Alison Wonderland is a rising star in the Australian electronic music scene whose debut EP “Calm Down” was recently released in the U.S. Her dark and innovative future-beats style and exciting vocal top lines make for a dynamic, refreshing sound. I recently got to interview her, discussing her collaborations with Lido and Djemba Djemba, why she scrapped an entire unreleased album, and why she’s not a hustler.
I’m recovering from a cold, so excuse me for sounding like a robot.
I’ve always wanted to talk to a robot!
Now’s your chance! I’d like to hear about your collaborations with some of my favorite artists, Djemba Djemba and Lido. Do you have a different workflow when collaborating with them?
Yeah I definitely do. When I started out I was producing in my bedroom under a different name, Whyte Fang, which was my creative outlet while DJing at the time. I didn’t put my name on it, but it was through that project that I learned to produce. Lido and Djemba, because they’re so well trained, were a lot quicker than me. Lido’s Dad works with a gospel choir in Norway, so I think that’s had a lot of influence on him. He’s really into the more uplifting chords, while I usually go for the darker chords. Djemba and I are similar in that way. I guess it’s just different with each person, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. You just have to have chemistry.
You met Djemba while writing music in LA, but where did you meet Lido?
I met Lido in Sydney. His manager was looking for him to have some studio time with people and just write for fun, so we ended up being stuck in a studio for a few days till 1 AM and just happened to write “Cold.” I was going through something at the time that he was actually around for, which definitely came out in the music. I was totally stoked, though. I didn’t know what to expect; the way Lido and I write is so different, it was cool to work with someone who thought so differently than me, musically. We definitely challenged each other. From that we became friends as well, which is awesome. And I worked really quickly with Djemba, too- he’s crazy good.
Yeah I love him. He stays pretty low-key, though.
I think he’s going to pop soon, I mean this guy’s going to be running shit someday. So is Lido, actually.
Lido is definitely blowing up right now.
Yeah! I was really lucky to meet them both casually. When I met Djemba, we were just fucking around in the studio. It was never really supposed to be part of an EP. I had quite a few songs ready to go already, and then as soon as all this happened I was like, “fuck it.” I’m really feeling this, and it’s more relevant to how I’m feeling, and where I’m at, musically. So I scrapped the old music and just went for it.
I was going to ask about that. You had a whole album planned but released “Calm Down” instead. Do you ever plan on releasing that album?
Not really. I really feel like I’ve grown since then. Before I was going to release it, I just wasn’t feeling good about it. Funnily enough, I was at a music festival talking to Flume- He and I have actually known each other for a long time. When I was producing under Whyte Fang, we were two of the six finalists in a producer competition, so we got to know each other on the internet through that. Anyway, I was really frustrated.
“I showed Flume the music, and he was like ‘dude, this sounds like you two years ago. Just scrap it and be fresh!’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, you know what? I will!'”
And that was great advice. I mean, maybe I’ll rework a couple songs, but I’m finishing off my new album at the moment.
Did you decide to collaborate with other producers again for that?
It’s actually really cool working with other producers, I was never really sure about it before because I’m quite a control freak, but just working with guys like Djemba and Lido really lifts the song because there’s another person there who’s musically so fucking smart and pushes you. On this record, I worked with Djemba again, I worked with OAR- that kid’s a fucking genius- and I worked with King Henry as well. So I kinda kept it in that Team Supreme zone, which I’m stoked about. Those guys are all just really forward thinking producers.
Did you learn anything specific from your collaboration with these other producers? Was there any technique or style thing that you picked up from them?
Yeah! I really like the way Djemba does his drums- I mean I’ve just always been about the drums- if you ever listen to my [Whyte Fang] productions you would know. His stuff is just crazy, on another level, so I just watched him like a hawk. And It really was just watching how everyone did they’re beats! (laughs) Weirdly enough, the thing I think I’ve grown most at is songwriting. Because I’ve had the opportunity to sit back and hear the songs without being solely involved in producing them, and I wrote top lines that I’m really proud of. Lyrically I’ve been able to express myself more, which has been really cool. But the plan was never to sing on my own stuff; back in the day I would send these instrumentals to people, but I guess no one really wanted to sing on it, so I just wrote my own top lines and did it myself!
“I know I’m not a Beyonce, but maybe I just don’t need to be.”
A big influence on me, vocally, is James Murphy, from LCD Soundsystem. And also Karin from The Knife. The Knife is the reason I started making music, after I heard Silent Shout. I still listen to that record religiously.
