This article was originally published on Dec 16, 2016 and updated on February 27, 2017
‘I’m blessed,’ states the young blonde woman, ‘No matter how fucked up my speaking voice is I’m always able to sing.’ She coughs and laughs before taking another sip of her tea. ‘God has given you a talent’ says her buddy Job Schellekens with an undeniable ironic undertone, sitting next to Alice Phoebe Lou aka the lady we are about to take a closer look right now. Alice smiles again. It’s Saturday night at a cosy US-themed diner somewhere in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, a little more than three hours before the second night of her sold-out three-nights concert run at the city’s main planetarium. With cracked voice Alice Phoebe Lou gives a short and slightly ironic motivational speech to her friends at the table. They discuss what went wrong on the first night and how to improve things today although there’s way too little time left in general. But they’ll fix it, everyone agrees, the mood is good while it’s been freezing cold outside.
It’s important to mention that the people who play with Alice Phoebe Lou right now are real friends. Whether it’s her long-time musical companion Matteo Pavesi or producer Jian Kellett Liew, better known under his alias KYSON – they spread the image of a supporting gang, one that cares for each other and helps out whenever possible; even if it’s just getting rid of the remaining fries at dinner. The songwriter returns the favour by including them whenever she can. Pavesi and Liew produced this year’s debut album Orbit and the latter is set to open as KYSON for Lou’s Planetarium show later as well. They’ve come a long way together and as individuals.
‘It’s about teaming up with the same kind of people with similar values’ Alice tells me two days later while meeting up at her apartment. It’s way more than one of those typical Berlin WG’s, it’s the creative home of a collective of people from all sorts of different artistic fields, combined by the same spirit and pretty open-minded perspectives. ‘If a community makes too many rules a conflict is inevitable’, explains Alice while sitting in her room. Right next to us, a big meal is being prepared as it often is the case in this flat. The young lady has been travelling a lot in 2016 so this is the closest feeling of home she currently got, although her definition of it is not an ordinary one.
‘I’m so used to be living out of a suitcase these days that I developed the necessary skills to be at home anywhere. I have a growing community now that helps me finding a home everywhere. We don’t pay for accommodation so I have homes all over the world.’
A constantly growing worldwide fan base she can rely on marks the foundation of everything. It’s been a lot of hard work to get to this point as she is eager to mention multiple times throughout our talk.
‘Never underestimate the power of organic PR’
In 2010, South African-born 16-year-old Alice Phoebe Lou made her first journey to Europe and started a close relationship with its street music scene. After a few travels she ultimately ended up in the German capital, setting up her favourite spot at the Warschauer Brücke, the highly frequented border between tourist-infected districts Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. The amount of walk-in costumers at that place might explain the slowly and steady growing fan base of the songwriter a bit but it’s way more than that. It’s the direct interaction that shaped her self-esteem … and partly also her natural stubbornness.
‘Playing on the streets is such a real thing for me. There’s no hiding of anything; you are vulnerable and exposed and that’s quite a thing. People are interacting with your behaviour in many different ways and that is quite fascinating. There are so many different and fascinating connections you make when you perform that way. ‘
For Alice Phoebe Lou seeing her career naturally grow and develop has always been a crucial part. ‘Never underestimate the power of organic PR,’ she explains to me with that addictive enthusiasm she tends to spread. Over the course of the past years those gigs at the infamous bridge in Berlin became a highly frequented happening with more and more people gathering around, buying the self-produced first EP’s and spreading the word about that talented woman from South Africa whose songs are as unpretentious as they are honest. There is an easy and natural concept behind this thinking as she explains: ‘People have a genuine experience, share it with their friends and spread the music.’ And that’s just how things started.
‘Suddenly you have a fan base all over the world. Right now I could play in pretty much every major city in Europe, create a little event, tell all my fans to bring their friends and I know a bunch of people would show up. That’s more worth than any budget plan.’
Zooming In – Zooming Out
About two years ago ALICE PHOEBE LOU sold out the Lido Club in Berlin for a birthday party/ concert with friends and colleagues, realizing she could actually fill a 500-people venue without big advertisement. Right from that moment she tried to find spaces with a similar size that are far from ordinary, whether these are old churches or a former crematorium. It feels as if the choice for a planetarium was a logical next step, especially when you name your debut album Orbit, right?
Flashback to Saturday. Alice Phoebe Lou and her band do a quick soundcheck in the impressive and technically state-of-the-art venue. Following a slightly chaotic first night (did I mention that it is NOT your everyday concert venue?) the warm-up for the second one runs way smoother despite her cracking voice. Especially KYSON – who opens for his friend this night – is honestly excited by the impressive projections.
During the actual show this setting gets even more awesome with dimmed lights and the hypnotic sound of the singer and her band. When the projection suddenly zooms away from the earth and shows the entire galaxy you can’t help but setting everything in perspective while feeling quite small compared to the almighty universe. And that’s quite often the case with her music as well. ‘Somehow and quite unintended a lot of lines about space and my relationship with it ended up in my songs,’ Alice explains to me later.
