Released last November in Europe, Alice Russell’s latest effort To Dust saw a Stateside release back on April 30th. And although the album arrives four years after her previous effort, Pot of Gold, an album Russell describes as more of a live album, To Dust is not just an accomplished follow up that should win her listeners Stateside with her amazing, soulful voice; it’s an album that shows remarkable growth, as it was inspired (and somewhat delayed) by life.
Lyrically, the album manages to her most honest, most direct effort to date, capturing a modern a woman who’s complex and yet very real. In some way, we all know a woman like the woman described on To Dust — self-assured, determined, strong through hard-fought and occasionally embittering experiences. But through observation, humans are contradictory creatures. Indeed, those who are appear to be the strongest and most determined are most often the ones filled with crippling doubts, and want to let themselves be vulnerable in a manner that’s comfortable to them. On songs like album opener “A to Z,” “Heartbreaker,” “Heartbreaker Part 2,” and “Let Go (Breakdown),” the narrator of those songs bemoans her heartache, and fears that she may not be able to go on pretending that things are normal or that she could go on. And yet there’s also a sense that she’ll push on through a sheer sense of iron will or perhaps to spite their cold-hearted asshole of a former lover. ”I Love You (Interlude)” captures the blissful joy of new-found love, the sort of love that you stumble on after profoundly difficult experiences; the sort of love that seems to be invigorating down to the very soul. And it’s done with the joyousness that brings Chaka Khan to mind… .
I caught up with Russell via email, while she was on tour to support To Dust, and in this Q&A we talk a little bit about her new album, her diverse influences, and the hilarious video for lead singer “Heartbreaker” which has a special cameo by legendary comedian Harry Shearer. Check it out below.
WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that it was the only thing you wanted to do?
AR: Well I had music in my life from day one! My dad used to play Bach downstairs as us little ones went to sleep, and my mum used to sing to us. Baby sitters are expensive and my dad was the organist at the church, so we all ended up having to be in the church choir. And that was great training for singing and I just loved it. I don’t remember not singing, so for me there didn’t feel like one defining moment where I said to myself “this is what I what to do.” It just seemed to happen naturally. I met producers and got in a recording studio quite early on, and then got up with local bands and just got hooked on the emotional release of singing and making up songs. It is a kind of freedom from all the things in life that confuse you; same with drawing and painting, creating things from your imagination then making them into tangible things, and getting them out for other people to see what they think. It’s an addiction and also a love affair I have with music.
WRH: Who are your influences?
AR: Wow so many! From Donny Hathaway, David Axlerod, Prince, KRS ONE, Kate Bush, Tom Waits, Quincy Jones, Nina Simone …So many, and now people like Mount Kimbie, SBTCT , Fly LO and Frank Ocean, Odd Future I adore! And for lyrics the last lady to inspire [me] was the late Amy Winehouse. The lyrics to “Love is a Losing Game” is and was a game changer [for me]. I feel also Frank Ocean is there with that! So observant and so eloquent!
WRH: Who are you listening to now?
AR: At the moment, I have been really enjoying James Blake’s [new] album Overgrown. “Retrograde” is a stunning song! That and Atoms For Peace’s [Amok].
WRH: To Dust, your newest effort, will be seeing an April 30th release here in the States. How does this album differ from your previous work?
AR: Well I feel TM Juke and I (he is my musical parner in crime), we sat down and wanted to go back to the album before Pot of Gold (Pot of Gold for me was more of a live sessions album)[and] this new album is a proper album. And we spent a long time on it. Also I think this wasn’t necessarily intentional, but life got in the way and thus, we had a lot of space between studio sessions. So this led to a lot of re-doing the songs in different ways, more playing in the studio. From foot stomps for drums to recording parts then mashing them up so they sounded like samples, we both wanted to push it and have a fresh sound with this album keeping the songs gospel soul raw, but with the production side pushing it up. I did not want to do a retro sounding record and also want to push it more for the next album.
WRH: The new album is an album that seems to be meant to be listened to as an organic whole. Each song leads into other thematically and sonically. Was this intentional?
AR: Yes! Ooo, the pains to make sure the running order is right, just right! It took a few goes! I think this is really important in this ever speeding up world we live in with shuffle that takes us from a few seconds of one song to another, to sit and feel you can put an album on start to finish and it flows and tells a story is mucho important for me.
WRH: Stateside journalists, critics and bloggers who would be largely unfamiliar with your work may compare you and your sound to contemporary artists such as Joss Stone, Amy Winehouse, Adele, and others. That’s not a difficult thing — they’re all incredible vocalists. Have you ever felt as though there was pressure to intentionally do something to set yourself apart from your contemporaries?
AR: I think it is a natural thing for journalists to do, and I do see that it helps with exposure as people that like those artists will see the name then my name referenced and maybe check me out just on that comparison. But for me I do my thing my way, and it is very flattering when I am compared to others that are ace singers and songwriters. So hey it doesn’t bother me. It’s all good!
WRH: The legendary comedian Harry Shearer makes an appearance cross dressing in the hilarious video for “Heartbreaker.” For a man, he’s quite comfortable walking around in a pair of heels — although as a woman he’s a bit tough on the eyes! And in some way, it shows that you’re willing to poke some fun at yourself. How did he get involved in the video?
AR: Ah, Harry! Well, Harry is a big music lover and came to some of my shows back in London a few years back. Since then we have become friends. We were working with a director friend of ours Steve Glashier, brainstorming idears for the vid. And I definitely didn’t want a narritive video of heartbreak – I wanted something differnt. Then Steve came up with this idea and I asked Harry. Thankfully he was game so then we just found a day that worked for everyone. [We] found a hotel room and got to work! He has much better legs then me!!
WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? And what advice would you specifically give to female artists, who traditionally have a tougher time in the music industry?
AR: I would say (and it may sound cheesy but …) stay true to yourself, and take your time making choices. Never let people push you around – earlier in my journey with music, I used to work with someone who put me down a lot. They could see my insecurity and hit on it. I look back and think how brave I was to keep going … [So] just get to your truth and keep to it! You can’t go wrong if you are being true to yourself and your music. Nothing can touch you!!!