I first heard Phemale through a friend, during a long car ride. We listened to A Root Terror, a perfect album for speeding somewhere between North Carolina and New York, very late at night. I was immediately transfixed by Phemale’s peculiar pop music, unbound by genre or pretension. It turns out that this was a very serendipitous introduction to the project, as I may not have found out about it otherwise. Mixed media artist Michael Donahue, who has been playing under the moniker Phemale since 2008, is sort of a secret. And that’s not because he’s unknown, as he is widely loved in certain underground circles. And it’s not because his music’s not readily accessible, as anyone can download all eleven of his albums for free via the WFMU free music archive. I guess it may be because he just doesn’t really promote himself. (Until recently he’s only self released small batches of cassettes for his close friends.) During our interview, he stated that writing updates about his project in all capitals on Facebook was about the extent of his efforts to promote himself and admitted to being ‘bad at it’. I simply had to speak to Donahue after devouring every one of his albums one by one, finding it hard to listen to anything else for weeks on end. I was obsessed.
Michael Donahue met me at the New Haven train station and greeted me with a hug. We were strangers but this didn’t feel strange. The reputation that proceeded him, according to several accounts, is that of “the nicest guy ever.” He speaks much more softly than I imagined, and hides his smile behind chain-smoked Pall Malls. Even when he speaks of a musician’s worst nightmare – having two full length unreleased album demos stolen from him on tour – he remains positive and poised.
Donahue chooses to split his time between New Haven (where he works) and Providence, Rhode Island. While the commute is expensive and time consuming, he enjoys gathering inspiration from both places. He likes the dingy inner city vibe in New Haven, and loves his job as an art teacher. In Providence, he gains inspiration from the rich musical scene and close friends.
When we reach his home, he immediately introduces me to his new kitten and roommates before we settle in the back yard. Donahue speaks so openly that soon I find myself confiding in him and engrossed in a long conversation before we even begin to roll tape. I must remember what brought me there. I had a chance to talk to Donahue about “Wet Hood” and those who dwell there, his celebrity sister, and his new album City Silk, which is out this month on Red Scroll Records.
Due to some problems at the pressing plant, City Silk will not be available by its original July 4 street date, but you can stream and download our premiere of “Plastination” as well as download a mix of my personal favorite Phemale songs.
Tell me a little bit about the beginning of Phemale.
I had been doing really crappy folk music for years in college, bad “new weird America”. I got bored of it; playing coffee shops… And got bored of people so… When I was in college I had written a little screenplay with characters with masks and I decided to make a project around that. Each of the characters would have songs about stuff that they cared about and this [Phemale] came from that.
So when you dress up in different costumes when you perform live, are those songs written in different perspectives that relate to those characters and costumes?
Yeah. There is one character, named Raymond, and he is obsessed with aliens and his songs are all about reptilian conspiracy and stuff. And there is the Helper, which is an eight-foot tall lady and she knows everything so she is really affected by that in a negative way. She is a very troubled person.
Fuck, I never picked up on that. I can’t wait to see you live now. How many characters do you have?
I have eight and I am working on a new one. A six-foot-tall four-legged creature on stilts. His thing is that he used to be a lot taller but he shrunk down. He doesn’t fit in with the normal-sized people or the tall people anymore.
Do your characters tell parables based in reality or pure imagination?
It’s definitely a mixture of both. Half of the lyrical content is purely from fictional events that my characters go through, and half is derived from actual events that happen to me. It’s definitely a defense mechanism thing, too. It’s easier to write about things that affect me negatively under the guise that it’s all fictional. The stories my characters tell are usually about obsession, whether it’s obsession over a topic, or over a person or a feeling. There are even fictional characters within the lyrics that represent real people in my life. It’s all a way of balancing being honest and keeping everything secret.
Do you have a favorite character, and if so, what is their story?
My favorite character is definitely Raymond Braybyr. I even have his face tattooed twice on my shoulder. He works at the worm counting factory where all day he counts worms and makes tallies of the numbers. He lives, as all my characters do, in a small town called “Wet Hood,” where all the freaks live. He lives in a dark apartment with a rat named Meat. Although this all sounds very grim, he’s actually a pretty happy person. He knows deep down things will get better and he will find his true love. He’s my favorite because we share a lot of the same interests like aliens and beautiful women. And we’re both introverts.
