Phoebe Day & Joel Sena: ‘We are constantly creating and moving each other forward’

A few months ago, vocalistPhoebe Day and saxophonistJoel Sena packed up their things and moved from Sydney to Melbourne, their luggage filled with lavish, soul-jazz tunes. Now the two partners in life and art are presenting their work at the Paris Cat Jazz Club – and have a few things to say about it.

What are you going to present at the Paris Cat?

Phoebe: This show will be the very first time Joel and I bring our original music to Melbourne, with a full band. We’ll be joined on stage by some of Melbourne’s most incredible musicians, which will be really special! Joel will be kicking off the night with a set of his music and I’ll be following with a set of my own. I’ll be playing all the tunes from my debut EP Place In Time, as well as some well-known covers and maybe a couple of new songs.

Joel: This gig is all about showcasing my music to a new audience here in Melbourne. It feels like a long time coming, having moved here from Sydney in late January this year. When it comes to playing the sax and composing music, I’m doing something pretty different and something I hope people find engaging and intense. I’ve worked hard at honing in on my own brand of jazz-soul-fusion. I’m excited to share that sound and story to music lovers in Melbourne. My music is centered around an emotional urgency, authenticity and depth thats rare in music today. It’s music that resonates and means something… Well, to me at least!

What would you say to people to invite them to the gig?

Phoebe: I’ve always wanted to bring my music to The Paris Cat stage. This club is truly one of a kind and the atmosphere Paris Cat creates from the moment you walk through the door, is something we really don’t get enough of. If you like your music served as a unique experience filled with serious musicianship, passionate and emotive music, then please allow us to fulfil your needs and book your tickets!

How would you describe your music to someone not familiar with it?

Phoebe: Smooth and sultry, jazz-infused soul. I love tasty, sophisticated melodies, soothing harmony and laid-back grooves. My music explores the deeply personal emotions of human experiences. I want to share these stories with people and connect with my audiences through sound.

Joel: It’s soulful. It’s heavily groove based. It’s a bit jazzy… But most importantly, it’s emotive and melodic and that goes beyond genre. I’ve always viewed music making as an exercise in painting emotions through sound. That’s really what my music is about.

How would you describe your dynamics? How does your personal relationship translate into an artistic collaboration?

Phoebe: Funnily enough, our relationship began as a working one. Joel was looking for a singer to collaborate with on a new project, a few years ago, and we just clicked. I hadn’t even finished my music degree when we started working together. A few months later, we started seeing each other – the day we played our first show! I think getting to know each other as musicians and artists first, helped develop our relationship into a personal one. Sometimes, it’s challenging, as I’m still growing as an artist and learning to communicate the sounds in my head to a producer (Joel). We are constantly creating and moving each other forward. It’s nice to be able to collaborate and use our own strengths to help each other. Joel really understands me as an artist and the vision I have for my music. I understand the essence of his music and the emotions he’s looking to communicate through the songs I sing for him. It’s really special to have that whole other level of connection with somebody. I think it helps us to understand each other better, as artists and as people. It’s also nice to have somebody to share your dream and the journey with.

Joel: Working with Phoebe is great. We’re fortunate enough that we have very different skill sets. We complement each other quite nicely! I guess the challenge then has been to know when to rely on each other and when to take on a task ourselves. I think were still finding that balance, especially having recently relocated. Artistically speaking, it’s great. We know intuitively how to collaborate and who should take the lead at each stage of creation. One of the other challenges I think we face is retaining our individual artistry and identities, because they are distinct and separate. It’s not a huge one, but we have to be intentional about whose project were working on and slotting in to that frame of mind.

Although this is your ‘official’ debut at the club (and at Melbourne’s jazz community), you’ve recently been featuring in gigs around town. Has it been easy for you to put your foot in Melbourne’s jazz scene?

Phoebe: The music scene here in Melbourne has been very welcoming to both of us. It’s really lovely to see musicians and venues alike, supporting each other! I’ve never been very comfortable with selling myself to people and getting myself out there. That was definitely a challenge to begin with. But the scene down here is very open and there isn’t a sense of competition between musicians. I’ve had some great experiences performing with bands like the Back To Basie Big Band and Lake Minnetonka. I also think there’s a healthy scene of young jazz musicians coming into their own here in Melbourne. It’s great to see these players getting the chance to develop through playing in real, live experiences. As for myself, I’ve always been somewhat of a crossover artist – not quite tradition jazz, not quite classic soul, or old-school R’n’B. So really, I hope I’ll be a part of a few music communities down here in Melbourne and playing with amazing musicians from different walks of life.

Joel: Melbourne has been incredibly welcoming as a musical community. There’s a lot of life in the scene here. People go out to see music. Musicians are more open and wanting to see others succeed. It really did blow our minds when we first moved down here! In some ways it has been easy. In others, it’s been difficult. It takes time to become part of a community and we’ve had to be patient (not one of my strongest traits). Getting out to gigs and jamming with local musicians, booking our own gigs and getting to know people have all been important steps in that process. It is a scene that rewards good musicianship and a good work ethic. Now, six months in, I feel like were a part of the community and slowly building many great relationships. I can see a whole lot of potential to build a great career in music down here, in a way that wasn’t possible previously.

Why did you decide to move from Sydney to Melbourne?

