If you’re looking for an easy, affordable gift for a small child, the digital version of the charming picture book The Phlunk is beautiful, and works seamlessly on an iPad. With gorgeous illustrations by Tori Elliott and narration by its author, Lou Rhodes, it’s about a cute, cat-like alien with huge ears that enable it to hear everything children are doing on Earth.
Lou and I have know each other for a long time now. When we first met, I was editor of The Face, and she worked for the magazine as a photographer. When she asked me to write the first press bio for her band Lamb, a collaboration with producer Andy Barlow, I was a little anxious: what if they were awful?
I needn’t have worried.
They were magnificent, offsetting Lou’s calm stage presence and ethereal voice with frenetic electronic beats and lush strings. Lamb’s eponymous debut album, released in 1996, is still a huge favourite in our house along with their other seven studio albums, and Lou’s excellent, more folk-influenced 2006 solo album Beloved One. (Which was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.)
But I wasn’t alone in my doubts, in those early days. Factory Records boss Tony Wilson thought Lamb was a mistake. “He famously told me to not give up the day job when we started,” says Rhodes with a laugh. “He said, ‘You’re a good photographer, Louise!’ I said, ‘Well, thanks. But I think we’re onto something here as well.’ But he was just like, nah.”
Trusting the process
“You’ve just got to trust,” she says, talking about the leap of faith we all take, when making something new. “It’s not really a cerebral process, when you’re creating. It’s that gut feeling of – something’s happening here. And if you had to explain it to anybody, in its formative stages, you wouldn’t go beyond that.
“If you cross-examine what you’re doing, you might as well stop there. Because it comes from somewhere else. It comes from your core and you just follow the process. That’s what we sometimes lose touch with, because we live in a kind of left-brain reality of, ‘Are you going to make a living out of this?’”
The Phlunk grew out of one of those leaps.
“He kind of appeared when my two boys were small,” she explains. “I wrote a poem about this alien creature who can hear everything that children say and do. When kids are small, they’re just always like, ‘Mommy, look, look, look.’ They always want you to see and hear what they’re doing.
“And from when mine were two and six, I was a single mum, and also working, writing, touring. So the idea behind The Phlunk was that he’s always there listening, even if they feel like you’re somewhere else. Although obviously, I wasn’t somewhere else all the time! I hope they would attest to that.”
The poem sat in a drawer until 2011, when Rhodes decided to make it into a book. She approached the illustration department at Falmouth School of Art and Design, and asked if they’d run a competition amongst the students, to draw the character. Tori Elliott won, bringing it to life in a way that Rhodes says was “better than I’d even imagined”.
The book came out via a small independent publisher, who gave it a very limited release. “Then life took over, music took over. And again, it was forgotten about until the first lockdown this year.”
Creativity in quarantine
She had sometimes thought about doing an audio-visual version, but now she actually had the time – and the equipment. “For the first time in over 20 years as a musician, I actually have a home recording setup! With lockdown, I wasn’t able to get other people to record me. And I was doing bits of writing, and collaborations with people. So I finally got a setup together, to record myself at home.”
The process of getting it up onto Apple Books was, she says, pretty simple. Although she did get some help from a friend who knew coding, to make the pages turn seamlessly with the narration. She has also written a second story, The Phlunk’s Worldwide Symphony.
“There are all these children around the world making sounds and playing instruments, and it turns into this wonderful symphony. And he’s dancing to it in outer space. So that really lends itself to an amazing audio-visual presentation. I’m looking forward to doing that.”
It was never her plan to become a children’s writer.
“It just happened. I guess that’s one of the things that has landed with the pandemic, and the way the music industry has suffered. And creative industries in general. It just seems more and more that we need to diversify.”
At the start of 2020, Lamb were looking forward to playing the big summer festivals. “That was going to be my income this year. When that all got cancelled, I went into quite a dark space of not being very creative, because I was too busy worrying about money.”
She quickly decided that worrying wouldn’t change anything, and instead – like many of us – started making what she could, exploring new creative outlets.
“In lockdown, I started teaching myself piano, which had never really put any time or effort into. I’ve dabbled over the years, but I’ve started to really immerse myself in that. And I’m finding myself wanting to make visual art, write prose and poetry.
“I think as human beings, that’s our natural state. If we allow ourselves to be, we are multifaceted, creative beings.”
Playing, exploring, is when the magic happens.
“When Andy and I first formed Lamb, we didn’t have a master plan at all. He had some free studio time in Leeds, and we just went over there, slept on the studio floor, and threw ideas at each other. And by the end of that weekend, it was just like, ‘OK, I think we’re onto something here.’ And that was it. But you’ve got to be brave enough to step into that unknown.”
For many of us, 2020 has been a time of reflection. Of learning what’s really important to us, and appreciating things we perhaps took for granted before.
“I was having a bit of a low day the other day, and I put on some old-school roots reggae music, and was dancing around my kitchen,” says Rhodes. “And just feeling such gratitude for the fact that music saves my life, on a daily basis. The next time I can go into a venue, have the bass pumping and just be around lots of people, I am going to lose my shit! I just want to go and dance in a sweaty, random place!”
The Phlunk is £1.99 from Apple books. Lamb’s latest album is The Secret of Letting Go. This was part of a longer conversation with Lou, in which we talk more about creativity and process. If you’re interested, you can read that here.
Sheryl Garratt is a writer and a coach helping creatives to get the success they want, making work they love. Want my free 10-day course, Freelance Foundations: the secrets of successful creatives? Click here.