"I thought I was going to be a professional cellist."
When I asked Alison Wonderland to describe her album in three words, she responded with, “Keep It Real."
These three words apply not only to her album, but also her sound and her overall aesthetic. Even her appearance matched this philosophy with a very casual and athletic, yet stylish, ensemble including an Adidas t-shirt, color splattered windbreaker, and a pair of all white boots that looked straight out of That 70’s Show.
Throughout our conversation, Alison further demonstrated this innate philosophy. As she spoke, she frequently traced figure eights on her knee with an e-cigarette, which seemed to convey an anxious energy. Not anxious in the sense of nervousness, but rather an eagerness. Even though her debut album Run is finished, she was already chomping at the bit to take on her next project.
"tell me everything fucked up that’s going on with your life"
So the last EP, you had a lot of tracks with Djemba and Lido. What was it like working with them? Was it like that long distance collaboration thing or -
No, we were together. I think its really important when you’re making a track with someone, like, you can’t say you’ve made a track with someone unless you’re in like - for me anyway I need to be in a room with someone - because you need to bounce off each other’s energy, and if you don’t feel the same way about something you can feel that in a room rather than on the internet. It’s like very disjointed and I don’t think it’s as effective. I mean the songs that I made with those guys were from honest places, and being in the same room with them it was way more of a collaboration.
I’ve always wondered how that long distance formula works. It seems like you could easily end up in a situation where you’re just reverting the other person’s edits back and forth.
I think some people work better like that, but personally for me I think the best songs written are the ones that are skeletally done in a day. You know you have that idea, and it’s done ‘cause that’s how you’re feeling that day. The next day you can go back and kind of feel like that, but you’ll never feel the same way that you did any other day for the rest of your life, even if it’s slightly the same. I really, really believe that.
So yeah, I think it’s really important to be with the people there. And like, when I don’t know someone that well, and I’m in the studio with them, the first thing I say is, “tell me everything fucked up that’s going on with your life”. We have like a secrecy circle here, and we just get real honest with each other and then the best music comes out when you know someone, ‘cause you don’t have any inhibitions anymore. So I think it’s super important to be in the studio.
For sure. ill.Gates has a rule he mentions in his production manifesto called the 20-hour rule, which states that you should never spend more than 20 hours on a song. Do you have any similar rules that you adhere to?
I mean yeah, my rule is that the best songs that I’ve made with or without people have been the ones that have basically been done in a day, and then you can come back and tweak it. You always should. But in terms of the main idea and the vibe it should all be laid down when you’re feeling it. And actually the only reason I’m so conscious of that, is because I love The Beatles, and Paul McCartney once said, “the best songs are the ones written in a day”. Something like that. I don’t actually know the direct quote, but it was something along those lines, and it’s stuck with me.
"I party hard, but I’m not the most socially cool person"
So I know you like working with Team Supreme a lot. Are there any label/collectives in Australia that you’re into?
Look, Team Supreme for me have a really special thing going on, because they’re very in their own little crew. They really support each other, they only basically tour with each other, and they’re actually friends off that. I mean, you’ve got like Wave Racer, Cosmo’s Midnight, Basenji, little crews, and like the Future Classic guys. I mean, I guess so, I don’t really know anything like Team Supreme, ‘cause Team Supreme also do a lot of production with people. It’s like a brand, I don’t really know a strong collective that’s off the top of my head that’s like that. But yeah, what they’re doing is incredible. I’m a big fan of all their work.
Do you have any network over in Australia where you share with people in that same way?
I mean, I do, like I’m really close with Wave Racer. We usually share a lot of music and stuff like that. But to be honest when I started doing all this stuff, there were some really clique-y scenes in Sydney, ‘cause it’s such a small city, and I was kind of doing my own thing, and I’ve never really had a group I’ve been a part of. Like it’s literally been me, my manager, and my agent from the beginning because they’ve all been my friends.They’re the people I do stuff with. They’re like my best friends, so it’s kind of cool that this has happened [laughs]. I’ve always kind of just stuck to myself like I party hard, but I’m not the most socially cool person [laughs]. I just know what I love, and I’ve always stuck to that.
So over here future bass is starting to get big and-
Yeah, future beats, future R&B, all that.
"I’m a fan of pop songs, I’m not ever going to hate on that."
Yeah, and when I think of the Australian music scene I think of a lot of the people you just mentioned like Wave Racer, Cosmo’s Midnight, Slumberjack-
Yeah! Actually they’re two of my closest friends in the industry. I think even without music, I’d still be friends with them. They’re amazing people, I love them, and I would do anything for them. I’ve put them on this album with me, and when we work together in a studio it’s so equal and like, I’m on the computer, they’re on the computer, and you don’t get that with many people. And I really respect what they’re doing, and they’re the most down to earth people. Them and Wave Racer are like the people I hang out with the most in that scene. Cosmo’s Midnight and Basenji are doing some great things as well. But yeah, I love those guys. I love them. They’re the best.
