07 Oct Featured: Singer-Songwriter Alice Phoebe Lou on Doing Art for the Right Reasons
Yesterday, we caught up with singer-songwriter Alice Phoebe Lou, who was briefly in Cape Town to perform at City Soirée’s Best of the Buskers. We featured her ‘Rebel Rose‘ music video in April and were keen to find out about her adventures abroad and what she’s planning next. Ethereal and confident, she spoke to us about what drew her to street performance, her thoughts about the SA music industry, being vulnerable and her definition of artistic success.
You’re here for such a fleeting time. Where are you performing next?
I’m going to New York on Monday and staying there a week for the CMJ Music Marathon, which showcases upcoming music – I’m playing four gigs in six days. Afterwards I’m off to play at a wedding in San Francisco and then heading back to Berlin.
What drew you to street performance?
In a nutshell, I always knew I would travel as soon as I finished school. I was very, very adamant about that. You need to get out of your comfort zone to open your mind. When I was sixteen I went to Paris for two months and the day I bought a pair of fire koi, I was walking past the Notre Dame Cathedral and saw this group of people setting up to do a fire performance. It was perfect. I met them and they didn’t speak English, but that’s when I became fascinated with the idea of performing on the street. They were so happy, free and had a unique way of looking at things. I was inspired and very young but I learnt very valuable lessons. During my time there, I was delving into this weird underground street performer world, which was not what I expected. My parents were amazing enough to let me be alone at that age which is crazy. That was what sparked the desire.
A lot of people, when they go on their gap year, have projections of what they want to do, see, discover and get scared of delving into the unknown. They get a job as an au pair or a waiter and they’re making money to survive but not really getting out of their comfort zones. That’s what I would have done too, but what I realised was that if you have any form of artistic skill, you just have to have the balls – that’s a big part of it because it’s fucking scary. You can just put yourself on a street corner and do your thing. I had a bit of confidence and with R5000 in my bank account, I didn’t need anything more.
You were born and raised in Cape Town. How did you land up in Berlin?
I started in Brussels because my mother’s father is from there and I have a Belgium passport. Before Berlin I stayed in Amsterdam for a while and practised and learnt about the upsides and downsides of street performance and the territorial nature of the artists. You’re basically competing with older guys from Australia and England, who are very embittered and very intense, who have been on the street for fifteen years and are often supporting some kind of addiction. They really treat you like shit. As this eighteen year-old fire spinner I had to grow a thick skin very quickly but was able to intuitively learn a lot of things. After six months of travelling sporadically around the place and funding it through performing, I got tired of people always telling me to go Berlin. As soon as I got there I just knew that it was exactly what everything in my spirit was calling for. It’s real, rough, raw, weird and inspiring. You feel like people are doing their art for the right reasons and not just for profit. They taught me a new definition of what success is.
What is that?
For me there’s a big difference between the conventional success that is projected onto you through school or upbringing and personal happiness. This was a really good thing to learn because it made my motives clear from the beginning and has helped me not to delve into any pathways that would make my music evolve around profit or make me hate what I do and not do it for the right reasons.
Have you ever been tempted to branch into the commercial side of making music?
The thing is, I’ve found a serious happiness with what I do and I’m very happy with the way I went into making music. If I had been some musical prodigy I would have been pushed into certain directions without first being able to establish what I want from it. I started on the street and at that stage in Berlin, all these people were using the streets as their art space and were happy with what they had. For me there is this insatiable hunger that people have but what they’re trying to achieve doesn’t really exist, of course, you want some form of security, but when people are constantly wanting more and bigger and higher they lose touch with the intention and integrity of their art.
What your first street performance like?
It was absolutely horrible. You see all of these performers of different degrees of quality and they make it look easy. I went to a big, very expensive area where there was a train station and I sat on the ground and started playing covers like ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’. There were people walking past and the more they reacted badly, the worse I felt, especially when they were my age and making fun of and laughing at me. By this stage of my travels I had no money so I was performing out of necessity. Luckily, I met all these musicians that helped me learn how to play music, collaborate with other people, really enjoy it and not give a fuck about what people think – so that’s how I started making music. If it hadn’t been in that way, I probably would be more money hungry and more conventionally successful but it made me take a very different approach to the way I do things, which I’m grateful for.
You must have been made some tempting offers though?
There have been so many sharks – you cannot imagine the kind of people that come up to me after a gig. They have such ill-intentions. There’s all these masks and bullshit. The music industry is such a scary place. The funny thing is, they aren’t used to people like me. They’re used to people who are hungry for it because that’s normal so they never know how to react when I say, “I’m sorry but I don’t want you to use my song for your insurance company advert, thank you very much”.
Being abroad so much, do you ever miss Cape Town?
