Baltimore-born and -raised Phoebe Jean Dunne, the one-woman musical alchemist who concocts a genre-defying breed of hybrid pop as Phoebe Jean and the Air Force, has a radical idea for the followup to her Heartbreakers debut. “On my next album I’m going to try something totally different and actually know what I’m doing first,” Dunne says, erupting into an infectious laugh. The French label Lentonia Records releases that debut June 12, and Dunne was in Paris in late May and early June to tour and do publicity (in addition to earlier shows in Germany and the Netherlands). For this interview she’s Skypeing via iPod, and as she leans over to hear her interviewer over its small speakers, her dark, curly hair, a New Romantic pouf with a personality all its own, persistently falls into her eyes, and she intermittently shakes it back or brushes it behind an ear.
She’s not being faux modest confessing that she didn’t know what she was doing. Musicians regularly have to learn the recording process on the job early in their careers. Dunne recorded Heartbreakers by herself wherever she happened to be—bedrooms, bathrooms, cars. Perhaps she would start with a beat, then maybe add a bass line, a melody, and eventually run through a heap of vocal tracks, adding and subtracting layers until she found her sound. “For me, making music is about space,” she says. “I’m not a trained musician. I don’t understand how to have control of the composition before I go into it. I just start with something and then I fill in the gaps with something else. I build [a song] up, track after track after track, and then I’ll go in and I’ll subtract things out, tons of editing, and, like, 50, 60 vocal takes, and then spend an afternoon chopping them and basically writing the song through the takes.”
The process sounds labor intensive and piecemeal, but the final product feels organic. Heartbreakers delivers 14 songs of personal fortitude following intense emotional blows. A haunting, languid hip-hop beat pushes “Facts of Nature” along its slinking stroll, which Dunne opens with the stark scene-setting a cappella: “It has not all been wasted/ I cry, it’s all I’ve tasted/ It must be all I’m facing/ ’cause still my heart be racing.” A stabbing pair of keyboard notes puts a Psycho shower-scene rhythm behind Dunne’s ethereal vocals in “Surefire.” With its bouncing beat and Dunne’s floating vocals, album opener “King Size Bed” offers a slice of cloud-skipping, the Dø-ish dreampop, while the stripped-down beat and vibrating keyboard melody of “December 20th” is a dose of Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s “Birdy Num Num”-ish atmospheric instrumental interlude.
In fact, Heartbreakers’ closest attitude analogy may be a late-1970s/early-1980s ZE Records label mate of cultural explorer Descloux: Cristina Monet-Palaci. With her voice’s high register and breathy undertow, her music’s basis in the beats of urban hip-hop and dance clubs, and her lyrics’ detached engagement, Dunne explores that oddly agreeable place where splinter-group postpunk throb hits populist disco to birth some ornery fun, a vibe where radio pop meets underground good time. Her music isn’t as New Wave-y shiny, and Dunne doesn’t embrace the same degree of fearless irony, but Heartbreakers contains enough of a streak of decadent grit to lend it a bit of Monet-Palaci’s gutter-posh brio.
Her musical ideas were definitely shaped by all reaches of the map. “Being from Baltimore, you can’t escape the club sounds, and that has influenced me definitely,” she says. “But I love a lot of music. My mom listened to a lot of music from West Africa. My dad loved Bob Dylan and some ’60s music. I love Diana Ross and Motown, a lot of old dub, roots reggae. I used to go down to Sound Garden in Fells Point and discover new music, [but] I kind of totally stopped doing that. I don’t really consume anything now except what’s on the radio or old records or things my friends are doing.”
One of those friends, Pozsi B. Kolor, created Heartbreakers’ cover art and suggested its sequencing, an ordering that gives the album a distinct flow. It’s an impressive debut for someone who didn’t start calling herself a musician until 2009, when a stranger at a party in Berlin asked her what she did; she was visiting a friend, her first trip to Europe. He invited her to play a party, which led to more shows, which led to Lentonia asking her to record a single, which led to Heartbreakers.
And just as Dunne’s musical output is her own distillation of the music she’s consumed, the thematic terrain her lyrics traverse has a personal trajectory as well. On Thanksgiving Day 1997, the small aircraft her father was piloting crashed on Cape Cod. She was on board. “When I was 14, the plane went down and unfortunately he passed away and his girlfriend also,” Dunne says. “But me and my sister and my dog survived. It was pretty crazy.
“You know, the album’s called Heartbreakers, and that was one of the first heartbreaks I felt,” she continues. “But the way I feel about that is sort of the way I feel about all heartbreaks, which is that in the end it’s actually a blessing in the sense that when you feel some real intense pain and sadness and you’re faced with a lot of challenges, it sort of breaks your heart open in a way, and then you have all this space that you can fill with beautiful things. So if you have the courage and patience and luck to be able to fill that back up, in the end you’re more full. And it’s only through these hard things that you learn anything.”
Phoebe Jean and the Air Force plays July 19 at Sonar. For more information visit phoebejean.com.