The Groningen Report
Four years ago the singer and songwriter ALA.NI from London and Paris started her second career jump in music and finally found her voice. Her really amazing voice, often described somewhere between voices like Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Nina Simone and Julee Cruise. She opened many ears and eyes when she sang “Cherry Blossom” on “Later With Jools Holland” in 2015. Her first album “You & I” got out in summer 2016.
I had the big pleasure to meet ALA.NI in person on friday 13th of january 2017. We met just before her soundcheck at the cinema “Forum Images” during ESNS17 in Groningen/The Netherlands. But actually, she was late with her train from Amsterdam. Late, because of an suicidal accident. Very often in the Netherlands, people throw themselves in front of a running train to commit suicide. With this action, even passengers of these trains can get a very traumatic experience. Not to speak about those ones, who have to check the place of a ‘collision with a person’ and who drive the trains. This happened with a train in which ALA.NI was traveling with her guitar player for reaching her show on the ESNS17.
We talked about this a bit before we started our official talk. And we decided to call even this act a human behaviour.
Actually, this meeting with ALA.NI was very accidentely too. But even though she was late, she wanted to meet for an interview, even for a shorter version, just until her supper. During the concert later the same evening she told us (the audience), she still had some ginger between her teeth.
First of all, I introduced myself, told ALA.NI that I’m from Germany, but live in Groningen for a longer time already, after finishing my art study.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: When I saw in the announcement of this festival, you would come to ESNS17, I immediately thought about meeting you. You are a singer, a composer, a producer, a dancer, a story teller, a visual artist…
ALA.NI: Yes.. okay! (Laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: And a photographer, you even create your own videos, and you are also funny! You are also very alive!
ALA.NI: Thank you!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You have a very special own way to show and present what you are doing. Why did you choose mainly music for your life?
ALA.NI: I don’t know. I don’t think, you choose music. I think, music chooses you. I wanted to be a dancer, originally, but then I went to performing art schools. So, that was the option and then I discovered my voice around when I was eleven years old. Then I thought: “Okay, I can sing!”
As a dancer, my career would probably be ending by the time I was twenty-five or something like that. (Laughing). There was always a lot of music in the house, at school, I just grew up surrounded by music. I started very early writing lyrics and music for songs, silly songs and even poems. It was just natural for me. I can’t live without music. I tried to do some fashion stuff for a bit and after two years I was like: “Why am I so unhappy?” (Laughing) “Oh, I’m not singing every day anymore!”
If I don’t sing something every day I know that my spirit isn’t right. Even if it is just silly or humbling or anything. Just some noise has to happen in my life. Then I know, it’s okay, it’s all good.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Then music is feeding you!
ALA.NI: Oh, totally! And I feel so blessed. I created a bodywork and within I could move around the world and perform it and people react to it and people are enjoying it with me, you know? It’s what I dreamed to be able to do as any artist, to have a public space, even if it’s ten people, to appreciate your work. There is no point just to live in your bedroom. (Laughing). A painting should make it towards a carpet somewhere, you know? Just let someone else enjoy it.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What are you searching for in music? Where are you going to inside the music-universe?
ALA.NI: I don’t know. It’s such a different process and state when you record in a studio to performing live. When I’m in the studio in my own zone it feels so self-indulgent, it’s like masturbation, it’s all about me! I don’t care! (Laughing!) Not making anything for anyone’s ears. For anyone, anyone in my team or anything. It’s just for ME to enjoy it. When you are on stage, when you perform that same music it doesn’t belong to you anymore. The moment I sing it to an audience it doesn’t belong to me anymore.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: In that moment it’s gone.
ALA.NI: It’s for them! I don’t hear myself. I don’t hear the guitarist. I just have this sound. And we forget. Because music now is so boring and anonymous and very generic, that we’ve forgotten about the beauty of sound. And what sound does to our molecules, you know, vibrates in our bodies and we feel something. Different notes create different experiences. We have different chakras that respond to different sounds. And we’ve forgotten a lot of that. That noise. I’m not saying, it’s music, I’m saying it’s noise. We allow this interruption of noise when we are on a quiet train. Many are acting on their phones with crazy sounds so much! That shouldn’t be allowed! You shouldn’t be able to use a public space for your noise and dominate it with your shitty noise. It should be: we all respect each other and everyone, you know? That’s more mindful.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: In Holland we also have these silent departments in the trains, at least in the Intercity trains. We have spaces for normal sitting and talking but we also have these areas for silence.
