Aluna: “A solo project is like turning up to a warehouse party, not knowing what’s behind the door”

In a conversation shared before the murder of George Floyd initiated a much wider and (long-overdue) discussion about race in the music industry and beyond, Jenessa Williams caught up with Aluna to discuss motherhood, navigating the ego of the bedroom producer and her mission to reclaim the dancefloor for black women.

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Aluna is back, and this time it’s personal. Having made her name on numerous chart-shaking features as part of duo AlunaGeorge, her silky voice and euphoric production can be heard far and wide, but rarely revealed much about the person herself. Determined to change that, she’s going it alone. ‘Body Pump’, a thumping lead single that implores the listener to let her do her own thing, is a sign of glorious things to come, and for Aluna, a new era of autonomy and self-representation.

Hi Aluna – how are you doing? Are you coping okay with spending so much time indoors?

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I kind of like it! I’m basically in lockdown most of the time anyway – working in the studio while the sun is shining outside, spending all my time in a dingy room plugging away at a bassline. It’s basically the same as before, expect now you don’t need to feel guilty about turning down socialising because you’re doing the responsible thing. I definitely have a finite amount of “extrovert” in social settings – unless it’s a house party, and then I’m all about it.

Where are you based at the minute? 

I’m based anywhere I can play and make music really, but I’m currently in America. Half the record was made in London, some of it was in LA, some in Joshua Tree… every musician I meet is a nomad and I’m no different. For every record, I’ve made batches of songs in different locations, to have enough variety to choose from. 

Speaking of variety, this is a very exciting new time for you. Why did now feel like the time to go it alone? 

People have always asked me if it [going solo] was something I’d thought about, and I always thought they were mad, because what me and George have is so fruitful. From the moment we met, we’ve never wasted any time in the studio – if we were spending a day in a session, we were coming out of it with at least two songs. That sort of productivity is gold, so I always thought why on earth would I change that? But, over time, there started to be certain musical and lyrical areas that felt awkward to do in a duo, because they were so singularly from my culture and my perspective. I did feel a little bit self-conscious trying to drag George through my own process of self-discovery. I wrote a song before we put out the last EP which was about my mum and my grandma, and George is obviously supportive, but it’s just a bit weird, like ‘hey, do you want to finish off this black women’s anthem with me?’ As well as all that, I’ve always liked to find places where I feel scared, and head right to them. A solo project is definitely that: it’s like turning up at a really dark warehouse party, and not knowing what the hell is behind that door. Not knowing if it’s one of those boring beer pong frat parties, or a full on techno rave. Y’know? I just want to know if there’s going to be toilets…

THERE STARTED TO BE CERTAIN MUSICAL AND LYRICAL AREAS THAT FELT AWKWARD TO DO IN A DUO BECAUSE THEY WERE SO SINGULARLY FROM MY CULTURE AND MY PERSPECTIVE.

ALUNA

Does this mean AlunaGeorge is over?

AlunaGeorge is definitely still going – it’s on hiatus rather than being over, basically. I don’t know if it would be more interesting to say that we had fallen out, but it’s certainly not true!

In terms of the spaces that you want to explore on your own terms – what sort of form is this taking?

I’m definitely working on an album, I can tell you that. It’s all still about love and relationships, motivation, girl power, confidence… not particularly radical themes, but I feel like I’m telling them from my singular perspective. The personal side of it is so much more in the production for me. 

How has the production approach differed this time around? 

I would say I have pulled together all of the cultural elements that make me up as a person. There are lots of percussive hints of afrobeats and afropop mixed with 90s UK house, bits of RnB, a little bit of totally wonky Pink Floyd-indie. When I say that doing solo stuff is scary, that’s the part I mean – putting all of those elements together on paper sounds really disjointed – but I would say that my largest skillset is employing those elements on this record with subtlety and finesse. It’s a blend, like I am. I think when people meet me they’re quite unsure of where I’m from or what my heritage is, you get that quizzical look, but I also hope they also think ‘she’s funny’ or notice something of my personality. I am what comes out of mixing those elements together, rather than being defined by any singular one of them. 

I think that’s so important. Genre-blending is becoming more common but it still feels especially brave for people of colour who are so regularly positioned as being an exclusively RnB or ‘Urban’ artist, even when the sonics of the work don’t fit that at all.

Yes, and I’ve rebelled against that for most of my career. My voice lends itself to RnB as people know from certain songs we did in AlunaGeorge, but I just don’t ever sit down and listen to downtempo RnB. It’s lovely music, but I get off on driving rhythms or weird percussions – my favourite artists are Radiohead and Jeff Buckley. It’s difficult, because when you explore various genres, you do so at your own risk, but for me, I want to head up the genre of dance music and reclaim some space as a black woman. When I try and think of the number of black women doing that, in a way that’s more than just a single song or collaboration, there’s not a resounding list in my mind. I mean, who have we really had since Donna Summer?

I WANT TO HEAD UP THE GENRE OF DANCE MUSIC AND RECLAIM SOME SPACE AS A BLACK WOMAN. WHO HAVE WE REALLY HAD SINCE DONNA SUMMER?

ALUNA

Why do you think that space has been so lacking? 

If you’re a black woman going into music, the assumption is that you’re going to do hip-hop or RnB, and those will be the lanes that are going to be more open to you. If you’re exceptional you can head straight for pop, but the stakes are so high there. If you want a career in music and you’re a black girl, there are two or three lanes that you’d be out of your mind to want to get ahead in – dance music, indie guitar music and country music – unless you’re Lil Nas X.

