Liberty Phoenix
and Collin Whitlock
get caped up

While all of her siblings leaned toward the movie and music industry, Liberty Phoenix decided to keep a relatively low profile far away from Hollywood in Gainesville, Florida. Starting in the 1980s, her older brothers River Phoenix and Joaquin Phoenix began starring in acclaimed big-budget films while her sisters Rain and Summer Phoenix also juggled films and music projects. All the while, Liberty went to college, became a parent, and started-up local businesses. However, over the last few years, she’s slowly stoked her passion for songwriting, even gigging across Florida with Americana groups like Pine and Johnny Lee.

Last month, amidst the pandemic, her new band, Capes, released its debut single “Looking Out For Me” via LaunchLeft, her sister Rain’s label and podcast. The moody, Steinway Grand-driven song and video is part of LaunchLeft’s new singles series honoring the 50th birthday of their late brother, River. In August, the series concludes with a new vinyl 12-inch single from River’s indie-rock band, Aleka’s Attic. River’s old friend, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, provides newly recorded basslines for the long-shelved tracks. 

Capes, which also comprises songwriter and pianist Collin Whitlock, recently chatted with The Vinyl District about their past, present, and musical future. Here’s what the duo had to say.

Liberty, your homelife consisted of being raised by your parents John and Heart Phoenix—both fearless supporters of the arts and progressive thinking. Do you feel that shaped you as a person and musicians?

LIBERTY: What’s funny is, I’m a very analytical thinker. I didn’t know I was a creative until about three or four years ago. It did not seem like it was a fabric of my nature. I went back to school to be an accountant. I have always run businesses. I am an entrepreneur. I am interested in the way business works.

So, while I was getting back into this, I ended up changing my degree to be a graphic designer at some point. This was after going through programming and coding classes and all that. Now all of the sudden, I’m a graphic designer, which is so far away from being an accountant that you can’t even imagine. I am definitely a late bloomer, but the building blocks were obviously instilled in there somewhere. I just hadn’t quite tapped into it until much later in life.

Was your family arts-leaning, as well?

COLLIN: For sure. We always had a piano in the house. My mom played piano, my dad played guitar to me, from birth on. One of my favorite memories is my dad playing “Rocky Raccoon” to me. Music was always a major part of our household. My parents were always vying for a spot in the CD player. Mom wanted “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” while my dad wanted The Beatles or The Byrds. We had certain music we’d listen to for certain things. If we were going on a trip, we’d put on Rolling Stones Let it Bleed. If we were going to soccer practice we’d listen to The Cars or Steely Dan. I got all of that growing up. 

Collin, were you born and raised in Gainesville?

COLLIN: No, I moved to Gainesville to go to school in 2001. I grew up in Indialantic, Florida. When I moved to Gainesville, that’s when I started playing in bands around town and got into the music scene here. My first band here was called Maxwell Edison. We were like a piano-rock band, it was a lot of fun. Since then, I’ve been lucky to be a part of many projects here that’ve made me grow as a musician and performer.

Liberty, over the last few years, you’ve performed in a couple bands, so how did Capes come to life? 

LIBERTY: We started Johnny Lee a little over a year ago, it was our band previous to Capes. Johnny Lee has, basically, become Capes. This new single was written during Johnny Lee times, and other songs we have were also brought over to Capes. We have like 12 songs we play live that we worked out together. We’ve played a lot of shows [as Johnny Lee], but we’ve been in lockdown since Capes came out, so we’ve not done any performances as the new band.

You’re both involved in the Gainesville music scene, but how did you first cross paths?

COLLIN: Liberty had come to see some of my shows. There is one band I play in around town; a Beatles cover band called The Shitty Beatles. She came to one of those shows. The community in Gainesville is incredible, they really create the perfect atmosphere for live performance. They get really into it. They dance, they sing. It’s a whole experience.  We’d just finished a show, I was walking off the stage and Liberty walks up to me and says, “I want you to be in my band.” If you know Liberty, she is very straightforward, no bullshit. She knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it, which I love. She is very blunt and I eat that up. We finally ended up getting together and working on some of the beautiful songs she’d already written.

