“It would be so cliche for me to look how I sound,” says Phlo “Elijah” Finister, the self-dubbed “Youthquaker”-inspired artist fast gaining traction for her compelling hybrid of Voguette mod and noir urban aesthetics. Growing up on the rougher side of L.A., Finister sought solace and hope in music, falling in love with particularly visual strands of Sixties music at an early age. She found Bob Dylan, then Edie Sedwick, then lost herself in the Swinging London-era fantasy of “Youthquakers,” a sharply stylish and modern collective of young women emblematic of all the things she loved and aspired to be. Models Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, as well as Diana Vreeland – the powerful Vogue editrix who christened those intrepid ingenues as definers of their generation – became her heroines, and provided both a departure from her bleak circumstance and a creative compass for her own future. “When I found mod, I found myself,” she says. “I wasn’t rebelling, I just suddenly knew I was destined for the stage.”
Finister’s own “avant-garde R&B” music marries the creeping cinematics of a classic torch song with the psychological discomfort of macabre Nineties radio. On her debut EP, Crown Gold, Finister slyly converts Garbage’s doom-pop anthem “#1 Crush” into “Hail Mary,” a slinky, slow-crawling bit of nocturne that rides on the beat of 2 Pac’s classic of the same name. It’s a marvel of modern fusion, a fever dream of a death ode, delivered by a singer dressed like a long-lost member of the Shangri-Las. That’s the dreamy, disturbed route Finister is paving for us: pairing two integral hits from 1997 against each other, feeding them through a 1966 Polaroid Swinger, and re-imagining a future past to come. We’ll see how she evolves that promising formula on Youthquaker, her soon-to-be-released debut album.
For now, as London Fashion Week draws to a close, we bring you the premiere of her final video from Crown Gold, “Wrong #.” Watch it below as Rolling Stone chats with Finister about her Anglo obsession, her style and why pain is the ultimate unifier.
We’re about to premiere your latest video. What can you tell us about it?
It’s for the last track, “Wrong #,” on the Crown Gold EP; we wanted it to feel like a transition into the new project. It was shot at my old apartment in L.A. and is sort of a vintage style fashion film; it doesn’t really have a linear narrative, it just positions me in various vignettes. It feels quite mod.
What are your visual priorities as an artist?
I never want to just be perceived as a pretty face; I’m trying to come from a more intelligent and eloquent place that allows the music to take front and center.
Why are you interested in the Youthquaker fashion era? Is Diana Vreeland a hero?
I wish she was still here, so she could tell me, “Phlo, you can be a Youthquaker!” It has to be self-proclaimed at this point.
How did that obsession start?
I started listening to a lot of Bob Dylan and developed an interest in Edie Sedgwick. She was like the anti-model: beautiful, but with a lot of psychological disturbances. She was the raw form of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. So many problems and tragedy; you could see the sadness in her eyes. I really could relate to that. Then I discovered she was loosely tied to the whole Youthquaker fashion movement, which started in London, and loved what it represented to that generation. It became this exciting whole new world for me, one I could live in, and I decided I wanted to revitalize it for today.
What do you see as music’s role in that movement?
Rock & roll held it together. I found the fashion through the music; I wanted to see what the people who were making this music and listening to it wore at the time. All this groundbreaking work at once – from hippie music to Andy Warhol to the mod movement – was happening in the Sixties and played into how we perceived sexuality and identity. That’s what I’m trying to do with my work, too: challenge perceptions of gender role and how females present themselves. I want to keep things classy.
Is that a retro sensibility or actually quite modern?
I think it’s progressive. Space-age chic, for example, is really futuristic, and we keep revisiting that look for a reason; I still think it’s relevant to bring Sixties’ ideas about dressing into a modern context. I would like to see women properly attired.
To me, it seems like female artists at the moment either adopt an extreme aesthetic (à la Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj) or avoid constructing an image altogether. What does this suggest about where things are at?
I think women still often feel like they are in a man’s world; sometimes that means doing what you can to be noticed, even if means degrading yourself to be accepted. I want to walk alongside a man; we live in the same world. I am not screaming about women’s rights, but I think women need to respect themselves in order to command it from others.
There’s a wise quote that sums it up well: “Believe it or not, my short skirt has nothing to do with you.” Are you also interested in expressing that sentiment through your lyrics?
Well, I refuse to be obvious or explicit in what I discuss, which is ironic, since with my background, I should be the most explicit lyricist ever! I grew up around gang violence and grim things and that influences how I write. But I always think about the little girl who doesn’t need to be exposed to that world, so I try to keep it more censored and classy for my listeners. I play with juxtapositions; the mod thing, the R&B thing, to keep it interesting. There’s always another dimension at play.
“Hail Mary,” your take Garbage’s “#1 Crush” and 2 Pac’s track, seems a good example of combining disparate musical ideas and making it work.
Someone actually brought it to my attention that my tone would work well on a Shirley Manson track. So, I took this darker song from another genre and I felt what she was saying lyrically, but applied to the gangster realm, 2 Pac’s “Hail Mary.” I don’t curse in the song; there’s no need. It’s provocative in sound, not content. Same can be said for [Nancy Sinatra’s] “Bang Bang” – I’ve always wanted to sing that song, bringing into the NWA context, where “bang bang” is literal. That sums up my approach.
Does the dark side of beauty attract you?
Yeah, I’ve always been kind of intrigued by the dark and sad side of life. It’s part of how I grew up. Pain allows me to know I’m still alive; it can’t be measured, but everyone can connect to it. It’s a major unifier.
Is it possible for a contemporary hit to convey something tragic, as they often did in the Sixties?
I do, but I don’t think we’re there yet. But things are changing rapidly. I think people are interested in stories again. In my own work, I’m ultimately telling stories about life.
Does that mean creating a character?
Yes! And Phlo Finister has finally found her character. It can be hard to separate the artist from the real person. Phlo Finister is that mod girl in the Sixties that wants to hang out with Andy and Edie and Dylan at the Chelsea. And in my mind, that’s where I am. And then there’s me: Elijah, the normal girl who falls in love and gets heartbroken. It all forges together in the music.
Do you always do the dramatic eye makeup, even out of “character”?
I do, because I love art and painting; putting on my makeup every morning is the closest thing I have to that ritual. It’s part of getting into the character; it makes me feel good. I spent forever studying how to get the eyeliner right.
What is the Phlo Finister uniform?
Prada does really good mod sometimes; I would LOVE to collaborate with Miuccia. But I am pretty into vintage clothes; I love What Goes Around Comes Around in L.A. I can break it down like this, shopping-wise: striped top, skinny black tights, jumpsuits, miniskirts and dresses.
Do you feel connected to the contemporary London?
I’d love to live there; they love what I do more so than anyone does in the States. One day, Americans will accept me, maybe. But I’ve always been way more into the British side of things myself. I still have a dream to just live in the Chelsea district; I might just up and leave for London and not look back.