Anh Phung Artist Interview

“Anh Phung is a shining example of the modern musician: as a child, she earned her virtuosity while sweeping flute contests across Canada, and has since used her mastery of the flute as a compass to navigate countless styles of music, constantly learn new instruments and consistently deliver exciting performances. Not bothered by the conventions and standard limitations of the flute, her powerful musical voice steers her through everything from hip-hop to bluegrass to Bulgarian folk music, and she is the leader of prog-rock tribute band Tullstars and performance art act Hairbrain. Catch Anh Phung on the mainstage at a summer festival facing off with the lead guitarist, or slinking around the basement after-hours at a free jazz club, but blink and she's off chasing the next new sound.” -Alan Mackie


Can you give us 5 career highlights?

1. My first solo debut with an orchestra when I was 13 years old, with L'Orchestre Symphonique de Québec under the direction of conductor, Maestro Yoav Talmi. I played Chaminade’s Concertino, Op. 107.

2. Playing a “Tribute to Alice Coltrane” on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millenium Park in Chicago, under the direction of Nicole Mitchell and some members of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians).

3. A really fun 5 minutes of my life that is both ridiculous and memorable but not necessarily career changing was being put in a choir to sing “B*tches Ain’t Sh*t” by Dr, Dre on the “Just for a Laughs” television special “XXX: The Nasty Show”, accompanied by Ben Folds and hosted by Bob Saget. What a hoot!

4. Playing flute on a Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial which showcased the flute as a classical AND rock instrument. Very forward thinking Reece! Sadly I can’t eat them because of my peanut allergy. 

5. Touring all over the world with various bands. Some highlights include performing at Urkult (a well loved hippie festival) in the endless light of Näsåker, Sweden, Woodford Folk Festival (Australia’s largest cultural event of the year) in the dizzying heatwaves of Australia, and Xöömei in the Centre of Asia (a throat singing festival honouring Kongar-ool Borisovich Ondar, the master Tuvan throat singer) in the cultured land of Tuva, Russia.

How about 3 pivotal moments that were essential to creating the artist that you've become?

In chronological order:

1. In high school, I stumbled across Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same” movie (and had to tape it to VHS because I discovered it late on TV on a school night). Before then I was purely a classical player and this event set me loose on a rampage. I joined my school’s jazz band, my friends’ rock band, started improvising and delved into the vast array of non-classical music.

2. My relationship with music has been complicated over the years. It was so easy to say that it was my passion because I had done it for so long, but I don't necessarily think I was always connecting to it. In 2014, the band I was touring with at the time got invited to Sweden, all expenses paid, to participate in a program called Ethno Sweden. Skeptical of this "too good to be true" scenario, we went anyway and had a life changing experience. Participants came from all over the world came to Ethno to teach the music traditions of their country. It was so humbling to be in an environment where everyone, no matter what musical level they were at, was learning something completely from scratch. Players of all different levels teaching each other tunes, jamming, and hanging out as the sun barely set and then rose again (we were pretty far up north!). It was here that I rekindled my love for music and remembered that music is fun and connecting, and not about being competitive or “the best”. My entire outlook on music shifted at this point and I felt like I had broken down a barrier/block that had kept me back for almost my entire musical life. Dramatic, I know!

3. By the end of 2015, my best friend, Alan Mackie, and I were fed up about how much work was required of us to “make it in this business”... and not actually playing enough music!!! Booking, administration, networking... Blah, blah, blah. We created a band void of any work. No booking shows, no rehearsing, no goal of making money. Just playing. We would play everywhere including late night pizza spots, outside the bank, and open mics, making no money and loving it! It was therapeutic for us. Word spread and we started getting booked places, playing a few festivals here and there, taking the project overseas to Sweden and France... and finally getting paid! Our “no rehearsing” policy got old and we started to practice and write! But we wanted to write what was appealing to us. Our performances started to evolve and become more like conceptual theatre pieces that erred on the side of comedy and ridiculous banter and music. Every show we play now has a concept based on the situation we are in, which means no one will ever see the same show twice. This band, which we call Hairbrain, really flexes my creative muscle, expanding it beyond music and constantly challenges me to think outside the box.

