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?