ALA.NI: Yes! And it’s important!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: There you only hear the sound of the train. Just simply enjoying the landscape with the sound and silence of the train.
ALA.NI: Sometimes you just want that! It’s so nice to be in a train and sit there just in silence! I had this train journey to Zürich recently. There was a man, he came and sat just next to me. And he was hammering with his fingers on his laptop with such a nasty disturbing noise. (Laughing!) My idea and hope was, please not for the next two hours! That’s not gonna happen for another two hours! He said: I’m just typing. Me: No, no, this is what you’re doing, hammering with your fingers like crazy! You are not just typing. You can’t do that. I just need silence!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What did happen then?
ALA.NI: Then he stopped. In his way of typing he was very aggressive. Then he calmed down a bit. Then I just started looking to the lady opposite of me and her little girl and we started playings like: We are gonna make noise too!!!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You played an imaginary ping-pong with each others with that beautiful clacky noise?
ALA.NI: (Laughing). No, we just made our own noise. That was my revenge (laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What kind of job would you like to choose for one week long, if you could of course?
Bernd Ihno Eilts: If it’s not related to music of course.
ALA.NI: I have an interest in child’s psychology. So, I would like do work with this. Also possible to wake in a monkey sanctuary or doing something with children where I get to analyze their behaviour. But that wouldn’t just take one week, it’s pretty intense. Maybe something with more fun (laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Just for one week. Maybe something totally different? What about working in a bakery?
ALA.NI: Oh yes, in a restaurant! Actually, I recently did that. When I go to Italy to Toscany, there is a restaurant and I asked the owner, because I even know the owner, and they let me do the kitchen stuff, the lunch service. So, I did all the preparation and I did it on my birthday once. Because I love it so much. Maybe a chef for one week!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Okay! That sounds great! When is your birthday?
ALA.NI: In september, the xx.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: I will write you then!
ALA.NI: Okay! (We both laugh!)
Bernd Ihno Eilts: In the past you were a background singer for Mary J. Blige and Andrea Bocelli. How did that happen?
ALA.NI: I belong to an agency, so I had a vocal teacher/coach who started an agency. I was one of the first inside and he had a lot of ties and connections with all the big labels like EMI and Sony and everyone was employing his agency to work. He came from a church background and he had a lot of the black choir singers. He had a great business. Everyone was working there and it was a nice time. I learned a lot from that experience. The music industry isn’t easy. In that period it was nice to see it more from the distance. And yes, it’s scary. But I have to deal with it at some point if I want to sing.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: When you go back in time, what would you like especially from that period while you were a background singer? You have some stories to share?
ALA.NI: No. Because the rule is what happens on the road stays on the road. That’s the golden rule!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Not everyone share’s this rule!
ALA.NI: I’m a woman of my work.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: How do you compose? Is there a ritual you have to follow? You compose music, lyrics, poems, you even compose videos. Do you need some special inspiration to get in that kind of flow?
ALA.NI: No, I think, I just need silence. Maybe a spliff. The more quiet my mind is, the more creative thoughts I can have. When I’m busy it’s hard to kind of catch those. But as far as having a process, sometimes I’m having a video idea first and then a song may come and fit into that and constantly feeding my eyes and my taste with things I like. It could be the texture on the wall. That does something in my brain, it registers it. And maybe turns into something. I don’t know how but I like it (Laughing). But I tend to, well, my “You & I” album I wrote, I did everything a-capella. And then I worked with a copyist and screwed everything which has been such a possibility, I’m so glad I invested the time and money into doing this, because now I can literally give that work to any musician and within one day it can be on stage. I had the situation recently when my guitarist left in the middle of the tour. Then I said: “Okay, we are on the road, we need to find a guitarist!”
