Music Is Magic: a Q&A with Britta Phillips, the Voice Behind the Jem and the Holograms Songs


I recently caught up with Britta Phillips, one half of the duo Dean & Britta, who you may also know as “Billie” from the movie Satisfaction, or perhaps the singing voice of Jem from Jem and the Holograms. Here, she shares of her current road experiences, reminisces about her time spent filming Satisfaction and recording music for Jem, and of course shares some of her own favorite retro memories with us.

How’s the tour going?

It’s going well! We break it up so it doesn’t become exhausting.

Have you had any interesting experiences while on the road?
In Atlanta, I saw two policewomen galloping down the street, which was quite a stunning image. Hmm…what else? The owner of a club we played in, in a small town near Rimini, Italy, made us amazing pasta and then did our sound for the show. That’s a first. I know there’s more but I have a terrible memory, which is why Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are good. I can look back and see what I did.

When does the tour end?

It’s on and off until August 7. Check our tour dates, please! I get so bummed when people email asking when we’re coming to their city and we’ve JUST played there.

Any other cover songs that you enjoy performing while on tour?
We do “Ceremony” by Joy Division / New Order which is always great. Galaxie 500 covered it on their album, On Fire. We also do “Air” by The Incredible String band, which Dean covers on his mini LP, Emancipated Hearts.

What do you think is the first thing you’re going to do once you’re off the road?
I’m home right now for a few days. I’m in my home studio in the back working on my solo album.

When do you aim to have it ready for the masses?
Well, I’m hoping to finish by the end of the year and release it next Spring.

For the movie Satisfaction, when you auditioned for the role of Billie, was it required that you also be a musician, or did musical roles just happen to find you in the 1980s?
They were looking to cast real musicians but I ended up being the only one.

Did you record your own vocals and guitar for the movie?
I recorded vocals but not guitar.

Any fond/terrible memories from shooting the movie?
I can’t talk about the terrible one…but it was an incredibly fun shoot and I have many fond memories of hanging out with Scott Coffey and Julia Roberts. Come to think of it, I can’t really talk about the fond memories either! But we were very young and very silly and had a great time. I bought a video camera and used to set it up in the corner while we hung out, so I have hours and hours of Scott, Julia, and me goofing around. I haven’t watched it in about 15 years since I don’t have a VCR. One fond memory I CAN talk about was when U2 was staying in the same hotel and Bono was singing in the lobby.

Was Bono just hanging around the lobby, nonchalantly singing to himself? That would have been around the time of Rattle and Hum, so was there like, a church choir hanging out, singing behind him?
It was 1987. I don’t remember him being nonchalant, he is Bono after all! But it was a casual setting and there were only about 10 or 20 people in the lobby. Someone was playing piano but I can’t remember who.

Jem and The Holograms recording

What was the recording process like for the Jem and the Holograms songs? Looking back on all of the seasons of Jem, it’s really impressive how many songs were worked into each episode.

It was pretty fast and furious. I’d come into the studio and record two or three songs in a couple of hours. Anne Bryant, who wrote all the song, would fill me in on the details of the episode so that I understand what I was singing about. They really liked to push me up into the high notes to see how high I could go. It was fun.

It’s OK if you don’t have one, but I was wondering if any Jem song that you recorded stands out as your favorite? Or perhaps even a Misfits
Favorites are hard for me. But, “Only Me And The Music,” “Music Is Magic,” and “Only The Beginning” are a couple.

I’ve come to realize that the songs hold up over time. Sure, some are throwaway tunes about picking the perfect wardrobe, but when you get down to the heart of it, the Holograms always sang about friendship, teamwork, positivity. The Misfits almost always sang about Pizzazz! Their lyrics were always first-person Pizzazz narratives. Did you ever consider how much punch was packed into each less-than-3-minute tune?
Yeah, they packed a lot into a minute and half. Sometimes they were super fast! I like that Jem was so imperfect. She was often pretty confused…just like the rest of us.

Did you ever cross paths with Samantha Newark while recording your portion of the episodes?
No, we never met back in the Jem days because we were on opposite coasts. All the music was recorded in NYC and the voices in L.A. We met at JemCon a few years ago, though. And I’m hoping to go to JemCon in Toronto this year if I can.

Do you ever attend any fan events?
Just the one JemCon a few years ago and I’m hoping to attend the one in Toronto in September this year. Are there other fan events? Maybe there are and I just don’t know about them.

Can you give us any info regarding your involvement in the new Jem movie?
I have a very small cameo but I can’t say anything else about it; don’t want to spoil the surprise! It was a fantastic experience being on the set, though. So surreal. And the director, Jon M. Chu, was so lovely and everyone was really excited to be involved in making it.

From working on Jem, did you own any of those dolls or any other Jem memorabilia? How about the cassette tapes that came in the package with the dolls? I personally played/rewound some of them so many times that eventually the tapes snapped.
I’ve moved an awful lot in my life so I don’t have a lot of stuff. I wish I still had a cassette tape. Maybe my mom will find one in a box some day. I do have one Jem doll.

Do fans approach you after concerts and ask you about it?
I meet Jem fans at shows quite often. They usually don’t ask me questions but just want an autograph or a photo. Sometimes people apologize for bringing it up, although I’m not sure why. I don’t mind at all!

Does it boggle your mind that 30 years later people are still asking you about this cartoon?

Yes, it DOES boggle! And it’s great. I never thought about kids growing up and remembering when I was doing it at the time, so it’s a real treat. And I never imagined they’d be making a live-action movie about it!

