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Phabo can’t fail at anything. That’s what the San Diego-born singer will tell you when you ask about his career, and it’s far from an egotistic or overly confident statement when you think about it. Failure is derived from expectations and in a world where anything can happen at any given moment, these hopes and beliefs can alter your progress, or the lack thereof at a given moment, to appear as if success lies further away than the horizons that stand in front of you. Luckily for the neo-soul-inspired singer, he learned to let go and let God when it came to his future.
“I’ve worked hard, God has allowed me to get to this point, so I know God wouldn’t allow me to get up there and fail for real, it’s not really a thing,” he says to me during a Zoom call. “I’m embracing the moment. Like I said, palms up. I’m embracing it for whatever it is, it’s fail-proof, I can’t fail.”
Our conversation comes shortly after Phabo released his debut album, Soulquarius. The new project is dipped in neo-soul gold — a genre that the singer holds near and dear to his heart — through 16 songs and features from Alex Vaughn, Destin Conrad, Mntra, and Rexx Life Raj. During a conversation with Uproxx, Phabo spoke about Soulquarius, his relationship with music and driving, and what he seeks the most for his career.
In your own words, because Soulquarius isn’t a new word (shoutout the Soulquarians), what does a Soulquarius mean to you?
Obviously, the end part is derived from Aquarius, with me being an Aquarius. I tie that in with my love for neo-soul music, the Soulquarians. I knew people would get that part, but deeper than that, it ties into everything that I stand for as well. It ties into astrology in terms of Polaris meaning my brand and stuff. It ties into following your North Star at all times. It’s a deeper meaning than “what’s your sign?” or whatnot, it’s not even like that or like me trying to do a carbon copy because I wasn’t trying to sound like it. I wasn’t trying to sound like that, I wanted to create my own sound but I still wanted that essence and that raw feeling to still be as if I recorded it at Electric Lady Studios in New York.
It’s clear that you’re very much affected and inspired by the neo-soul genre as a whole. From D’Angelo to Erykah Badu and everyone else that contributed to it, what pulled you into it the most?
So I was brought up around like a bunch of eclectic music. My dad wasn’t somebody who limited himself in terms of musicality because he was a songwriter too. My dad had a tape of affirmations and he had a tape of affirmative songs and it’d be the same five songs that would play every morning. Those five songs would be like Eric Benet’s “True To Myself,” Bobby McFerrin’s “Friends” was on there, and so on and so forth. Being able to read the lyrics, and I’m learning them at like six and seven, and just the different parts that go into that, it’s always been a feeling. I was able to understand spiritually what that meant and what that was and why I was tickling my gut right here when I listened to it, the chords when they do something. I can’t really explain it, I can’t put it in no other words other than you just know what it feels like when you hear it.
In a previous interview, you mentioned that you were ready to release Soulquarius years ago, but after an engineer took the masters with them on tour, you couldn’t drop it so we got your 2016 EP Free instead. Since then, how has Soulquarius and the story you aimed to tell grown, changed, or even stayed the same?
To be transparent, the only songs that remained from that project that was supposed to drop were “Beam,” “How’s My Driving?” [and] “Slippery.” Everything else was recorded after I thought that that project was done. It’s kind of crazy cause even in those moments where I was close to giving up, something would happen where God’s like, “Alright, he’s not getting it? We’re just here n****, chill.” The project changed a lot, but the integrity remained the same. Me and bro, that’s my brother, mind you, like I said, he did those three songs that I just named. We produced those, except for “Slippery,” but “How’s My Driving?” and “Beam” were with bro. He’s responsible for that noise that comes out right on “Beam,” he did all that. Nothing happens by chance and I’m grateful that we’re able to get to this point and I was grateful for all the changes that took place and the sound of it from then to now. If I listened to the original, what it was to be, as opposed to where we’re at now, it just sounds a little bit dated, so I’m grateful for it all.
I can assume this moment and all the frustrations that came with it were probably the hardest example of following your North Star right?
Yes, a million percent. Yeah, relinquishing all control to just the powers that be, like hands up, palms up. You’ll really take yourself through it, beating yourself up trying to force things to go a certain way at a certain time. I rushed that project to drop and then it’s like it’s just, yeah, no. I look back at how things could have been and I followed my North Star for sure, or the North Star led me. Like I said, I couldn’t even f*ck up if I wanted to, it wasn’t even happening. So I start getting to the point where I’m just talking to God every morning — moving with a different type of divine power. Even when I was f*cking it up, it wouldn’t [work]. Went to upload the joint, the joint bounced back, you know what I’m saying? Yeah, it’s divine bro.
