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Weekly preview: Phone Voice’s blending of confessional and metaphorical

The rising artist performs at The Six in Southeast Portland.

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Chitra Subrahmanyam aka Phone Voice.
Chitra Subrahmanyam aka Phone Voice.

Chitra Subrahmanyam loved Portland well before they moved here. As a youngster in the East Bay with a cool older sister, they were handed down a mix CD that included some material by the late Elliott Smith. Hearing “Between The Bars” opened the door to other Portland acts like Smith’s former band Heatmiser and Sleater-Kinney. The allure was immediate. 

“When you’re going through something, especially as an angsty teenager, it’s not really hard to find something that speaks to you in music from people like Elliott,” Subrahmanyam said. “And when I was starting to drum, finding bands that were so dynamic —that had this balance between quiet and loud, and this seething undertone that ran through even the quieter parts — appealed to me as someone that feels like people think I had nothing to say or offer but at home, I got to bang on shit and let that out.” 

Moving to Portland felt, in some ways, inevitable, drawn here as Subrahmanyam was by the music and a promising post-graduate program in speech pathology. Since arriving, they have slowly worked their way into the artistic community, starting their journey drumming for artists like Mo Troper and Balloon Club. 

But after taking a few introductory guitar lessons, Subrahmanyam began to write their own songs, amassing a collection of lowkey but powerful material that they have recorded and performed under the name Phone Voice

Their debut release, 2021’s cradle tape, is a perfect blending of the confessional and the metaphorical, as Subrahmanyam unpacks broken relationships and inner torment. “I am the air that surrounds you,” they sing over agitated waves of distorted guitar on “river.” “River of shame, you flow within me / yet you are nowhere / not around me anymore.”

Phone Voice has been on something of a rapid ascent in the Portland community since Subrahmanyam put a band together and started playing shows around 2019. They’ve landed choice opening spots recently at Mississippi Studios and Doug Fir Lounge and, last year, had cradle tape featured on Paste. (“cradle tape feels like the kind of garden from which, with water and light, a career’s worth of special songs can grow,” wrote Scott Russell.)

“I’m still baffled,” Subrahmanyam said of the Paste write up. “I don’t know how they found it! It’s been incredible. I had a dream of playing Mississippi Studios one day. It was the first venue I walked into on the very first day I was in Portland, even before I moved here. I can’t believe that I’ve been fortunate enough to play there. I’m just pinching myself.” 

Progress beyond our city limits has been slow coming as Subrahmanyam has been busy with their day job, but plans are afoot. Phone Voice got invited to participate in this year’s PDX Pop Now festival–the free, outdoor celebration of the local scene that happens every summer–and they are looking to book a Northwest tour as soon as they can. There’s also another dozen or so songs in various stages of completion that will likely wind up on album #2. All exciting developments that are leaving Subrahmanyam in various states of shocks. 

“I don’t understand,” they said, laughing incredulously. “I don’t understand how anything is happening.” 

Phone Voice performs at The Sïx (3341 SE Belmont St., Portland) on Saturday May 28 at 9 pm. Tickets: $10. 21+

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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