Last Saturday at Mountain Sounds Festival, I caught up with the one and only Alison Wonderland. Having managed to weasel my way out of all previous art felicis interviewing duties, the nerves for my first interview with a big star were coming on. So, when I met Alison and found she was just a down to earth, approachably friendly person, I was relieved.
With a newly released video for her single “U Don’t Know”, starring her friend Christopher Mintz-Plasse (aka McLovin), her debut album Run available for pre-order, and a US debut at none other than Coachella just around the corner, things are looking really good for the Sydney DJ, producer, and talented musician. Not only did she share with me some of her recording secrets and the inspiration behind Run, she opened up about her friendships with musicians, comedians, and her dog Molly. She also shared her peculiar hobby but you’ll have to read the interview for that one.
We were discussing phones as recording devices and doing a test run when…
Alison Wonderland (AW): I actually recorded most of my album on my iPhone Voice Memo.
Huggett (WH): I’m not gonna stop this recording now. That’s very interesting.
AW: Yeah, no, I really did. But “U Don’t Know”, the track that just came out, the verse is all done on my Voice Memo. It’s like the first take I did. I tried to re-record it and the vibe wasn’t right so I was just like “fuck it, I’ll just keep that one”.
WH: That’s amazing. I don’t know if you know when Kimbra made that song…
AW: Yeah, with A-Track. She did it on her Macbook.
WH: Is that just a common thing to do that with your songs?
AW: The only reason why I tend to kinda do that a lot is when I started producing, I was producing under another name which was Whyte Fang. Back then, I couldn’t afford any equipment or no one would give me the time to go in a studio so I kind of experimented and just recorded a vocal in my Voice Memo. I just emailed to myself and whacked it onto my Ableton and tried to make it sound like something. That’s kind of how it started and now I feel really comfortable doing it because I’m not standing in a really sterile booth. I’m not a singer. I can’t just get up in a booth and sing so I’d rather have a vibe than sound like a Beyoncé cos there’s no point trying.
WH: So you say you’re not a singer. Because, obviously you sing for your tracks.
AW: I’m singing on most of my album actually, yeah.
WH: But I’ve noticed you don’t sing on stage?
AW: I think eventually that’ll happen but right now I feel really comfortable around the decks. When I’m playing there’s GoPros over my hands projected behind me so I try and treat that like an instrument itself.
WH: And I guess the other thing is you’re also a cellist, aren’t you?
AW: That’s correct.
WH: Would you ever produce a song and/or perform a song using your cello?
AW: I have done both those things. Only once. On my EP, Calm Down, which came out last year, I did a track called “Space” and in that track the main instrument is a cello. I performed it live once where I actually sung and played at the same time with the beat behind me. I’m getting nervous telling you this so I’m just doing this.
“This” referred to her nervously picking hay of the bale in front of us.
WH: When was that? I want it to happen again.
AW: That was the end of 2013 during ARIA week. I did a showcase of an album that I thought I was gonna put out then I scrapped it and made an EP. True story.
AW: It was just not current me. You know? I’d written those songs a long time ago and they just felt like, I’d reproduce them later and the demos were all… I don’t know. I just wasn’t feeling proud of it. A friend of mine once told me, “You can tell everyone you’ve put everything into something but, at the end of the day, you’re going to be the only one that knows if you did.” And I really didn’t feel like I did with that. I guess, at the time, I wasn’t comfortable enough to know how I wanted to write a song. Now because I’ve done it so much, I don’t have to think too much. I can just go with my intuition. So that’s probably the best decision I made was scrapping that album.
WH: So are these songs that the public will never hear?
AW: I don’t know. I really wanna start doing more top-line writing for other artists and song writing for them. So I might, if someone wants to pick it up one day. You never know.
WH: What about the transition from producing music to really singing music, or did that all come at the same time?
AW: It all came at the same time under different guises. When I was doing Whyte Fang is when I was singing. When I was doing the Alison Wonderland record the first time round, it was really hard to get guest vocalists on it because no one probably took me that seriously. Which is fine, I forgive you. But, you know, probably the best thing they did because I was like “Well, fuck it, I write music and lyrics on top-lines so I’ll just try it”. And then I don’t really necessarily think I have a great voice but I just did it because it feels better when it comes from the person that wrote it.
WH: Christopher Mintz-Plasse. How do you know him? How are you friends with him?
AW: Laughs. Yes. One of the guys that I lived with in LA is a comedy writer for Funny or Die. And I met Chris through my friend. We all hang out all the time and he’s a really good friend of mine.