For sure but it’s not like I’m staying somewhere indefinitely. There’s different places and different environments that you need for different times in your life. I need Berlin right now. It’s such an integral part of what I do and how I achieve things. The fact that I have managed to sell as many albums as I have just by playing on the street – where other artists just struggle to get sold on iTunes. Its just the perfect place. I miss Cape Town but I also have a sense of mission. I’m okay with it.
Can you tell us how you go about creating your music?
It’s very orientated around social interactions. Every time I play on the street, I see people in the audience that really want to ask me something but are too shy and I always give them the confidence and say if anyone has a question or just wants to give me a high five, feel free to come and talk to me. I make myself vulnerable. Often 80% of the things that are said are bullshit and not necessary to my life but there’s 20% that is important, amazing and moves me and I end up making friends and connections. My songs are orientated around the people I meet. I’m lucky to have met people from many different social circles. A lot of people share a common thread and I like to have an anthropological approach to my song writing. I find things that are relatable, that strike a cord with someone – whether it’s the cord that you want to strike or it’s just the way someone interprets your song. That’s the main thing for me because it’s being able to put music where it’s needed the most and give it to people. You won’t believe how many people don’t listen to music. They might only listen to it on the radio in the car when they’re taking their kids from A to B you know. They’ve lost the realisation that music can be cathartic and psychologically helpful. Playing music on the street is such a special thing. I’ve seen people wake up.
Do you have a specific area in Berlin where you perform?
I have a main spot where there’s a massive highway and two big train stations. It’s an absolute melting pot and transit point for a lot of people. There’s also clubs so the diversity of people is phenomenal. It’s also fucked up. There’s pick-pocketing and many drunk and drugged people but it’s perfect because it’s real and I’m able to catch the attention of all sorts. Of course, there’s also tourists. That’s how my music has spread. I have my third biggest fan base in Argentina now because people shared it with their friends back home. It’s organic PR. It’s genuine. It’s not about using a PR agency or a label to punt my stuff and put it on a billboard. People have a genuine experience and share it because they feel inspired to do and that’s how I’m approaching music. I feel like I’m putting in effort and getting something out.
In terms of putting the work in, what’s your daily routine like?
The amount I have to play has gotten less and less because I’ve started to collaborate on a lot of different projects. That’s what I love doing and I create indoor shows in Berlin where I can hire large places and get trapeze artists to collaborate with me and it’s super fun and inspiring. Now I’ll play four or five days a week and it’s a concert for me. I put it on Facebook and say I’ll be at such-and-such place at 7.30pm so come round. There’s usually a crowd, a combination of people that know my music and those who discover me by chance. Then I also play on Sundays at this very famous legendary park where there is music everywhere. There’s an amazing collective of musicians, some pass through at certain times of the year and some live there and we all help each other out. We create concerts of four or five artist line-ups. It’s a nice feeling.
How has your experience in Berlin shifted your views on South Africa and the music industry here?
I’ve travelled a lot this year and I think every time I do that I learn and compare more things to back home. South Africa is unique, it’s got this weird complex of being connected to Western culture but then also quite disconnected in a way. It’s like an island receiving all this stuff. I feel like things are happening here. I don’t know if it’s just because it’s because people in their twenties are starting to push and move and change things. There’s this electric energy here music-wise, bigger acts are coming down and people are kind of willing to pay you a little more money. Radio stations are starting to catch on to the fact that they really shouldn’t just play Rihanna the whole fucking time and rather support local artists. Things are changing here even though it’s very slow. I have a lot of hope for South Africa. At Rocking the Daisies this weekend, it was very hectic, but also eye-opening to realise how much good music there is here. I hope people start to pay musicians properly and not complain about paying R50 to see a good act.
But they’ll spend more than that on drinks, right?
I know and they’ll ask why Mercury is closing down and why aren’t there enough concerts? It’s because they’re not supporting them. It’s also interesting to see that when I did gig a bit here when I was eighteen or nineteen, I didn’t get much support and then after my Tedt talk, in one day I had ten people asking me, “If I was that girl from Ted?” Suddenly, everyone was so proud of me and was writing “Proudly South African” on all my videos. Be proud of the people who are doing shit in your country as well, not just the people that are now making it overseas. I dunno, it’s funny and I’m observing.
So, what’s next when you get back to Berlin?
I’ve been working on an album the whole year and it’s hectic without the support of normal structures like a label but that’s because money-wise it’s crazy. I’ve spent all my own money, in other words – I’m very broke. I’ve collected incredible musicians to be a part of it and it’s going to come out in February and I’m going to do a massive exhibition and collaboration in December in Cape Town, a tour of it in Europe and then a big one in Berlin. It’s include a documentary screening, a couple of music videos. I’ve asked visual artists to create an artwork for each song of the album, so there’ll be an auction and exhibition of that. It’s an ambitious thing. I’m still looking for a venue and I’ll have to think out of the box.