Alice Phoebe Lou isn’t on your typical indie-darling path. She hasn’t been sitting in her room penning introspective odes to past lovers or courting label attention. Instead, she’s been fire dancing on the streets of Amsterdam and learning crowd-work while performing on Berlin sidewalks. The 25-year-old has deliberately distanced herself from the contrivances of the modern music industry, as much to keep her art fiercely independent as because she’s always been content in smaller scales.
“I was on the street and I was surviving, and I was selling my CDs that I was literally printing on my fucking laptop. And I was happy, and that was it,” she tells Consequence of Sound on a video chat from her South African abode, just weeks before heading out on her first North American tour. “I didn’t have aspirations to go beyond that.”
Such an undemanding approach to music has developed her confidence naturally, leading to the singular sounds of her new album, Paper Castles. The follow-up to 2016’s self-released Orbit, the record’s evocative arrangements touch on notes of celestial jazz and gossamer indie sounds. The notes carry a sense of nostalgic meditation that weaves around Lou’s quivering ruminations on sex, feminism, home, misogyny, and space. Even the Paper Castles title is more about childlike fancies than the dismantling of the collectively subscribed to constructs like money and government at the title track’s core.
In that way, the title suits the depth of the material therein. Alice Phoebe Lou is an acute observer of the cultures around her as well as her own condition, focusing her nostalgia through a narrow aperture to richly detail her unique slant on life. Her songs aren’t wistfully clinging to the past; they’re expressing ownership of a history as an avenue to understanding the present and the potential of the future. They are the documentation of her growth through finding power in moments of darkness, strength in insignificance. And she’s not done growing.
“I like change,” she says. “I like constantly changing.”
On Being a Street Performer in Berlin
It’s such a happening city. It’s so tangible, the level of community, DIY, artistic things that are constantly happening around you. I think that was the first things that struck me because in that time in my life, I was super attracted to street performance as not just a means in which to live, but the artistic practice of it. This idea of being able to use the street as your performance space was so appealing to me. I feel like with cities becoming more over-regulated, they often lose a lot of the street life and the street culture, and Berlin just hasn’t lost it. That feeling of anything goes and being able to establish yourself as an artist in those kinds of conditions is super appealing. Despite the hardships and the difficulties that come along with it, which are also definitely quite extreme at times, I just realized leaving and going to pursue some other life that I thought I wanted would’ve been silly.
It definitely gave me a thick skin. But also the Berlin street performance culture has always been so attractive because it was much more “We’re in the same boat” and much less dog eat dog. In the music culture in general is this sense of community and starting collectives rather than adhering to this typical “We’re playing this same genre of music, so we must be competitors.” I really hate that attitude of going about things. I find it very overly capitalist and very shortsighted because you’re stronger as a collective. You always are.
On Making Peace with the Past via Nostalgia
As I’ve been becoming myself as a woman and going through a lot of the pains of this age at 25, I’ve been thinking about the past and nostalgia. Knowing that childhood is over, but being able to carry some of it with you. I think nostalgia has been a very awesome tool for me to be able to deal with past traumas and to come into womanhood with perspective. Understanding what in my childhood, what in my teenage-hood has made me the person I am today. Getting this feeling of peace with your past.
You idealize your past a lot, your childhood, your childhood home. I think it’s very easy to imagine that it was better than it was. I think that’s what even people in America right now are doing. Like, “Oh, let’s make it great again!” It’s a very easy trap to fall into, and it really doesn’t exist. I think it’s really good to acknowledge the beauty of the past, but also to realize the tragedy and the darkness of it as well because as children, as teenagers, we’re fucked up. We’re not angels; it was never perfect. How has that made me who I am today? I think that’s a bit of a better way to approaching it because it makes you concentrate on the now, rather than idealizing a past that you can never get back.
On Modern Femininity
I’m happy that I’m the age that I am in the time that I am because, as a woman, it’s the most incredible time to be alive. I feel like my fieriness, my masculine energy, and getting in touch with that side of myself is so much more possible now. It would’ve been looked down upon even 20 years ago. I feel like lines between feminine and masculine are getting more and more blurred and people are allowed to come into their own and create their own versions of femininity.
