Friday, April 14, 2017

Through a Kaleidoscope: Q&A with Philippa Zang

Philippa Zang's album Embarrass Yourself came out earlier this year on No Dice Tapes and it's an oddball DIY pop gem - listening to it feels like getting a fresh start in a sweet new world of fun opportunities and video games and oversized jumpers. There are lots of different feelings and ideas packed into its twelve little tracks, and I was lucky enough to ask Philippa a few questions in order to get to know the album better...

The Album Wall: Please introduce yourself - who are you and what should everyone know about you?

Philippa Zang: I am Philippa and I come from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but am currently living in Dresden, Germany. I love the guitar, language and mango juice, and I don't trust rules or gender.

TAW: Why is your new album called Embarrass Yourself?

PZ: 'Embarrass yourself” was something I wrote absent-mindedly on the cover of a notebook when i first arrived in Germany in September. At the time it felt like everything I did had the potential to be embarrassing - I was in a country where I didn't know anyone and didn't speak the language. It was necessary for me to put myself in uncomfortable situations in order to open up even small opportunities and build a new home for myself abroad.

I don't think that vulnerability only applies to being in a foreign country. We are often left with a choice between being comfortable but possibly missing an opportunity and risking embarrassment but possibly opening up a door that makes a big difference in our lives. Being abroad just made the embrace of embarrassment and vulnerability a central part of my life, and since I wrote almost all of Embarrass Yourself while in Germany, I felt that it applied most naturally to the the album. I want to encourage people, myself included, to embarrass themselves more often - it's never as bad as you think it's going to be, and more often than not, it is extremely rewarding.

TAW: The album is of course available digitally but it's also been released as a cassette tape - what is it that you like about this format?

PZ: The idea to release Embarrass Yourself on tape came pretty situationally. No Dice Tapes, an independent tape label based out of Leeds, reached out to me in the spring of 2016 after my best friend and I's band, Laurel, released a set of demos on Bandcamp and Basement Scene Radio Show, based in Bradford, featured one of our songs. They wanted to do a release with us, and I was enthusiastic about releasing a hard-copy version of my music at all. In general, I think digital music is a fast and easy way to share and hear music - my development as a musician came largely from recording and releasing songs I wrote on the internet as free downloads - but I think there’s a beautiful sentiment in being able to have a hard copy of the music you are hearing, and it feels better to support artists by buying something you can hold in your hand.

"charmander red, squirtle blue or pikachu yellow"
(image source:

The meticulous process of dubbing each tape is also just one more thing that adds to the intimacy of DIY music production/distribution. Some people are sceptical of my decision to release music on tape because of its practicality (people don't commonly own tape players any more), but as a physical format, I believe tapes have great artistic personality, and the medium left lots of room to feature the artwork of my talented friend Merce Lemon.

TAW: What are this album's main themes? Distance - being far away from someone you care about and waiting to see them again - seems to be a big one...

PZ: Yes, distance was one main theme. Distance put a whole new value on the people and places I used to have close by and caused me to reevaluate a lot of my relationships. At around the same time I moved to Dresden, my partner moved in the opposite direction into a particularly isolated situation for school. My friends, my dog, my mom are all still in the US. Distance made me realise a lot about the preciousness of what I left behind when I moved. It dramatises everything, makes little obstacles like time zone differences seem like tragedies and a gesture like a love letter seem epic. Learning how to maintain intimacy and closeness across an insurmountable distance of time and space is incredibly challenging, and that challenge set the emotional tone for Embarrass Yourself.

But another major theme for me was courage: not just naturally growing but fighting to grow, facing fears and coping with lots of challenges at once and being strong enough to grow even if it is through seemingly pathetic means - clumsy, confused or embarrassed.

TAW: On the song Distant Love, you sing: "I am learning to see things through a kaleidoscope". What do you mean by this?

PZ: That things really aren't as they seem! And they certainly aren't orderly, or black and white - but we are often taught to see things like that anyway, because capitalism and other structures of power rely on our limited vision to function.

The reality is that things are painfully complex, and if you have ever looked through a kaleidoscope, you know it is the perfect combination of beautiful and disorienting. I get a similar feeling when I look at the world, and although it doesn't ever feel steady or certain, I think learning to see the many dimensions of the world for what they are is important in being honest with myself. It's a damn wacky perspective though.

TAW: To turn your own questions back at you: how do you feel? And how do you wish you felt?

PZ: Thanks for asking! Right now I am feeling pretty energised; spring break is this week and I will soon be travelling to the UK for the first time! I wish I felt a little less nervous…

TAW: You mention different months and seasons quite a few times over the course of Embarrass Yourself. What's your favourite time of year?

PZ: I have never lived anywhere with such clean-cut seasons as here in eastern Germany! Maybe this region just hasn't begun to feel the effects of climate change yet, but I really appreciate being able to experience one place in all its different climatic states. I can't really choose a favourite season, because, as one of my favourite lyrics (from Told Slant’s Pine Tree Lines) says, "we all get bored of all our favourite things". I tend to fall in love with a season, and then be ready to cut it off after a while; winter, for example, is charming at first but sinister once you get to know it.

I draw a lot from the weather and the seasons when I write, because it influences my emotions a lot. During the making of Embarrass Yourself, i felt myself charting changes and progress more than normal, as a way to reassure myself when I lost sight of my reasons for being abroad in the first place. But right now, it is spring, and my favourite season is spring. I am currently invigorated by all the blossoming, warm breezes, rainstorms, and new growth. I love riding my bike in this weather, but also being able to curl up under a blanket and watch the lightning.

TAW: How did you end up living in Germany?

PZ: I am actually doing a ten-month exchange program in Germany right now. I moved in September, and I won't be able to go home - even for a visit - until July. This is my first time living outside the US, though I am living as a student with a host family which makes it unique.

TAW: Having sampled both Germany and the USA, which country do you prefer living in?

PZ: The political situation globally has sometimes made it feel impossible to live away from my support network in Pittsburgh, but at other times it makes me feel like Germany is the most exciting place to be living. Right now, Germany is where I want to be and where I need to stay, but I am drawn in a peculiar way to the States - I feel a special commitment to the political movements, the music scene, and the people there.

TAW: What's the best way to listen to Embarrass Yourself? Out for a walk? At home in bed? In spring, summer, autumn, winter? Feeling happy or sad or angry?

PZ: I hope people find it fitting to listen to this album no matter how they feel, and that they define its mood with whatever they are experiencing in the moment. That said, I personally associate this album with moving on, moving forward, and getting over petty conflicts that are stifling rather than nourishing.

TAW: Final, huge question: what do you think is the secret to being happy?

PZ: Wow, I wish I knew! I've been focusing on lessening my expectations - expecting happiness to be long-term or permanent is denying the capacity of other mental states to be valuable. Being able to acknowledge and comprehend frustration, anxiety, dissociation, sadness, neutrality, et cetera...for me that has often been one of the best methods for returning to happy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. but giving less of a shit about what other people are doing or what they think about what you are doing is helpful.


Huge thanks to Philippa for taking the time to answer all my questions. Some useful links:

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