EDUCULT Talks: with Phoebe Violet
Phoebe Violet hails from Costa Rica and came to Austria with her family as a teenager. EDUCULT spoke with the young violinist and singer about her life, her career as a musician and about cultural politics in Costa Rica and Austria.
EDUCULT: Where do you come from artistically and what exactly does your musical work look like?
Phoebe Violet: I mainly play the violin, sing and write music. The whole thing started very early. I started playing the violin when I was three years old, because I was anxious to do what my sister was doing – she was already playing the violin by then. I learned it in Costa Rica – piano, choir, it was all there. It was very valuable for my mother that we had music as part of our lives. And we grew up with music because of it,that goes without saying.
Is your mother also a musician? Or simply interested?
In my family, everyone was somehow involved with music. But only as a hobby, because classical music and Latin America, that didn’t coexist back then. My sister was part of the first group of young children who learned to play the violin at a state-funded music school. Before that it didn’t exist. So that was thirty years ago. Music was always present in my childhood. Also dance, ballet and painting, the artistic side was somehow very distinct. Then we went to the music conservatory in Costa Rica. My father comes from England, but we didn’t grow up with him. And when I was 14, my mother met an Austrian, who then became my stepfather. And so we moved to Austria, where we continued violin lessons in a music school. This move was for health reasons, because my stepfather was not doing so well at the time and we didn’t know how it would develop. So we had a great life in Costa Rica, we didn’t run away or anything like that. My sister and I wanted to study abroad anyway and so it turned out well.
So what was it like as a teenager to move to a completely different continent?
For me it wasn’t so strange, oddly enough, since we moved very often. We changed schools a lot – my mother often changed her job as a teacher and so we moved around and about every four years we lived somewhere else, in Costa Rica. We were always in English speaking schools, where my mother taught. For me it was the easiest – I was fourteen, I didn’t know yet who I was, who my friends were – it was still very much open. And in Austria it suddenly became winter and you could hear German on the streets. However, it was not such a dramatic loss for me at that time. I was totally fascinated by the little things, the cool cars on the streets, the good roads everywhere, without holes. Of course, I missed the tropical smells, the humidity, the parrots flying through the sky. But it didn’t feel like a big change until much later.
Children and young people are often more flexible than you think and can adapt well. And the things that are difficult sometimes only come out later.
Exactly. And I was not alone here. I was with my mother and my sister, so my family was here too. We flew over every year and that was hard, but for different reasons. Because then you are an outsider wherever you are. And that is very unpleasant because you don’t want to be that.
When you come back?
Yes. But even as we lived there, we were still kind of outsiders. Because we were brought up very strictly, there was somehow always very much to do. We only listened to classical music at home, no alcohol, no salsa music. Dancing was something you learn, but not done at home with the family. It was all very serious.
Yes, actually! And so it was always a bit strange, even my name doesn’t sound Latin American, I have an English name. That’s why people have always insisted: “You’re not from here, actually”. And that was confirmed again, because I was completely “foreign” in Austria.
And was it difficult in terms of language?
It was cool because I went to an English-speaking school in Linz. So I was able to learn German slowly. And until I was eighteen, I was able to do that as well. Then I went to another group where we “foreigners” could learn German. But the lessons themselves were only in English and so it was no problem for me, which was great. Also a big advantage for me.
Once again back to your musical work. You said you play the violin mostly and you sing. Would you call any of this your “main strength”, something you do more, or something closer to your heart, where you feel more “at home”?
In the past it was definitely playing the violin, because it was like an arm for me, like an additional appendage to play the violin. I continued to play the violin at the music school in Linz and then moved to Vienna, where I got into the freelance scene. I actually made a living playing the violin. Now it has changed a bit: I’ve been writing songs since I was about thirteen. In addition, I learned to play the guitar to accompany myself. But the fact that I write music and that I sing and present it has been going on for five or six years. Likewise that I am saying that I want to work with it. So now I already have the feeling that all three things come together. Composing, singing and playing the violin. All three have exactly the same value. That is simply a way of expressing myself. And they all complement each other. And I cannot do just one thing for my own musical projects, I need all three.
Have you completed an artistic degree in one of the subjects? Or did you continue to study autodidactically after music school?
In Linz I played many solo violin concerts and the “classical side” was completely on my own side so to speak, that went well. Then I was at a competition for classical music where the jury was so mean. They just wanted to say something to put me down. And then it was clear to me that I definitely didn’t want to study classical music because it was just too conservative for me. I treat music as a way of expressing myself. And I have absolutely no interest in someone telling me that I’m playing it wrong because it doesn’t sound like Mozart. I think a score is there so that I can interpret it myself. Of course I understand the limits of saying: “Okay, you have to be able to do it the way it was, in the style of 200 years ago”. But I think there is simply much more space to be able to say, maybe this phrase means something different to me and I want to play it that way. I have also been painting for a very long time and I thought about dealing more with this subject, but the formal study was too abstract for me. And then I decided on architecture. I studied architecture for a while. I always made music on the side and then I decided against architecture – because it’s an office job and I love being on stage.
