Wave Your Flags
Out March 22, 2019
MEL TRECHA // Publicist
It was one of the music industry’s stranger stories: a young girl who’d grown up in a household where music was banned, her burgeoning interest confined to stolen moments at the practice room piano and a single dance music CD stashed in her desk at school. Phildel Ng lived for the bulk of her childhood under the rule of an abusive, strict Islamist stepfather, from whom she only escaped in a separation that lost her the rest of her family too. From the experience came her 2013 album, The Disappearance Of The Girl, a dark and breathtakingly intimate suite of songs exploring the gothic fantasies that sustained her through an unhappy time. Though written in a vacuum, Phildel’s intense piano and electronica music quickly spread to millions, sound-tracking ads for Apple, Expedia and Marks & Spencer; she was an inspiration to Mariah Huehner, author of True Blood, and her songs featured in the live shows of fashion designer Henrietta Ludgate. The cult continues: her keyboard reverie Qi made it on to Spotify’s Peaceful Piano playlist and has had nearly 70 million streams to date.
At the time of her debut, Phildel was trying to bring the man who had abused her to justice: she took her story to the police, but there was no prosecution – her mother and sister closed ranks, and though the case remains open, there wasn’t enough evidence to make an arrest. She had to make the devastating decision to cut herself off from her family entirely. Wave Your Flags is the story of that fracture and the self-repair that followed – a strong, sparse album of powerful songs re-enacting cycles of loss and renewal. The fairy tales are over. In a post-#Metoo era, Wave Your Flags is a work about the importance of speaking up and finding your way in the world - regardless of whether or not you are believed.
Phildel now lives in Brighton with her partner and identical twin boys. The album took three years to complete: “I wait till life events reach boiling point,” she says. And there were several of those. When she failed to get a conviction for her stepfather, she became emotionally overwhelmed by the experience and, afraid for her own safety, checked herself in to the A&E department of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. The haunting The Great Wave (“Your love took me out of the water”), with its spectral vocoder voicing, was written about that night, when she had briefly imagined turning herself into the waters of the Thames instead. The beautiful Oh Love was a companion piece, about the support she felt from her partner Chris: “Oh love, running down my skin like it’s too much…”
Eighteen months after breaking contact with her family, Phildel went on a process of grieving for the mother she had lost. She giggles about it now – a retreat in a cottage near Salisbury, “Joss sticks in my bellybutton, reiki, acupuncture, right through to shamanic healing, but by the end I was crying like a baby”. From the experience came one of the album’s most tender songs, Lamb, where her signature minimalism is applied exquisitely to an unaccompanied choir. “Fold into my arms, it’s enough / Fold into my arms, you are loved.”
“It is my song to my inner child,” says Phildel. “It’s saying, no one was there for you then, but I am here for you now, keeping myself safe from destructive relationships.”
A sense of strength and psychological decluttering permeates the arrangements in Wave Your Flags. Songs are clustered together according to their feelings - brightness versus darkness, organic versus electronic. “Lyrically, the imaginative figures are more peripheral,” she says. “There is less explicit gothicness going on. I was no longer overcoming adversity in the figure of this really dark person.”
But the archetypal images are there still, particularly with the presence of the ocean in Wild Sea, Great Wave and Floods. The album’s bloodiest track, Glide Dog, is also possibly its most fun: a winsome, sexy cabaret-horror in which murderous impulses are dramatised with shark teeth and copious amounts of gore: “I need more blood than you could pour, love… I’m going to need real hurt to give this real worth.” Phildel wrote it with various past problematic relationships in mind: “When I go into really intense hatred mode, I know that it’s almost a little bit funny,” she says.
The album’s closing track Glorious is a hair-raising farewell to the dark times - an anthem of independence, with a choir of Phildels unfolding over a bed of simple synths: “The bridge I build will carry me beyond the creatures of your sea.”
The clearest sign of Phildel’s changing perspectives is in the boldness of her sonic landscape. The Disappearance of the Girl was an impressive feat of arrangement: she used the Vienna Symphonic Library to score her work, then recreated it with a full orchestra. Wave Your Flags features the same programmes, the same hardware, but she made different choices. Sean McGhee worked with her on programming; Ben Jackson on synths. Israel Curtis is responsible for the innovative vocoder effect on The Deep: “He’s a genius,” she says. “He’s a Mormon with a fantastic ear for harmonies because he grew up in a church community.”
There are live drums on Wild Sea and Oh Love, but otherwise piano and voice are the only organic instruments. When it comes to synths, however, Phildel is still the same girl she was in the school practice room, experimenting with the simplest melodies: “The amount of magic in one note is so intense, it’s almost spiritual,” she says. “Synths have this almost lunar quality – you can make them bend in a way that is not very earthly at all.”
Despite the huge developments of the last three years, her previous songs still figure in her life. In recent months, more and more people have got in touch through her Facebook page to say that her 2013 anthem The Wolf – the archetypal song about her step father – has helped them process cases of abuse in their own lives. “With #MeToo, all this is coming to the fore now,” she says. “That was one of my proudest moments, because I felt so empowered after writing that song myself.”
As for Phildel herself, on Wave Your Flag, the song Glorious is the conclusion of her struggle with the past.
“No matter what has happened to me, I don’t need anyone to say that they witnessed what I went through – I am actually enough of a witness on my own,” she says. “Sometimes it is beyond our power to have legal justice happen, and somehow we need to be able to resolve that within ourselves. For me, I had done everything within my power to gain justice. Now going forward, I’m okay.”