Straight outta Vienna
Mavi Phoenix is being celebrated as Austria’s latest music hopeful. She’s a shooting star in a discipline usually dominated by men: rap. For this young artist, that’s an incentive, not an obstacle. Her repertoire also includes one especially vital skill: focusing laser-like on her goals.
The 23-year-old Austrian sits on the bed in the middle of a pile of clothes. The wheeled suitcase she took on her just-completed multi-week tour rests on the floor nearby. It has been quite some time since she was last in Vienna, where she now makes her home, for several days at a stretch. Despite her packed schedule and all the stress that entails, she appears relaxed. With an easy laugh and an unmistakable Austrian accent, she talks about the weeks she has just spent in a minivan: “Traveling around with the crew was definitely my kind of thing. But I don’t think I’m really the type of person to live out of a suitcase for weeks.” Glancing around at the mess, she grins and brushes the hair out of her face. For our photo shoot, she has not overdone it with the makeup, opting instead for a look that is as casual as everything else about her. She does have her own hairspray, however, to tame any stray strands that might interrupt the sleek shape of her long blond bob.
Even at her young age, she is an absolute professional in such matters. She selects her first outfit quickly, with no hesitation. Mavi Phoenix wears trendy sneakers with casually pulled-up gym socks. One pair of her shoes features little removable applications. She combines them with sweat pants, a turtleneck and a denim jacket. Ranging from playful to hip, her accessories include a fake-snakeskin fanny pack and homemade bracelets cobbled together out of her last tour’s merch. She likes experimenting. And not only in her music. “It’s mainly about finding myself. I’m much more self-aware than at the beginning, in 2015/2016. That’s why I have such a positive outlook on this whole thing, because I’ve gained more self-confidence through the music and through Mavi Phoenix. It’s great when you can stand in front of people and simply be who you are - and they accept you for it. That really builds you up,” she reflects.
A coming-of-age phase is nothing unusual for a woman in her early twenties. But her music career definitely is. David Bowie, U2 and Queens of the Stone Age were the soundtrack of her childhood. Music-loving parents shaped her taste. When they separated, the long car trips shuttling between their two homes played a key role in her musical education.
Winning a Grammy is my big goal.
Mavi grew up with her mother in Linz, while her father lived in Vienna. It takes two hours to drive from one to the other. As soon as they were in the car, they would crank up the music and sing along. This tradition was so firmly ingrained in the native of Linz that she always wondered what was wrong when her friends’ parents gave her rides and their cars were silent. And having music permanently in her ears wherever she went thanks to an MP3 player was a revelation for her. That also awoke her interest in the technical possibilities associated with sound. “I simply have a love of music in me. That’s my calling.” Her early, timid desire to make music of her own has morphed into an unshakable drive. Asked where she sees herself in ten years in terms of her music career, she answers with a wide grin, “Well, by then I would like to have won one of the big awards.” Meaning a Grammy. “Or at least be nominated in one or two major categories.”
While that may sound like a pretty ambitious goal, it is not that much of a stretch given her career trajectory so far: Mavi Phoenix is considered one of Austria’s great musical hopes. And that is true even beyond the borders of her home country. She was nominated for an Austrian Amadeus Award - including as Artist of the Year - in 2017. And again in 2018. She has also made her first forays onto international stages, her last tour taking her not only to major European cities such as Vienna, Paris, Rome and Barcelona, but as far afield as Los Angeles. Personally, Mavi Phoenix considers the latter her greatest success to date. “I love interacting with the audience. That was amazing in every city - but with a crowd of English native speakers it was something else again, it was huge. Absolutely incredible. And, of course, it’s also true that if you want to be somebody in the music business, you have to make it in America. Especially in my genre,” she says.
So what is her genre? Rap. It falls in the musical category of lo-fi pop. Her songs bear titles such as “Janet Jackson,” “Bite” and “Ibiza.”
Vienna is the city the 23-year-old artist currently calls home. Here, on the blue Danube, she has found everything she needs to propel her career forward. But she can imagine moving again to pursue her dreams.
Fans can stream her latest album, Young Prophet II, or purchase a vinyl version. You could search for quite a while - not to mention fruitlessly - for Mavi Phoenix CDs; this is a medium her generation of artists does not find relevant. Vinyl, however, is now enjoying a renaissance - or maybe it never went out of style at all. Mavi Phoenix’s lyrics are clear and direct, always catchy without getting too complex. “Music has to grab me right from the first bar. The beat, sure, but the lyrics, too. It shouldn’t be meaningless, but not too cerebral, either. I try to apply that principle to my songs, too,” she explains. Having attended an English school and learned to speak the language with no accent at all, Mavi never considered rapping in German an option. On stage, she is energetic, striking cool poses or whipping her hair around while headbanging. She loves interacting with the audience, both when the mood is frenetic and when she reacts with irony to a crowd that may not have chosen to spend an evening with Mavi Phoenix voluntarily. In such cases, she has no qualms about offering up a cheeky remark - without ever getting nasty, of course. She understands that gigs like that are part of what you sign up for when you’re just starting out. Like so many fields, the music industry may have grown faster and more accessible thanks to the Internet, but that has not canceled out certain fundamental rules of play. The young rapper doesn’t get worked up about it. After all, she aims to rise to the very top. And she never loses sight of that goal.
Dealing with criticism also goes with the territory, whether it is leveled at her personally or at her music. Among the most artistically controversial and most frequently debated features of Mavi’s music is automatic pitch correction, aka auto-tune. It is not so much a stylistic device she has adopted over the years as a hallmark she has had since day one. That is because of an early gift that paved the way for her career: When she was eleven, her father gave her an Apple MacBook. She used its pre-installed music software to arrange her own tracks. As a member of the digital native generation, she quickly learned how to use the tools through nonstop experimentation. “I think it’s great that anyone can make music nowadays. If you enjoy it, why not? I see it as an opportunity, not as a problem.” One of the programs she played around with included the famous auto-tune effect that she still uses today. “I realize I’m not one of the best singers on the planet. So I like using this effect to get more out of my voice. I’m not afraid to admit it. But if you think I can’t sing at all, you’re dead wrong.”
She will also be offering her fans songs without auto-tune in the future. Because she will never let critics pigeonhole her. And that is one of this young artist’s greatest strengths: She has her own opinions and she voices them. Never one to shy away from a debate, she instead seeks dialog. For a young woman in her early twenties, Mavi Phoenix appears quite thoughtful and willing to question views. With one exception: She takes no notice whatsoever of hate comments on social media. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of those.
I want to stay real.
“The anonymity of the Internet gives the strangest people a stage. I try not to let things like that get to me. Often you can tell that these people have not made the slightest effort to understand my lyrics or me as an artist.” This diminutive young woman has felt just how tough the music business can be in a variety of situations - such as when she strikes typical macho poses on stage. “That would be totally normal for a man. When a woman does it, you can still sometimes draw skeptical looks, even in the 21st century. That is nuts.” Mavi Phoenix doesn’t let that throw her. On the contrary, she wants to be an ambassador for a woman’s right to be strong. To a certain extent, this role - like many elements of her career - was more or less randomly thrust upon her, without her really raising her voice to demand it. A young, female rapper who just belts out her opinion? To many, that can only be one thing: the embodiment of feminism. But that was never the reason prompting Mavi to take the stance she does. As a political person, it is simply her nature. “Staying real is important to me,” she says. That is why she also consciously chose a stage name that is similar to her real name. Marlene is Mavi. Mavi is Marlene. Yet she does not aim to be the perfect example of a woman in the music business. She just wants to do her thing. And keep moving ahead in one direction only: straight - just like her style of music.