What else have you been listening to lately that you’re into? Producers or otherwise?
It’s so weird; while making one of the tracks I did with Djemba, I was watching a psychedelic western film from the 70’s, and after that I started listening to western soundtracks, like Ennio Morricone, which is a really weird thing to listen to (laughs) but it inspired a vocal line that made it into the music… so that was a weird one. Since I’m working on my record now, I’m trying not to listen to too much music, because I’m trying to get in the zone and get my head around everything. But I’ve been listening to a lot of the team supreme guys just because I love them and I think their beats are amazing. When I was in LA, I went to see a few bands play, but when I’m working on a record I like to listen to stuff that’s not similar to what I’m doing, just to clear my head. But I love hip-hop, I love Ratking, I think they’re really good, and a few Australian bands like Smith Street band and Twerps. But really all I’ve been listening to recently is my record. Having said that, I think the new RL Grime album is really good!
I agree! It’s pretty diverse.
That’s what I like about it! It’s not just banger, banger, banger, banger. There are interesting tracks- not that bangers aren’t interesting- but there were tracks that were slower… I guess making an album is more like making art than making a single.
Speaking of Djemba, I love “Valhalla” on Void.
Oh yeah, I love it.
Looking back, how do you think you’ve handled the transition from bedroom producing under Whyte Fang to Alison Wonderland and joining a label? Do you feel like your freedom’s been taken away at all, or are you just loving all the new opportunities?
I’ve actually been very fortunate with my label as they’ve kind of let me do whatever I want. They’ve never really told me to change creatively. All my press shots I’ve done in my friend’s kitchen, and it’s my friend taking the photos; they’ve still let me do that. All the video concepts I’ve come up with, or had a part in coming up with, so they’ve given me a lot of creative freedom and lots of opportunities. Obviously you’re going to but heads a bit with anyone you work with in music, but, in Australia, Alison Wonderland’s always been more popular, so it’s never been a weird thing. I’m still on the journey. I’ve never really thought about that, though, so thanks for asking!
I heard you were surprised by the success of Calm Down in the US; do you have plans to come out here soon to tour?
Yeah, 100% I do. It’s all happening.
Did you expect it to happen this quickly after your first EP?
“You know what? I don’t ever want to have expectations like that, whether or not my music will translate with people.”
I just put it out there, and I was really nervous, and I guess something clicked. I really didn’t expect that, to be honest. It was never even a goal- I just wanted to write music that I liked. It’s a type of therapy as well, just to let out how you’re feeling. I wouldn’t say I have success in America yet, but it’s great that people are starting to notice. It honestly really means a lot. Every time someone sends me a tweet or message on Facebook, I read everything and it makes me really happy. It really means a lot to me every time.
How has the environment in Sydney or your hometown shaped your sound? You mentioned your musical influences, but has the area or scene you’ve grown up with contributed in some way as well?
Not really. I wouldn’t say what I’m doing is a completely Australian sound. I never really thought about whether my city has affected my sound. I’ve always believed that whatever comes out comes out, but I’m sure subconsciously it has maybe. I believe that if you hear something that speaks to you, it should be in the track. I like to DJ, so the beats I play when I DJ probably have an influence on what I’m making as well. I play a lot of my friends music, but I think when I’m writing it’s based more on how I’m feeling rather than what I’m hearing.
Back to your plans for touring and whatnot- Are there any festivals you’re excited to perform at or just attend?
