By Shannon Carlin
There must be something in the water in Baraboo, Wisc. That’s the one thing Monica Martin could come up with to explain the sudden rise of her band Phox.
All six members of the indie folk pop band hail from Baraboo, a city of nearly 13,000 that was nicknamed “Circus City” since it was the former headquarters of the Ringling Bros. Circus and is still the current home of the Circus World Museum. “It’s funny because it really only affected me in the sense that we went to the circus every summer,” Martin told Radio.com over the phone. “And every year there was a Milwaukee Memorial Day Parade where I had to dress up as a clown. I’d have sweat coming through my makeup while playing the trombone.”
Before it was demolished in 2004, the town was also the home of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, the largest weapons factory in the world during World War II. The factory produced sulfuric acid and smokeless powder for grenades, amongst other toxic chemicals during WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. So that contaminated water story might not actually be that farfetched. “It’s definitely damaged ground. I don’t know how much of that we’ve ingested,” she said, “but I like to think we’re some sort of super human-type band.”
Martin attended high school with the other five guys in the band — Matt Holmen, J. Sean Krunnfusz, Dave Roberts, Matteo Roberts and Zach Johnston — many of whom played in a local emo band called Superheroes By Night. Martin was a fan, but says she wasn’t hip enough to be a part of the band back then. At the time, Martins says she also had terrible anxiety that for a while made it hard for her to look people in the eye, never mind get up on a stage and perform. “I never thought about going on stage because I’m not a show person, I was really shy and uncomfortable,” she said. “But there’s always been a part of me that’s been curious about it.”
After high school, Martin moved to Madison, Wisc. to attend cosmetology school, or what she jokingly refers to as “Pretty Hair, Pretty Nails College.” But at that same time her old friends from Baraboo decided to move to Madison and start what would become Phox and wanted to know if she’d be their lead singer. At that time, Martin was still unsure about singing, and says even now being a frontwoman can be overwhelming. “I’m very appreciative of it, but I’m scared as hell,” she said with a laugh. A friend recently told her she probably has “impostor syndrome,” a psychological condition in which a person feels as if they don’t deserve the success they have achieved. It’s something she doesn’t deny. “I feel like I’m fooling someone,” she said. “I’m really glad to be doing it though it’s allowed me to come to terms with things that are scary to me that I otherwise would be able to dodge.”
Martin wrote all 12 songs on the band’s self-titled debut, out June 24 on Partisan Records. Coupled with the band’s 2013 self-released EP, Confetti, this is the first set of songs she’s ever written and she’s still getting used to the fact that people are going to be able to hear them. Mostly because she’s still figuring out how she feels about the songs herself.
When talking about the song “Slow Motion,” she says she doesn’t really know why it was chosen as the first single since it’s a bit chaotic. She chalks this up to “what happens with six people are making sounds together.” But it’s beautiful chaos. The combination of Martin’s jazz-infused vocals, instrumental interludes and non-linear storytelling keep you on the edge of your seat wondering where it’s going to go.
“I love hearing things I know that I love. I know, if I hear like three voices singing beautiful harmony and it’s just a beautiful sincere folk song, I will probably lose my s–t and I will probably listen to it over and over again,” Martin said. “But what’s really cool is when you hear something you didn’t know that you would like, but you do like. And like, my only guess and hope is that’s what’s happening with ‘Slow Motion.'”
If many of the tracks on the record sound like they’re straight out of her diary, it’s because they actually are. Martin holds nothing back, giving personal details of people and places that make it hard for the subject of the song to not know it’s about them. “I wanted to be an open book with people,” she said. “But I’m also at the point where it’s inappropriate.”
The song “Evil” was written about a guy she was seeing, who after they broke it off slept with her best friend, while “1936” was inspired by a heated conversation she had with her sister about a family member she says she’s embarrassed to be related to. While calling out a no-good ex can be vindicating, hurting family members and close friends has Martin often wondering if she’s gone too far, worrying she’s inadvertently thrown people in her life under the bus.
“I want to be vulnerable, but it comes with this reality that you make other people vulnerable by talking about their experiences in taking that route, which I know for me is the only route that I’ll be able to create and share stories,” she said, adding, “It’s a dangerous landscape and you have to be careful.”
Martin says she also needs to be careful about her own mental health, saying touring can trigger some of the anxiety issues she suffered as a teen. Sometimes she wishes she stayed at the salon and kept to singing in her kitchen while making her signature strawberry rhubarb custard pie, a dessert she swears is much easier to make than it sounds. But she also realizes she’s been given an opportunity to do something many people only dream of.
“At this point, the bad parts of [being in a band] maybe do outweigh the good parts of it, but I know I have to get to a place where I can have a good time,” she said. “I want to be comfortable and free to be who I am, and help others achieve the same thing.”
Pre-orders are ongoing for Phox, and the band will kick off a summer tour June 24. Get all the dates at the band’s website.