*HONOURABLE MENTION* Here's a pivot! My mom tried to sign me up for ballet when I was 4 but (luckily?) the class was full. Out of all the other options, she thought the flute would be perfect as it was "small" and "inexpensive". Well, we can definitely all agree that it's small!

What do you like best about performing?

I can be a bit of a ham, and truthfully, I love the attention. That’s a very shallow answer but that’s a big differentiator for me as opposed to playing for myself in my room. I also, of course, love sharing music with others and that’s always amazing too!

CD releases?

I released a sweet little album with my dear friend Braden Gates this year. We sat in the studio for two hours and just played tunes that came to mind and did not do any second takes of anything. It’s very raw, intimate, fun and far from perfect!! The album is called “Screech Plank Flute Fly”. And for those who are wondering, a screech plank is a dirty fiddle!

I’ve recorded on many albums throughout the years and would also like to plug the 2019 releases/2020 will be released!

2019 (chronological order):

Sam I Am Montolla - Intro to Indigo

Lydia Persaud - Let Me Show You

Bott Scevins - Hellworld Vol. 1

Anna Wiebe - All I Do Is Move

Braden Gates and Anh Phung - Screech Plank Flute Fly

Evan Cartwright - Don’t

Ten Moon - Exit West

Friendly Rich - We Are All Terrorists

Mel Monaco - Catching Ladybugs

Dan Edmonds - Softie

2020 (alphabetical order):

Amateur - Be Wise Jealous Eyes

Annie Sumi - Solastalgia

Eric St-Laurent - Hyperborea

Fethi Nadjem - (currently unnamed)

Kathryn Merriam - Rhythm of the Sunlight

Kristin Fung - Straight to the Heart of It

LUKA - (currently unnamed)

Michael C. Duguay - The Winter of Our Discotheque 

Mingjia w Tortoise Orchestra - ** (aka star star)

Nathan Smith - Let It Rest, Let It Rise

No Cosmos - (it’s still a secret... shhh!)

Omhouse - (currently unnamed)

Sam Tudor - (currently unnamed)

Scott Peterson - (currently unnamed)

Sultans of String - Refuge

Supposer - Supposer

Tasseomancy - (currently unnamed)

Teen Ravine - Live at Array

Thanya Iyer - Kind

Twisted Pine - (currently unnamed)

What does your schedule look like for the next 6 months?

You caught me at a crazy time! I am currently writing this on my 18 hour transit to China for a little tour with a couple of my best friends, Jaron Freeman-Fox (of Jaron Freeman-Fox and the Opposite of Everything) and Spencer Cole (of Weaves). As a trio, we are called Supposer and we will be playing a week long residency in Weihai on the coast of China. I fly to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada after and will be playing several shows with another one of my besties, Braden Gates, an incredible singer-songwriter, fiddler, and guitarist. Off to Boston come January to play with funky-bluegrass band, Twisted Pine. We head to a conference in New Orleans called Folk Alliance International, where folk musicians from all over the world meet to hang out and showcase their music. We then continue on to open for Grammy-Award winning band, The Earls of Leicester (some of my personal heroes). I fly out to Paris, France in February to lead and conduct Ethno France (same sort of camp as Ethno Sweden as mentioned earlier, but now I've been promoted!). Heading into March I fly back to the States to tour with Twisted Pine. Notably playing at WinterWondergrass, a series of bluegrass festivals. We get to play in California AND Vermont. My favourite food vendor, Miso Hungry, will be there. They have the BEST onigiris!

What are your goals personally?  Professionally?