Did you put much thought in the name change from Johnny Lee to Capes?

COLLIN: When Liberty and I decided to change the direction of the band and redefine ourselves we both agreed we wanted to do something more than just a band. Not that being in a band is not a big deal, but we wanted to go beyond those borders. We are both passionate social justice advocates. We both, from a young age, have a desire to affect our community and our society in ways we think would improve our general wellbeing and connection with each other.

We started talking about when you’re a kid. What you spent your time doing is dreaming about all of the cool stuff you’re going to do when you get older. For me, I dressed up in a Superman outfit every day, no matter where we were going—grocery store, church, wherever. I honestly believed, eventually, I was going to get my powers, I was going to have focus and do some good. It’s easy to use those powers for evil, I was preparing myself to do all of this good.

When you get older and try to maintain that idealism it’s common for adults to label you as naïve and chuckle at you.  It’s our way of protecting ourselves from the disappointment that we’re not coming through with these things we wanted to do.  People say, “That’s just not realistic. Politicians, they’re always going to be corrupt. You can’t expect them to be good.” And then they’ll say, “Corporations are supposed to make money, you can’t expect them to do the right thing.”

That “be quiet and be a good consumer” mentality has deep roots in the US, that’s for sure.

COLLIN: Yes, and Liberty and I both agreed we were both really fucking tired of hearing that. We’ve had it up to here with people putting us down because we have idealistic ideas about doing good. So, we decided it was time to put the capes back on and not be embarrassed. Whatever your cape looks like, you should really embrace it. Embrace yourself. That inner power you had as a child should not go away. 

LaunchLeft has really grown over the last couple years. Rain’s mission is to boost left-of-the-dial musicians with help from bigger-named folks. A very noble plan. How’s it been working with her on this?

LIBERTY: For me, it’s been a long time coming. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to, because collaborating with Rain is one of the coolest things you could ever do. It is so much fun to be a part of her world. She is such a brilliant mind who doesn’t give up and doesn’t sleep. She pushes and pushes in a creative way. To have this platform, which she’s created with the podcast and her label, is super close to my heart. Obviously, she’s my sister, so that plays a part, but LaunchLeft being an alliance for left-of-center artists is such an amazing mission. 

We recently did a Zoom meeting with the other artists the other day and everyone is on board to help each other. It’s one of the sweetest, most collaborative efforts where everybody is sharing and promoting the other artists. It’s a really neat way to bring people together, because it’s generally a pretty competitive world out there. It’s a competition. And the way Rain does it, it’s not about that. It’s about lifting each other up.

Looking back, the Phoenix family moved from Cali to Gainesville back when your brother River was landing big roles in films, but he also formed the indie band Aleka’s Attic around then. Rain, of course, was in the band, too. What do you recall about the Gainesville scene back then?

LIBERTY: In the beginning, I was still really young. In ’89, I was in sixth grade so I wasn’t going out. But because of Aleka’s Attic, they could sneak me in, so I did go to a lot of shows. There was a club called The Hardback, it’s a music venue that’s still in existence today, but it’s moved locations. I’d go see them perform there and another place called Full Circle. Those were the two main places and whenever they played, I got to go. There was another band that played with them, NDolphin that our friend was a singer in. Those were both very influential for me.

Was Aleka’s Attic a huge part of River’s life? Do you recall him singing and playing guitar quite a bit around the house?

LIBERTY: For all of us, music was a huge part of our lives. We all sang. Him and Rain sang together. The first chord he ever played was at 4-and-a-half years old. Music was definitely a huge part of our lives and we all sang together—as a family and individually. Also, if Rain was out of town, I got to sing her parts in Aleka’s Attic. That was the greatest experience ever. Then, later on, Rain started her band papercranes and that was super influential. She did some of the most beautiful work and it’s by far one of my favorite bands.