I’m doing Stereosonic starting next week, which will be fun, and on New Years Eve I’ll be doing The Falls Festival, which is cool because I’m really excited to see Jamie XX (laughs) Next year I’ll be touring the US, which makes sense, I guess, after releasing the record. I’m releasing it through Astralworks so it would be nice to play some shows. I’ve played a few shows in LA, but they were kind of low-key, after-hours shows. I haven’t been performing much recently because I’ve been writing. Do you have an idea when you’ll release the record? Yeah! It’s looking like early next year. Awesome! That’s kinda soon! It is kinda soon! Hence why I’ve been kinda stressed right now, listening to the mixes getting sent back. I’ve heard these songs so many times I’m going crazy. I’m on an island in Fiji right now, though, so that helps. Are you there to finish the album? No, I’m playing show here. All the artists just flew out for a couple days. But I’ve just been in my room, like I haven’t even gone out to hang out with anyone. Just literally sitting here, with really slow internet, trying to communicate with people overseas, just working. It’s cool though! I’m sitting outside and the view from my room is stupidly beautiful. Like… I could be working in an office, right? (laughs) Or in NYC where it’s 30 degrees and freezing! 30 degrees in Australia is like really hot cause we’re with Celsius. But I guess you’re just a weird robot who doesn’t understand temperature. (laughs) I know. I’m sorry we couldn’t spare a real person! So when you’re not stressed out finishing an album, and you’re not making music, what do you prefer to do and where do you prefer to go? It depends where I am. When I’m in LA I just go out every night, which is weird. Maybe because I still feel like a tourist there, so I feel like I have to do something. But when I’m in Australia, I really like downtime. So I’ve got a little dog, and I’m really happy where I live, so I usually go sit near the water, watch a movie, or find interesting places to eat. I like checking out shows as well, but again, not necessarily the kind of music I play. I wouldn’t say I go out and wasted every night. It’s funny because when I was in LA, I would go write and go out afterwards as an outlet, but when I have downtime, it’s downtime. Is there anyone else you’ve been dying to collaborate with that you haven’t gotten to yet? Yeah, of course! But I don’t wanna say who! You don’t want to scare them away? (laughs) yeah! I don’t want to scare them away, so I would never say anything! I don’t want them to be like, “Yo, she’s a hella fan!” That’s my American impression. Or maybe that’s just a California thing. Yeah, that’s a California thing. I think it’s hilarious! In Australia you’d say, “Oh, that’s heaps good!” In America it’s, “That’s hella tight!” Or when people say, “It’s lit,” I’m like what? (laughs) The lingo. It’s hilarious. You gotta get used to it! What’s one of the favorite places you’ve been since making your EP? In terms of the city or show? Because there’s a big difference! (laughs) In terms of the city, definitely Bali- that was amazing. It’s on an island, so I sat on a beach and did magic mushrooms. Also getting to go to LA has been my favorite thing. I feel so creative in that city, because everyone’s trying to do something.
“I’ve written about LA a lot in my record. A lot of people there are hustlers, and I’m just not a hustler- I’m like really bad at hustling.”
So I find it interesting seeing how forward people are over there. If you’re not a hustler, what are you? I don’t know… a person? I’m just really bad at hustling. The only way I work with people or make opportunities is if we just get on. You’ll find that mot Australians who are producers or musicians are kinda similar in that way. The Team Supreme people are really chilled out, which is cool. But yeah, I found it really full on to see other people go straight to business when you’re out somewhere in LA. I find that so strange. But it’s super inspiring to just sit back and watch all this business happen. Everything moves so quickly there. Any idea what your album will be called? Yeah, but I can’t tell you! (laughs) I need to leave surprises! It’s 3 letters. Djemba asked me, “Why? Why this title?” And I said ever since I was a little kid, this is what I’ve wanted to name an album if I ever made one, so I’m just gonna fucking do it! That’s as good a reason as any! Yeah, why not! How has your family reacted to your recent success? Were they as surprised as you? Um, I don’t’ know, I guess in some ways. My parents have always let me do my own thing. They’re very supportive. For a while, when I started, I was working at Coles center, and I was sleeping on couches, and maybe they were a little bit worried. But now that I’m able to live makes them happy. They’re really proud. I always send them my demos, and they always listen and email me back. My Dad finds it funny, he says, “ I cant’ take you seriously when you sing, it just sounds like you and it’s weird!” (laughs) they come to my shows, which is kinda crazy for them, because the crowds get pretty crazy when I play, so I just hide them onside of stage so they don’t have to deal with that. My dad had actually never seen me play a show till tis year, and that was probably the best concert photo I ever received just cause my dad took it. I’ve always kinda done my own thing, I’ve always been a bit of a gypsy, and they let me do that.
“In terms of the success, I hate that word. I feel like when someone starts thinking their successful, then they kind of become complacent.”
So I don’t think I’m successful yet. But I’m definitely happy that the music is translating with people; that means so much, for real. I’m really bad at everything else in life, so I’d kind of be fucked if I didn’t have this, I think. Or homeless. Well, I’m glad you’re not homeless, Alison! I’m really happy I got the chance to interview you, and that your sound is getting recognized here in the US. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing you perform in NYC next year. Aw, that’s rad! Thanks! Check out Alison Wonderland’s Soundcloud for more. -Brendan Donovan