In this Rolling Stone AU/NZ series, we take a look at some rising Aotearoa artists who are looking to impress in 2023 and beyond. It may still be an uncertain time for the Kiwi music industry at large, but exciting new artists like those included in this series keep on emerging.
It’s NZ Music Month, the summer has long departed, the nights are drawing in, but luckily a band like Revulva exists with the ideal sonic tonic to curtail the approaching winter blues.
The packed ensemble – mostly eight musicians, sometimes nine – makes an effortlessly cool concoction of soul, funk and jazz that sounds like it drifted out of a dimly-lit basement bar into the cold, night sky, luring passersby with its warmth and energy.
Based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, the group have been impressing on the capital’s live circuit for a few years now, with some of the city’s most talented musicians coming together to experiment and generally cut loose. Led by Phoebe Johnson, all members have plenty of other projects on the go, but they all sound like they’re having immense fun as part of Revulva.
Johnson’s sprightly spoken word has taken on a wildly varied number of topics, including the strangely alluring “Sniffly Lady”, which urges the listener to “come out and dance” despite the singer quite clearly being under the weather.
They followed last year’s well-received EP Girl’s Gotta Eat – which earned Revulva a nomination for best EP at the 2022 Student Radio Network Awards – with new single “This Town”, a track that explored darker territory than usual.
The rhythm section begins furtively as Johnson mutters moodily about attempting to avoid an ex in public, detailing the perils of small-town dating; the line, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us,” has never sounded so menacing. And like most Revulva cuts, the track soon explodes into a dizzying selection of jazzy sounds, the tempo catching up to Johnson’s excitement about reclaiming her life and her town.
After a busy start to 2023, Revulva are enjoying some much-needed rest, but have “new material, new videos and new ventures” on the way soon.
You can read our full interview with Johnson below.
Revulva: My parents were big on playing music all the time around the house and definitely humoured the “diva” that was growing within me. I would often sit everyone down and make them watch my renditions of The Pogues, Talking Heads and Steely Dan songs. I think music and theatrics since then have been seriously intertwined for me and I couldn’t start a band that didn’t give the audience a show.
What artists influenced you growing up?
All of the above plus Jamiroquai, Carole King, Fleetwood Mac – I recall going through a big Pixies phase as well.
When did you discover your passion for creating music?
I’ve been writing songs since I was a teenager – at first trying to take other people’s stories and put it to music, and then it became a great way of translating my experiences and feelings. It felt good to decompress stressful situations – like running into your ex at a gig in Wellington while on a first date – and turn it into something people can dance to.
What are some career highlights so far?
Our sold out hometown show (Meow, Wellington) on our last tour was a huge highlight. Was crazy to think no one knew who we were in our hometown just three years ago!
Our last show of the tour, a set on the Sunday of 121 Festival, was a really sweet one. This was our final show for a little while, while I write the rest of the album and plan our next movements. I felt overwhelmed with pride for myself, my friends and this weird band we have made.
View this post on Instagram
What kind of personality traits and values do you believe it takes to succeed in the music industry?
I think resilience – so many no’s and bad days have made me want to chuck it in on many occasions. A good sense of humour, ability to back yourself and your ideas while also compromising and taking advice from the musos who have paved the way.
How would you describe your music to a potential fan?
At first it was “nu-jazz, nu-wave, nu-pop”, then when that got too complicated I would say “soul funk adjacent” and now I tell them to come to the show!
How easy/difficult is it making music as part of such a large ensemble?
It is a beautiful process but can have its moments. I sculpt the bones of the song by myself, in my room – just notes and a guitar. I’ll bring the song into rehearsal, hum the horn lines, beat box what I think the drums should be, and within an hour the song is very much alive.
It’s a beautiful process because if there’s ever a piece missing or I don’t know what happens at the end/bridge, someone else knows how to finish my own sentence. The band are also a great sounding board for full lyrics that aren’t quite there yet. I’m still really glad they talked me out of “the only good ex is a dead ex”. Please keep in mind I’m not that dark on my ex-relationships, I had just watched The Good, The Bad, The Ugly the night before!
Writing and arranging with a large band can be an exercise of compromise sometimes, since we all have such different musical tastes and inclinations. While I do write the material, I think everyone has such a unique voice in the band and it’s important to have them all heard. We definitely have a rule of trying out all the ideas people have as they pop up when we’re arranging. It’s usually apparent which pathway is the right one after giving all the ideas a go.
Your music is so wonderfully varied. Do you think genre is becoming a thing of the past?
Absolutely! I think (hope) that our music has a cohesive Revulva flavour to it, but no song really sounds like it’s from the same genre. It has its sensibility, but when I deliver a show I want to give an eclectic mix that confuses and elates them.
What are your goals for 2023 and beyond? What can fans expect from you this year?
After such a huge tour and recording and release the single and video, we’re keen to hibernate for a wee bit. Hector and Lily (keys and sax) are off touring the world, and the rest of us are knuckling down, ready to take on the album. We’ll be back in full force with new material, new videos and new ventures around the country…