Track-by-Track: Phosphene’s “Transmute”

Phosphene is the Portland, Oregon-based duo of Rachel Frankel and Matt Hemmerich, and on their new album, Transmute, they push their sound further into the universe. Between the vulnerability woven into the lyrics and sonic elements and the expansive palette give Frankel and Hemmerich more space to explore inside these shoegaze-adjacent, experimental pop songs. Ryan Huff’s string arrangements add another timbre to an already rich sound world. Phosphene continues following unexpected trails, leading us to places we never thought we’d find. It’s such a beautiful, inviting record.

Transmute is out tomorrow, September 15. Grab a copy HERE


“Umbra” originated from a jam session at our old Portland practice space circa 2019. Instrumentally, the verse and chorus developed rapidly, but we got stuck on where it should go. The final two movements in “Umbra” weren’t fully written until a year later, and the vocal melodies also went through a few iterations as the final lyrics solidified. We started the track with layers of a brassy, menacing synth wave and e-bow guitar to establish the world in which the listener is entering. This song, thematically speaking, is the heaviest one on the album. Matt and I both came of age during the war on terror, so watching recent docuseries like Turning Point struck a chord. Growing up, 9/11 and the war on terror were inescapable and defined so much of our adolescence. With “Umbra,” Matt sought to reflect on that era by exploring three different stories: someone inside the World Trade Center, a soldier on the ground, and a widow. We know the subject has been covered ad nauseam in art, so we didn’t want the song to be preachy or didactic. Instead, our goal was to spotlight humanity and the fear, loss, and lasting damage endured from this conflict.

Black Sheep

This is the first song we wrote after leaving the Bay Area for Portland, OR. My guitar riff was originally fingerpicked on an acoustic, which had a more indie folk sound. Laura Veirs’ approach to guitar playing was definitely an influence here; she’s always been creative with chord progressions and pairing intricate melodies with spare arrangements. Once we channeled the riff through an electric guitar, it gave the song a different dimension that went in a more post-punk and shoegaze direction. Lyrically, “Black Sheep” examines a life where depression is ever-present, like a dog trailing at your feet. Matt took inspiration from artist Kaye Blegvad, whose Dog Years comic felt like an apt metaphor for his own mental health. He spent time in Reason writing the beat since we had no practice space at the time. It was his first attempt at programming drums from scratch, which was daunting but worthwhile. He leaned into the visual nature of writing beats on a computer and built a hypnotic pattern that has a lovely cascading quality.


This is one of the more playful and openly empowered songs on Transmute. It’s also our rowdiest track, which made it even more fun to execute. “Levitation” actually dates all the way back to our 2014 self-titled album, then titled “Go to Sleep.” While gigging around the Bay Area, this tune was always popular at our shows, and to be honest, sounded more raw and energetic than the studio recording. With that said, we wanted to do it justice by re-recording it and finessing certain aspects of the song structure. We added new lyrics, expanded melodies, and recorded vocal variations in the second verse based on how I would sing it live. It was thrilling and satisfying to reimagine this song and finally hear its ferocity unleashed.


“Jigsaw” was a tune we made during the initial lockdown back in April 2020. Matt wrote the song on acoustic guitar while I was drafting vocal melodies. During this process, I came up with the hook, “I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense now / I’m still missing that jigsaw.” As usual, Matt penned the lyrics to this song, drawing from stories of loss and distance exacerbated by COVID-19. The perspective is from someone journaling alone, thinking of a loved one’s safety. It makes a reference to Hart Island, a mass graveyard in NYC, where many Covid victims were laid to rest. We tapped our friend, Ryan Huff, who is an amazing composer and sound designer, for a digital string arrangement to accompany “Jigsaw.” Through our collaboration, he produced the lush and dramatic sections you hear throughout the tune.


“Wisp” stems from a band practice where Matt and I were both on guitar. He wrote this lead melody for the verse that I layered with some rhythm underneath. Similar to “Umbra,” we had certain parts of the song dialed in, but the chorus and ending went through some iterating to become what they are now. Previously, those sections were sunnier and contrasted the darker, moodier tones we crafted in the verses. It felt like we lost the momentum built with that juxtaposition, so I went to the piano to write a new chorus that would burst through. That inspired us to ride out the second chorus with an extended solo and drum fills to sail into the sunset. With “Wisp,” Matt and I collaborated on lyrics, though I took the lead here and wrote an anecdote based on someone from my past. It details their toxic patterns of emotional abuse and the damage done to those surrounding them.


This is technically the oldest tune to debut on Transmute! We had the main parts of this song written a decade ago, but it idled for some time since I couldn’t land on a vocal melody. Matt lobbied year after year for us to revisit it, and it took the pandemic for that to happen. Frankly, the time away from “Transmute” was a blessing, as we weren’t at a level to properly execute a track like this yet. Instrumentally, the chiming guitar in the chorus was inspired by Grizzly Bear, especially from songs like “Yet Again.” I also drew inspiration from New Order on the bass in the final leg of the tune; it’s a nice moment where the collective tension in the song collapses onto itself and everything lets loose. Matt used the RV7000 MKII Reverb in Reason 12 to produce the ethereal ending. Early on in the demo process, he was testing different reverbs and stumbled upon a particular setting. It initially felt a bit excessive to use during the final section, however, he experimented with the arrangement so it could act as a dreamy coda.

Everyone is Gone

This song also dates back to March 2020, during the very early stages of quarantine. Elliott Smith has been a continual influence on me for almost 20 years, and the jangly sound of this song is a subtle tribute to him. It’s rare that a vocal melody comes so effortlessly for me, but this one had a way of writing itself. Lyrically, Matt covers disinformation and the chaotic state of social media here. We initially planned for a soundbite montage during the middle 8 section but ultimately abandoned ship since it felt cartoonish. Instead, we embraced a sonic detour that doubled as a nod to the dizzying state of affairs referenced in the lyrics. Having this in mind, we utilized my Korg Prologue to experiment with some presets. With Matt’s coaching, we landed on a fun, vibrant synth melody that gave the song a new plane to explore.


There was something magical about this song when it was born from a jam session five years ago. At the time, Matt and I had made the decision to move to Oregon, meaning the end of our time as a 3-piece in the Bay Area. The first recording of this song took place during one of our final practices with Kevin Kaw (bass) in our South Berkeley space. “Wandering” tells the story of a person who falls for someone they cross paths with on their way to the afterlife. Too often, we view death through such a grim lens and allow it to stoke our worst imaginations. That led Matt to write an anecdote where that fright actively prevents the narrator from fully embracing their end. That fear of loneliness, especially in romance, can lead to acts of desperation. For “Wandering,” I collaborated once more on digital string arrangements with Ryan Huff. I’ve always been curious about arranging, and this song’s bright and open atmosphere was conducive to lacing in some fun Wall of Sound strings. Working together, Ryan and I would ping-pong our ideas, and sometimes I’d even tweak them by interpolating parts on my childhood piano. Throughout “Wandering,” the strings play a supporting role, though we pull the ripcord and let them blossom into a golden display by the time we reach the end of this journey.

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