Alice LA has released her debut album. “It feels so random. It’s such a strange time to release music. I never thought I’d spend the day of my first album launch in a beer garden in the rain with two of my mates. I was actually meant to release this album before lockdown. So it was finished before lockdown happened. Over lockdown I’d been writing other stuff and one of my production guys said to me ‘Alice you may as well release this album to soundtrack the apocalypse’ and now I’ve released it the week everything has started going back to normal,” she laughs.
Alice began to gain traction in the Belfast scene two years ago after partaking in the Oh Yeah Centre’s Scratch My Progress programme. Since then she has been slowly building up a name for herself around the Belfast scene. Distinguishable for the trail of glitter she leaves in her wake and huge synth layered soundscapes, the album ‘Sleeps Not Real’ is a self-proclaimed “mixed bag of emotion” which she has curated and honed over the past 18 months.
► Tell me about your musical background
Nobody else in my family is musical. It’s spooky. Growing up I just liked writing poetry and painting and stuff. I didn’t even think about singing until the end of the school year party in P7. I remember standing up in front of my class and thinking Britney Spears ‘I’m Not A Girl’ completely unprompted. I was scundered afterwards but also I remember thinking “I really like this”. In secondary school I did music as a subject like everyone else. I also took part in this programme run by the education board in Banbridge, where I’m originally from, when I was a young teenager.
My first instrument was the bass and I played this bright yellow one – I was obsessed with Spongebob. But I didn’t do music ‘properly’ until later. I stopped playing in my late teens and just sort of forgot about it. I studied media and then started music again when I turned 20. From then I was just trying to gig and work up a name for myself. I signed up for Scratch My Progress in 2018 to get foot in the door of Belfast music scene
► How do you think this programme helped you carve out the persona of Alice LA? How important do you think “carving out a niche” is in the Belfast music scene?
Is niche a good thing? I’m just doing my own thing so ‘my niche’ is not intentional. I obviously love the Belfast scene but I find it really cliquey. It’s really hard to get into it. I struggled (and still struggle at times) and if I am, I’m sure other people who are trying to do music are as well. You have to act all hipster and cool in Belfast and I’m not like that – I just want to have the craic and do my music.
I think all the female musicians get lumped in together like they’re one genre; more acoustic non-political female artists play more shows with Gender Chores and Problem Patterns than with other acoustic artists. Gender Chores should be able to do their thing without expectation in the scene that different musicians do the same as them. I love the Gender Chores girls but I am not openly political in my music. I have my views but that’s my person, it’s not part of my music outlook.
I’ve been Alice LA for a few years now and I have had to learn to say no to things about that. There are times when I stop and think why am I turning down exposure. But then I realise I have done gigs like that and I don’t fit in; they all look at me like “Who’s this girl covered in glitter?” But then it’s so encouraging because there’s new artists coming up who feel exactly like I did starting off and it’s nice to be able to say “hey, it’s ok, just keep at it”. You just need to be friendly and create your own wee gang.
Having studied media and marketing, Alice sees visuals as paramountly important when it comes to putting on a show or, indeed, promoting herself. “Even your instagram is a part of your persona now. It’s even different from whenever I was doing marketing – like to fully understand how it works now I’d probably have to go back and study a different marketing course. How I see it is, colours and themes are so important. I try not to post any moody colours.”
Expanding from the screen to the stage, she continues “I think watching back to live performances when you have really visual staging is class as well. It’s one thing to go up and play guitar but watching back and seeing yourself in all the light and dry ice, it amazes me. Putting on a show is about creating a lasting effect”.
With the release of her music video for title track ‘Sleeps Not Real’, Alice explains, “music videos shouldn’t be about having the fanciest camera or looking good, it’s about the idea and telling another story. My favourite music videos add new meanings to the song, in the same way a remix is making more art from one song. Sleeps Not Real was filmed the day before lockdown. My friend came to the beach with me, I gave her the camera and sang and just hoped the lyrics matched up. The rest was filmed in my living room with a white sheet and an industrial fan. It was freezing. I was just sitting for hours in my living room changing outfits and filming myself.”
► What challenges did you face in putting together the album?
I tried to do everything myself but if you’re going to be realistic and do music as a business you do need someone to help. I feel like I should have had a label or manager. I’m not overly professional and having to send really serious emails and get the tone right is difficult. It also makes me nervous because if I’ve done it myself then if I fail, there’s no safety net. I keep thinking what if it goes down like a lead balloon? What if nobody listens and I’ve wasted a year and a half?
