One Album at a Time, Phabo Is Continuing The Legacy of The Soulquarians

Robyn Mowatt Robyn Mowatt is a staff writer at Okayplayer where she…
Phabo
Photo Credit: Mark Peaced

We spoke with singer Phabo about how D’Angelo inspired his debut, Soulquarius; his upbringing; and what’s next for him in 2021.

Phabo’s debut album, Soulquarius, is a culmination of the lessons he’s learned about intimate relationships, situationships and love coming in and out of his life. 

The name of the debut pays homage to the beloved Soulquarians collective. On the album, Phabo builds on the foundation The Roots, D’Angelo, J Dilla, Erykah Badu, and other members of the collective perfected. He wasn’t afraid to experiment with melodies paired with honest lyricism as D’Angelo and Badu did on both Voodoo and Mama’s Gun. Phabo also co-produced six tracks on the release which allowed him the ability to guide the direction of it, another similarity he has with the neo-soul collective. 

Released in July, Soulquarius is an essential listen due to the artist’s ability to create a memorable album with his past experiences, successes and lessons as sources of inspiration. Airy vocals, lush chords and bass-heavy drums lead the album and each of these components fare well alongside Phabo’s intimate storytelling. Soulquarius is his take on modern R&B, but it also displays that he’s a student of the late-’90s neo-soul movement.

Originally from San Diego, California, Phabo grew up moving around. At eight, he recalls moving to St. Petersburg, Florida with his father, mother, and younger sister. Even with the moves, he was always active in the church mainly because his grandfather and uncles were pastors. Instrument lessons also consumed him even though he feels they never really stuck, he studied the piano, drums and even the guitar. But, all of these lessons were short lived since, he admits, he was a bit scatterbrained. 

“[Lessons] didn’t come natural for me,”Phabo said during a Zoom call in early August. “I’d get drum sets for my birthday and for Christmas and by the next Christmas, this drum set is being given to my cousin. Because anytime he’s coming over, he’s using it and I’m not into it like that.” 

Phabo’s family relocated to Long Beach, California by the time he was 16 in 2008. He’d always engaged with music, especially what he heard in his home. While in high school he delved into the R&B and hip-hop that was out Iman Omari, Jesse Boykins III, and Overdoz were a few staples for him. He admired Omari and Boykins III’s distinct voices, which, to him, were just as pure as powerhouse vocalists like Tyrese, Lyfe Jennings, and Case. 

Phabo

Photo Credit: Anthony Freeman

His attraction to music led him to the jazz band at his high school where he played the clarinet. He spent his high school years feeling different from many of his Orange County classmates. But, regardless of this he pushed through this adversity and finished high school. He went on to junior college but never finished. 

“[After high school] I think I quickly found out that LA was one of those cities where if you don’t have those kindergarten sandbox stories with people it’s not really a thing,” he said. “I didn’t have a crew of people. I had a couple of homies whose grandmothers embraced me; Bible studies at the crib and stuff. We on bullshit later at night, but Bible studies at the house, and that kind of feeling, but it wasn’t like no crew of people.”

In 2015, he decided to leap headfirst into releasing music. “Enter You,” no longer available on streamers like SoundCloud, was his first single. He expresses it had a sound wholly inspired by the ‘80s paired with raspy vocals. From there he felt he wanted to continue building his artistry. The following year he started writing music for artists signed to Atlantic and was still figuring out his exact sound, even though it wasn’t neo-soul or R&B at this point. “Sunflower,” another early single he dropped in 2016 was a rough cut that featured Phabo once again experimenting, it leaned heavily into the alt space. 

Then came Free, a six-track EP that’s also been wiped from DSPS, which dropped in 2020. The nearly four-year gap he took from releasing music as cohesive compilations didn’t come into fruition due to him working on Soulquarius while managing a CBD shop in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. During this time he also fostered relationships, one relationship that’s still intact is his connection with Soulection that stemmed from meeting Joe Kay, the co-founder of the collective. Eventually, Phabo signed to Soulection Records.

Soulquarius is a project that asks probing questions about lust, self-doubt, monogamy, and even heartache. The 16 tracks provide an intimate perspective of Phabo’s ongoing hunt for love and loyalty.  

