Alice Russell – Interview 2015

Since the early noughties Alice Russell has been at the forefront of the raw funk and electro-soul scenes, collaborating with the likes of Quantic, ™ Duke, David Byrne, Nostalgia 77 and Mr Scruff, and signed for most of the time to Brighton's long standing Tru Thoughts label. But with a very young daughter, Agnes, now a huge part of her life, we were wondering what Alice Russell would do now, in terms of her musical career? Whether or not she had the passion to belt out those songs that have enraptured fans around the globe. After all, for some people, nothing else really matters, and most everything seems a little superfluous, silly even, as they engage in the life long process of nurturing. But, apart from the fact that, for the vast majority of us, livings have to be made, and work we must, it's obvious that Alice still has the desire to continue developing as a singer and musician, despite being, as she puts it, 'milk-brained'…

"Half decaf, half caf," she asks for at Nowhere Man, a bohemian and music loving cafe on Upper North Street. "If you're not breast-feeding, it should be against your religion to do de-caf!" she laughs. "I'm back on the wine, too. Everything in moderation, though!

"Just to have some free time a couple times of week is good. By night time my brain isn't working. But I'm still doing gigs and I'm gonna start writing and recording soon. She's only eight months old, I just don't want to leave her. She comes to gigs with me, so that is alright. The worst was in New York when I fed her at 7.45pm and was on stage at 8.30pm. Literally woke up, got dressed, got the cab, straight on stage. It buggered my voice a bit, no warming up or down…"

Before Agnes came along Alice was all hustle and bustle, alternating making records with touring, and the occasional guest spot on other people's records. Things have changed, and she's still adapting to the situation, but plans continue to be hatched. "I've just been making decisions today; I've got loads of gig offers, and I'm thinking, 'you know what, I'm just going to chill out a bit and wait till we have a new record done. I'm looking at the gig offers and thinking unless it's bringing in a nice amount of cash, or it's something I really want to do, I'd rather wait. I'd rather put more of my energies into creating." She hasn't exactly been sitting still; just last October, she released a one-off track, a cover of Connan Mockasin's I'm The Man, That Will Find You, and which features a startling video. "He's got my sort of hair (blond, and down below the neck), and I am in love with his sound," she says. "Me and Steve (Glashier, who has directed many of the videos that Alice has made) wondered how are we going to do this? We ended up finding this 70s film of people rolling around naked!" The footage she refers to is from the cult 1970 counterculture film Zabriskie Point. "That song is how I would like the next album to go, with loads of harmonies. I love that electro-soul sound too, James Blake's album is one of my recent favourites."

Her plans for 2015 include working with Quantic on a new album, working with ™ Duke on a new album, and also revisiting her last album, To Dust. "I want to do an acoustic version of To Dust, with different arrangements, and I'd like to gig that. Maybe horns, violins, I just need to work it out. We did that at the Union Chapel." Alice's adaptability means that on special occasions and when the budget allows for it, she will perform with a really big band, up to 16 people, who include such Brighton musical alumni as Ben Jones (12 Stone Toddler/Mynie Moe) and Mike Simmonds (Mountain Firework Company) as well as Bonobo's drummer Jack Baker; their performance on the West Holts stage at Glastonbury in 2013 is a career highlight. But also, she can very effectively strip it back right down to a duo – just her and ™ Duke, when the occasion arises.

"I did Love Supreme, which was in July. She was born in May, and was late. My partner came to that, and it was just down the road… That was fine. Great in fact, I thought the festival was really chilled. We also did WOMAD, which is really kid friendly, got backstage with Robert Plant and his mates… We did Ronnie Scott's as well – there's a hotel literally the next street down. Expensive, but worth it. I did two shows a night; I don't know careerwhy, running in-between the shows and breast feeding… quite exhausting. If you don't do it it's harder to get back into it."

Alice's voice is her calling card, a hugely powerful, controlled, mesmerising and soulful voice, that defies belief when you see her in the flesh. Hint: she's not a big girl… How did you get into music and singing? "I was always into it from an early age; my Dad was a choirmaster, and I learnt the cello. I used to go to sleep listening to him playing Bach, I would be listening to that while playing with my lego. It wasn't until I got a radio and started listening to the top 40 – Cameo, stuff like that – that I got into other kinds of music.

"We sang in the church choir, and that's where you learn harmonies straight away. I'm thankful for that. And whenever I was lagging in my cello practice my Dad would take me to see something live, and that would reignite that passion. I was really lucky.

"I was singing gospel stuff; Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, and singing at the top of my voice… And in Fram (Framlingham, the village in Suffolk where she is from), believe or not, there are quite a few bands. Transformer's Johnny Giles was there." (Transformer being the brighton-based and highly regarded live dance band, with a new album due soon) "I was in a band with him called Love Like Semtex (mockingly clears throat…)… and they found out I could sing and I started to do a few songs with them at parties. Then, I used to get absolutely paralytic before I could perform. I didn't have much confidence then."

