Ever since Eyelid Movies' release in 2010, Phantogram's dream-pop anthems have become my go-to soundtrack in moments of loss or uncertainty. There is something deeply cathartic about Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter's ability to fuse gritty synth and bombastic backbeats with emotionally direct lyricism. In songs like "Mouthful of Diamonds" and iconic cuts like "When I'm Small" and "Fall in Love," Barthel and Carter continue to find light in what often feels like a world of darkness. Their songs are a melodic reminder that each struggle leads to growth and that a little bit of hope can go a long way.
On Phantogram's new album Three, the themes of loss and hope take center stage. While working on the album, Barthel tragically lost her sister to suicide. The experience was painful for Carter as well, who was also very close to Barthel's sister. "This record is about heartbreak," she explains, "but it's also about seeing the light through difficult experiences." Described by the singer-songwriter as a "beautiful car crash," Three is a stirring portrait of resilience and survival.
I spoke with Barthel over the phone on the first day of fall about how loss led to perseverance, the story behind "Calling All," the importance of love, and why celebrating your imperfections can be liberating.
Dianca Potts: What initially attracted you to songwriting?
Sarah Barthel: Creating art is a very powerful and beautiful thing for the soul, but also a powerful thing to share with others. I grew up loving music and started writing and mixing songs in my early 20s when I met Josh, and I really loved the concept of constantly trying to sound fresh and new. We used that strategy for our music, and it worked, and we haven't stopped ever since.
DP: Has music or creativity ever helped you through a challenging time in your life?
SB: It's helped me tremendously. Writing music is very cathartic; it's like our therapy in a way. Every song is a depiction of who we are and what we've been through. Putting that into our songs and allowing other people to relate is an extremely beautiful thing. Josh and I have been through a lot together, and each song holds a certain meaning to us, especially on Three. I lost my sister to suicide during the making of this record, and she was also Josh's best friend. This record is about heartbreak but also about seeing the light through difficult experiences. It was tough, but helpful as well.
DP: Looking back, is there a track on the album that you've connected with in a special way since the beginning of this project?
SB: Every time I listen to any of the songs on this album, I have a different connection to them, but I think that the songs that are about my sister and the experience of that loss resonate the most for me right now and will forever. That's why this album has meant so much to me. "Barking Dog" has been one of my favorites since the beginning and resonates the most with me right now because it's so different than the rest of the songs on the record. It's more abstract, like a musical haiku in a way, and extremely personal. I could listen to it on repeat forever.
DP: Your album closes with "Calling All," which feels like a very purposely feminist anthem. Can you talk a bit about what that track means to you and the message behind its lyrics?
SB: I love this song so much. Our music is very upbeat, rhythmic, and fun, and the most important juxtaposition with that is that our lyrics are dark, and that can be intense, especially on this record. I love this song because it puts a little fun into the darkness. It's a little cheeky, especially with the line "We all got a little bit of ho in us," but it's about empowerment. It's about putting yourself on the edge, questioning yourself, and owning it. It's about not being afraid of who you are, that you're not perfect, and that we all have a dark side and light side. It's about being yourself.
DP: Last month, you posted that lyric as a caption to a selfie on Phantogram's Facebook page. A number of fans responded with anger. Do you feel like they were missing the point?
SB: Our music has always had many meanings, and you can interpret what you want from them. It's like a Rorschach test: you can see whatever you want in it. And if that line offended anyone they should probably take a step back and look at themselves before getting upset about it.
DP: When it comes to collaboration, what did working on Three teach you about teamwork and that aspect of your relationship with Josh?
SB: We've been best friends forever. We've gone through so much stuff together, we're kind of like psychic twins in a way. With past records I think that I was there for him a little bit more, but this time around, he stepped it up a lot and made sure that I was OK. Having somebody else in collaboration and in your life allowed me to feel like I could get through writing this record instead of just giving up, which at one point I wanted to, but he gave me the strength to see that I could put my feelings, my pain, and our experiences into the record. Three is incredible because we got through this tragedy together. I wouldn't have been able to do it without him.
DP: Since the beginning, Phantogram has explored the themes of desire and love. Did Three teach you anything new about love?
SB: Those songs really make you realize how important people are in your life. They open your eyes about how important it is to have love in your life. It's everything; love is everything. These songs make you realize how much it can hurt to live without that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter.