Elytra's name comes from the Greek word for sheath, which entomologists have used to name the tiny shells that separate to expose the wings of certain kinds of beetles. Close examination of the elytra often reveals an iridescent sheen that is beautiful on its own, but their whole reason for existing is to protect those precious, glittering wings that let beetles take flight.
Listening to the quintet's 2016 EP Embers and Stardust (elytra.bandcamp.com) presents a similar experience. At first, it comes across as a well-arranged collection of alt-rock ditties that shimmer with the occasional appearance of cellos, synths and pianos. Once that shell separates, the listener gets a peek at what's happening beneath the surface. The album becomes beautiful in an entirely different way, as it explores the mysteries behind face values and socially mandated labels.
The contrast between outer and inner dichotomies in music and gender identity is something that lead vocalist Scotty-Ray Phillips—who identifies as nonbinary and prefers the gender-neutral pronoun they—discusses at length over the phone while driving back to Salt Lake City from a family dinner in Stansbury Park. Phillips' first conflict between creating and performing art came early in life. "I have this strange, vivid memory of singing a song by The Carpenters for a school assembly when I was 7," they say. "The teacher told me that I had a really beautiful voice, and that sparked something in me." Having spent most of their childhood with "pretty severe" social anxiety and stage fright, this was a pivotal moment for Phillips. "I had this idea that I was going to become a singer one day, but I was also terrified of singing in front of people."
When Phillips turned 14, their school choir held a singing competition. This would force them to overcome anxiety toward performing in public. "My dad didn't believe that I would be able to get over my stage fright and do it, and I wanted to prove him wrong," Phillips says. Not only did they follow through, they sang at every opportunity, and in a variety of formats. After high school, and moving out on their own, "I thought I'd try singing in a band."
Phillips then started The Femme Medea, with cellist Tanner Crawford and drummer Cameron Jorgenson. Together, the trio moved from their small town of Huntington to Salt Lake City in an effort to pursue their musical careers. "We played shows for a few years and it just naturally came to a halt," Phillips says. When TFM performed at Craft Lake City in 2014, they met local musician Lindsay Heath (of Redd Tape, Delicatto and Lindsay Heath Orchestra), who invited Phillips to jam.
Heath had been composing with keyboardist Chris Murphy and, after a few sessions, she asked Phillips to write lyrics for some of their songs. "I didn't really feel a connection to the genre of music," Phillips says. "So we decided to create something new together." With Murphy, Heath on drums, Secily Saunders on guitar and Janet Chotia on bass, Elytra played alt-rock that dabbled with synth-pop elements to create the perfect backdrop to the front person's soaring voice.
Thematically, Embers and Stardust explores the idea of transcendence. Songs like the title track and "To the Sky" swell with lyrics about breaking free from restrictive social structures. Phillips' own experiences also add nuanced insights to the songs—but they're quick to veer the discussion away from becoming a treatise on gender issues. "What's more important to me, rather than spending a lot of time talking about my own gender identity," Phillips says, "is just being who I am and letting people see it."
Fortunately, that's easier to do nowadays. In previous decades, gender-bending from musicians like Boy George was treated as gimmickry. "I almost view the androgyny that came through in the '80s as kind of exploitative as far as identity," Phillips says. "If those artists were also openly sleeping with people from the same sex, I feel like they wouldn't have been as accepted." Phillips has noticed a more positive change in modern music's acceptance of gender fluidity, citing Antony from Antony and the Johnsons and Jake Shears from the Scissor Sisters. "I think that mentality is going away."
Although the band had planned to spread its wings with shows at Velour and Metro Music Hall this week, its members have gone their separate ways. Every end brings a beginning, however, and Phillips is already writing music for a currently untitled project. All the same, Elytra has made Utah's local music scene more vibrant and diverse, empowering audiences and peers to reveal themselves and fly.