IN the coming days, I am turning my (electronic attention) to…
the girls (in a non-perverted way). With interviews (with) Dana McKeon and NINA approaching; some interesting reviews and new bands- I am focused on the women of music. Just having assessed IV Rox- a London-Essex Pop-R ‘n’ B collective- I turn my attentions to Alison Levi- one of my favourite musicians around. Because I have followed her career (for a long time now) I was keen to catch up with her; find out what was on the horizon- following the release of her latest track, Long Way Down. In the last few months shr has been performing various gigs; taking her music to new crowds- working on new projects. When I reviewed Levi last year (in February) her track Boy You Better Run (live) came under my radar: I was staggered by thr vocal prowess; its beauty and intimacy; the power and emotion- I came away feeling stunned and seduced. Few female singers have the same breadth and range; the ability to switch emotions (within the space of a line)- Levi is that rarest of artists. Being such a down-to-earth and witty figure- her Twitter feed is filled with humour and comedic insights- it has been great catching up; seeing what makes (Levi tick)- and the finest moments from 2015.
Hi Alison. I hope you are well. How has your day been?
Alright thanks! I’ve been writing for an anti-smoking campaign. Not exactly authentic songwriting but it’s actually a lot of fun.
You are based out of London- where a lot of (varied) female singers are based. Do you feel pressure as a singer (to make your voice heard)?
I think that it doesn’t matter where you live; the industry as a whole is saturated with musicians and singers from all over the globe (that want to be heard and make a career for themselves). This is on the one hand brilliant for music and the consumer- as there is an unlimited supply- though on the other hand, it makes it incredibly competitive and difficult for the musician. I certainly don’t compete with other women: being female should have nothing to do with it. There is a tendency I suppose, to make us compete with each other ‘cat fight’ if you like; but I try not to partake in that. I’m competing with everyone equally, including myself!
What do you think distinguishes your music/voice aside from your peers?
The mix of genres maybe? I seem to be unique in my diverse tastes; I grew up listening to Bubblegum-Pop like the Spice Girls or Britney Spears (as well as) Hip-Hop and bands like Radiohead and System of a Down. The contrast was really vast. I just love songs and I think it doesn’t matter what genre- if you have strong chord structures and melody I’m yours. Also the cinematic aspect too, I LOVE film scores; I’ll have them in my playlists along with my other music. I love the sense of drama and emotion in them; it really gets me. Mostly I hope people can hear that I’m a true songwriter (more than anything else) which I see as a unique craft- and I really try to make good songs. Then you put my loud London voice over it and hopefully you have something that is undeniably me!
Your official website (and social media feeds) shows you have a cheeky and humorous side. You come off as very fun and witty. Do you find it important to connect with your fans; come off as quite personable and approachable?
Well first of all thanks for saying that: I do think it’s important to connect with fans but it can’t be contrived; they’ll sniff it out if it is, people know when you’re faking it. I just like funny things- "I LOVE HUMOUR!" (If you’ve seen Amy Schumer on Jimmy Fallon recently you’ll get that). If that’s how I come across them I’m chuffed but I’m really not trying to have a particular image per se.
With the proliferation of young singer-songwriters, have you any particular current favourites? Perhaps any bands that have caught your ear?
Is there a particular proliferation of young singer-songwriters at the moment? I think there always has been, and always will be. I am LOVING Eryn Allen Kane’s ‘Have Mercy’- my God that’s such a good 3-minutes-35-seconds; she sings so genuinely and with such skill. Kwabs has become a bit of a staple too; he’s a really exciting artist, and not many people have heard of him. He ticks all the boxes for me, really great songs; really good lyrics, unbelievably good baritone voice with so much technical ability- I’m mad about him. His live version of ‘Perfect Ruin’ on (YouTube) IS perfect. Everybody has to hear it; go now and thank me later. I actually met him backstage at his Koko gig (in Camden) a couple of months ago and decided I was going (to tell him how much I) respected him as a fellow musician- and what a brilliant contribution to the industry he was making. But of course, me being me, I lost all my controlled demeanor and grace (if I had any to begin with) and just told him (I loved him over and over) as he awkwardly side-stepped to get away from me. I regret nothing.
You have had a busy year- having performed at various locations- and achieved a lot. What have been your fondest memories of 2015?
Playing Hay on Wye Festival (in May) was great fun. I played last year too and it’s such a good festival; really relaxed atmosphere and people really shut up to listen to you. This is going to sound really corny but I just really love writing and singing: my highlights are completing a song I’m really proud of or singing with friends at a house party. I really (really) enjoy that. So it’s those little moments I’m most fond of.
Back of the subject of music (and femininity): do you think the industry has a sexist side? Do you feel a need to conform/fit into a particular ideal?
It’s so hard not to conform. The most popular accounts on Instagram (for instance) are the stunning models. There is a lot pressure to be seen having the best, most successful, happy life ever- and looking bloody great while doing it. It takes a lot of self-esteem to remember I’m not a model; I’m a musician and I don’t care what people think. That’s a fluid feeling that comes and goes though. I definitely have my insecure moments. This is probably going to be received with a collective sigh, but everything has a sexist side. In fact, that’s sounds too apologetic of a sentence doesn’t it?