Phoebe: After I released my debut EP last year, I wanted to push myself forward. Sydney is a beautiful city, but it lacks a thriving music scene. Melbourne has always been part of my life growing up (my Dad was actually born here). Joel and I made a few trips to Melbourne over the last few years and we really just fell in love with the culture. It was fortunate that we were both in a stage of our lives and careers, where we felt that now was the time to take a leap of faith, to create the kind of sustainable career we really want. It has been a wonderful challenge in so many ways. Moving here has given me a whole new purpose and really allowed me to focus on my music. It’s been difficult missing my family and learning how to create opportunity for myself while being patient at the same time. As a freelance musician and independent artist, you’re completely responsible for your career. It’s up to you to make sure you’re prepared for, when that break finally comes along. Unfortunately, you never know when that’s going to happen! But I’ve been lucky enough to have some great experiences and opportunities with venues like Paris Cat.

Joel: There’s been a lot of press regarding the music scene in Sydney and how its struggling. It’s definitely not all bad. We played with some phenomenal musicians in Sydney and a few killer venues. That being said, it was incredibly tough to get any traction as an original artist. Not to mention being an instrumentalist, as well. I had wanted to live in Melbourne for some time. I had played a few gigs here and visited several times. It seemed like the barriers to success here as a musician were just a little lower. The transition has been pretty smooth actually. I’ve been a full time musician for years now, working as a freelancer for the most part. That made it challenging. Moving states, living on savings and slowly trying to build up freelancing work is a tough call. Getting over that first hurdle was the biggest stress, especially mentally. We’ve done it now and I can see things on the up from here!

What is your greatest aspiration?

Phoebe: Essentially, I really just want to create great music that resonates with people. I want my audience to be moved in some way by the sounds I create. To know that my art brings joy or comfort or pleasure or some kind of emotion to those who listen, that would be something! I aspire to being able to play huge shows in incredible venues, touring internationally and recording. Lots of recording! In 10 years time, I hope I’ve created and released a few albums and played some big shows! I’d love to play some international jazz festivals too.

Joel: My biggest goal as a musician is to make a statement on my instrument and as a composer and producer. I want to contribute something that’s undeniably me. More than that, I want to contribute something that’s valuable and worthwhile for people. With that, I hope, will come some level of notoriety and success that can help me to continue to build a career on my skills as a musician. I treat my craft really seriously and that will always have the focus. Of course there are many goals for the future – playing an international stage, recording a full album, the list goes on. But through it all, I aspire to be a unique voice on my instrument that people recognize as something that resonates with them.

How did you find your voice as an artist?

Phoebe: That’s a very interesting question. I suppose it started with piano lessons when I was very young. It’s one of those instruments that really lends itself to creating music. I started writing songs on the piano when I was around eight years old and heavily inspired by the great vocalists I listened to. I started exploring what my singing voice sounded like and eventually began writing lyrics too. Once I found my singing voice, I think that’s when my journey as an artist began. Since then, I’ve never really stopped creating music.

Joel: Music has always fascinated me. I’m a curious person, always investigating and experimenting. I’ve always felt like I have something to say, musically. Like theres a message hidden deep inside that saxophone somewhere… It’s taken me years to not only build up the skill, but essentially the confidence and wisdom to know how to let it all out. It’s not something that suddenly happened in an ‘a ha’ moment. Neither is it something static. That voice is constantly evolving with my experiences and challenges.

How did you get into jazz?

Phoebe: I have my Dad to thank for this one. He would play us old jazz and blues records as often as he possibly could, since my very first memory. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan – the list goes on! I was just in awe of the sounds these artists could create. I don’t really remember a time when jazz wasn’t a part of my life. For me, jazz is ultimately a beautiful universal language of freedom, communication and interaction. There is a powerful kind of call and response that exists between musicians and audiences. When you see any great live jazz band playing, you can almost see the exchange of ideas and energy between the musicians on stage and the audience as though they are playing off each other. Jazz is the language of improvisation and the freedom of expressing yourself through rhythm and sound.

Joel: My High School saxophone teacher, Johnny Greenan, got me into jazz. It was classic recordings like Kind or Blue that inspired me. Cannonball Adderly, in particular. Chet Baker and Art Pepper were artists I loved at that time as well. I always loved the idea of improvising. I can’t really explain it, I was just drawn to that. And it’s become a life-long obsession! Jazz is such a hard term to define isnt it? I see it as both a musical legacy that began in America and a philosophy of freedom, questioning the status quo and communication between musicians and audiences. There really aren’t many rules when it comes to jazz, except that I believe its a genre that takes huge dedication to understand and master.

Who are your heroes?

Phoebe: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis – these are the greats who shaped me as a musician. Artists like Melody Gardot, Robert Glasper, Lianne La Havas, Erykah Badu and Donny and Lalah Hathaway also heavily inspire me.

Joel: Kenny Garret, because he plays with so much soul and spirit. Michael Brecker was a true master on the instrument and a truly humble human being. David Sanborn who could say more with one note than many can with a thousand. Miles Davis who single handed reinvented Jazz three times. That list could get a lot longer, fast.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

Phoebe: ‘Flamenco Sketches’ – Miles Davis.

It’s a cold and rainy afternoon and for some reason, this song has always sounded better to me in winter. It’s one of my all time favourites.

Joel: ‘Not Yet’ by Michel Camilo.

It’s got an earnest urgency and tension about it. which is kind of where I’m at! There’s also a blazing alto solo by Chris Hunter towards the end which doesn’t hurt.

Phoebe Day and Joel Sena make their Paris Cat debut on Saturday 18 August