ALA.NI IN NEW YORK, FEBRUARY 2017. PHOTOS: MATTHEW SPROUT/EXPOSURE. STYLING: NINA STERGHIOU/BRIDGE ARTISTS. HAIR: AMY FARID FOR HONEY ARTISTS. MAKEUP: RIE OMOTO FOR SEE MANAGEMENT USING THREE. SPECIAL THANKS: CHELSEA DAYLIGHT STUDIO.
ALA.NI has embarked on an artistic path laid out decades ago: her great uncle, Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, was a king of cabaret in the 1930s who was mentored by Cole Porter, and unapologetically himself. When he was posthumously honored—his London home was marked an English Heritage site with a blue plaque in 2012—ALA.NI reached a newfound self-awareness: she would make the art she knew she was capable of. “I wasn’t trying to fit into a trend or anything,” she says of her start making music. “I was just trying to be me.” She looked to the past in both soul and style, and an enduring, jazzy sound emerged. Her debut record, You & I, which came out overseas last summer and will be released in the U.S. by Missing Piece Group on June 9, is a testament to her vocal talent and willingness to plunge into her emotions, be they joyous, sorrowful, or considered.
Below, we’re happy to premiere ALA.NI’s music video for “Darkness At Noon,” the ninth track off of You & I. Seen in silhouette, grasping toward a light, and love, out of reach, ALA.NI sings, “I gave you my loving / And I rose like the rising sun / And now I feel nothing / For without you there’s no love.” Taking control of all visuals is important to the London-born musician; she enjoys “exploring [her] eye” and creates the majority of her music videos herself (including “Darkness At Noon”). “If you do music, it belongs to so many other people,” she says. “But when you have to film something yourself, it’s all there.”
HALEY WEISS: You’re based between London and Paris. What makes you split your time between them? I saw an interview where you talked about how it was important for you to release your music in Paris first because of the history of jazz there.
ALA.NI: Yes. I was getting bored of London, and the kind of construction work that was going on, just the change of the city, the way that people seemed really unhappy and not living, just working hard. Then when I was writing the album I had a feeling that I wanted to release it first in Paris, and I went with my instinct, and it all worked out really nicely. The first label that I was introduced to I was like, “Yep! Perfect. Let’s go.” And they’ve been so supportive. I produced and wrote my album, everything, myself, so I was in the position to just license my music to labels as opposed to signing my life away to a record label, which has been good and difficult at the same time, but I feel like I have more ownership and control over what happens to my art.
WEISS: You released the album abroad in June of 2016, so it’ll have been a long time since writing it once it’s released here in May. Has your perspective on anything that you’ve written changed? Do any of your songs surprise you—the outlook you had?
ALA.NI: [laughs] Oh yeah, god. Yesterday I did a radio thing for NPR, and I was nearly crying during the song. I was like, “What the hell is going on?” Every day is different. Every time I sing it, it’s different. It’s not to a click track. I’m not on autopilot. I’m singing about a situation in my life and the songs are, I guess, so open… I’m challenging love, let’s say—I’ve been single for a while, I’m challenging love right now—and I was like, “Wow, okay. These songs are going to have to come from a different place.”
WEISS: That’s good to have that challenge reframe what you’re working on, right?
ALA.NI: Yes. Otherwise, it’s not that I have a short attention span, but I get bored easily. In the set I do an improvisation—I try to do it as much as I can—and I get the audience to write words, anything that they want, and then I improvise their lyrics on stage, and the musicians and I make songs out of them. That keeps me on my toes. I like a challenge and I couldn’t do this if it was monotonous. The traveling, the being transported from one place to the next and not knowing where the fuck you are, is enough, let alone being on stage and expressing myself in the same way every night.
WEISS: Have any of those improvisations informed a song that you ultimately put on the album? Or is it that it happens, and then it’s over?
