Phantogram's Sarah Barthel on Her #1 Piece of Advice for Emerging Musicians

January 20, 2020
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When you tune into Sarah Barthel’s emotive lyrics from the popular electro-pop duo, Phantogram there’s a moment where space and time disappear and you lose yourself. Tracks like “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “When I’m Small” became instant hits and garnered an immediate global fanbase, but it’s easy to see why. It’s not just Barthel’s insane musical talent that attracts us to her—a killer style, ever-changing hairstyles, and ultra-cool persona make us all wish she was our best friend.

And after being on set with her for the CC100 photoshoot, we can attest that she is all of the above, and more. Barthel’s electronic-rock music has been pushing the boundaries of pop for over a decade, inspiring audiences around the world and musicians. Billie Eilish recently covered the group’s 2016 hit, ‘You Don’t Get Me High Anymore’ for BBC 1 Radio and called it, “one of her favorite songs.”

Ahead, the singer/songwriter shares her musical journey, how she collaborates with friend and Phantogram’s other half, Josh Carter, and some major career advice for emerging musicians.


CREATE & CULTIVATE: Your latest release and third single this year, ‘In a Spiral’ was just released—Can you talk us through the creative process for this song? What was the inspiration/drive? How have you grown since releasing your first album? How has the music evolved?

SARAH BARTHEL: In a Spiral has been sitting in my pocket for a few years in the hopes that it would make it on our last album Three. I started writing on josh’s original beat when I lived in NYC and loved the energy and how fresh it sounded. The rest of the song was finished up in Joshua Tree and you can definitely hear the desert influence in the sample that Josh added. We love writing songs that you can’t put into any category and this one is definitely that.

When you hit a bump or hurdle in your career, how do you #FindNewRoads + switch gears to find success?

I think keeping things fresh and exciting is very important especially being in a band together as long as we have—each album cycle is a new journey experience. They all have their own hurdles to overcome but it’s a part of the journey.

You’ve been collaborating with Josh since 2007 and I read that you kept most of your music to yourselves in the beginning. It wasn’t until 2009 when you started giving away free CDs on a street corner—what does your creative process look like? How do you maintain a good working relationship? What tips do you have for other creatives on making a partnership work successfully like yours?

Josh and I are one of the lucky ones. We’ve been friends our whole lives. He’s like a brother to me and my best friend on this earth. I call him my biggest witness as well as my psychic twin. We’ve always had the same vision musically, visually, and aesthetically. We are one of the lucky bands because we’ve never had our egos get in the way. I’m his biggest fan and he’s mine.

Our drive to make the band a success has been the same since day one. We knew what we wanted and we hit the ground running. My advice to other bands is to understand why you want to be doing this. It’s not an easy road but if you’re doing it for the right reasons, then you will find your success, whatever that may be.

Who in your field most inspires/influences you? How has this person shaped your career and music style? Why?

I’m inspired by artists who aren’t afraid of evolving, growing, and experimenting. Artists like Beck, Outkast, and Kendrick Lamar are good examples of this; each one of their records is nothing like the last and continues to allow themselves to be true artists. I strive to do the same as an artist.

Music, like any art, is really subjective. Do you ever read what people say about the music or their response, whether it’s positive or negative? How do you respond/deal with criticism? What advice do you have for other creatives reading this who are dealing with that? What helped you get through the early/uncertain stages of your career?

I used to give a shit—it’s not worth it effecting your art. As long as we maintain our integrity, it makes me feel satisfied. I want to make music that is fresh and innovative. If people don’t understand it, it’s okay. That just means it’s ahead of its time and that’s a good thing to me.

You always seem so bold and self-assured—where do you think this confidence stems from? What advice do you have for people who are feeling self-doubt and want to have more courage?

It comes from believing in my art—I know what I want and who I am.

You and Josh have chosen to take an unhurried approach to create music rather than pumping it out on-demand. Why have you chosen this slower-paced strategy? What are the advantages/disadvantages? Would you recommend this?

We’ve built a solid fanbase organically so all of our fans are true fans. They understand and respect us as artists. Sometimes that means waiting a little longer because they know the product will not disappoint. All killer no filler is our motto. If the art you are making is timeless, then time doesn’t matter as much.

The filtered world of social media often hides a lot of the hard work and hustle behind-the-scenes—what is the reality of being a musician today? Be honest!

It’s a hard road to get to where we are now. I’m so glad we started when we did because social media shows a fake reality. It’s not glamorous but that’s not why we do it. I can’t even count the number of disgusting bathrooms and green rooms I’ve had to change and put on makeup in, how many strangers floors I’ve slept on, and top ramens I’ve eaten in the past but it was well worth it.

You tackle some of the big topics head-on in your music with raw lyrics and moody beats which really resonates with your fans. Have you always felt drawn to this style? Where does it stem from? What advice do you have for other musicians reading this who are still finding their style or voice?

I have always been drawn to emotional and meaningful music—the rawness comes from my heart. My art is honest and vulnerable and I think our fans can see that it comes from somewhere real. People are fed so much bull shit in this world so they want to find the truth somewhere. My advice is, people can smell bullshit a mile away so be honest with yourself.

With success comes opportunity but that also means you have your hands full. What keeps you inspired and motivated to keep going even on your most challenging days?

The reminder that I get to live my dream every single day and my art makes a difference in people’s lives.

You’ve had such a successful career in such a short space of time—What do you wish you had known when you first started out? What advice would you give other young women hoping to break it in the music industry?

We’ve been a band for 10 years! Holy shit yeah that’s a long time. My advice to myself 10 years ago would be don’t try and do it all. There is a breaking point that can be very dangerous and harmful to your mental health—just be aware of that.

You have a really unique image and your personality shines through on your Instagram. How do you stay true to who you are and your voice? What advice do you have for other women who want to carve a unique POV for themselves?

Thank you! I think this goes back to being confident in who I am, accepting myself and not being afraid to live my truth. Even if that truth is being Post Malone for Halloween or feeling myself in the mirror, haha.

What is the #1 book you always recommend? Why? What is the #1 album you always recommend? Why?

I’m kind of a weirdo when it comes to books—the darker the better—so I’d recommend any Bukowski or Hubert Selby Junior. Dang, my number one album is a tough one. There are too many albums that have had a huge impact on me. One of the recent favorites that I could recommend is Angel Olsen’s Woman—it’s phenomenal.

Photographer: Jenna Peffley

Hair: Styled by OGXpert & Celebrity Hairstylist Jillian Halouska


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