He also has a large deformed left hand that he is very sensitive about, which ties in with my dislike of my own small hands. He also looks like a mixture of Nosferatu and Batboy, which were two huge childhood heroes.
How many full-length records have you recorded, and how many have you released? Have you released all the recordings that you have made?
I have eleven available for download [With most released as Female. His moniker had to be altered not be confused with a UK producer]. Then there are two tapes that are gone, because they were stolen from me in San Francisco. Before then, I had twenty albums of bad folk music that only my sister and a few close friends are allowed to listen to.
Are you tight with your sister?
Yeah, totally. She lives out in Pasadena, [California]. She is an actress. Have you ever seen House of the Devil? That’s her. The main girl.
Wow, really? Damn, that is so cool. And she likes your crappy folk albums?
Yeah, but she likes the new stuff more. She has always supported me no matter what and I love her for it.
Do you rapidly write songs and record them? Or do you do things slowly and meticulously? I just can’t move past the fact that you have so much stuff out there and it’s available to everyone for free.
It causes problems in my life because I don’t go out and people only see me at shows, because I hide away. And play. I have been constantly recording since 2008. But that came from a fear. When 2000 happened, and I was one of those people who thought that the world was going to end. So since then, I have felt like I have to get as much shit as possible out before the world is going to end.
Is there anything else that compels you to stay inside, besides trying to produce as much work as you can? I know you told me that you no longer drink or do drugs. Do you feel that this alienates you from time to time, or do you think you were more alienated when you did drink?
I only felt alienated during the period directly after I stopped doing that stuff. I went from living a life that revolved around that shit, to one that had nothing to do with it. For a short while I had a very negative feeling around individuals who “partook,” but I was just being an idiot. Everyone has the right to do whatever they want, and just because that shit messed up my life, doesn’t mean that it messes up everyone else’s. As soon as I got over myself and started being around people who drank again I began to find comfort in being the sober one. I’m no longer compelled to stay inside because of feeling left out or feeling alienated.
I’m usually tucked away because I’m working, drawing, or hanging with my BFF, Kylie. She has been great for my confidence when I moved to Providence. She gets me out of my cave and into the real world where there’s people and sunlight. I realize now that any alienation I felt was self-inflicted. It helps immensely that I have a great circle of friends.
You have albums that are more electronic and dancey and the albums that are more guitar driven and a straight noise record… But a common thread seems to be horror soundtracks and the supernatural. Can you talk a little bit about that? Besides, you know, your sister being a horror movie actress.
Ever since I was younger, my sister and my friends would pass along horror movie suggestions or burn me disks of old horror movies that were not in rotation anymore. I really liked that because… if people are still watching them, it creates some redeeming value to them, even if it doesn’t reach the masses anymore. I love camp and kitschy stuff. It has a nice ethereal value to it, especially the sound quality. I immediately recognize when I am going to sample something because I can hear the exact sound quality that I am making anyway.
In addition to horror, it seems like there is a lot of “world” influence, although I cringe at the use of that word to describe a genre because it is so vague.
Yeah. I remember that someone introduced me to Ravi Shankar at a really young age. I like percussion-driven music. I have always found that more interesting than Western music, even at a young age. I went from only listening to that sort of stuff and being sort of pretentious about it. I got over that phase and realized that every culture affects another culture. Then I got into American music that was really percussion based. A lot of my influence comes from Bollywood. Even to this day they prefer a tape quality sound. They will make multi-million dollar movies and still use a blown out sound. They have a dedication to that.
What are some American artists that you like the most?
I like Crash Worship. I don’t know if they are doing stuff anymore. They had a hippie vibe I wasn’t so into, but they make this really throbbing, gritty sounding music. I am recently getting into cleaner sounding stuff. I recently heard ELG. I heard about it because they were released on the same label that put out the Sewn Leather LP. It is clean sounding. Container, too. Oh and I listen to [Aaron] Dilloway’s “Modern Jester” once a week.