ALA.NI: We have some beautiful moments, especially when the audience—sometimes they’ll join in and be whistling or something, and someone will give me some lyrics that turn into a really nice chorus, and then the audience joins, and it’s, “Ah, this is a good one,” but no one’s recording it. So there’s been a few times where it’s like, “Did anyone get that?” [sighs] It’s just the moment, and leave it in the moment. I save all the lyrics, and I think one day what I’d like to do is go through—I don’t know who has written them—but make an album out of all of these words of inspiration, because some of them are beautiful, beautiful ones.
WEISS: Are you a night writer? A morning writer?
ALA.NI: Anytime writer. You can’t choose when it comes. To get here, I flew from Zurich, and someone gave me some weed when I was in Zurich, so I had to eat it, because I couldn’t fly with it. [laughs] Then I was on the plane ride, which has a stopover in Lisbon, and anyway—I just started writing on the plane, so I’ve got all these voice notes with the engine running. People kept on turning around like, “What the hell is going on behind us?” because I’m, [sings] “La, la, la, la, la, la.” [both laugh] Off my tits! … I’d never really done that before, so I just went, “Fuck it.” I know I can sleep it out, if it goes really bad, if it turns into The Twilight Zone with the gremlin on the wing.
WEISS: How frequently do you write? Is it every time you have an idea, on a weekly basis, or do you go through phases?
ALA.NI: It’s difficult, because I try to be serving to my creativity; if something comes up, whatever time, I write it down, I record it, I note it in some kind of way. The constant thing is that I keep a diary. I write poetry, and if some lyric comes to me, it gets put down, and maybe at some point I may go back to it. It’s such a massive, big pool of things to dip into, so it’s hard, but what’s nice sometimes is you have one thing and you can add it to another thing you’ve done, and those two things work together nicely. With this new project I’m working on, it’s an acapella album, so now that I’m starting the process, I’m like, “Oh my god, this is a lot more hard work than I thought it was going to be.”
WEISS: What made you want to do an acapella album?
ALA.NI: I write most of my material that way, and the You & I album was written all a capella on my iPad, and then I worked with someone to help me score it afterwards. I’m trying to remember how focused I was and how I planned everything, so I can implement that again into this process, but I’m like, “Shit. This is a new challenge.” And it’s all on me—it’s not like I can get a musician that can disguise any failings. I have to do 100 percent myself. I can’t lean on someone else to express part of the song. It’s, “Okay, I have to be percussion.” I pulled out my tap shoes, like, “I’m just going to tap.” [laughs]
WEISS: Desperately trying to create an instrument out of your feet.
ALA.NI: Anything, anything! It’s going to be interesting. I start at the end of February, so we’ll see what happens. We’ll see what comes out.
WEISS: The You & I album, was that all written during a specific year?
ALA.NI: Yes. It started [with] my great uncle, who was a cabaret singer in the ’30s, called Hutch—he came from Grenada, spent some time in Harlem actually, and then went to London and Paris. It feels like I’m living a bit of his spirit. Before I started writing, he got commemorated—his house was blue-plaqued—and we went to the ceremony as a family, and I was really touched.
I’d trained, I went to stage school—so I trained to sing musical theater, this is all natural to me—but I wasn’t serving myself. I wasn’t being honest and true to myself. When I saw him get blue-plaqued, I was like, “Just be you.” This man did it in the ’30s; he was bisexual, black, all of these things, and he just did it. Just be. And once I did that, once I changed my mind, I went to Grenada two months later, and “Cherry Blossom” came out at three o’clock in the morning—lyrics and melody came out. And when that happens, if you’re a songwriter, you’re like, “Oh my god!” That had only happened once before, so I just took it, and thought, “Okay,” and did it again. I wrote the album in three months, and it was, “Okay, that’s it then.” So I’ve been on this for about four years now. I wasn’t going to release in the U.S. because I thought, “I can’t spend any more time on this. I need to move on.” I was supposed to license it to another company, it didn’t work out, and the guys I’m working with now approached me in November , and I was like, “Okay. Let’s just do it.” And it’s been great.
WEISS: And you have creative parents as well?
ALA.NI: Yes. My mom works in fashion and couture, and my dad used to play bass in a band. It’s quite a musical and artistic, creative family.