I love being a freelancer and I think it’s going great but I really would like to get my own stuff out there. I find writing quite daunting. Sure I’ve written a song or piece here or there but recently, I’ve been more interested in these little fragmented ideas I have in my mind. This is why I think Instagram is so great as it is a platform that encourages short little ideas. So one of my goals is being consistent with that and grow as an artist that way. I also think the flute can be put in a box sometimes and I really would like to push it even further. There are so many great flute innovators, especially in the last few decades. People like Robert Dick, Ian Anderson, Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Hubert Laws, Nicole Mitchell, Greg Patillo, Lizzo, to name only a few. I really love what these people have done for the flute and I’d like to continue in their footsteps! My current endeavors right now are progressing this concept of bluegrass flute as well as using guitar pedals with the flute.

What inspires you the most in life?

There are so many answers to this but the first thing that comes to mind right now are my friends and musical community in Toronto and Montreal. Everyone I know is so creative and making art/music that is innovative. Everyone is carving their career in such a DIY way and it’s really inspiring to be around so many people with their own non-conventional vision! The collaboration factor here is also through the roof. There is so much cross pollination in these cities between artists of different circles, genres, and mediums and it creates a safe, non-judgemental space for everyone to try new things and be inspired by one another.

What has been your greatest challenge?

My greatest challenge is my own head. If there’s anything ever holding me back, it’s my own brain feeding me doubts. I have definitely created blocks for myself that I’m still trying to break through all the time. That and maybe being a starving musician.

Who were your music mentors?  and what did you learn from them?

I just have to give a shout out to all my private flute teachers over the years. Jane Martin, Anne-Elise Keefer, Gwen Klassen, and Dave Gossage. Best teachers ever! I have to also mention Janine Webster, Nicole Mitchell, Chris McCann, Joe Sullivan, and my entire music community. I wish I could list everyone but the list wouldn’t end I don’t think.

My teachers throughout the years taught me, not only how to play the flute, but also how to practice, how to approach and think about music, and how to find myself in my music. Chris McCann is a wise guru in my eyes and he is all about the process and the journey. That’s the place you want to be in order to grow. The end result almost doesn’t matter.

Can you give us 5 quirky, secret, fun, (don't think too much about this) hobbies or passions?

Ooh fun! This is ALWAYS changing because I go through little phases of obsession.

Food for sure though! I love trying new spots and obsessing over a type of food I've seen on youtube or something. Right now I'm really into a dish that comes from Xi'an, China. Hand pulled noodles with chili oil. Perfection!

Other things are shuffle dancing, guitar pedals, freecell (the free card game that comes on every PC. I have a problem.), and having a good laugh over a dumb (or smart) joke.

What 3 things would you offer as advice for a young flutist?

1. Love it. Do you love playing the flute? If you don’t, how can you rekindle the love? Find pieces you love to play, discover a new extended technique, try other genres of music. You can practice all you want but if you love it, you will thrive and enjoy it along the way.

2. Find your voice. Whether you’re playing Bach or improvising, there is always space for you to shine and sound like you! Take what you will from idols, teachers, peers, and even life experiences and turn that into your own sound. You can always be experimental no matter how small or big or outside the box you choose to be.

3. Mindset is everything. Don’t fall into that trap of thinking you’re bad. Think more along the lines of having room for improvement and EVERYONE is in that boat with you! Remember that music is a way of expression and creation. Everything is up to interpretation. As you know, with practice, everything will come eventually and you WILL nail all those notes or make those chord changes. In the meantime, don’t be so hard on yourself. Take ”mistakes” and run with it. Create something new. Or take the opportunity to learn how to recover from it. Maybe that “wrong note” is now an appoggiatura. The more negative energy you eliminate from your brain, the more space you free up to think creatively and freely. Easier said than done as this is a practice in itself but definitely worth it in the long run!

YouTube Links:

Tullstars Flute Solo: https://youtu.be/X1g0t_iF3Kw

Steve Vai Ballerina 12/24: https://youtu.be/E4UERbTL5p4

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