In what ways does River continue to inspire you as an artist and musician?

LIBERTY: I would say, above everything, the unapologetic-ness of River’s nature to create based on what he wanted to create. There was never, “Will someone like this?” or “How is this going to come off?” or “I’m doing this for somebody else.” With River, it was, “I’ve got something in me and I’ve got to express it.” That’s definitely what I’ve taken from him. The lesson I learned from watching Aleka’s Attic grow up and go through the music scene is: “This is for you, for the individual.” That’s pretty special to me.

What initially led you away from music?

LIBERTY: Well, I actually moved to Costa Rica for about five years and dropped off the map in the local arena. I did not work on music while I was in Costa Rica. I sang backup in a couple peoples’ bands, but live music was not the scene. It was very much discotheques and late-night salsa dancing, that was the norm down there.

Eventually, you returned to Gainesville, where your mother Heart Phoenix still lives, as well. Is that when you got back into music?

LIBERTY: Not at first. When I moved back, I had three children back to back, so I didn’t really get into the music scene until about four years ago. That’s when I started writing again. I was writing as a teenager and recorded some music way back when, but I didn’t ever play out as an adult until I was in another band called Pine. So it started with Pine. We were folky. We definitely had stand-up bass, a dobro player and fiddle.

Is country music a favorite for you?

LIBERTY: Wow, this is going back to being a mom. With country music, you can hear the lyrics no matter what. You can sing along to the chorus by the second time they do the chorus. So, for me, when I started really listening to music again as an adult, that was the easiest thing for me to jump into and listen to. I’ve for sure been influenced by Gillian Welch, she’s one of my favorites. She’s not super country, but definitely folky. I grew up on Lucinda Williams. Josh Ritter is a newer one—and there’s Jason Isbell and John Moreland. There are definitely people I am a fan of who have that folky, country thing in them.

As a teen, what were some of the first bands that impacted you?

LIBERTY: The Indigo Girls were extremely influential for me, but also Tracy Chapman and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Those three were on rotation constantly. I can still sing an entire Indigo Girls album. The lyrics are embedded in me. A lot of the people I was most interested in, there was a sense of activism in everything they did. Tracy Chapman—she was so moving in the way she addressed racial issues.

When you first got back into songwriting, did you collaborate with your past band mates at all?

LIBERTY: I wrote all of my songs for Pine. The other lead singer Dan [Stepp] would bring his half of the songs and then we’d sing on each other’s songs and create harmonies. That is what we were mostly known for. We never helped co-write. For me, songwriting has always been—as hippie as it sounds—esoteric in some ways. I sit down with a guitar and then 20 minutes later I’m like, “Oh, I have a new song.” I’m not sure where it comes from or what inspires it. The chord progression just kind of happens, the melody emerges and then I throw some lyrics on it.

Though, since I’ve been working with Collin, we definitely collaborate. The first round of lyrics rarely ends up being the final version of the song. It’s almost like placeholders and then he and I tease out what could be the best version, lyrically. So, there’s been a progression and a shift working with Collin. We wrote one song called “Take the Fun” together lyrically, it was one he’d already written the music to. We recorded that for a movie called Blood from Stone, it’ll be the opening song. That was the first song we worked on together.

The future is a bit uncertain these days, but can you tell me what’s next for Capes?

LIBERTY: Our plan is to release something every three months, just singles. We’re not going to do an album, just keep it eclectic. Part of our mission as Capes is to open the floodgates to never doing the same thing and every time trying to create an epically different experience. We’re trying to push ourselves and not pigeonhole ourselves into any type of music.

COLLIN: We want Capes to be a platform for expression. Whether it’s something we collaborate on together or do on our own. Whether it involves different iterations of a band or no band at all. One of the things I’m most excited about is expanding our genres and the way we reach people. Not just with music, but events tied to our community. We want to empower the people around us to move forward with this mission we’re on.

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