I think there’s a danger within the feminist movement to create new rules of what it means to be a modern woman. It’s like, “OK, now we have to reject everything that was ever idealized as the perfect woman.” But actually, everyone has their own way of dealing with that and their own experiences, and therefore their own way of becoming a woman and creating their own definition of femininity. So, for instance, I don’t shave my armpits or my legs. That’s something I did as a rejection because I’ve been told that’s what I had to do for so long, and it was my way of starting to love my own body as it is. But that does not mean to say that I think all women should do that in order to reject the patriarchy. If somebody wants to dress up and be super typically feminine, wear a lot of makeup, and that’s their way of owning their femininity, then that’s fucking fantastic. Everybody should allow everyone to find that place within themselves in their own unique way and encourage other people to be the way that they want to be and not to create new rules and new ideals because that’s what we’re trying to reject. It becomes very fascist very quickly as soon as there’s too many rules.
On Being Under the Public Gaze
I went through a really hard patch a few months ago where I was trying to shed my old skin of what people thought of me, expected of me, and allow myself to become the woman that I’m becoming. I realized what was fucking me up so much was the input of so many people out there in the world that listen to my music who kept saying things along the lines of, “Stay as pure as you are. You’re so pure.” This concept, especially as a woman in music, is something I have to put up with pretty regularly. There’s this notion of trying to keep someone young, keep someone pure. And I fucking reject that. I’m not pure. I am a human being and I make some music and that’s just about it. If you like it, that’s great. There’s no weird light coming out of my asshole or something.
On Growing as an Artist
What I’m so excited about with this album is that I’m releasing music now that is so much more aligned with who I am as a person right now. At the end of the day, there are a couple of songs on Orbit that I still love, but that’s a version of myself that isn’t really me anymore. I feel like musicians should be given the same allowance as other artists to be able to move on from past work. Do you think that Radiohead want to play “Creep” anymore? No, they don’t. Allow artists to grow and to change. I know you wanna hear that song; I do, too. But do you want them to stand there and lie to you and put on a face and play the song that they don’t have any connection to anymore? I don’t think so. What’s been so nice for me right now is that I don’t care anymore. I don’t care about the fans that I’m gonna lose along the way because I’ve got so many people out there that are growing with me and allowing me to grow, and I think those are the ones that I want to keep around.
On the Power of Independence
I want to put in the effort and work hard and go through the steps. I’ve never wanted a lucky break. That idea freaks me out, honestly. Just the idea of overnight success just feels stupid and disingenuous. You won’t have learned the lessons and made the mistakes to get there. You will have just popped out on the other side like a fucking deer in headlights.
My manager was able to take my fiery independence and ask me questions that allowed me to understand how I would want to become successful. Find that middle ground of not adhering to the usual norms of the music industry and the steps you’re supposed to take and creating your own steps, your own goals. Independence is fucking important to me, across the board, whether it’s in the business side of things or in the creative side of things. There’s a whole industry out there with a prescribed contract, a way of releasing music, and I just reject anything that’s prescribed. I want to do things my own way. There’s just so many ways to make that happen these days that I think it would be silly to not try.
On Owning Her Music
Most artists at my level, doing the tours that I’m doing, have a tour-spend from their label. I’m just out here, winging it. It’s just so fucking weird that this is all mine. And my album is mine. The biggest thing for me now is to not become a slave to touring, because that’s now the only way that artists make money, because 80 percent of their album is to the label. I want to know that I can make money from my album, and if I don’t want to tour, I don’t have to fucking tour.
On Space and Performing in a Planetarium
Space as a theme in my music and in my life has always been not so scientific and more metaphorical. As someone who doesn’t believe in God but also doesn’t believe that it’s possible to know anything about anything, really, I feel like using space and infinity and stars and planets and the expanse as a kind of metaphor for life; those kinds of things are so interesting to me. I’m someone who’s curious as fuck, and I want to learn things, and I want to speculate, but I’m okay with not knowing. That idea of being insignificant and that being powerful rather than sad.
We’ve always striven to play in as many alternative venues as possible. We’ve used churches, there’s a crematorium in Berlin I’ve played in, and there’s the planetarium, which I’ve played in now like 12 times. That was a concept that I always thought would be amazing, to create different types of concert experiences, and to make my audience know that when they go to my concert, it’s going to be different. Even the music will be arranged differently, and I won’t play it exactly the same as the album. It’s important for me not to get bored. The planetarium concerts have been such an incredible experience, because people tell me that they feel like they’ve died and leave their bodies sometimes. I want that extreme stuff sometimes.
I actually orchestrated what was going to happen on the sky — I looked through thousands of videos and found things that worked for each song, and over time we did it better and better, and now it’s such an incredible piece. Now we can take what we’ve created and put it in any planetarium in the world. We’ve been trying to get the New York Planetarium interested, but … Maybe someday.
Buy: Pick up Paper Castles and other Alice Phoebe Lou vinyl here.