WH: When did you meet him? Before the Superbad days?
AW: No. Not before the Superbad days. A little later. But then we all hung out. It’s nice to have a group in America of people that aren’t necessarily in music but still get what being a creative person is like. Chris and I, we’re good friends, we talk on the phone all the time. We definitely hang out, so it’s nice.
WH: Does he get all that “McLovin” thing when you’re out with him in public?
AW: Yeah, he definitely gets approached a lot which is funny. I said to him it was funny because I forget that he’s been in a film. So we’ll be out at dinner and yeah.
WH: And in Australia, you might be the one that gets approached.
AW: Yeah, I guess that comes with putting yourself out there.
WH: I watched that video again last night. It’s an interesting one. Where did that concept come from?
AW: That’s my concept as well. I was on an airplane, I was listening to “U Don’t Know”. I was listening to the demo of it about 50 times over and over to try and write notes on how I wanted to finish it. While I was writing notes, I had a pen in my hand and I was holding a crossword book and I just started drawing a scene. It was exactly how I saw what turned out to be the video clip. And I thought Chris would be really good to be in that film so I asked him.
WH: The first time I saw it, that twist in the end. You’re expecting this to be some kind of horrific nightmare for this girl and all of a sudden it’s just a bit of roleplaying. Does that connect with the song or any story? Or just a concept you like?
AW: I mean, it’s a concept I had. Well, I wrote this album mainly in Los Angeles so it’s about my time there and my experiences, especially being new there. Just my observations. I went out a lot, you know, got really drunk a lot and partied a lot.
WH: Like a good Australian youth.
AW: Yeah. Laughing. Basically what I do here but over there. And it was just interesting because, at the beginning of my time there, I wasn’t as probably well known in America as I am now. So it was interesting seeing how people treated me, compared to recently. That was just an observation I had. It’s about flaky people. It’s about my friends there. It’s about lovers. It’s about the music industry. When I wrote the lyrics, it was like 3am and I was in the Mad Decent studios and I was like “blah” and the lines just came to me. So I was feeling a certain way and I guess it’s all about control and how people treat you when they’re trying to control the situation. I guess that does really tie into the video a lot.
WH: If you’re putting all of your experiences in, that could be why it’s so different from “I Want U”, which is again so different from “Get Ready”. Your songs seem to be evolving very quickly.
AW: Yeah. I think I’m just becoming more and more comfortable with how I actually write rather than thinking how I should write. That’s probably why.
WH: So does that mean when Run comes out we’re going to get a wide range of different stages of your evolution?
AW: I wrote the album really quickly in a small amount of time. It’s funny because it’s all like a big block of time in my life that I spent in LA last year so it was really influenced by that and how I was feeling on the day of when I wrote a certain lyric. But in terms of the music, yeah, I think I stopped worrying about whether or not I should do it a certain way and just did it. Whatever felt right. The EP was a step up, I think, and then yeah, I was like “fuck it, I’m just gonna do exactly how I feel.” As I said earlier, I will know if I put all of myself into it or not and hopefully that’ll translate.
WH: You gotta do it for you.
AW: It’s not for me. I mean, writing music is a very narcissistic process. So yeah. Probably for me. Cheap therapy!
WH: To an extent you get paid for this therapy.
AW: I put a lot of what I get paid back into my music and my production and my stage shows so, unfortunately, still living the artist life.
WH: Are you able to survive financially from music production and performance?
AW: I think touring is what every artist should be doing because, I guess not on a personal thing but in the whole industry, less and less people are buying music. The way that artists make money is now from touring and syncs with movies and ads. Or if they do really well, but most people don’t get number one everywhere. I actually buy vinyl if I really like an album and I do buy all my music on iTunes unless a producer gives it to me so I make a point of doing that.
WH: So, you’re going to Coachella. Were you ever expecting to get that kind of invitation when you got bigger in the US?
AW: Um no.
WH: Just flat out no?
AW: Honestly it’s still… it’s a dream. It’s a dream I’ve always had but I was also like “haha, maybe one day I’ll play Coachella” in a very joking way. And then when my booking agent called me and told me the news, it didn’t hit me until a few months later. I couldn’t tell anyone as well for a long time so it was killing me. It actually hit me when I told my dad what I was doing. He was like “explain it to me” so, as I was explaining it I started realising that my eyes were tearing up and I was like “holy crap, I’m playing Coachella”. The second time it hit me was when I saw my name on the lineup and it wasn’t microscopic which is another cool thing. That was like crazy, surreal.