Speaking to the diversity of your music, your forthcoming album City Silk strikes me as a little bit more somber than a lot of your other records and ends with a piano ballad titled “Deeply Personal”. You told me that you had to re-record the album from memory because the original demos were stolen from you on tour. How did that incident affect the album and your personal life? How much of the mood of the album relates to this time, or is its sadness coincidental?
It was not coincidental at all. I remember the original demos that I had recorded were much more harsh, and there were some rock and roll songs. I was really happy with them and when they got stolen it hit me really hard.
I was in San Francisco when it happened. Initially, my tour mate, Kylie [Father Finger] was more upset for me. She knew that I had worked really hard on them. I had to call my Dad because I was afraid that they would get into my computer, which was also stolen, and take passwords that he had emailed me or something. He is this gruff, old dude with a heart of gold. When I called him he was like “Fifty years from now, no one is going to give a shit”. I was like… “You’re completely right.” And five minutes later, I didn’t give a shit. Whatever.
That’s so harsh though!
Yeah, it’s pretty harsh, but it helped me get over it too. It’s funny because Kylie helped me out by saying, “You can write new songs, but the people who stole your songs will always be bad people.” But this all pushed the direction of the album to a somber place, because that is where it was coming from. The songs are slower. But the stuff that I sing about is happy.
Except for that last song, “Deeply Personal.” That is about pure hatred towards someone. I thought it was a funny way to end an album, with the biggest downer possible.
I thought it was interesting… The track being titled “Deeply Personal,”and the nature of the song almost make it feel like you are overhearing someone singing in the shower… Sounds like you are accessing something you shouldn’t be allowed to hear.
That was the idea.
It is so rare, in this internet age, to stumble upon an artist who has produced so much but has as little information available about them as you do. Do you shy away from self promotion?
I do. I gear self-promotion differently. It happened because of the product itself. Phemale is a brand. Phemale is the name of the pop star that writes all the music for all of these characters. He is a ghostwriter.
I guess the biggest move that I do, when promoting things online, is to write things in all caps. I don’t really know how to do promotion… I am not good at it. I recently started making more copies of stuff. I used to just make ten copies of a release and give them to my friends and then they would disappear. It has become a pain now, because when I want to listen to something, I have to track down people who may have it and have them make me a copy of my own recording. Now I am getting used to the idea that I have to promote if I want people to listen to my music. WFMU has helped me so much. I got the in from Mark [Angels in America]. It really helps to have a place where I can put all of my music.
I’m so used to people trying to do things…
“The right way.”
Yeah, and it’s not like I am suggesting that you should not put out records or that you should not be paid well to play shows. I am not saying that at all, but I’m used to people putting more energy into promotion than substance.
Luckily, the record label that is putting out the new record [Redscroll Records] knows me personally, and they know that I have a hard time doing promotion. They are giving me the rights to the music, so I can give it away for free if I want to. The records will be theirs, but the music will be mine.
I even have a hard time with the pricing of the album. It is such a small run that it is going to be a little pricey, at least for me. So I made sure that the album comes with a little book of art and writing and a mask cut out, so it is not just a record.
How do you feel with this new record coming out? What do you hope to gain from your project? What role does it currently play in your life and what are your hopes for it in the future?
I want to develop the world of Phemale more. I want to make movies about the characters. The only people who know about the characters are people that know me personally and ask me about it. Hopefully after I sell some records, I can make a little money and buy a video camera and then I can film and flesh it out more. I am crossing my fingers, because I asked Carlos [Russian Tsarlag] to help me out with a movie in August. He is incredible. People who see me live know that I do little play pieces. Hopefully in the future if they want to know more about what I am doing, they can watch the film.
I’m also currently writing a comic about “Wet Hood.” As for the role that Phemale plays in my current life, it is all-consuming. The project has become my child, and all the characters are like family members. Its easily compared to any practice or trade where it takes up most of your time. Say if you’re an electrician, you start to notice if things are wired weird. If you’re a photographer, you begin to see things as if they would look good in a photograph. Whenever I see like a weird bump on a tree or funny looking dog, I’ll want to recreate it in a mask or costume or song. It’s like a really healthy obsession. An obsession that evolves and leads to output. And like most proud parents I like to show off my child.
[Video directed by Allie Kern]