For sure. Do you ever feel like there’s a dichotomy in EDM in Australia, and that this sound is sort of a rising force to battle the more mainstream styles? I actually used to work for The Stafford Brothers, Will Sparks, and Timmy Trumpet...
[Makes disappointed facial gesture]
That’s a very separate scene from what I’m in. They don’t know what we do, and we don’t know what they do. When I say we, I mean the scene that I’m in. Yeah, I can’t comment on them.
But do you think that the future music sound is a sort of an answer to that style? Like a unique response to artists who all sound extremely similar?
I don’t. I think they’re two completely separate worlds. Like there’s no way I see them like this [makes a hand gesture indicating two lines crossing]. I see them as very linear next to each other doing their own thing. There’s no way I’ve ever made a connection with that world, and the guys that I’ve named before are doing.
Saying that, I don’t even think what I’m doing is typically like what Wave Racer is doing. I’m writing more songs, I’m experimenting with more sounds, I’m using my own vocals, which is crazy because I don’t consider myself a singer, but I write songs.
Just at the beginning no one would sing on my stuff, so I learned how to write around my voice. That’s it. I’m a fan of pop songs, I’m not ever going to hate on that. I think that’s where a lot of people are going now. Ryan Hemsworth released a song recently that was a pop song. Cosmo’s had a pop song format for their last one “Snare”. You know, I think the big leaders of electronic music in that world are about to come out with songs.
I never wrote music to sound like a certain person. For me it was more like cheap therapy at the beginning, and I just loved doing it for myself, and I loved creating sounds. Before I was doing any collaborations I was in my room on my computer ’til like 5am, in the dark, making music, you know? Under a different name, but you know that was going on for quite a few years...
"Is that weird?"
- Definitely not.
So what did you start making music with? Like what kind of software-
Um, on Ableton. That’s what I started on. I never took any lessons. I just literally sat on the computer and made a noise and fucked around with the preset treatments that you can do on it. And I just learned how to do it that way and just used my ears, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I know a lot of people who aren’t trained on Ableton and just used their ears, and the stuff I’ve heard from them is always a little different. It should be how you feel it, not what science says- you’ll know what sounds right. Your ears will know that.
Right. There’s never an exact formula to it. Everyone is always looking for that magic plug-in that you can just throw on everything-
No way! Your ears are the best plug-in. Hundred-percent. Here’s the key to being like a musician or a songwriter or a producer - use your ears. And just really homing in inside your head, and for a little while burying yourself deep in there, and coming out of that, and there’s something. I genuinely think your ears is what it is. It’s not a textbook. I stand by that. I think a snare doesn’t have to be a certain level in frequency or dB. You don’t have to EQ a snare a certain way. You can like layer a clap [claps hands together] under it, and then put vinyl distortion on something else underneath that. And there’s a weird snare. And it doesn’t have to be too loud or too soft. It’s however you feel it, and that’s what makes a song anyway. That’s what people should do anyways, just listen to their intuition.
Like a natural feedback system where you just listen and then tweak something accordingly and keep moving-
Yeah! That’s how you learn as well. I definitely have go-to things that I do now, because I’ve spent - you know when it’s not necessarily the correct way. I remember doing something in the studio with Lido, and he was like, “Really is that how you do it? That’s so ghetto”.
He does create hi-hats by making the noise with his mouth so I’m not sure he can really say anything-
He’s amazing! I had obviously not learned the shortcut for a certain thing, and was doing it manually [laughs]. That’s been the good thing working with other producers is you sit in a room, and I watch what they do. You’re always learning.
I was really skeptical about working with another producer because I was like, “oh, that’s going to take away my credibility”, but if you find the right people it actually pushes you, because personally, I just want to do my best in front of someone. Also, you feed off that person and it gives your mind space to think about say a top line or a lyric that means something to you. So I’m all for it.
"people like Schoenberg and Stockhausen are amazing, because they thought outside the square."
"Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg Photo: INTERFOTO/ALAMY" via Telagraph: http://bit.ly/1F5U2mp
You mentioned you have some go-to things when you’re producing, what are some of those?
I don’t know, I really like over-saturating my drums. Is that weird? Like putting them in the red and all that kind of stuff.
Cool. Also when I’m using a synth I like to put like weird resonators over them. With vocals I’ll usually- actually when I’m doing shouting vocals that’s the coolest thing that I like to do. ‘Cause I’ll take like six takes, and people are like, “Oh no, you should only just put three” or whatever. But then I’ll effect them all slightly differently, and I’ll like whisper some of them and I’ll scream some of them, and then I might detune one a little bit, put overdrive on another one, and then space echo on another one. The best thing that someone ever told me is to always kind of alter those presets to make it something unique. So yeah, just have fun playing around, because you can slightly move a certain sound, and it’ll effect all the other sounds. It’s cool! I don’t know, it’s a cool science, but it should also be quite a human thing. Because electronic music should still have emotion, even though it’s a computer.
So I know you were a cellist before, right?