WH: So with the lineup, have you looked through it and seen an artist that you can’t believe you get to perform with and meet?
AW: Yeah but at the same time I’m also shitting myself because I need to play this show like it’s the fuckin’ THE show. It’s my first ever show in America. I wanna go in with a bang.
WH: I wanna get a name drop here. Is there any particular artist, or some, that you’re beyond excited about?
AW: Steely Dan. Because why not?
WH: I have heard that you often poor vodka into people’s mouths during sets?
AW: I have definitely spat, not poured, but spat vodka from my mouth into someone else’s mouth a few times. I mean, I guess now you know it’s real vodka that I’m drinking, which is slightly concerning as well for my liver.
WH: That’s good because you might get fakers up on stage drinking water…
AW: Apparently a lot of people do and I’m like, “Well, fuck it. If you’re gonna drink vodka, drink vodka.” If I’m sober that night, I don’t go on with a vodka bottle, I go on with a water bottle and drink that. Fuck people that fake that shit.
AW: Where’s my e-cigarette? Speaking of fake things. I quit smoking so it’s my little slight window and pathway to smoking but not really. I mean, to be honest, every time I did a take vocally I’d smoke like three cigarettes. To warm my voice up. You know, your vocal chords are like a muscle.
WH: So instead of doing little warm up exercises…
AW: I put chemicals and rat poison on my throat.
WH: With the whole dance music scene, are you guys all close? Are there any other DJs that you get to party with all the time?
AW: Yeah, I mean, because I’ve been touring by myself and I’m a solo act, and I’ve been overseas and recording, not so much recently. But yeah, I think in Australia the reason why the electronic music scene’s so strong is that there’s a really big sense of community and camaraderie and I think it’s really cool.
WH: Are there any people that either were close friends before you started or are really close friends now?
AW: Everyone’s still close friends. I mean, to be honest, my close friends are like my dog, and we’ve been doing this forever together so my manager’s a close friend. It’s kinda sad. But yeah, I have a lot of love for what people are doing. Actually, everyone that I’ve seen play, I like how hard working they are. I think overseas especially are looking to Australia and they have been for a little while now. Maybe because we’re so far away but there’s still the internet.
WH: Well we’ve kinda really started this whole electronic music thing.
AW: No. Actually, I’ll tell you what. Before all of that kinda genre, which I don’t mention because I don’t think it should be called that.
WH: What should it be called?
AW: It should just be called… whatever it makes you feel at the time? I dunno. But I remember listening to Hudson Mohawke ages before all this got popular. So it’s more a few Australian artists made the genre popular.
WH: So we didn’t start it but popularised it.
AW: Yes. I believe that’s a better way of saying it… Is that Nicole?
We briefly paused the interview so she could call out across the room.
AW: Hi, sorry, just saying hi. Nicole Millar.
WH: I don’t know if you’ve seen our blog but we always have a little section when we write about an artist where we have a little “Say what?” section. What’s something you’ve either never told someone or never told the public before that would make people literally say “Say what?”?
AW: Um. Ok. When I have time off and it’s the right time of year my favourite thing to do is go whale watching. And I stand on a cliff with binoculars and watch whales.
WH: Where do you do this?
AW: In the north near Manly. Also Dover Heights has really good viewing for that. There’s also an app on your phone which is a whale watching app that tells you where there’s whales and where to go. It’s really nerdy.
WH: So you watch whales and your best friend’s your dog. Does that make you an animal lover?
AW: I love animals. Yeah of course. But I just feel like because I’m alone a lot with what I do, having a little dog is probably the best thing you can do for someone in my position. Because then you don’t go as crazy as you should.
WH: What kind of dog is she?
AW: She’s a half shitzu, half toy poodle. Her name’s Molly and she’s really funny. I take her to the studio and she just sits there. She’s like the biggest chiller. She’s little but she doesn’t act like a little dog. She’s not yappy or anything. She’s cool. She’s the best. I actually took her with me to interviews the other day. I didn’t really want to interview with these people because I didn’t trust them so I just brought my dog.
WH: To protect you?
AW: Yeah. More like “I don’t wanna answer this question. Here’s my dog.” But yeah, that’s the best thing, coming home and having her really excited.
WH: I guess that’s it unless you have something exciting to add last minute.
AW: Stop smoking. It’s way better for you.
Run comes out March 20th! Get excited.