When tasked with describing the premise of the album he shares, “I work hard. I work almost too hard on some hubris level. I feel like I could just save everything and do everything,” Phabo said. “At the end of the day, [Icarus] ended up dying as a result of just going too hard. Like who are you trying to prove that to? So, message to myself, message to the world that you need breaks. You need time to yourself, time to process. Time to assess everything that’s around you.”

We spoke with Phabo to get an understanding of the inspirations behind Soulquarius, his upbringing, and what’s next for him in 2021. 

What type of music were you most inspired by growing up?

Naturally as a kid, anything with bright colors was catching my attention. So all the Missy Elliott, the Hype Williams, [that] era of music when there was a Florida resurgence when Lil John moved to Miami. And he was fucking with Trick Daddy and Fat Joe. Really the collaborative efforts that were dropping in those times are the things that I remember the most. I remember “Ladies Night” with Da Brat and things like that kind of stood out. I remember all the moments that were meant to be moments. The A&Rs during those times were doing that shit.

Can you walk me through pre-2019 when you were figuring out your sound?

[R&B] wasn’t really my sound. It was producers coming into a session. They want me to write for said artist. These are the beats, pick from these 30 beats. I like 12 of them out of the 30, I cut on them as opposed to going in and making everything from the base, literally from silence. And when you create things from silence, it feels like how you guys are receiving [it]. 

Everything that I’m being told about Soulquarius I appreciate every ounce of praise that I’m getting but at the same time, it’s exactly what we wanted to do, it’s exactly what we meant to do. None of this is accidental. 

Phabo

Photo Credit: Mark Peaced

Why did you title the album Soulquarius?

I deep dove into D’Angelo and I ended up paying $5 to buy this documentary called Devil’s Pie off this German website. It’s super hard to find, you can’t even find the documentary. I’ve always wondered what happened to D’Angelo? Being such a prolific artist, I’ve always had these questions [about] him not wanting to continue to drop music, to take that long break that he did.

I started Googling, bro, and it shows his birthday, he’s an Aquarius. So I started watching the documentary. [It] engulfed me during the top of quarantine. Mind you, I had already had some songs recorded that were going to go on the mixtape titled How’s My Driving? But this is one of the soul chords. [In the documentary] I’m seeing [D’Angelo] talk about how he got on stage and he looked out into the crowd of 10,000 people and realized that when he puts his hand up, they put their hand up; and he realized his power, in that moment, just like a switch went off where it was just too much.

[He preferred] his genius be revered [more] than his body. After the [“Untitled (How Does It Feel)”] video came out, he didn’t know the difference between “Are y’all praising me because I look good or are y’all praising me because I really put my hard work and my effort into this?” So, I kept deep diving. I’m an Aquarius, so it was easy for me to be like, Soulquarius, I’m not a “Soulquarian” per se, but Soulquarius is what the essence of this is being built around. This is my first time really having freedom to record.

Why do you like creating music about relationships and past things that have happened to you with women that you’ve been with?

Because I don’t want to cap on the track. If I’m saying something, it’s going to be something that I went through. I’m good at writing from a perspective that isn’t mine. I could create a whole story, but at the same time I just wanted to stay true to that. And so, naturally when I speak about relationships and those things, I’m very mindful of the way in which I detail it and very mindful of it all making sense. And it being in a chronological order without being too one, two, three, four, not no step process per se, but I know when speaking of relationships, trying to still revere the fact that this woman lowkey means everything to me, even though she put me through hell.

I tried to make sure that I don’t dirty mack on the track. Because I noticed in a lot of music 75% of this song is about what this nigga ain’t doing or what this nigga is doing and how she should choose you on the last part. I’m kind of cool on that, so, if I detail relationships and I detail situationships and things like that, I could speak from my perspective and how I did things. And it comes off a lot more authentic that way.

What’s next for you in 2021?

More performances. I don’t have very many under my belt, which excites me. I’m eager to make those tweaks in rehearsals and see what works and what doesn’t and then see what cities go hardest and things of that sort. So I have a lot more shows lined up. Obviously Day N Vegas at the end of the year, November 12th. I’m really excited about it, it’s my first festival. I’m [also] excited to drop a single, just to show people where I’m headed with the sound next. We got so much heat, just chilling, waiting for the right time.

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