‘I look at space in a more personal, almost existential way and less in a scientific way. It helped me to realise that nothing and everything can matter at the same time, all these contradictions we’re facing on a daily basis. I like to look at things in a very detailed way but also zoom out to get the full picture and a certain perspective on life.’
This healthy attitude allows a better view on a world that seems to slowly loose control, at least when you believe the news and your personal Facebook feed; something Alice Phoebe Lou is not really a fan of. ‘2016 felt like it’s been rough,’ she agrees, ‘but compared to the whole universe it’s just a really, really tiny bit.’ It’s all about karma and certain waves. ‘There are rises and falls in our society,’ Alice continues. ‘Things will reach a certain boiling point and right now that could be the rise of the extreme right. It’s horrible for all liberal and open minds but it will pass, hopefully without causing too much damage.’ Alice Phoebe Lou is neither an optimist nor a pessimist, she sees things in a pragmatic way. ‘Perfect Harmony doesn’t exist,’ she tells me while adding ‘It’s all about darkness and light living next to each other.’
‘There is no such thing as perfect balance and yet everything is perfectly balanced in a strange way.’
Still, Alice Phoebe Lou is far from being dull. She is angry about the current reactionary forces; she’s a humanist, one that cares about people a lot. For her an essential weapon is the fight against normalizing certain hateful attitudes. ‘As soon as something like xenophobia or a racist attack becomes normal we surely have a problem. You have to look inside yourself and ask yourself: What do I want to normalize?’ She’s eager to start in her own little world, trying to make it a better place with all her values and ideals. We tend to want to change the entire world at once, maybe because the world has gotten so small with the digital age. There’s no necessity in thinking this big when it could all come down to simple values you can spread in order to make a change.
The importance of building your own structures
Change is inevitable whether it’s in the political field or within the city you live in. ‘You can’t keep Berlin a secret forever,’ she explains with a smile, hinting at the fact that her beloved Warschauer Brücke might have become a victim of gentrification as a new mall is about to be built right next to it, potentially causing more trouble in the future. The city is in a constant flow and so is Alice Phoebe Lou. The celebrated planetarium shows are the final chapter of a successful 2016 for her but, of course, not a full stop. She will continue to build her own microcosm, driven by her own rules.
‘This year gave me such a clarity on how I want to make the foundation. This is just the first step; now it’s about finding the right people, the right structures so that I can feel completely free. That is objective number one for me. I want to be able to head off to South America tomorrow for six months without any obligations to anybody. That’s what freedom means to me.’
What becomes clear to me quite quickly is that this young women somehow represents a blueprint for a new generation of musicians, one that benefits from the new artist-controlled structures that the digitalization brought us. ’10 to 15 years ago the label structure was the only way to go if you wanted your music to be heard,’ she explains to me, ‘and that’s not the case anymore. You can make your own rules.’
‘I’m not saying labels are bad but these days it’s all about individualising it to you and to understand that you are different than any other artist. The structures should fulfil your needs and not the other way around. There’s a million ways to do things these days and all artists should be aware of that.’
And that’s basically what she did over the past years; working patiently and passionate on her career by not forcing anything. She’s not waiting for a big breakthrough as that whole idea feels quite odd to her. ‘That’s just a concept of serious capitalism which triggers young artists into believing that such a break is necessary to achieve something which is absolute bullshit.‘ Alice Phoebe Lou gets as euphoric as she gets vigorous when it comes to the music industry and the still way too less evolved independency of artists. She learned her lesson and didn’t fall for the major label temptations, mostly because she’s quite stubborn as she tells me with a smile. ‘People tend to ignore that because they saw me and saw a young girl, so they just assumed I was a bit naive.’ It turns out that all that fancy ‘I’m going to make you famous’ PR talk never really impressed her. The frenetic applause at the end of that planetarium show might be proof enough and should silence anyone who questions her unconventional career path. And she is willing to continue walking it.
Following a short winter break in Cape Town, she will return in 2017 for more shows and more structure-building. A new record is almost written and is just waiting to be recorded, maybe a bit more spontaneous and DIY this time. ‘I would like to have blocks of free time where I can just simply experiment with a new instrument and learn to play it,’ Alice tells me. Besides that she wants to catch up on improving her actual music writing skills (‘I did most of my writing via instinct in the past years’), set up shows with her friends and continue to be an advocate for street musicians all over the world. She fought way too hard to reach that level of freedom and she’s not willing to give it up.
And according to her audience they are happy to follow her all the way. Those clapping and cheering people at the end of the show I attended will continue to spread the word, will tell their friends and family what a lovely night it was, how nice audience and band have been and what great and honest pieces of gentle music the songs on Orbit are. And so the story will continue and grow, from the streets of Berlin all around the world and maybe beyond. ‘No borders, no nations – fuck that shit!’ she tells me with a big laugh. And, yes, indeed, while experiencing this young lady and the people surrounding her you almost get the impression that this utopian concept is really possible. It just takes a bit patience.
Alice Phoebe Lou is also about to perform at the upcoming SXSW festival in Austin as one of over twenty crafted acts from Germany.
The German performances are presented by NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION and you can find out more about the entire programme right here.