Soulful singer-songwriter Sphie Holman has been flying under the Indianapolis music radar for too long. But with a slew of compelling releases in the pipeline, that's about to change – quickly. Sphie has just released an excellent EP titled Love Will Heal This World, evoking a range of stylistic influences from Fiona Apple to Donny Hathaway. She's currently in the process of finishing up a pair of interesting collaborative projects, one featuring hip-hop duo Diop and Mandog, the other with Devon Ashley and Ryan Koch.
She'll perform twice this Saturday. First, at Indy Hostel's Harvest Fest (6 p.m.), then at the Thirsty Scholar (9 p.m.). You can also regularly find Sphie leading yoga classes at CITYOGA. I caught up with Sphie at a local coffee shop and we discussed music, yoga and gender politics in the Indianapolis music scene.
NUVO: Was there a particular song or experience that pulled you into making music?
Sphie: Yes, it was Mariah Carey's first album. She had a track called "Someday," and when I heard her sing that track there was a little voice inside my head saying, "You can do that." Somehow I knew I had a voice inside me and at the age of eight, I decided I was going to be a singer.
I started singing in church, choirs and music theater. But they were not outlets for the creativity and improvisation I wanted to express. I had a voice coming out of me that wasn't in the lines of traditional vocal style. So when I was 19, I moved to a private music college in the Twin Cities. I lived there for five years and that experience opened me up to my own voice as a songwriter and improviser. It opened me up to the voice I heard that told me to sing at eight years old.
NUVO: Your new EP has a very organic sound. Some of your previous work I've heard has been a bit more electronic. Do you feel your music making falls within a specific genre?
Sphie: I am a singer-songwriter, but I enjoy every facet of music. I enjoy every facet of creativity and the opportunity to collaborate with musicians around me regardless of genre. I would say my new EP is more acoustic soul or R&B. It's actually quite pop. This new EP is more cut and dry than a lot of my other projects.
NUVO: As a hip-hop fan I'm excited for your upcoming EP with MC Diop and producer Mandog. I spoke with Mandog about the collaboration and he told me that you both, "took each other outside of your comfort zones as artists and our art is that much better because of it." How did you feel about the collaboration?
Sphie: Working with Diop and Mandog was interesting. It was a bit of genre-bending for me and it was my first hip-hop production. I met Diop and he threw the idea of collaborating out to me. At first I was a bit hesitant, but when I heard what they were doing and heard Mandog's beats I said yes, absolutely.
NUVO: You're also an instructor at CITYOGA. Is your work in music connected to your work in yoga?
Sphie: They are absolutely related. And I'm not sure if I sought out to connect them, or it just naturally happened. I spent several years dedicated completely to my yoga practice, and somehow in the last year or so they've really bridged together quite nicely. The practice of yoga is concerned with every breath we take, so that practice can be incorporated into everything we do during our waking life.
NUVO: So it's connected for you in the sense that yoga has influenced the physical nature of the way you sing and control your breath. Have you incorporated elements of your music into your yoga instruction?
Sphie: I have the intent of going to India to study music in the next few years and that's something I've been looking forward to doing in order to integrate my style of music into my yoga classes. I have done that to some extent in the past, but in a more instrumental way. I'm interested in learning to base my classes more around music and develop a whole package of music and yoga. But right now it is more about the coordination of mind, body and breath and how that relates to my songs.
A note: At this point I'd asked all the questions I'd prepared, and I turned my recording device off. But as Sphie and I continued our dialogue the topic of gender equality in the Indianapolis music scene came up. I expressed to Sphie that I'd been outraged by stories I'd heard from musicians, or things I'd seen here relating to the treatment of women in the music scene. Those incidents run the gamut from commonly heard ignorant comments like "Is that your boyfriend's guitar?" to serious cases of sexual assault.
I also reflected to Sphie that I've experienced more resistance to discussing this topic than any other issue I've addressed in the nearly three year span I've been writing this column. I've freely written about racial, religious and class discrimination, but I've always felt a resistance when discussing gender-related issues with local musicians.
Sphie emailed me the next day to ask if we could pick the conversation back up, this time on the record.
NUVO: As a woman have you encountered any difficulties navigating the music scene in Indianapolis?
Sphie: There are difficulties in life in general, but definitely in music as a solo woman performer. It's hard to say what the cause is, but I think because the music industry here is so much more grassroots that it takes a certain amount of professionalism out of the process which I've seen more intact in other places. I feel there's a glass ceiling here in terms of having a voice in some projects. There's a power struggle.
NUVO: Is that something you've encountered more in the recording process, or trying to book shows, or is it a little bit of everything? And is it happening more in a way where the men you're encountering feel they have a certain power to say insulting or degrading things about women around you, or are there situations where you're getting hit with unwanted sexual advances?
Sphie: It's a little bit of everything, and I've definitely experienced both realms. When I was younger I was quicker to combat it with an attitude. But now I've realized from traveling so much and experiencing the culture of so many places in America and internationally, really what it comes down to is a deep conditioning in certain regions and areas. I've learned to have a compassion toward it. It's so deeply ingrained in people they sometimes don't even realize they're being offensive, or sexist, or racist. It's not just a gender issue, it's a human issue. But I've experienced it on a gender level a lot.
NUVO: Have those experiences discouraged you from participating in the music scene? Does it make you think twice about going out to book a show?
Sphie: When I was younger I was very discouraged. But I think the city has been changing in recent years and it's becoming easier. Having deep roots in the community here is helpful. But I do know that walking in as an outsider, as a female is very difficult. The industry is virtually run all by men here. But I'm not as discouraged now because I'm finding so many ways of creating equality here, and not just through music.
NUVO: Obviously having more female promoters, club owners, and record label owners is the ideal solution to combat this problem. But working within the existing system have you picked up any insight on how we can improve things for women?
Sphie: It requires a bit of self-empowerment and then the empowerment of the women around you. I think sometimes women don't realize they're being mistreated and they've never been given the voice to express themselves when they are being mistreated. Deep down there's a seed of knowledge, or a feeling, or an energy that tells you you're being mistreated, but a lot of women don't feel empowered to say something. I think it's about empowering your own voice and empowering the women around you.
NUVO: How do you think we communicate to the men in the music scene that sexist comments or unwanted advances are not tolerable?
Sphie: I think it comes down to standing up for yourself peacefully in the moment while it's happening. I've had several situations in a room full of men playing music where there's a blatant issue like this and no man in the room has stood up and responded. And I haven't always had the voice to stand up for myself. We need men standing up for women, and women standing up for other women in a peaceful way. Hopefully those small ripples make larger pools in the long run.
I see a lot of women being disempowered, not just in music, but in relationships and social interactions. With Indianapolis being such an intimate community I think a lot of people get away with disempowering other people, women in particular. I think a lot of women are fearful of speaking up because of the repercussions. But it's important to trust that things will be okay when you're working to find that justice.
A Cultural Manifesto is now available on WFYI's HD2 radio. Tune in Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 3 p.m. as NUVO's Kyle Long explores the merging of a wide variety of music from around the globe with American genres like hip-hop, jazz, and soul.