KEXP contributor Neroli Price talks to Cape Town-born/Berlin-based artist Alice Phoebe Lou about how busking and feminism influenced the new album, Paper Castles, self-released (with services through Motor Music) on March 8th. Listen to their chat below and read highlights from their conversation. Lou plays tonight, Monday, March 25th, at Barboza in Seattle.
Alice Phoebe Lou doesn’t do what people expect of her.
She was born and raised in South Africa. At 16, she fire-danced and busked her way through Europe. After finishing high school in Cape Town, instead of following her friends into college, she headed back to Europe to do it again. But this time she focused more on the music.
“I decided to move to Berlin and become a street musician. And that’s kind of how it all started,” Lou says.
Soon, she had an EP to her name and had performed on the TED stage in Berlin and London. By 2016 she had released her debut album, Orbit, and got nominated for Best Female Artist at the German Critics Choice Awards.
Now at 25, Lou is on a world tour to promote her second full-length studio album. And she’s still defying expectations by staying independent, despite offers from major record labels such as Columbia Records, RCA, and Verve. Lou says she denied the offers because she felt limited by the deals.
“Over the years I’ve just seen so many artists who have signed big record contracts just far too quickly and without really understanding what they’re getting themselves into. And this is not to say that signing with a record label is a bad idea. There’s just so many possibilities and the main thing is just realizing that you can try to find a different way to release music that is not the prescribed way of doing it,” Lou says.
Despite all of her success, she continues to busk on the streets of Berlin.
“There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being able to surprise an audience rather than having a normal gig. You just play on the street where you’re playing to absolutely everyone from business people to alcoholics and homeless people and just about everyone and all ages. There’s something really nice about that. And making music accessible to people that maybe don’t have the money to go to a concert or aren’t in the music scene so they don’t really know what’s happening and you’re just playing there for anyone. So that as a concept I just really love. And also I actually make pretty good money on the street so it’s not just a totally selfless act. I do generate quite a lot of money from album sales just playing directly on the street these days,” Lou says.
Lou says her favorite moments busking are when she sees people who’ve been moved by her music.
“There’s just moments where you see it in [somebody’s] face that they’re going through something or have had a really hard day and they are just moved very deeply and needed some sort of catharsis and needed to just stop what they’re doing and just sit down and have a cry or whatever it is that allows them to release whatever’s happening,” Lou says.
But Lou says there’s a flipside to having the street as your stage.
“Being harassed, having men grabbing you or screaming at you, or just having intense situations because you’re playing on the street often at night and there’s all sorts of people around, Lou says.
Feelings of being objectified or trying to fight vulnerability as a woman is something Lou has brought up in her music. Like in the song, "Skin Crawl" with the lines,
Don't worry I know how to have a good time
Just don't need to smile to be enjoying myself
Don't put me on a shelf
I'm not here for your enjoyment, your amusement
I don't need to have a reason, no
How about I take your patriarchy, your misogyny
And I put it in the backyard
And set fire to it
Lou wrote "Skin Crawl" after her drink was spiked while in New York City. She said this wasn’t an experience she expected to happen to her.
“Coming from South Africa, usually having to watch your back in terms of the high levels of crime and stuff like that — in places like New York, as a South African, you often feel very safe, like you’re protected somehow. So I’ve gotten quite used to that liberty also living in Berlin. My defenses have gone down a lot.”
Lous says she really values her freedom to go out alone. But as she states in "Skin Crawl," she didn’t want this fear to dictate what she could and couldn’t do.
“I just kind of carry on trying to go out at night, but I was realizing how often I was experiencing just these little aggressive moments and just horrible things that no one should have to deal with. That song just came out of a space of rage and just wanting to be direct and to the point and be a bit sassy and tell people to stop being such assholes you know,” Lou says.
While "Skin Crawl" is a statement to fight back against misogyny, Lou says there’s another song on her album that’s received more attention from women. It’s called "Something Holy." It’s about women celebrating their bodies and owning their pleasure with the lyrics:
All you had to do was see me
Really see me
Recognize the workings of my mind
And then touch me
Like something holy
My body one big lump of tingling,
Imagining you naked in front of me
Nothing to hide, just someone to hold
And then we let go
'Cause we always let go
“It’s a song that’s supposed to depict the moment where you break free of your past traumas with intimacy, with your own sexuality, with your own body and you’re able to love your body and enjoy sex and feel good about it. I think that these kinds of topics are nice when they’re put into art because I think female sexuality has been repressed for so long. To have a positive way of approaching that subject and encouraging people to talk about it and own it, I think people have been responding to it quite well,” Lou says.
Lou says she’s gotten responses from women across the world. Women who were raised with different attitudes and values around sexuality.
“What I realized with those responses is that I live in a community and the kind of people that I surround myself with in Berlin, we speak about sex, we speak about these kinds of things and we’re able to get in touch with those parts of ourselves, but there are so many parts of the world where those conversations are so much more pushed down. So when I receive a message from a woman in India, or a woman in Argentina or Brazil and they’re explaining where they are at right now in the place where they’re from and how the song and speaking about these kinds of things helps them and gives them another perspective, that’s the best for me,” Lou says.
Alice draws inspiration from her own experiences to write her songs. But her distinctive style and mesmerizing voice reach far beyond the personal. Just like her own unconventional journey, Alice’s music is defying expectations and resonating around the world.
Alice Phoebe Lou is playing in Seattle tonight Monday, March 25, at Barboza.
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