I had people who helped with production and some parts of songs were co-written but everything else was by myself. It can be very intense and overwhelming. If you can handle it then good for you but I think it would have been easier with compartmentalising the tasks and having someone manage the more serious parts.
► What does your writing process look like? How did you pick the songs for this album?
I generally don’t have a process. Some songs I will hear instrumentals and want to use them and then with other other songs I’ll sit with my guitar and record that as a demo first. I can’t explain how I do it, it just sort of happens. With the album, it’s really just feelings. I just wrote about whatever I felt like I’d needed to write about. I would love to write a concept album one day. Like when I think about the album now and look at it in hindsight, it’s full of such a mixture of things. All the songs were about things that were happening to me or people around me. It wasn’t specifically what I wanted to write about, it’s just what came out of me.
For example ‘Before I Was Born’ is about starting life all over again, about all the things you should have done. ‘When Did It Go Wrong’ is about my friend who got depression. She seemed so happy all the time and so this song is about how I was dismissive about how she was feeling and about me learning to understand what depression means and how it looks different to different people. But then ‘Girl In The Movies’ is lighter and about early in a relationship when everything feels a bit like a film.
► Who are the people you trust when it comes to playing early demos and then for final check overs on songs?
I think having someone there to criticise you is so important. I have Phil Johnston [credited as Philip Ronald Johnston on the album] who helps with production and writing. He can be very harsh and we’ll have a back and forth but I know it’s because he’s being truthful. He really betters my writing. Everything I write I send to Phil immediately and if he doesn’t like it, I take that on board. He’s also said to me, just because he doesn’t’ like it doesn’t mean nobody will like it which is good. There’ll be times I send him stuff and he’ll hate it but I’ll really love it and keep working with it.
The thing about the music industry is you can’t take everything personally. You can’t be too sensitive. As a job it hardens you and you have to learn to not take stuff to heart. However if you’re working closely with someone and they tell you it’s not good, chances are it’s not your best work. With this album there must have been about 10 different versions of about 5 of the songs on the album. I thought I was going to go mad! It does mean though by the time I was done with the album I didn’t care about outside critics because I had seen the work that had gone in.
► The final 4 tracks on the album are remixes. How do you go about collaborating on a remix; do you let the people you’re working with have free reign or do you give instruction?
I let them do what they want! One of the guys on the album – Llama Rabbit – I got him involved because I’d heard one of his songs on Across The Line one night and loved it. We became friends and one time we were chatting and I just asked if he wanted to do a remix and he said yes. I said to do whatever he wanted because it’s his name on the track; it’s my song but it’s his art. I just put it all in together instead of doing a remix EP after.
There are so many class DJ’s in Northern Ireland and because the scene is not that accommodating they aren’t well known. I think that because there’s not one cohesive scene, you get little pockets of groups who keep to themselves. There’s all these DJ’s from Bangor and they are so talented. I just wanted to overlap into that scene because I love dance music. When I was younger I loved buying a single CD on a Saturday and having all the remixes on it.
► What do you value most in pop songs and in your own music?
Everyone in the local scene seems to act like they’re sad. People think – and have said to me – that I’m really cringey because I’m overly sincere and not cool. I think there should be room for happy and fun music in the scene. Music is the thing that makes me happy and when I play happy music it sends signals to my brain which, in turn, makes me feel more positive. I don’t think pop music should be used as an insult; it’s a really versatile genre.
► How do you feel about performing live and how differently do you think you’ll find it after not doing it for so long?
I feel nervous doing festivals compared to wee pub gigs. I feel like a flump onstage because I have to move. The last festival I did was Output in February. I really enjoyed it and I’m starting to gain confidence there. I’m trying to find the balance between moving onstage and singing well because I can’t sing that great whenever I am dancing about. I listen back and will think “that’s so out of tune”. I get so nervous performing my original stuff. My throat nearly closes over but doing covers I don’t even care! I don’t play instruments onstage for my original stuff so taking the guitar off is hard because i can’t hide behind it. I also think when I get up just to sing “oh my God! They’re all going to think I can’t play an instrument”.
Despite these insecurities, Alice LA has stunned audiences with her sincere lyrics and all-encompassing synth sound turns heads, and ears, wherever she plays. With a 15 track debut album under her belt and a lockdown spent writing new material, the road ahead looks bright for Belfast pop.
Alice LA’s debut album ‘Sleeps Not Real’ is available on all streaming platforms or alternatively can be purchased via the Alice LA bandcamp page.