Do you feel like having a traditional music theory background helps with songwriting and things of that nature?
I took piano lessons when I was young and when I work with some of my friends they’ll have a beat and ask, “Why does this sound off”. And 90% of the time it’s because it doesn’t stay within a key signature.
Yeah, but again that’s not classical training. Again, that’s just your ears. Some people have it and some people don’t. I know a lot of producers that hear chords beautifully, and then I hear people and I’m like, “how the fuck do you think that’s in the same key as that? Like, can’t you hear that’s not in tune?” But yeah, I thought I was going to be a professional cellist. That’s how far it got. I was in Germany doing this. I think with classical music you have theory THROWN at you, and you would know this. Like rules! Theory! Rules!
That’s why people like Schoenberg and Stockhausen are amazing, because they thought outside the square. They did crazy stuff. But I think to be able to make music from an intuitive point is the best thing. I think definitely subconsciously having that helps me hear melodies better, but I don’t know. I don’t want to say that because I really do know a lot of producers who aren’t classically trained where I hear shit that they come out with, and I’m like, “Damn! Where did that come from? That’s amazing!” You know?
I think art is a really cool thing because it is like slightly primal. But you know, in terms of writing a string quartet and understanding that helps or whatever. It’s more like I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music. I understand jazz, I understand classical, I understand hip-hop. I understand all of that, because I analyzed it all and was educated in it all, and I was educated in how music developed from all times. And that helped a bit.
Do you have any artists that you’d really love to collaborate with?
Um…not a producer. I’m honestly working with the people I love already. So I’m really lucky in that sense.
"the vocals I did for this record were recorded on my iPhone voice memo"
I mean, fuck…The Knife? LCD Soundsystem. When Justice started.
Not the second Justice album?
I mean, the first album was so groundbreaking obviously for electronic music, because they took sounds and put them through old guitar amps, and see- they used their ears! A lot of hip-hop guys I’d love to meet too. Like I’d love to meet Outkast. What’s their production thing called again? It’s like three of them…
I’m not sure. [Edit: It’s Organized Noize]
Well, they’re really good. I don’t know, I’d like more to just meet artists. I like observing people and yeah…But definitely The Knife and James Murphy. The Knife is the reason I started producing, and James Murphy is the reason I decided I should try singing on my own music.
Recently a lot of people have been moving away from just a basic DJ set and towards a more performance-based live show. Do you ever see yourself doing something like that?
Sure! I don’t want to think too far ahead. I don’t know how this album is going to go. I’m really kind of nervous. I’ve put a lot into this emotionally. It fucked me up like a little bit whilst I was making it [laughs], but yeah, I think since people are making songs more, yeah.
I tried to treat decks like an instrument when I first started. I was carrying a suitcase around to gigs, and now it's like a USB [laughs]. It’s really weird. I don’t know, I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I would like to obviously incorporate instruments seeing as that’s my background.
I don’t know how yet, and I don’t know when or where, but I just feel like things for me have happened organically in a weird way, so it’ll probably - that’s what I’m kind of hoping will happen too… If you want the honest answer [laughs].
Who are your greatest inspirations aside from LCD Soundsystem and The Knife?
I learned about song writing from listening to The Beatles when I was a little girl... The whole verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus outro thing.. But I mean, I listen to so many different types of music. I like artists who push things. Who aren't afraid to get ugly with it. In terms of classical.. I love Schoenberg, Stockhausen and Bach. They were innovators. But I also remember becoming obsessed with The Beastie Boys when I first heard the song "Car Thief" (from Pauls Boutique) when I was an 8-year-old. In terms of DJing... I will never forget the day I first heard the Elton Mixes from DJ AM. It taught me that it was ok to think outside the square. I love how he mixed so many different genres together but there was still consistency and it still took you on a journey..
What are some musical trends happening now that you’re into? Are there any that you’d like to see happen in the future?
I like the DIY type of sounds that are coming back. I think the less perfect the recording, the more vibe it has. The more it speaks to me anyways. I mean, most of the vocals I did for this record were recorded on my iPhone voice memo.. [laughs]. I think more dance artists are starting to make pop songs again. And I don't mean pop in a bad way. I think it's cool.
Do you think physical ownership like owning CD’s, tapes, vinyl is missing from modern music? And is this an experience that you think is important to you for your own music?
Not at all! I think more and more people are starting to buy vinyl again! There is a resurgence! These days, if I really love an album.. I will buy the vinyl. Think about it.. Your parents still probably have all their vinyls whilst we threw away our CDs. I'm generalizing here.. But vinyls... They're like an artwork. They have a different feel to them.
How would you describe your music in 3 words or less?
Keep it real. I was always told to "let your art speak for you." I truly believe that if what you create comes from an honest place, it will communicate with people better .. And when I look back at these songs I wrote ... I will know I 100% meant it. The same thing applies to performing though. If you don't have a hard on for what you're doing... Who else will?? I dunno. That's just my opinion... I might be wrong.