Back when I was trying out all different types of music, I was in a guitar band and I asked my white male roommate to listen to the music and tell me what he thought. I just remember him being like ‘I just don’t think you’re very convincing’. I mean yeah, course, who would believe that a black girl is the front-woman of a guitar indie band when there’s no representation? That’s not to say that there’s not lots of young black girls out there who would love to do that or would love to go to a rave, but they want to feel invited and they don’t want to go by themselves. I’m the same – I want to feel like I can do a Disclosure-style show and not be the only black girl there. I think for me, it was something I had just accepted – I’ve been jumping onstage and doing features for years where I had accepted that I wasn’t the main event, but why not? I love it, I know how to make dance music and it’s in the core of my musical nature, so why don’t I just make a whole record of it?

Has this changed your approach to collaboration? Are you still working on features or with other producers? 

I’ve definitely given myself permission to boss everyone around on this record, even when I’m working with someone who is known for giving you a ready-made track. I was all like “That’s great, but how about we take all the drums out”? I was driving everyone nuts, the shock-horror expressions in all the rooms I was in was very entertaining. 

On a song like ‘White Noise’ with Disclosure, I was very much the vocalist – I said “play me a bunch of songs and I’ll choose one to sing”, but on this record, I would say that I’ve only worked with one person and on one song where I didn’t touch the production. Most of the time we started from scratch – any attempt to try and present me with something that was already formed didn’t work, because I was so particular about what I was trying to do. I can sing on any good record, but that’s not what this was about. 

What does a good collaborator look like to you? How do you know when something is a good fit? 

It’s got to be someone who is able to be directed. The first time I got in the room with Flume, he was playing me a record and I just went in to my usual mode where I was like “cool, but can you get the session up, because I like the keys but I’m not sure on the drums”, and he was just like “hold on, sorry…are you telling me how to produce?” There was this real awkward pause before it transpired that he’d only worked with samples as opposed to live singers, and it all suddenly made sense. I’m not going to say that session went particularly well! We had to try a few times before we got something out of it.

Do you think vocalists and producer-vocalists are under-appreciated in this way?

For me, the voice on a dance track is another instrument, but it’s the lead one, so you need one to work around the other. I think with the dawn of bedroom producers – most of whom can’t sing themselves – they might be working for months and months and months without this main element… they forget its importance. It’s been really interesting working with old heads, and seeing how their ego is so much smaller than the young 17-year-old bedroom producer. I have worked with all kinds of people, and I like the variety, but with this record I was a bit stricter: if you can’t take direction, I haven’t got time. I think I’ll continue being more strict, if I’m honest. 

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Do you think motherhood has changed your perspective on artistry and the messages you want to express? 

A lot of the demos were written when I was pregnant, and I just had this desire to make everything as high energy and vibrant as possible. I had already decided on making a dance record, but pregnancy really gave me to motivation to go for it every time I went in the studio. I was touring and performing while eight months pregnant. Maybe I was just terrified of being a mother, and making this album was an excellent distraction! There’s a lot of optimism in the record, because I needed all of that positive energy around me in order to stay sane.

There’s a perception of the mother that is not in line with the successful businesswoman, or the high-energy, sexy, free popstar. At the beginning, that really had me down, but I thought to myself, this is an amazing opportunity, because I have yet another challenge to overcome with my music. Now I get to be a successful black woman, doing dance music, who is also a mother…. I told you I go for things that are scary! I’m loving challenging those perceptions, and I think we’re ready to reimagine what motherhood looks like in certain industries where it hasn’t traditionally mixed. 

Tell us more about ‘Body Pump’ – how did that come together?

Josh from Jungle worked on it with me, and we butted heads like a couple of goats. At this point I was seven months pregnant, I didn’t have a massive amount of time, and I was getting so stressed because we just weren’t getting anywhere. By 8pm we’d finally gone through all the instruments and were finally feeling like it’s something good, and he goes to me ‘I love the autosave on Logic’, just before his screen went black. You can tell where I’m going here… he turns the computer back on and the whole session is gone. He spent four hours trying to sort it out before I was like look, let’s just recreate it from scratch, exactly as it was. He was so relieved that I was insane enough to do that, and so we did – made the whole thing again from memory. We had some happy accidents that helped it get better – the weird way it transitions at the end into this wild other place. We really bonded on our dedication to getting the thing done.

NOW I GET TO BE A SUCCESSFUL BLACK WOMAN, DOING DANCE MUSIC, WHO IS ALSO A MOTHER. I TOLD YOU I GO FOR THINGS THAT ARE SCARY!

aluna

What does success look like to you?

I’m starting to see it like slices of a pie. Obviously there is the get rich section: I definitely love the idea and see it as a pretty strong motivator. Another slice is having a real infrastructure, having the team, the creative flow and the doors open to put on incredible live show experiences in incredible venues. And then there’s the other section that I’ve recently opened up to, which is having a personal life and having somebody to share it with. I sacrificed that for many years – it certainly got me to where I was and a certain point in my career – but I think true success is having it all, and having it look however it looks. It’s a messy pie, but it all works out! I maintain the philosophy of having fun with it at all times.

Do you know when the next phase will drop? 

Now that I’ve started releasing music, I won’t be taking a break from that. It’ll keep coming this summer. I’m excited! 

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