There are a lot of songs and scenes that take place in a car on Soulquarius. There’s “LNF,” “S550,” and “How’s My Driving.” The sounds of an engine starting appear at the beginning of “Slippery.” What’s the relationship between music, cars, and driving for you?
Before it was Soulquarius, it was How’s My Driving?, that was the title of the project with “How’s My Driving” being the lead single on that project. I was born in San Diego, California, I moved to St. Petersburg, Florida when I was eight years old, then relocated to Long Beach when I was 16. I spent half of my junior year and senior year in Orange County completing high school, [then I] moved back to the heart of LA. I’m learning the culture out there, the backstreets to take, what not to say, all that stuff. All that is just like me maneuvering, working a full-time job, and I’m putting miles on my car just trying to make things happen. The way I made a name for myself on the writing side of things is me being available and dependable, and that comes with a lot of driving. All my ideas are coming to me on the road, I remember I used to write in between lights. I’d write at each stoplight on the way to the studio. I was on the road that much, I wasn’t at the crib, I would write like at a stoplight. LA, you could sit for a minute, so by the time I get to the studio, I got a song and it’s fresh because I just did it on the way here. The different routes that I took in life painted that picture for me.
You’ve done a lot of songwriting for artists like Kehlani, Kyle Doin & Jahkoy. What are some of the things you learned in this process that helped you grow as an artist as you were working on your own music?
Mars Today, he’s the homie, he’s a dope everything, I don’t even want to limit bro to anything he’s a creative, artist, producer, he got all that sh*t going. I remember early on, the first two artists I was writing for were Jahkoy and Kyle Dion. Before this, I kind of knew the structure of songs just based on what I was hearing on the radio and whatnot. When I went to write, that’s when I learned what each section was called. This the post, this the pre, we need this and we need that. Double that so it comes through [like this]. Everything has just happened to work hand-in-hand, there’s been nothing that’s been further along than anything. I feel like I was building on my artistry and my writing at the same time, always. I definitely learned more about the business from the writing side as well. How things work in terms of placing and whatnot. So in the future, when I do decide to work with other writers, I know how it works and how the business goes. I learned more of the business from the writer’s side than I did from the artist’s side for sure. On the artist side, there are still things that I’m learning.
Going off the point of you being a fairly new artist yourself, I wanted to ask: What are some artists that you’ve worked with, or that you’ve seen or interacted with, that you feel deserve more attention?
Destin Conrad, Ambré, let’s see, Jean Deaux [too]. It’s really like people that I rock with tough. I feel like Rexx Life Raj is another n**** that gets it. He understands life on a molecular level. It’s coming to him already, he’s already manifested it, but he’s one for sure. Really, AJ Saudin from Degrassi. He’s like — that’s scary because he can act and he’s in his R&B bag. We’re building that camaraderie to be able to get sh*t going. That’s a n**** I believe in 100% for sure. Lyfe Harris and Alex Vaughn [too].
We spoke earlier about just following your North Star. Wherever it leads you, you’re confident that it’s bringing you to a good place and somewhere that you can handle. However, if I could give you control for one moment, if there’s one thing that comes as a result of Soulquarius, what do you hope it is?
Longevity. I live by this principle that everybody gets like one earthquake in this game and everything after that is just maintaining the aftershocks. For me, I was kind of on the fence cause everybody wants to hold off this whole “album” word because it’s a game to [guess]. “Was it an album? Was that the one?” Nobody wants to bet on themselves and the labels don’t feel like these artists are ready to even say that yet. Following my North Star, I just went with whatever was coming naturally and what it felt like. It did not feel like an EP, it did not feel like a project. It felt like something that would set me up for the next 10-20 years. It felt like my Nostalgia, Ultra, it felt like my So Far Gone. I’ve seen some sh*t out here trying to finish this project, just trying to get this sh*t out. I know that shows and I know n****s feel that. I know the work that I put into this shows and I truly feel like this is the one, even with the next project’s success and the project after that’s success. This is gonna be the one that sets me up for the next 20 [years] to really run the game.
Soulquarius is out now via Soulection. Get it here.