebe has something special’.”
He was not the only one to see this. The same remark was made by her teachers, which resulted in her parents offering their full support, taking her to piano lessons when she was five years old and allowing her to blossom into this creative young woman “always doing school musicals and playing in a band”, who played her first jazz solo gig at 16, and then went on to pursue her dream at the Australian Institute of Music (AIM). It was there that she developed her own personal kind of soul-jazz blend.
“This recording is an example of that sound,” she says of ‘Place in time’, the first of the three songs she’s about to release in the coming weeks.
“I started writing these songs 18 months ago,” she says. “I finished my degree at AIM in 2016 and I was ready, I had things to say that needed to come out. So this is all me finding my own voice and sharing my music and my stories in the world. My leading single is a tribute to the old-school jazz and soul sounds I grew up and fell in love with, but with a little contemporary twist. I kind of adapted the jazz harmony to suit a more contemporary soulful context and even included some elements of RnB music to give it a fresh flavour.”
Music and songwriting, of course, is much more than lessons and developing a sound; it all amounts to life experience. And that’s where the young songwriter’s material comes from.
“It definitely takes a lot of honesty and a lot of vulnerability, as a skill, to be able to wear your heart on your sleeve and leave no stone unturned,” she says, describing her approach to songwriting.
“All the stuff that I’m about to release comes from personal experience,” she says. “I went through a lot of changes in my personal life; I was about 15 years old when I had surgery on my lower back and I had been in and out of hospital for a long period of time. I couldn’t walk, then I had a bit of a limp and it was during that time that I really turned to music as comfort and a way to express the pain that I was feeling not only physically but emotionally, dealing with losing my youth to that time in my life and having to grow up. It was the first real pain I experienced in my life and the first hardship that I had to overcome. It forced me to accept being vulnerable and express myself.”
Her songs are a collection of these experiences and feelings, not only of the pain, but also of growing up, falling in love, creating her own path, setting goals and aspirations.
“My main aspiration is to just create music that people can connect with,” she says. “I’ve always had this desire for human connection and I think of music as the purest way of doing this.”
This, of course, connecting emotionally through song, again boils down to her Greek background.
“Nobody does that better than the Greek,” she agrees. “I guess it’s part of our culture, pouring your heart out in any song that you sing and wearing your heart on your sleeve.”
* Phoebe Day’s debut single ‘Place in Time’ will be launched on Friday 1 September through her website phoebeday.com