Sarah Barthel On The Three Losses That Informed Phantogram’s New LP
They say bad things come in threes. Whether you’ve warmed to the label of ‘cosmic conspiracy buff’ or shrug off superstition like Stevie Wonder, you’re bound to have encountered the mantra. When David Bowie passed and the world mourned a hero, Sarah Barthel wasn’t to know she’d lose another in a matter of days. The Phantogram singer was in the middle of recording the band’s third studio album, Three, when her and bandmate Josh Carter lost a sister and best friend to suicide.
“It was kind of like this beautiful tragedy,” she reflects. “I had the choice to take a break, to just run away and forget about music and come to terms with the situation, but I decided not to. I think pushing forward no matter what the circumstances is a powerful feeling.”
Dark and affecting, the new record plays like a heartbreak in 10 scenes. Bartel likes the fifth in particular, a string-heavy experimental track called ‘Barking Dog’ that’s helmed by Carter’s vocals and marked by its haiku-like form.
For the New York state duo, Bowie’s death was especially painful; Barthel had first come across the pop visionary as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth and was later drawn to the strength and power his art held. “He was the first person I grasped onto and was obsessed with,” she recalls. “You could put on one of Bowie’s records and I could listen to it forever.”
When Prince left this Earth in April it led Barthel and Carter to believe that all their heroes were abandoning them. The Purple One was Barthel’s first idol, the musician who showed her it was possible to become enamoured with a complete stranger just because of their art. On Three more so than any other release, Phantogram embraced and paid homage to the influence of their fallen pinups.
“One of my favourite lines on the album comes from ‘Answer’,” Barthel says. “‘I’ve been up until dawn and all of my heroes are gone’. It explains the loneliness and that feeling of giving up but trying to push forward.”
As everyone from Nick Cave to Björk can attest, sorrow and loneliness inform the most powerful art, and Barthel is acutely aware of what she’s been able to tap into. “We were able to capture a lot of the realness that I think a lot of artists hope to have on a record.”