Do you have any young relatives who are excited about the movie?
My young relatives are either too young or too old to be excited yet, but I think my 16-year-old niece will be excited when the movie comes out.

Who were some of your favorite singers growing up?
I loved ‘70s AM radio hits when I was a kid. I loved the Jackson 5, and later, Michael Jackson’s solo stuff. I loved disco…Donna Summer! and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but all my friends hated it so I used to listen in my car alone. And classic rock like the Beatles and Stones. So…that’s just about everything, right? Ooh! I forgot Jesus Christ Superstar. My dad did the show on Broadway and took us several times. My sister and I were obsessed. My dad also did Dancin’, Barnum, and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There were more but those are the ones that stand out.

What do you like to do in your free time?
Read or watch a movie. I don’t do vacations.

It’s probably hard to do while on the road, but do you have any current “must see” shows? Anything you might be binge-watching?
I LOVE Louie. Other must sees are Girls, Game Of Thrones, and Mad Men. But I’m all caught up on them, so now I find that there’s almost nothing I want to watch on TV, aside from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Although, we’ll sometimes watch Seinfeld or Columbo reruns.

The Retroist website is all about sharing favorite retro memories, so we’d like to know any of your favorite things from growing up. Is there a favorite TV show, commercial, board game, toy…that sticks in your mind to this day?
LOST My favorite cartoons were Kimba The White Lion and Underdog. I loved Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart and All In The Family. Also, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. I played Clue…a lot! And I had a Lost In Space board game. A Rubik’s cube, of course. I didn’t have Barbies, I had Sizzlers cars and a race track.

Check out Britta’s Facebook as well Dean and Britta’s websites, and, for information on the tour, her upcoming projects, appearances, and more.

Find Your Fate Adventure Books

Here at the Retroist we’ve talked about the Choose Your Own Adventure book series before and some of the knock-offs like the Endless Quest and Twistaplot books, but here’s a brand I had never seen until recently: the Find Your Fate adventure books, starring Indiana Jones.

When I saw this book for sale at a local book store for a buck, I couldn’t pass it up. Like most books of the genre, the goal of this one is to help Indiana find some treasure (the “Lost Treasure of Sheba”) and keep him alive in the process. In the book you are not Indiana but rather his young friend (probably an easier character for young readers to relate to).

The book is also filled with lots of illustrations.

“Don’t just sit there, Indy — the Lost Treasure of Sheba (c) awaits!”

(Not your friends.)

I read the book through a couple of different paths the other night. Although the writing was good, I didn’t think the adventure was particularly exciting. Then again that could be because I am no longer a member of the book’s younger target audience.

According to the Indiana Jones Wiki, there were seventeen Find Your Fate adventure books. Books 1-9 feature Indiana Jones, books 10-15 feature other protagonists (including James Bond), and books 16 and 17 again star Dr. Jones. Fans of the genre will not be surprised to learn that several of the books were written by R. L. Stine, who wrote several other Choose Your Own Adventure books for competing brands. Through Google I also discovered that there were several other lines of “Find Your Fate” books, including books for GI Joe, Jem and the Holograms, and the Transformers. Sounds like more things I will have to track down now.

As I was writing this article I just noticed something. In the book, your (and your father’s) last name is Ballentyne. The Find Your Fate books were published by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House. Coincidence?

TV Thursday: Jem (1985)

Yep. Every Sunday morning I would sit down with my Father in the living room and watch Jem as we ate breakfast.

I could say that it was during the time I had a wicked crush on Deborah ‘Debbie’ Gibson and I’m sure that had something to do with it, but the fact of the matter is I just liked the show. The show was created by joint collaboration between Sunbow Productions, Marvel Productions, and Hasbro. All three of course responsible for G.I. Joe and the Transfomers megahits that we can all look back on fondly, those of us lucky enough to grow up in the 80’s that is.

The all powerful Wiki tells us this about the show’s plot:

“The central “secret” of the series is that Jem, lead singer and frontwoman of the rock group Jem and The Holograms, is in fact the alter ego of Jerrica Benton, owner/manager of Starlight Music. Jerrica adopts this persona with the help of a holographic computer, known as Synergy, which was built by Jerrica’s father to be “the ultimate audio-visual entertainment synthesizer” and is bequeathed to Jerrica after his passing. Jerrica is then able to command Synergy to project “the Jem hologram” over herself by means of the remote micro projectors in her earrings, thus disguising her features and clothing and enabling her to assume the Jem persona. She does so to acquire money to support Starlight Music and the Starlight Foundation for Girls, a foster program founded by her late mother Jacqui Benton. The band The Holograms consists of: Kimber Benton, Jerrica’s younger sister, keyboardist and main songwriter for the band; Aja Leith, guitarist; and Shana Elmsford, who plays the synth drums. Aja and Shana are also childhood friends and adopted foster sisters of Jerrica and Kimber. Shana briefly leaves the group to pursue a career in fashion, at which point a new character, Carmen “Raya” Alonso, is introduced as her replacement. When Shana returns, Raya remains the Holograms’ drummer while Shana takes up the guitar. Only The Holograms are aware of Jem’s secret identity and the existence of Synergy when the series begins.”

But thanks to diesel420Power over on YouTube you can learn a bit about the show from the cast themselves!

Britta Phillips, the singing voice of Jem.

Samantha Newark, the ‘acting’ voice of Jem.

Christy Marx, the head writer of the series.