There is a kind of clarity about oneself that comes with empathy. Something about examining yourself in the way you respond to others, in the emotional exchange that is shared when you feel keenly what those around you are feeling, that provides clarity. Alice Phoebe Lou, as she discussed in an interview with The Daily, is an empath, something apparent in her music. The South African-born, Berlin-based free spirit smiled while ruminating on this, giving a nervous laugh that worked hard not to give away the seriousness of her words. Her catalogue of music reflects this balance; it is tempting to categorize her music as folk, save for its luminescent touches of interstellar space. Her music creates space in a way that is reminiscent of Jamie Drake, and her voice shines similarly to another blonde otherworldly being, Joni Mitchell. And yet, her music escapes the genres that would pin it down.
Glow, her new album, was a change in sound, in part due to it being recorded entirely on tape and because it’s full of love songs.
“Especially with this album, what I’m trying to do or communicate with the songs is being able … to try and help somebody get more in touch with their own emotions and their own feelings, which I feel is a gift,” Lou told The Daily. She described music as a catalyst for seeing within yourself, as everyone is at different stages of connecting with themselves. The new album is languid, not rushing the listener into or out of love, but allowing them to explore the feelings it inspires at that moment in time.
Intriguingly, she had a specific goal for her listeners with this new work — to make them feel. However, there is a careful balance between her musical needs and the listeners’ expectations.
“I used to focus too much on the listener,” she admitted. “As I was writing the songs, I was adjusting things, or censoring things or making things more palatable, based on like, wanting the listener to be happier with the final product, or … anticipating what somebody wants from you, rather than just giving what you want.”
That has changed. There is certainly a sense of newfound self-confidence on this record. In fact, this LP is a total change in sound from her previous two. Although the songs are mostly about another person — as love songs often are — they are entirely Alice. To be able to connect to your own truest self through your love for another is a special thing. And finding the right way to express it? Well, that’s the challenge.
In the past, Lou explained, “I was always looking to, like, one of the men in the room to kind of … take over and, and steer (the music).” Now, however, she has found an important reason to trust her own musical intuition. “It’s my story. It’s my thing,” she asserts. How can she truly write about what she feels, if she is not more vocal in how it is executed?
This aforementioned dip in confidence arose mainly from her lack of professional training musically. Lou began as a street performer, busking with her guitar (although she casually mentioned that she was first a fire dancer). Everything in her musical journey happened quickly without giving her the space to master her instrument. Even though there are times when she feels self-conscious about this, it also works to her advantage. This is especially so when hanging with her band, who are all trained musicians.
“We learn from each other and bring different things to the table, because the fact that I don’t have a musical education also helps me see a bit outside of the box of like, this is how a song is supposed to sound,” she told The Daily.
Her atypical way of looking at music is part of what creates her singular sound. “It becomes this kind of unique sound, and this unique thing, my band is able to kind of, you know, create the worlds in which we live, because of … the things that they’ve learned more technically from music,” she said. “So I feel like we learn so much from each other.”
This reciprocal education was vital to an element of her music that has always pulled me in: its playfulness. Even when her music covers serious topics, it always has a corner of a smile beneath. At its most joyful, it feels like a laugh that simply can’t be repressed — something too good to be true, so much so that it evokes a physical response.
“I started becoming very serious about everything, and everything had to be like, a serious thing,” she admitted, in the midst of praising her band for saving her from this mindset. They reminded her that the goal is to enjoy, and that mistakes can be laughed over.
This sort of easy happiness has underlined her music before, most notably the play on orgasm noises in her breakout song, “Something Holy.” Now on her new album, love takes on a more quiet seriousness, and a notable queerness. “Dusk,” the lead single from Glow, croons to a loved one, using female pronouns to refer to the individual. Lou wishes to leave this song up to interpretation, keeping the kind of love being sung about ambiguous. She likes to keep her songs and herself undefined.
“I don’t like to make the meanings too obvious or didactic,” she ventured. “Because then it kind of breaks the magic of like, your own agency of interpretation.”
Lou makes her music for herself, to express her experiences. But once it is out in the world, there is a beauty in it that it gives everyone something different. It is not her song, she emphasized, but hers and all listeners. This is the importance of art in our everyday lives — the meaning we get from it.
“I feel like sometimes I just have this desire for my music and my songs to be like a friend that can relate to those parts of yourself,” Lou mulled over in our discussion of self confidence.
“If maybe you live in a family or a community or an environment that doesn’t serve you in that way and doesn’t actually allow you to … take away the shame.”
Alice Phoebe Lou’s Glow is out March 19.
Daily Arts Writer Rosa Sofia Kaminski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.