Have you ever had the feeling when you’re on stage with musicians who have a university education or when you work with them that you’re missing something? A certain technique or something like that? Or do you feel that you’ve made up for that by working on yourself?
This question is difficult for me to answer. The lack of academic training has given me an insane amount of uncertainty. You feel like a fraud within yourself. You sit in an orchestra, everyone has an education and you don’t. And you’re part of it. I had a nervous complex about it, of course, because I thought: “What am I doing here? All these people spend their whole lives studying and I come there because I practice.” But at the same time, I thought that in the end, a university degree would give you tools to get ahead, but nowadays, openness to information can offer you exactly the same thing if you are interested.
But it’s probably even more work, right?
Yeah, definitely. And you are of course very limited to what you think you lack in knowledge. And you feel then that you have a weakness there. You’re left to your own devices in the creation of things. Often you feel very alone. And that is of course very unpleasant. With an academic education you have a “stamp”, whether you can do it or not. You can say, “I can do this, they said that.” That’s how you say, “I can do this because I say that.” And only experience with other people confirms this, or they say: “No, she didn’t play Mozart like you should play it” and then you don’t get anything else, but you play yourself “into it”. And that’s not easy, because a lot of uncertainties arise and you doubt yourself completely and you think to yourself: “Why do I do this on my own? It’s so much more difficult.” But this is the path I have chosen. Also because the music has somehow always stayed by my side. At 18 I thought I’d become an architect. I didn’t think that later I’d want to be only occupied with music.
It’s through studying like this that you get to know many people and build up a network. Was it also more difficult for you to get into these circles?
Yes, totally. The willingness must be there in any case, that you can say that I’m going to this concert now to get to know people, because I didn’t get to know them in my studies or something like that. Every now and then I think to myself that it would have been so much easier. I would have already had a professor who would have said, she’d take me. But I was just rebelling on the road and saying I didn’t want this classical conservative world. Jazz was out of the question for me at that time, because I wasn’t so serious about singing back then and I wasn’t really interested in jazz violin. I was also too young back then to understand the diversity of this study. I was much more fascinated by architecture at that time.
Because we were talking about Costa Rica earlier: Are you still there regularly?
Less and less. The last time was five years ago. I used to go every year. But now I have a family here too, my own children. The journey is much too long and much too expensive and so I want to wait until they are bigger. Then you can do much more with them.
But do you still have family there?
Yes, yes. Grandma, uncle, friends, … I know who to call when I get there.
We at EDUCULT are very much concerned with cultural education and cultural policy. And the political aspect of cultural life, which is a big issue in Vienna. Can you give us an insight into how cultural policy works in Costa Rica? Does it work similarly as in Austria, or differently? Does it work better?
Music in Costa Rica has been developed quite differently than in Austria. The classical scene is maybe 30, 40 years old. Latin American music is of course much older, but nevertheless it is still a young continent – I mean we are talking about 500 years. From that I know that everyone who now plays classical music in an orchestra in Costa Rica grew up with us. And those who are now retiring were the founders of musical education. The movement that the youth has something to do with music is very strong, also politically. All my friends, with whom I studied, are in the process of founding orchestras in different provinces. There are many initiatives and movements where this is happening. But of course there is no money. If you are a member of the national orchestra, you still have to teach so that you can get a halfway normal income. As a freelancer you have to work full-time and definitely also teach; this is not different from Austria. From a social point of view, as a musician* you are already better off here than in Costa Rica. But I think politically it is exactly the same. So there is no money if you play something. You are practically given nothing or very little. It happens all the time. The only way you’ll get a good salary is if you have a certain name. In my opinion, the problem of the acceptance of artists in society in general is that you have the basic feeling that pleasure must be free. If something feels good, if you see something beautiful, hear it; it has to be free. I completely agree with that. But you don’t pay for pleasure; you pay for a person’s time and work, for the process of creation, for the daily exploration of the chosen art. The connection between the artist and the final product, or the process of creating a work of art, remains mostly hidden from humanity. Therefore there is no understanding for the intensity of this work if you are not an artist yourself.
With “high culture” there is already a little money, especially in classical music. But in the independent scene it is more difficult and probably depends on factors like the degree of popularity etc.
Yes. To be a musician means to be a businesswoman. An Artist as well. You won’t only make it if you are good. You have to know how to sell yourself. And nobody buys you until you have a certain number of people behind you. That means you have to do all the groundwork to make sure that someone even comes to your concert. So as a musician, as an artist, you have to do about six different jobs so that you can present what you love. And that’s actually like that all over the world, in my experience.