Do you still play the cello? "It's there, but I need to get it out! Intonation is the main thing with cello playng, so if you don't practice… it's an emotional instrument, similar to the voice. It's waiting there to be loved again, it's looking a bit sad…

Framlingham sounds like a lovely market town, and is on closer inspection, a surprising hotbed of musical talent; the one and only Ed Sheeran was raised there… But, I doubt if serious musical careers can be forged whilst living there. And so, in time honoured fashion, Alice upped sticks to seek out the richer cultural and artistic vibes of Brighton in the mid-1990s, ostensibly to go to art college… "I moved to Brighton when I was 18 and met the Tru Thoughts guys (Rob-Luis and Paul Jonas) before they even started the label, going to Heavy Vibez (one of the club nights Tru Thoughts founder Rob-Luis used to run in Brighton), and then worked with Kushti and it went from there. It was through Tru Thoughts that I met Will (Holland, aka Quantic)"

In 2003, Will Holland, who was based in Brighton at the time, had formed the live band Quantic Soul Orchestra, the brilliant 11-piece vintage funk outfit, and he asked Alice to sing some vocals. Their debut album Stampede came out in 2003, featuring Alice on songs such as Hold It Down, and who earned some writing credits in the process. "When QSO took off that really got my life ting going," says Alice. "It was big for Will too because before that he was doing instrumental stuff, nothing live. So for both of us it was a nice little time. We've toured quite a lot since then; we've got a bit of a brother-sister relationship, so we always see each other when we can." As well as singing on various Quantic albums over the years, Alice and Will got together in 2012 to make Look Around The Corner. Billed as Quantic & Alice Russell, and recorded in Cali, Columbia, where Will was living at the time, It was an album that mixed brassy funk and soul grooves with Latin jazz and cumbia, and which was also released on Brighton's Tru Thoughts, the long-term home for both Quantic and Alice. It's something they are looking to repeat this year, once diaries are aligned. "We've been emailing each other, trying to organise a week together in a cottage somewhere where we can write together. At the same time me and ™ Duke (Al Cowan) are starting our new record in February. Al's still ginger, he's doing lot of projects. he's got three kids, a busy boy…

"Me and Will do more home grown type stuff, just me and a guitar. He's living in New York, he's left Columbia now. Its closer!! We're talking about doing a more psychedelic one, but kinda similar to the last one. The last email exchange we had said, 'let's get some ideas together, and send them to each other'. That's how we start, and then we get together to see where we are both at. He's a good old boy… keeps going… He's a real workaholic. He's only 12!" laughs Alice.

In 2013 Alice released her best solo album yet, To Dust, and the one that established her as a bona fide recording artist in her own right. it was her third studio album proper, each one being done in collaboration with Al Cowan, aka ™ Duke, who co-writes, produces and plays guitar. To Dust included the single Heartbreaker, the video for which featured one Harry Shearer, best known as the co-writer and co-creator of This Is Spinal Tap, also playing the role of bassist and pipe smoking Derek Smalls in the film. He's also the voice of Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Kent Brockman and Principal Skinner in The Simpsons. Shearer also has a regular radio show in America. "He's a mad music fan," says Alice. "He sought me out, via Will actually, at Cargo, in 2005, I think. And he got in touch again and we've been friends since. I've sung for him – they do this christmas thing every year – which is quite a laugh. Me and Steve were thinking about the video and he said, 'let's ask him, get someone in who is recognisable'. And he was up for it! Because he said 'yes', we got loads of favours off others, like the cameraman, who wanted to have the chance of working with him. So we ended up with a nice quality film. Heartbreaker has a good narrative, it's good to watch."

Because her voice is truly a force of nature, Alice has been asked countless times to collaborate over the years, most notably with David Byrne, former frontman of Talking Heads. He himself was collaborating with Fatboy Slim aka Norman Cook for a conceptual album based on the life of the notorious Imelda Marcos, her of the infamous shoe collection that apparently exceeded 3000 pairs… She sang on Men Will Do Anything. "That was amazing," says Alice. "I'd never met him before, and we were both touring at the time and we ended up going to a friend's place, who had a studio in his house. He's such a lovely man, and he is really out there, constantly thinking… He lives in Bleecker Street, and he came down to one of my gigs in New York. I'd love to write something with him, but I'd have to look like St. Vincent and learn the guitar!" Maybe you should get that cello out? "Yeah, maybe… or maybe the Celtic harp! I'm trying to learn that at the moment."

Earlier in her career she hooked up with with nu-jazz man Nostalgia 77 to do an unlikely cover of White Stripes' Seven Nation Army, a version that has been consistently rinsed in the clubs of Planet Earth ever since. "Prince Fatty, (another Brightonian), recently did a remix of that, so it's come back to life. I see him on his little bike in the middle of the night. He's works throughout the night, then takes his kids to school, and then crashes out! Amazing!

Conversely, she rejected the advances of David Guetta, one of the highest paid DJs in the world. "I was due with Agnes so luckily I had an excuse… If I was writing it I would have been up for it, you could have made something quite cool with it, like the Sia track – 'Titanium' – that she did with him. But when someone sends you a track that is morally repugnant… I can't just do something for the money… How can you say something with any meaning or truth? I just can't do it. Some people said, 'go on, do it'. I know I could have maybe earned 100k from that… I'm sure he's a real nice guy, but I can't take that pulpy rubbish! It's nasty. I am getting old, but you want things to be nurturing…"

Her first shows of 2015 will be a brace at London's Jazz Cafe, followed by a home town date at Concorde 2, and then it's off to Istanbul and Tunisia. "We're going for four days," she says about the forthcoming trip to Istanbul. "I'm doing a Red Bull lecture." A lecture? "No, it's really a Q&A thing. Can you imagine me doing a speech, that wouldn't be a good idea! I love Istanbul. And then we're off to Tunisia. Random gigs this year. We're working out a few good festivals too."

The Concorde 2 gig is in aid of Gig Buddies, a locally born project set up by Paul Richards that pairs up people with and without learning difficulties in Sussex to be friends and to go to events together. "Years ago I used to work for South Downs Housing, with adults with mental issues. Paul used to work as my manager, and he started it. A real start-up charity. Obviously, there's loads of cuts going on, and a lot of carers only get paid till, say 10 o'clock, and then you have to go back home. Quite a lot of those people don't really want to be doing that, so it's enabling them to stay out late, see the music they want to see. And Gig Buddies is about matching up people with genres of music people like… They got some tickets to go to Glastonbury and WOMAD last year. It's all about awareness."

Jeff Hemmings