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Phabies work balance into their free lunchtime show at Rosa Parks Circle

Phabies, an indie rock band led by Laura Hobson and Garrett Stier, headlined the Relax at Rosa Parks Concert Series in Grand Rapids. Their free lunchtime concert featured new and old songs and fostered a playful atmosphere for people to unwind.

/Rosie Accola

Phabies, the indie rock brainchild of Laura Hobson and Garrett Stier, is singular to Michigan in the same way Sufjan Stevens is. There are certain bands whose creativity grows along the shores of lake beaches. 

Hobson’s precise and narrative songwriting stylistically mirrors the container of a short story, grounding listeners in the smallest of details: patches of green cement or a stranger named Clarice. Whenever I want to complain about Michigan or call it “North Florida,” I have to remind myself — we’ve got Phabies.

I caught up with Laura Hobson (vocals, guitar, piano) and Garrett Stier (guitar, vocals) ahead of their headlining show for the Relax at Rosa Parks Concert Series.

Spearheaded by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc (DGRI), Relax at Rosa occurs every Thursday at noon throughout the summer, allowing residents a free chance to discover new bands and enjoy one of the many food trucks lining the streets.

“I love that it is free to everybody. Anybody in the community can come and enjoy the first-class music that Grand Rapids has to offer. I hope that it is a space that not only supports the artists that we have currently but inspires other members of the community to create in their own way,” said Pia Lu, event coordinator for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc (DGRI).

Phabies’ first album, Fire Seed, was recorded throughout the fall and winter of 2020, a time when live music and touring were at a standstill due to COVID restrictions.  With their second album, Phabies had to learn how to balance recording alongside their packed show schedule.

“I feel like that impacted our sound a little bit more,” Stier said.

“All the songs were written as we were going,” Hobson added.

Phabies recently put their finishing touches on their second studio album, enlisting help from Augustine “Gusti” Escalante on guitar and producer Jacob Merritt. Merritt also played drums on a handful of songs on the record.

“Typically, I write five out of seven days of the week. I’m in my music room, which is set up in the south and east side of the house, so I get sunlight all day. I’ve got a bunch of cats. They’re always crawling on my lap,” said Hobson, who likes to keep her songwriting schedule consistent. “My writing process typically involves starting out with a practice for myself. Trying to learn something new on the guitar, and it inevitably snowballs into writing a new song.”

Relax at Rosa also exposes concert-goers to new bands or artists. Phabies took the stage May 16 on a cloudy day. The concrete shell of the ice rink was filled with tables, toys and games for kids and adults alike. For Phabies’ set, the band brought along a parachute. The spirit of play was infectious. By the third song, a circle had formed around the parachute, with concertgoers taking turns walking under the colorful tunnel they had formed together.

A sense of play and experimentation is paramount for Hobson’s songwriting process. In the gap between the first and second albums, Hobson began to worry about the curse of the Sophomore slump.

“I was very much worried about ‘am I going to have any ideas that are better than the first album?’” Hobson recalled. 

Sometimes, a change of scenery is all that’s needed to jumpstart creativity. While recording the second album in October 2023, Hobson stayed at Merritt’s house, utilizing his backyard studio. Hobson stayed there for a week, pulling eight to nine-hour days writing solo in the studio.

“I was very worried about it until I did the residency. Then, once I did the residency, the songs started popping out. It changed everything. I started viewing writing as less of a burden and more as fun, again,” Hobson said.

Merritt planned various outings between writing sessions. One day, Merritt sent Hobson on a guided tour through the woods, where she spent the afternoon identifying fungi – a walk that inspired lyrics for “I Care for You,” an upbeat indie track from their forthcoming record.

“He would just sneak in fun things to do to try and generate ideas, and it worked,” Hobson recalled. 

Phabies’ set at Rosa Parks included a balanced mix of new and old songs. They opened with the unreleased “The Danger of Knowing Too Much” and interspersed some crowd favorites like the indie pop “OMG!,” a track that’s heavy on the synths and St. Vincent vibes. Michael Bass acted as the guest bassist for the set, joining other Phabies bandmates Max McKinnon (keys), Joshua Holicki (drums) and Andrew Deters (guitar).

During some of the slower songs, the crowd started slow dancing-- a move that struck me as deeply human and sweet. Someone had a harmonica. The set felt collaborative and communal. Unable to hide in the corners of a darkened venue, the crowd could let loose.

One of the stand-out songs on the set was the stripped-down “Blooms of April.” After their drummer had to go back to work, Hobson took the stage alone with her acoustic guitar, singing, “Who’s gonna save us now?”

It made me think about the role of community care and how rare it is to find a space where people can relax together without economic barriers to entry. I’ve seen Phabies perform at a variety of local venues, including the Grand Rapids Planetarium and the Pyramid Scheme, but something is healing about sitting in the sun listening to music with strangers.

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