Up Next with Alice Phoebe Lou

The South African-born, Berlin-based artist looks back at the emotional transformation that prompted her new album, ‘Shelter’, for Re-Edition’s music column

Looking for the soundtrack for your next adventure? Be wary of the algorithm and let yourself be guided by the entrancing vibrations of Up Next – Re-Edition’s long-awaited music column – where arts and culture writer Gilda Bruno sits down with some of the most inspiring names on the up-and-coming and established music scene to delve into the inspirations, sounds and dreams of a new avant-garde of musical talents.

Today Bruno speaks with busker-turned-independent musician Alice Phoebe Lou to dive into the personal and professional journey that led her where she is today, gather her advice for fellow self-taught music artists, and bring readers a sense of the riveting, uplifting exploration of life that is Shelter, her fifth studio album. 

Few contemporary artists do soul and folk like Cape Town-born trailblazing talent Alice Phoebe Lou. Having discovered her musical gift spontaneously while playing on the streets of Amsterdam and Berlin – the second home that welcomed her right after graduating from high school and where she is based to this day – the self-trained singer-songwriter cut her artistic teeth bringing the mellow, atmospheric, yet equally resonating sound of her voice and her striking guitar anywhere from the German capital’s stations and parks to the country’s national television. 

Patiently working her way up by dint of self-released projects, like her Momentum (2014) EP and Live at Grüner Salon (2014) album; and by becoming a regular at prestigious music and culture showcase SXSW, where she played every year between 2015 and 2019, Lou waited for the right moment to formally hit the international music scene, constantly honing her instinctual craft as she planned her next move. That moment came in April 2016, which saw the launch of her debut album, Orbit (2016): a project that instantly earned her a reputation within the German creative community along with award nominations, live interviews and performances.

From there onwards, things moved even more rapidly. Whether touring Europe, South Africa and the US or being shortlisted for an Oscar in the Best Original Song category for her track She (2018), only a couple of years after her early stints at music, everything in the South African artist’s creative journey boded well, hinting at an even more promising future. Since then, Lou has released three more studio albums, including Paper Castles (2019), Glow and Child’s Play – both of which came out in 2021; started a side project with her close friend and fellow musician Ziv Yamin, named Strongboi; and toured with British singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg. 

As Shelter, her newest album, is out today, we speak to her about her rollercoaster-like ride into music-making, the value, creativity and spontaneity that lie in being self-taught, and how finding herself without a roof allowed her to finally come “home” again, just this time, within herself.

Photography by Lexi Hide. Courtesy of Alice Phoebe Lou
Photography by Lexi Hide. Courtesy of Alice Phoebe Lou

Re-Edition Magazine: When exactly, and how, did music come into the frame for you, and what led you to it? 

Alice Phoebe Lou: Music has always been a big part of my life: my parents had a huge record collection, my mother used to play the piano to me before bed, and I went to dance school for many years. But I never thought I would become a musician as I didn’t have any formal musical education and thought that my life would go in a different direction. I fell in love with playing music through busking on the streets, writing songs along the way and learning covers from the 1960s and 70s. While I feel infinitely lucky and grateful for the evolution of my career in the last few years, I still love to play in parks and on the street whenever I can. 

RE: Think of the way your music has evolved since you first started playing around with it, and even more so since the release of your first album, Orbit (2016). What drives your musical experimentation today and what is the vision behind it? What made this change possible?

APL: I love to play around with different styles, genres and instrumentation, never limiting myself or sticking to a specific idea of how to bring a song to life. The songs themselves evolve naturally as I grow older and change and the world around me does the same: I love to sing about what I am going through, asking the listener to feel, be introspective and celebrate all that those tracks represent for me. I don’t play many of my older tracks in my concerts because I think it is important for my development to be able to move onto what is current to me – what feels like an authentic expression of myself as I am right now. That’s what helps me to keep searching for my next sound. My next idea. My next means of expression.

RE: What was it like to properly step into the music industry given your busking background? 

APL: It has been quite a gradual and steady evolution into the music industry and I am very glad that I have taken small bites at a time, not feeling the need to jump right in, and always being wary of the compromises that come from entangling my art too much with the business side of the industry. I guess I was initially surprised by how macho and dominating the industry can be sometimes, which maybe I was naïve to be surprised by. I have been incredibly fortunate to find passionate people to work with who can help me bring my songs to the world. I also feel happy with my decision to remain an independent artist and create a business structure that fits with my alternative music and lifestyle, away from the pressure that often comes with a label. 

RE: You are an entirely self-taught music artist. What would you tell fellow self-trained artists striving to emerge within this field?

APL: Today I feel at peace with my lack of musical training as it has allowed me to make music from an intuitive place, without feeling the restrictions set by formal training: personally, I don’t ever feel the need to have my songs fit into a typical song structure and I love using improvisation and stream of consciousness as writing tools. As for my fellow self-trained rising artists, I would say that every musician has something to offer and that it can come from many different places and musical backgrounds – that’s what makes things interesting and special. Having said that, I find working with incredibly talented, well-educated musicians awesome: I love to combine my self-taught approach to songwriting with the instrumental support provided by well-trained musicians.

Photography by Lexi Hide. Courtesy of Alice Phoebe Lou
Photography by Lexi Hide. Courtesy of Alice Phoebe Lou

RE: Your forthcoming album, Shelter (2023), is launching on July 7. Where did the inspiration for this fifth album of yours stem from? 

APL: The spark for Shelter came from when I had to leave my apartment a year ago and found myself without a home, a base or a place to be in while touring. It forced me to search for that comfort, that safe space, within myself and imagine what “home” would look like to me in the future – what I wanted for the next phase of my life. In going inward, I took the chance to have some conversations with my younger self, reflect on how much I had already learned and grown, and try to make sense of who I was and where I was going. At its core, this album is a celebration of self-love. A way for me to understand what led me to where I find myself now. 

RE: Shelter (2023) comes in the wake of your widely acclaimed 2021 studio albums Child’s Play and Glow. What parallels can be traced between these three projects of yours? To what do we owe the positive energy channelled through Shelter’s nine tracks?

APL: Along with the previous two albums, this project has been a journey of discovery into recording on tape and falling in love with the process of analog recording, old mics and the sounds of the 1970s; something that has had a profound influence on the style of production and overall feel of my music. While all three records have common threads weaving between them in the subject matter, mood and overall tone, this last one is definitely more of a celebration, both lyrically and musically. This is largely owed to where I am in life right now and my urge to use music as a way of releasing, letting go, spreading joy, and falling in love. 

RE: In recent years, more and more music artists have lent their talent to other creative realms. Whether music, fashion, cinema or art-related, what would be your dream collaboration?

APL: I would like to work more with film scoring and writing music for moving images – I have always found it an interesting and exciting way to write, and now that I have a studio where we can record so sweetly, I would definitely love to experiment with that! 

RE: What are your New Year’s resolutions for 2023? What can we expect from you in the future?

APL: At the start of the year, I promised myself I would smoke less weed, add more healthy routines into my lifestyle and stay strong while touring. So far, it is going pretty well. As for the future, I have no idea what to expect from myself, so we will both be surprised by what I will be up to next – I’m ready for anything.

Alice Phoebe Lou’s fifth studio album, Shelter, is out now

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