Unfortunately discrimination- whether sexism, racism, homophobia, whatever- is ancient and ingrained in our society; so it doesn’t matter what profession you’re in- it’s present in some way or another. I used to spend my life debating with people; hammering my points of view until I learned (rather slowly) that people don’t respond positively to it. There does seem to be a gradual understanding of it though (overall) which I am really happy to see.
I particularly love your voice; when I reviewed you (last year); I heard comparisons with Eva Cassidy. Where does that voice come from? Is it a very natural sound, or do you ‘go somewhere’ particular when you are singing?
That’s a huge compliment to me; but of course being British, I’m going to completely reject it! I really don’t think I’m that good: Eva Cassidy had an angelic quality; her voice was gentle and tender. I feel like a new-born baby elephant in comparison, but not as cute. I can honestly say I wasn’t born with this voice; I was always musical. I started writing as soon (as I learnt my) first 3 chords on the guitar and I definitely had an ear for tuning.
The actually quality of my voice (however) took a few years to get anywhere near-good. I would copy my friend (who had an exceptional voice); I would listen to artists and harmonise along with them. It took years of singing for me to find a shape in the notes that I was happy with. “Practice ‘til your ears and fingers bleed” as my dad would say- oh, and having an emotional connection with whatever you’re singing or playing. That’s probably the best quality to have; you can have a ‘technically’ terrible voice but if you’re feeling it, so will everyone else. That’s so important.
On that subject: which singers and artists have inspired you the most (growing up); who ranks among your idols?
Oh that’s a loooong and rather clichéd ol’ list. Stevie Wonder, Queens of the Stone Age, Otis Reading; Lauren Hill, Jill Scott blah blah blah. No one’s really interested in knowing that, I don’t think. The most inspirational people; the people that got me picking up an instrument in the first place was a covers band called 100%- which sounds like the name of a ‘90s boy-band Pete Waterman managed- they were the antithesis of that I can assure you. I used to go and see them every Saturday in Camden as a teenager. They were playing other people’s songs in a rundown pub; their instruments were beat-up and the sound was terrible. But they could play. People would just go mental. They were incredibly skilled musicians with so much passion; I used to look at them and be (like): “Arrrrghh I have to learn how to play like that!!” Still haven’t though.
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Long Way Down is a new (demo); some fresh material. Can you tell us a little about the song and what inspired it?
I was asked to write a song for a film that was in its writing stages (at the time). I was given the script to read and there was a particular interaction with the two main characters (that kind of mirrored what was happening in my life at the time). I sat at the piano and it fell out. Pretending to yourself that you’re over someone- and filling your life up with distractions whether it’s people or things- when all you really want is them (“but you’re the one I want”). The film #FastLife should be out in 2017- so keep an eye out for that.
Can we expect a new Alison Levi E.P. or album this year/next?
Yes! There’s so much to come. I will of course post it when it’s ready in the coming months! Not sure what to call it though… any suggestions? Anyone?
I know a lot of musicians that struggle to make music; find the financial pressures too stressful. Do you experience that yourself; what are the greatest obstacles (you encounter) as a young musician?
Of course; the struggle is real! No really, that struggle is important. It wouldn’t feel like an achievement if it was handed to you.
A large percentage of the greatest songs come from heartache and break-ups. Knowing you- and knowing you are in a long-term and committed relationship- does that make songwriting more difficulty; does that happiness lead to more natural songwriting?
Life experience does lead to ‘natural’ songwriting, definitely. But natural doesn’t always mean good. I can write for other artists and it can feel natural because I tap into how they might feel. Or I can write from genuine emotion of mine and the song can be terrible. But inspiration does often come from love and heartache equally- they seem to conjure creativity like nothing else.
Recently I published an article about anxiety: how musicians tend to be susceptible; how music can aid anxiety. Do you think there is a correlation between the two, and as a musician, how do you unwind/get your mind away from modern-day stresses?
I can only speak from my own experience- and I do suffer with anxiety funnily enough- so maybe that’s true. Suffering in one way or another taps in to something powerful and people respond to it. It’s vulnerable and genuine. I still haven’t figured out a way of alleviating stress. Writing my way out of it I suppose, but not always. Sometimes you just have to sit there; fester in your own misery and ride it out. Just try not to drag anyone else down with you. Misery loves company after all.
You are based in London- an area I am keen to settle in very soon. Do you find the city inspires your music and is there a big/friendly music community here?
Well, I’ve worked in the London music industry for a number of years: it’s actually surprisingly tiny (like a small town); everyone knows everyone and their business. Like anywhere, you have friendly, supportive people and… not-so-friendly, supportive people- to put it politely. I find people will often help you if you ask nicely (and boy do I owe a lot of favors). You have to remember to pay them back!
To those that are following your footsteps; coming into music now: what advice would you offer to them?
Don’t do it…. No, it sounds cliché but it took me a long time to really understand it. Work your f**king arse off. Work every day. Don’t stop working and you will reap the rewards (whether creative or financial). Oh and be really (really) nice to everyone. EVERYONE.
Finally- and for being a good egg- you can name any song you like; I’ll play it here…
Well it has to be Kwabs' ‘Perfect Ruin’ (live version). Really take it in; watch the way he sways as the song progresses. Listen really hard.
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