Dream pop: Phoebe Rings

Phoebe Rings recently released their debut EP album | Photo: Supplied

Emerging dream pop band from Tāmaki Makaurau, Sherry Zhang chats to Phoebe Rings and their lead singer Crystal Choi on growing up Korean, jazz school and forging her own path.

In preparation for their EP release party scheduled for this Thursday 19th at the Basement Theatre, Phoebe Rings invited me over to their flat for a craft day. The theme is celestial school ball. But with the recent alert level changes, the party’s been rescheduled.        

At the kitchen table, The Legend of Zelda soundtrack played in the background as Crystal Choi (vocals/synths), Alex Freer (drums) and Simeon Kavanagh-Vincent (guitar/synths) carefully cut planets and stars out of cardboard.  Benjamin Locke (bass) couldn’t make it, but I was assured he was there in spirit: amongst the craft knives, sparkly fabric and pink velvet. 

Phoebe Rings recently released their debut EP on Bandcamp, featuring glistening tracks such as Cheshire and Spissky, both of which have featured on 95bFM’s top ten. It’s also available on Spotify from Friday the 20th.

The Auckland-based dream pop group Phoebe Rings took their name from the solar system | Photo: Supplied

Choi tells me how the name came to be: “Phoebe ring is the biggest outer ring of Saturn. Our music is very spacey, so when I wiki’ed Saturn, I thought, that’s such a pretty name!” 

The band describes their sound as ‘dream pop’, characterised by lush, inviting and atmospheric chords. “It’s the harmony of everything. Like a less jammy version of shoegaze”, explains Kavanagh-Vincent. 

Up until the release of the EP, the project has been centred around Choi’s songwriting journey. She studied piano at Auckland University’s Jazz School, but hit a crisis after graduating. “I didn’t know what kind of music I wanted to write. And I didn’t know if I wanted to be a jazz pianist.”

She eventually got out of her writing block by playing with various bands, including drummer Alex Freer’s band A.C. Freezy, and going on tour with the likes of Chelsea Jade, Princess Chelsea, and Jonathan Bree.

Choi has always wanted to have a band to share her own original work, but it took her a while to figure out who she could play with. She recalls feeling too nervous to ask Freer to join her, thinking “he’s so occupied and he’s such a good drummer, he might say no!”.

Freer laughs and gently cuts Choi off, “basically Crystal was really nervous asking all of us, but we all wanted to work with Crystal”. 

Crystal Choi (vocals & synths) and Alex Freer (drums) | Photo: Supplied

Choi has been writing music since her teenage years, “I would sneak down at 10pm, when everyone else went to bed, to my little Yamaha midi keyboard. I didn’t know any other instruments, but the keyboard could make other noises and I loved arranging.”

Choi says she always knew she was going to pursue music because, as a child, she wasn’t into much else. But being a pop artist came at a bit of a surprise. “It definitely threw me off, leaving the Classical side. I guess there also aren't that many Korean musicians at Jazz School.” 

She grew up listening to old K-pop, with her brother and dad being big fans of the genre. “And a lot of Studio Ghibli music, it’s so magical!” Choi adds. 

She credits her favourite composer as Revel: “Impressionism music is the dream pop of Classical music. When I was younger and listened to Clair de Lune for the first time, I thought ‘woah, it’s not boring! It’s so sparkly'.” 

Choi cutting stars and planets for the band's EP launch | Photo: Supplied

Her family migrated in the early 2000’s from South Korea, and she started school in New Zealand in Year 4. She grew up on the North Shore, attending Westlake Girls High School.

She’s careful of the perfectionist and ‘spartan’ work ethic in Korean culture. “For example, students go to class after school, because parents are at work doing more overtime”.

These stereotypes have filtered through to expectations of her as a musician. “They think I'm a piano whizz”. She remembers in high school, teachers would assume she practised piano for long hours, without actually getting to know her. “And there was a time in my teenage years where I’d just try to appeal to those stereotypes, to not stand out”. 

She found her upbringing comfortable. “I only really had Korean friends. So when I went to university to pursue music, I had to get out of my comfort zone.” This included re-learning to converse more in English. 

Working between the two languages has been one of the biggest challenges Choi’s found in lyric writing. “I’d rather write 10 more instrumental parts than do one song’s worth of lyrics”, she laughs. In part, she says, because she can’t always grasp what flows naturally. 

“I think it’s because I grew up reading Korean books and Korean lyrics, while English lyrics always just sounded like syllables.” 

She still finds it much easier to read Korean texts, and has started to write more Korean lyrics into her newer songs.

While her parents are now supportive of her career path, Choi says it’s been a tough process. They only stopped pressuring her to become a teacher when she proved she could earn a living. 

“It was hard for me. I’m the youngest, so I was the golden child. The sweet, nice and polite one. It was hard speaking out to them,  [saying] I won’t meet their expectations.” 

She says it was heartbreaking when didn’t take her seriously, even though her dad was a musician too. “He could have become pretty big. He has an amazing voice and ability to harmonise.” Choi’s father loves music, it’s where she gets her material from, but she says he had to give it up because it was difficult in his generation.

The dynamic between parents and children in Asian cultures can be particularly challenging, especially around obedience and obligation.

“Even Korean parents who are the supportive ambitious kind, will often push their children to go overseas for music. They think New Zealand is this really small country. But the [music] scene is so warm. So many people helped us with our band.” 

As they laugh, stringing together cardboard planets,  it’s pretty clear they radiate that same warmth. 

Though their first headliner show may just be a little while longer, hopefully the digital space will keep Phoebe Rings warm till then. 

Listen to Phoebe Rings Bandcamp here.

- Asia Media Centre