Meet Singer-Songwriter Latifah Phillips of Moda Spira
Singer, songwriter and producer Latifah Phillips opens her heart and soul on Moda Spira (@modaspira), a musical project marked by an uncommon emotional honesty and melodies brimming with tenderness. Making records that connect us to each other is her trademark.
Interviewer Amber Young (@amber) is Ello’s Lead Curator, living in San Francisco with her partner @joy, enjoying art, food and urban hiking.
Amber: Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get interested in music?
Latifah: I cannot remember a time that I was not digesting music as a kid. My mom is an insane piano player and started teaching me piano by ear when I was two years old. Then at three, in order to keep up with big sister, I started Cello with the Suzuki method. I remember taking long drives with my mom and sister and for entertainment we would sing songs in three part harmonies. As soon as I got my first portable cassette tape player I was constantly listening to music. Top 40, (which was Phil Collins, Janet, Madonna, Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Paula, Bruce Hornsby, etc.) whatever tape I could get my hands was constantly flooding my ears, I would not leave home without it. In order to resist classical cello becoming my life, I quit at age fifteen and picked up guitar because it seemed cooler. I bought Dave Matthew’s “Under the Table and Dreaming” Guitar Tab book and taught myself to play. I never stopped playing the piano, made it through every Disney, Top40, and artist song book I could. I distinctly remember thinking, “I wish I could be a musician for a job” as a teenager but never thought it was viable as a career. My freshmen year in college I played guitar and sang in the stairwell of my dorm because the acoustics made anyone sound good…and it was in that cement stairwell that I realized this had to be my path.
Amber: Your new album, Moda Spira, is complexly rich in its melodies and the emotions expressed both lyrically and musically -- can you share how these songs came to be?
Latifah: I have been in bands the last decade, and as the band started winding down our touring life I began writing new songs. My husband Reid was the guitar player in the band, and to be frank, we had gotten ourselves in a rough patch. We were constantly fighting and had begun to let go of kindness between us in daily interactions. We came off the road full time and spent a year in counseling. In that year we began to be painfully honest, timidly forgiving until it became easier and easier to do it. I wrote some songs when it was our darkest season, others chronicling the ups and downs of the healing process, and a few on the other side in a place of full acceptance and love of one another. The record became my way of working through that season. I needed it to cement the experience for myself. To remember where we were and what we came back from. I am so grateful for a partner that was “all in” with me and willing to spend the time pushing through and I love this record because it reminds me of that. My hope is it will also serve others working through hard times in their relationships. We all need encouragement to be more patient, loving, and kind but also to be reminded we are not alone in our pain, even though it feels like we are most times.
Amber: What inspires your music? Where do you go for inspiration?
Latifah: Beauty and pain. Life experience will always be the first source. Currently I have been really inspired to create new music since our last US election. The documentary “13th” has been inspiring me the last week in particular. But other great art like a glorious film, or a wondrous painting also get my musical brain percolating.
Amber: You are also a producer and have produced albums for indie artists, including A Boy & His Kite, helping them place “Cover Your Tracks” on the soundtrack for Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part II. Can you share more about being a producer?
Latifah: It is a huge honor to produce another artist. You are helping to encourage and guide them in their musical journey. I see my job as this: to not let the artist get in their own way and keep them true to their musical vision, while helping them create the best music they can in that moment. I love the ins and outs of making a record, songwriting, capturing great sounds, coming up with layers and beds of sounds. I can’t help but feel like a mother hen a little with my artists. It’s a privilege to be in the creative space with them because of the vulnerability that is required in crafting a record. I also particularly love to produce vocals. Because I am a vocalist as well and know the intimacy required to deliver an honest vocal it is a blast to draw that out of other singers.
Amber: Do you have a favorite song or theme on the album? How did the story develop?
Latifah: I have a few favorites. “She Whispers” will always hold a special place in my heart, it gives nods to Sade whom I love sonically. I remember lying in bed one night and feeling terrified that there was no hope left, then waking up early and in the still part of the morning realizing as the sun rose my courage for the day rose with it. The lyrics come out of that moment for me.
Another fave is “What You Need.” I wrote it for Reid and another dear friend of mine that were struggling. It’s so hard to love someone so much and feel helpless to take away their pain. This song comes from a place of declaration of solidarity with the ones I love. That even though I can’t release them from their grief I can stand next to them in it.
My last fave is “Thread the Needle.” It ends the record because it’s an honest reflection of the cyclical nature of love. We love, we fight, we make up, we forgive, we love, we fight again and so on. I like the recognition that life is not perfect and therefore the way we care for one another isn’t either. But once you round a few corners you realize that conflict is normal and there is a way through.
Amber: How would you describe the style of music you create?
Latifah: This is the most genre bending record I have ever made. It has nods to 90s RnB, 80s pop, cinematic Indie Rock, and even classical with songs like “Stillness”. Mostly I think I would describe it as emotive. It comes directly from my heart and my goal is to marry the lyric with the melody and music so that it serves the sentiment of the song as holistically as possible.
Amber: Do you listen to the same type of music that you play? Who should we be listening to right now?
Latifah: I have been listening to a lot of standards, stacks, jazz, and old school music the last few years. Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Joao Gilberto, Otis Redding, Ella, Nat King Cole etc. BUT I also love Imogen Heap, Rhye, Norah, Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Jonsi, etc.
Amber: What is your dream project?
Latifah: I would love to collaborate with Imogen Heap. She is a cornerstone artist for me and very inspirational! I would also love to make a record that speaks into social injustice and systematic oppression in a way that is effective and compelling.
Amber: As a musician and producer, what are your thoughts on social media, and how it helps or hurts artists today? What do you think of Ello?
Latifah: I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with social media. As an individual I find it can be distracting from real living. It can be a huge time suck and we can get lost in things that are black holes of emotional energy. But as an artist I find it incredibly helpful. It is exciting to be able to see other’s work and inspiring. It’s also helpful to be able to connect with my listeners. Ello has been a wonderful platform to engage on. I have found the community very supportive and kind. I also think the caliber of artists on Ello is outstanding.
Amber: What’s next for you? Are there any new mediums or areas of business you want to explore?
Latifah: I am releasing some new videos that I am thrilled about! One is live performance video of “The Hard Way” with the badass women of Urban Doxology. I have always wanted to sing in a girl group like En Vogue and these ladies have CHOPS! We filmed it in an abandoned private school in Richmond, VA in one evening and it was a blast! The amazing guys at Fourth Line Films really came through for us and shot it beautifully.
The other new video is an art video of “In the Fight.” Edited by the great Neil Sandoz. He also shot all the drone footage, but the dance and human footage was shot with my iPhone in my living room with a friend…can’t believe how great those cameras are! I love how visually enticing this one is.
I would love to get into some multi-media performances with dancers, painters, video etc. I have lots of vision but need to bunker down and find folks that want to collaborate!
I am also beginning work on a new Moda album! So stay tuned!
Watch these two music videos here:
The Hard Way by Moda Spira
In the Fight by Moda Spira