Is there a similar support landscape in Costa Rica, if you can call it that? So as difficult as it is in Austria, there is still a funding and subsidy landscape. Is there anything comparable in Costa Rica?
There are scholarships for families which are financially limited. It is promoted that children, no matter from which economic background, get all the same musical opportunities; I think that’s fantastic! There are always competitions at the conservatory to motivate students; the final prizes are solo performances in the theatre. But this is not supported with financial means, but only as a personal victory, so to speak. There are two main theaters in Costa Rica: Teatro Nacional and Melico Salazar. Teatro Nacional is comparable to the music club, Melico Salazar is more like the concert hall, where they do a lot more crossover stuff, dance performances and the like. The Teatro Nacional is much more conservative. Both theatres are supported and partly sponsored by the Ministry of Culture.
What is the general political situation in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is – for Latin American standards – very balanced. It is a democracy, the trend of the extreme right fortunately did not win in the last elections. And it is very peaceful compared to other Latin American countries, because we have no military. It is the only country in the world without a military. This means that something like a military dictatorship can be very difficult to achieve. And the Costa Ricans* are very proud of that. that anyone can go to college after school. That doesn’t mean there is no crime There are street thieves. That’s still disturbing, but this is something else. It’s not this political fear. And that’s something that makes me very proud to come from Costa Rica. That they can show how you can live without the military.
But do I also hear correctly that politics does not have such a strong influence on people’s lives – except that the profession of artist is not yet taken seriously enough by society?
Yes, in Costa Rica politics is not the biggest problem. But rather socio-political things. The huge difference between rich and poor, the capitalist input from the USA, that ruins a lot. I think people are more concerned about that than who’s president right now. Costa Rica is a gold mine – first of all in terms of vegetation, secondly it is a holiday paradise. It’s all in there. Because it is relatively safe and a lot of things are regulated with outdated regulations, a lot of people come from abroad, mostly from the USA, and they destroy a lot of things. Because I am so rarely in Costa Rica, it is shocking to see how many new, huge companies have changed an entire landscape. The educated people are brought in from outside, the people from Costa Rica who have access to higher academic education emigrate. They want to be somewhere else because in Costa Rica the opportunities are rather limited. If they already have the knowledge, they stay abroad. They won’t come back. In Costa Rica there is already a strong affinity for education: compared to these “Third World Countries”, 96% of the population is educated. The state spends money on this. It is very good in terms of hygiene, there are no epidemics. There are more and more demands to hire people from Costa Rica, to make small companies move forward a little bit, to change these economic regulations so that subsidies are paid to small companies that want to grow. But of course it is a slow process. Costa Rica wants to make itself a bit more international – not by the USA coming in, but by Costa Rica going out. I’m always pleased when I read news like this that something is happening in this direction. It gives me pleasure to see that they want to promote progress.
Finally, back to your life here: What are your plans for the near future? What are you doing at the moment or what are you working towards at the moment?
To continue writing music, to try more, to bring together several artistic directions. My main goal in the long run would be to be able to live from my own music. It’s a long process, I have to stay persistently behind it. And I would very much like to have more connection to Latin America within my music. I always write my lyrics very consciously and they are always in Spanish. And I always notice when Spanish-speaking people are in my concerts that what I do is received very differently by them. Thematically, I always try to present a different picture of society. For example, I’m writing a new repertoire, just love songs, where I don’t want to portray the woman as co-dependent. I would like to leave out this image of a relationship where the woman belongs to the man, or one cannot live without the other, and still be able to represent fragility. This is always difficult, but I think music can do so much in a society. If you have people singing lyrics, consciously or unconsciously, there is a message that stays in your head, it does something to you. And I am very conscious of what I write and what I want to say, because I want people to maybe get inspiration from doing things differently, looking at things differently.
That means that you are also lyrically active through it, at the same time as your musical work.
Yes – but I think that’s also the task of everyone who writes lyrics, that you deal honestly with the subject: “What am I saying right now?” I didn’t take it so seriously before, I was more looking for the rhythm and sound in the words. But now I want a message, I want to say something.
This is not always the case, for example, in pop or popular music in the broadest sense.
Yes, that’s true. But for me it has become incredibly important. I see no other sense for me to write songs if I have nothing to say. I like to work with an overall concept, holistically. I think that for me that also comes from architecture, that you always see that the design has a connection inside and outside. You enter a building and feel – in the case of beautifully designed houses – the connection of the whole. I work the same way musically. My aim is to give the listener an overall idea where the musical side supports the text and vice versa. Even if the listener does not understand my language, I want the emotions of the song to be understandable for everyone through the music. In my lyrics I am very socio-critical, or very critical about love, or very dreamy in approaching how I want to get on with my life. I love this totality in a project where the listener can dive into a world that is deliberately defined by someone. This is my goal with everything I do.
Thank you very much for the interview!