WEISS: Are there certain records you grew up listening to that still mean a lot to you today?
ALA.NI: My dad was always playing lots of reggae around the house. I don’t remember names or anything well, but if I hear a song, I’ll never forget it. From a very young age my listening range was very wide because my dad would be playing reggae, Peter Tosh was one, at home, and I’d go to school and I’d be singing Julie Andrews. It was such a wide spectrum that anything in-between, my ears were open to it. I’ve never been like, “Oh, that’s my favorite song.” I’ve always just been very—I just want to take it all in. Music, you know, it’s amazing.
WEISS: Do you remember the first time someone told you that you had a good voice, or that you went on a stage and felt that connection and power of singing?
ALA.NI: I went to stage school from the age of 5, so I did singing, dancing, acting, everything. I wanted to be a dancer until maybe 12, 13. I changed schools; I went to Sylvia Young Theatre School. And just before I left my old school, I kind of just discovered that I could sing. I did “Summertime,” and I had to dance it as well, so I’m singing and dancing with the boys lifting me up in the air, and that was like my exit from the school, the grand finale, [laughs] “Goodbye! I’m off—fuck you all.” The class structures were really messed up in the stage school; it was a private school, so they could do whatever they wanted, and I was in the top classes, I was 11, and I had nowhere to go. I thought, “There’s no challenge here,” so when I went to Sylvia Young Theatre School, I was in my age group again, and there were older people who I had to aspire to. And then I discovered that I could sing; one of the moments that I really remember was that I made my singing teacher cry. I sang and was like, “What did I do? Oh. Okay. This is interesting stuff. I can make someone feel something. I can make them have an emotion when I let out a noise.”
WEISS: You’ve done backup vocals as well. Is that just part of the working life of an up-and-coming musician? Or is it something you did out of a particular interest?
ALA.NI: When I left school I basically went straight into backing singing. I had a vocal coach who started an agency and he asked me if I wanted to be on it so I said, “Okay. Cool.” Being really young and having the opportunity to travel and sing, and not have the pressure of being up front and having to deal with the audience personally, it was fine for me. But then it got to a point where I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” because I would see how it worked out for other older female singers, backing singers I was working with, and I was like, “I don’t know if I want this life as a full-on career when I know that if I’m just a bit more brave, I can do this myself.”
WEISS: What did you learn from the musicians you worked with? I know Mary J. Blige was on that list—you have a bit of a list, and it’s an impressive list.
ALA.NI: How not to be a diva was the lesson from Mary. It was at a time where I know she was going through tough stuff, so I didn’t take it too personally, but I was like, “Woah, is this how the Americans are? Is this what these guys do? This is a diva!” [laughs]
WEISS: Andrea Bocelli was another one, right?
ALA.NI: Yes, that was a choir thing that we did. It was one of the first gigs I did, actually, with him. It was quite amazing to see this man being led to the stage—he’s blind, and you think, “What’s he hearing? How’s he reacting to everything around him?” You could feel his sensitivity to everything. You can’t mess with that; it’s very powerful.
WEISS: What do you think you’ve learned about yourself during this process of self-promotion, running around traveling, going from country to country with your music?
ALA.NI: I’ve learned that if you don’t love this shit, it can destroy you. And it’s a lonely road, even if you have people around you—you can have 100 people, you can have two people, it’s the same thing. What it’s taught me is a whole different strength in myself, of focus and being privileged to do the thing I love and share it with other people, and have other people help grow it. And it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It’s everyone’s, and there’s a nice team of people making it happen. It’s nice to be serving that purpose.
Today’s shoot is the first time that I’ve done a shoot semi-naked, I guess, with a jacket on, and I didn’t care. It wasn’t like, “Everyone look at me,” but I think being a woman, in this present time, we’ve got a lot of responsibility to show ourselves as we are. There’s so much false body image shit, and I think the more we can all just be proud of what we have and our bodies, and just be like, “This is it. This is as it comes.” It was really liberating today, actually. I was like, “I’ve got to do this more often.” [laughs] I’m just going to leave here and walk down the street like that.