One listen to Phantom Limb and you instantly find yourself transported to that all-too-often unexplored crossroads between country music and old style R&B. This is a band steeped in a tradition where the two genres share their musical DNA. It’s The Staples Singers fronting The Band in The Last Waltz, Ray Charles striking gold when he made his first country album, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham down in Muscle Shoals writing Do Right Woman, a song that would go on to be recorded by both Aretha Franklin and The Flying Burrito Brothers.
“Country and gospel are the same, just with different race singers,” points out Phantom Limb singer Yolanda Quartey. “People have tried to segregate music, but it’s impossible. When I was a kid, I sang Dolly Parton as well as Aretha Franklin. The Staples Singers play a really big part in who the heck I am. But at the same time, The Band are pivotally important to what we do.”
Against this rich, heady mix of country and classic soul, it’s something of a surprise to note that Phantom Limb are actually from Bristol, and not some sleepy town in the U.S. It’s also worth pointing out straight away that Phantom Limb are a white-male band fronted by a black woman; an unusual proposition, even today. “I definitely think what Yo is doing is brave,” says guitarist Stew Jackson. “It’s not what might be expected from a singer like her.”
Phantom Limb formed in 2004, and released their self-titled debut album in 2008. Yet it is with their second offering - The Pines - that you sense they’re truly stepping out to the front of the stage. It is a towering follow-up, comprising twelve tracks written on the road, on location in rural France and back home in Bristol. The results were subsequently produced by Marc Ford (The Black Crowes) in an impressively focused nine days at Compound Studio in Signal Hill
New surroundings signified a new atmosphere for the band, which can be felt across these recordings. “Signal Hill is quite a weird place,” points out Stew. “It’s its own city within California, although it’s completely surrounded by Long Beach. It was the first settling place, ‘cause it’s where all the oil reserves are, so there’s still those big hammer pumps just dotted around the streets.” The Pines soon emerged amidst what Yolanda describes as “oil central. Everywhere you turned your head you could see these things bobbing up and down, and you could feel the breeze coming in off the Pacific.”
Environment aside, another huge factor in the making of The Pines was the band’s willingness to open themselves up to being produced by Marc Ford, after Jackson self-produced their debut album. “It’s not right, I don’t think, for someone to produce their own record,” he argues. Nonetheless, preliminary sessions with an outside influence proved to be tough, as Stew recalls: “the band would play a song and Marc would go, ‘Right, let’s try this and that’, and pull it apart. The first few days were quite tricky and there were times where we wanted to kill him.” It was on their first day off during proceedings that Phantom Limb listened back to what they had actually accomplished. “All of a sudden,” says Stew, “everything made sense.”
The music contained within The Pines is intimate, expressive and highly emotional: see the bruised-hearted, Muscle Shoals vibes of Give Me A Reason, together with the hushed, dignified beauty of Hollow Eyes. It is also a record based upon a single image, as captured in the title track. “The Pines, lyrically, kind of describes the album,” says Yolanda. “It’s about being in a situation that just isn’t conducive to you being creative or happy. For me, the band is escapism. It allows me to get away from the things I’m not interested in – having to work in tired musical situations – and get to the things that I am interested in.”
The Pines themselves, then, act as a central metaphor for a longing to break out, and creatively, Phantom Limb appears to provide these expert musicians with the opportunity to do just that. The title track, says Yolanda, sees its protagonist “running off into the woods. And then when everyone’s kicking off, it’s fine - because you’re some weird loner having a great time.” Laugh Like You’re Mad, meanwhile, is all about “going mental in Bristol.” The resigned, working-for-the-man sigh of Gravy Train summarises these small-town frustrations most succinctly: “it’s about understanding that sometimes you’ve just got to make money.”
Indeed, Phantom Limb have spent years attempting to make such ends meet. By day, various members of the group have earned their crust as session musicians, vocalists and songwriters, skirting round the edges of the industry. Along with Quartey and Jackson, Dan Moore (keyboards), Luke Cawthra (electric guitar), Andy Lowe (bass) and Matt Jones (drums) have connections on one level or another to artists as diverse as Pee Wee Ellis, Percy Sledge, Tom Jones and Dr Feelgood. Together, Jackson and Quartey wrote Hopes & Fears for Will Young, while the guitarist has written for Massive Attack (contributing to two tracks on 2010’s Heligoland – the Hope Sandoval-sung Paradise Circus and the Damon Albarn-fronted Saturday Come Slow).
For Yolanda, Phantom Limb is the place where, musically, she at last feels at home, after beginning singing at the age of five. “My voice was pretty much incongruously massive from a very young age,” she laughs. “But I always had country licks more than soul licks. So I thought, ‘I have to try to find a place for them’, and it took years.” In her own right, Quartey has also performed as a featured artist with Nitin Sawhney (The Devil & Midnight, So Long) and Chase & Status (Blind Faith): she spent the summer of 2008 touring with Massive Attack and has sung backing vocals for everyone from Adele to Dizzee Rascal.
By her own admission, though, being a natural front-person, Yolanda finds it hard to remain in the shadows. “I’m not very adept at blending in, which is apparently the problem,” she laughs. “You’re supposed to be able to shrink back. I’ve got to play down my voice and that’s the worst thing, actually: I’ve got to sing within myself and try to hide my character. It’s too much.” However, those who’ve witnessed Phantom Limb centre-stage have been quick to fall for her charms: having performed at the likes of South By Southwest and Glastonbury, they’ve already opened for the likes of Rumer (at her personal request), Candi Staton and Solomon Burke.
Despite a career spent in the background, The Pines sees the collective that is Phantom Limb given ample individual room to shine. With guest appearances from the likes of pedal steel legend Greg Leisz (Robert Plant/Alison Krauss, Bob Dylan) and, on backing vocals, Jay Buchanan of Zeppelin-shaped LA rockers, Rival Sons (“He has a dangerous voice,” warns Quartey), the band’s second record is an eclectic, assured and – most importantly, perhaps – natural-sounding album. It reveals itself in layers, listen after listen. “All of our favourite records are full of imperfections and full of character,” Stew points out. “Records aren’t made with character anymore. Stuff is put onto Pro Tools and looped and tuned and made perfect. We’ve made a record that isn’t like that.”
“That’s what this second album is all about,” Yolanda decides. “It’s real. It sounds a lot more like a band in a room, which I think gives it more vibe.” And while it may have taken them time, Phantom Limb have at last found a space that is very much their own, in and amongst The Pines.