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Beautiful People: Phem

By Alyssa Shapiro

Phem is a musician and an artist whose songs are so much about feeling like an outsider, or expressing insecurities in order to confront and accept all parts of herself—but there’s a twist; through Marsico’s vulnerability about her anxieties comes a mutual recognition with her fans, and together they’ve created a community and a sense of belonging, both for the fans and for Marsico. Sharing her music with the world, Marsico says, “I felt like I really was understood by people that I didn’t know yet, but that made me feel like things were changing… like wow, this is my family, they get me. And I’d never really felt like that before. I’m not so alone. That was cool.” Phem’s new EP Vacumhead is out now.

What does it mean to you to live beautifully?

I think living beautifully means that you’re conscious and aware of every thought and every energy that you are in contact with, which sounds neurotic. But I think if you really want to live a beautiful life, you have to make sure that you’re surrounding yourself with other beautiful people and beautiful art and beautiful scenery.

Do you have any mantras? Things you tell yourself daily that are inspiring?

I do a lot of that. I’ll wake up in the morning and I’ll say, “Use me as you may, but give me something back,” to the universe—like I’m here as a vessel for whatever you need me to do, for mankind, for the good of everyone, but I just want to make sure that I’m receiving as well from the universe, which I always do. And if I have self-hate dialogue going on in my head, I try to filter it, reword it, and make it positive if I catch myself.

As music becomes a bigger part of your life professionally, have there been moments when you’re able to see things solidifying, or life sort of clicking into place?

I realized things were changing when I was on tour with Xan, that was pretty magical, just being onstage and seeing a sea of people singing my songs with me, and the eyes of young girls… I just felt safe and I felt like I really was understood by people that I didn’t know yet, but that made me feel like things were changing… like wow, this is my family, they get me. And I’d never really felt like that before. I’m not so alone, people understand me. That was cool.

You’re into both skincare and music—have you found that your interest in one has supported the other at all? Do they have anything to do with one another?

Not that many people know that I started in skincare when I was in high school, it was my first job, and ended up becoming an esthetician and supported myself with that through the musical journey. And it was probably the only day job that I could handle, because I have a very unique personality that doesn’t mesh very well with authority [laughs]. With skincare I was kind of able to be my own boss and work with my clients one on one in a room, and it’s a very spiritual exchange, you kind of end up being their therapist too, and their friend, and it fed into the creativity of my music. I was able to hear so many stories of breakups and love and death and different lives that helped impact my own story, and it gave me a really unique perspective on people in general. It helped me become organized and responsible in other ways. It also is probably the best day job you can have as a creative person trying not to have a day job [laughs]. I feel lucky.

What have you learned about yourself in the writing process?

Even though Phem is a solo project, I feel more connected with people now than I think I ever have before, because my fans are very interactive with me, and I talk to them all day long on Instagram, and we DM, and I just like hear stories about how my songs affect their lives, and what they’re going through, and I try to give advice sometimes when I can. But I think the fact that we all relate to the music that I make and the lyrics and the stories and emotions that are confusing, really connects us on a very human level and yeah it’s amazing. I feel more understood by a lot of my fans than I do some of my friends or my family, and it makes me feel a lot less lonely.

Can you talk about music as a means of navigating personal trauma?

My project originally started as a form of therapy for myself because I was very uncomfortable with who I was, and my sexuality was really confusing for me, and I was just sick of it, sick of living like there was something wrong with me. So, I forced myself to just talk about the things that made me feel ugly and weird, and it really helped break boundaries and connect with other people who were feeling the same way. And so for me music has been the number one way to heal trauma, besides talking to my therapist.

Phem was created for me to be able to be as candid with myself as possible, and allow free flowing thoughts. Initially I wrote Blinders, one of the first songs, just spitting into a mic for hours and shaping what that story was. And hearing things on the mic that I didn’t even tell other people, and was embarrassed or shy about, things that make me feel weird and ugly… I think that this project and making music in general has helped me to heal and love myself more in a way where I don’t think I could have done that before without art. And just knowing that other people feel those things too is a healing aspect of art and music. Even my sexuality is a weird thing that I’m trying to figure out, but at least I don’t feel as ashamed about it the way I did when I was just hiding everything, and shy, and not telling people the truth about things that bothered me.

At least I know that it came from the realest most honest, purest place it could because I wasn’t even thinking that anyone would hear half this stuff, and so to me that’s really fucking cool because that means that real art, candid art, wins. And that’s tight.

There are certain aspects of your aesthetic that are very singular to you, the bloody knees, etc. Is there symbolism behind the looks you’ve chosen?

I like the concept of bloody knees and of little warrior stripes, and I think that life is like a war a lot of times, and you have to wake up and put your armor on and just kind of go into battle, so I just use these things as symbols to remind myself to be strong and not give up. It could even be a war within yourself, that you’re trying to get rid of negative thoughts. I like the idea of being the best person you can be, as strong and fearless as possible. These little tools remind me to just go for it.

Photographed and directed by Alex Kenealy