The next day we had three guitarists, two met us on route, picked them up on the station, practiced in the bus, got to the venue, soundcheck, have a little run through, show! Because, it was old-school. The other side is, just to have all on play-back. But when you try to keep it all just a little bit traditional, it’s so important to have those kinds of rootings (laughing). Everyone is working from the same page. Yes, that’s been good.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What else inspires you? Do you have some favorite art that inspires you, or poetry? Or some classical contemporary music? Like this week for example?
ALA.NI: Yes, alright. You understand how my brain works. It’s passing. If I do have favorites, I’m narrowing my view of the world. If something captures me, of course if I see it again, I respond to it. I’m bad in remembering names of bands or whatever. But when I hear something I’ve heard before I know it. I’m maybe even able to name it! (Laughing). At the moment I’m reading a lot of James Baldwin, because I’m trying to put some things together. Am also reading his poetry at the moment and his biography. I always carry around many books.
Then suddenly ALA.NI put her little bag on the table and emptied all in front of my/our eyes.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Okay! You are like me!
ALA.NI: I have a selection of different things (laughing), this is in my handbag!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You don’t carry apples or bananas in your handbag?
ALA.NI: I can’t eat bananas, apples I don’t like in the winter. But this is my diary, my on-the-road-diary, because it’s small. My home diary is bigger. Here is my James Baldwin. Then this is my day-to-day-to-do-list-meetings-phone-calls and so on. These are my letters that I received, this is my book with notices for my new album.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: And you don’t open it now.
ALA.NI: I just started with it. It says: “Fuck knows if I’m going to pull this off”. (Laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: That’s a real nice input!
ALA.NI: So let’s see, what will happen (laughing). This all is just in my handbag, just to show you this all.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What then is all in your big suitcase?
ALA.NI: Exactly! (Laughing!!)
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What do you have there? Stones? From a garden, from a park? Yes, YOU have!!
Suddenly she put a small bag with stones and coins on the table.
ALA.NI: Here I have my stones!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Oh, they are so beautiful! It looks, we are family!
ALA.NI: This one is from Berlin, this one from Barcelona, that one from somewhere in France, this one is from LA, I can’t remember where I got this one from, I can’t remember these two.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You always carry them with you?
ALA.NI: Yes. There was a full moon last night and I washed them all. Now they are all nice and fresh. (Laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Will you take them also to the stage?
ALA.NI: No. Not that much. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I take this one with me, it stays in my pocket a lot recently. I don’t know why. I guess I’m just liking them in my pocket.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Very nice!
ALA.NI: And I found an old coin once. I don’t know where it came from, I haven’t been to America (except to LA), it just appeared. It fell on my path literally and it’s a half penny from 1920. It just fell out of my bag. Where did this come from? You can see, it was a good luck thing, someone was rubbing it many times for sure.
She showed me this one penny so nice that I couldn’t resist and just kissed it.
ALA.NI: Thank you for blessing my coin (laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: I had to! In some of your published videos I saw last night and the night before, sometimes funny things are happening, while you are performing. Sometimes you just stop singing in the middle of a song.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Then the audience want to applause, but you ask them just to wait and stay in silence. Then you walk around a bit, you take your time until you decide to enter the song singing again. What is this all about?
ALA.NI: (Laughing softly). You know a band called “St. Pauls & The Broken Bones”? They are an American international very great band with a repertoire of blues and soul. When I was touring with Mary J. Blide I saw she was often just jumping into the audience. I thought, I want to do that so badly. I got to be at the Esperanzah Festival last summer, which is great. But then the lead singer of St. Pauls & The Broken Bones did a gig with Bobby Womack in a little house, which was very intimate. There I saw he just went out towards the audience, without a microphone, but he went just into the audience and I just thought: okay, it looks really nice and fun, I wanna try something like that as well. Why not play some more among the people and listen to them and use some touchment. Because normally we never get to feel them, we are all resumating something from our bodies and if everyone’s in the space together, why not just shift the energy around? Yeah, I like it. I can’t do this all the time but I like this kind of feeling. Yesterday I just got a moment, where I just made everyone sit down during a gig in Amsterdam. Then I decided just in the middle to sit down also amongst everyone (laughing). I finished the song with everyone together! I said: “Hi, can I stay here?”
Bernd Ihno Eilts: How do you feel when you sing? In the beginning of our talk this evening you told, you are somewhere else, you don’t even hear the guitar anymore.
ALA.NI: I like silence. I need silence. Once, when silence is broken, then I remember where I am. It’s about loosing yourself. So, I try to loose myself in the moment. Yesterday I messed up so badly (laughing!).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Did the public ask their ticket money back?
ALA.NI: They were very kind. But I usually do improvisations. Then I ask the audience to write a sentence of a book, a poem, an expression, anything they want. Then I make a song out of that.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You put some words like my questions or notices you find from tea bags together then?
ALA.NI: Yes, I sometimes do. I carry a lot of these things in different languages with me.
But yesterday I didn’t have time to do it. So, I asked someone to give me, if anyone had a book in English or anything. Someone just had a map of Amsterdam. Like a tour guide. Me: “Okay, give me the tour guide”. It was just wonderful and beautiful and vintage and all and I made a song out of this all. East-side, east-side, was this song called suddenly. I got away with just this and it was terrible. But it’s always fun. I love getting the lyrics from the audience and connect things all together and making a song out of it.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: The first time I saw you was in the videos online. I got the idea, you have to be totally in love when you perform. Maybe not always, but very often: Yes. Moments between you and the audience, they feel and or look like you’re making love, maybe you are in love. But it looks like a totally loving and intimate situation.
ALA.NI: Okay! But I don’t really analyze that. I mean, the songs are written once I was single, and I’m a single for many years now. It’s given me a perspective of love and how I feel when I’m in love and I was able to write about that and people connect with it. But this is nothing I wish to analyze, because it’s not the reason for doing it.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: So the one-week-psychologist we can skip!
ALA.NI: (Laughing). But it would be me analyzing children which is fine! I don’t want to analyze myself. Well, of course I do, I like self-analyzes, but not for something like that. It doesn’t have to be ‘I can’t love myself’, this is for someone else to feel.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: I think the setting of the music is also very intimate. When you use just vocals plus a guitar, or two.
ALA.NI: Yeah! It’s very open!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You are also obsessed by strings, right?
ALA.NI: Yes, I am. Sorry, what time is it? Okay, it’s not too bad. Half past six or half seven, 6:36 pm.
Then we had an interesting interruption chat on how we describe the time in old Europe and around.
ALA.NI: When I kind of hear an orchestra, or when I’m writing, when I do my harmony lines that usually can be string parts, that’s, I guess, is my obsession.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: (Laughing). I noticed, you always use the same kind of microphone. You have several of them?
ALA.NI: I have another older one. But that one I do not use live. This one I use live has such a beautiful sound. As it is just myself and a guitarist it’s very important to have a good vocal sound and this I get from my monster microphone. It’s heavy, it’s a lot to carry around but, yes. (Laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Your latest album is called “You & I”? What is you album about?
ALA.NI: My message is just LOVE. Simple love.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Thank you very much for being that beautiful open with me here! But before you go, please let’s take some pictures!
ALA.NI: Okay! (Laughing).
For more information: www.facebook.com/alaniofficial
Upcoming Live Events:
March 24th: Columbia Theater, Berlin, Germany. March 25th: Franz Mehlhose, Erfurt, Germany. March 26th: E-Werk, Erlangen, Germany. March 28th: Pavillion, Hannover, Germany. March 29th: Stadtgarten, Köln, Germany. March 30th: Ampere, München, Germany. March 31st: Walhalla Spiegelsaal, Wiesbaden, Germany.
April 8th: Transition Festival, Utrecht, Netherlands.
May 20th: Verdun, France. May 27th: Coutances, France.
June 2nd: Elbjazz Festival, Hamburg, Germany.
July 11th: Montreux Jazz Festival.