Alison Wonderland: “My job as an artist is to be honest”
Alison Wonderland is on the verge of releasing her sophomore studio album, ‘Awake’, after an incredible 2017 that saw her debut at No. 89 on our Top 100 DJ poll. She talks to DJ Mag about finding her ‘Happy Place’ and how she hopes her music does the same for her fans...
Alison Wonderland is serenading DJ Mag over the phone. We’re comparing tattoos, and this author only has one – a waveform from Modjo’s 2001 hit, ‘Lady’. Miss Wonderland, born Alexandra Sholler, knows the tune. “Oh. My. God!” she shouts, pausing between every word for hammered emphasis. Then, she breaks into song. “Lady, hear me tonight, 'cause this feeling, is just so right.” We’re shocked. Though ‘Lady’ was a smash when released, people under 35 rarely know it when they ask about this tattoo, instead giving a polite, approving coo and nod when the waveform is explained. “Of course I know it!” Alex says. “That’s how you know I’m a real DJ – it’s a classic!”
We concur. The Sydney-born producer, singer and performer is a “real DJ” for a number of reasons, including this vast and passionate knowledge about musical history. Alex’s sets dance deftly between genres, connecting dots between future bass, juke, bass, hip-hop, trap, house and any other sound that suits her fancy in the moment. And, every portion of the hardware is utilized as she plays. Songs are scratched, back spun, teased in with EQ, stuttered via the cue button and more as she shapes the set, making it less a linear experience and more a twisting and wild beast that breathes.
Through it all, Alex is a tiny kinetic ball of energy, climbing on tables, snatching the mic and running toward the front row to sing, collapsing to her knees, hands thrust forward to throw up her signature W. Even when standing in place while mixing she’s incapable of standing still, bouncing on her toes, like a tennis player waiting for the serve. “I feel super free,” Alex says of performing. “It's liberating. And to see like a bunch of people feeling that with you, it feels like you're a part of something a lot bigger than just playing a show.”
A PATH OF DISCOVERY
Music has been a part of Alex’s life for most of her formative years. Back in Australia, she was a principal cellist in the Sydney Youth Orchestra and also played bass in an indie rock band. Her parents always supported these interests, although it’s hard to determine to what degree this was the result of forced resignation. Alex, you see, cops to precociousness. “Earlier in my life,” she muses with a tiny bubble of a laugh underneath, “my parents realized if they told me to do something I would do the complete opposite”.
She speaks about music during this time with certain tenderness, the way others might talk about a first love. Outcast and without much sense of belonging, music in various forms gave Alex something to grasp onto as she navigated the choppy waters of teenhood and all the awkwardness it brings with. It didn’t help that she had attention deficit disorder (ADD) tendencies and was heavily bullied. Without pause, after finishing school in Sydney, she packed up her cello and left.
Alex went straight to Europe where she found herself on her own, living in the attic of a German family, traveling on weekends to different cities for punk shows. “It was the best thing I ever did,” she fondly recollects. “I didn't ever really find my place [in Sydney] and I was never comfortable with myself. I think as soon as I left and traveled the world alone with my cello I learned how to carry myself and to be comfortable with who I am. I'm just really, truly myself. I do owe a lot of my nomadic lifestyle to that.”
Though leaving Sydney is what gave the young artist strength to be true to herself, it was ultimately a hometown experience afterward that shoved her toward her calling. One stray night at a club called Candy’s Apartment (the type of place one Yelp reviewer says to go to and “strap yourself in if you’re up for a really messy night”), the DJ put on ‘Silent Shout’ by The Knife. A hypnotic and ghostly deep cut from the duo’s 2006 album, Alex felt drawn to the song’s electronic backbone, and says it was the first time she felt genuine emotional connection to the genre. Afterward, Alex immediately bought a laptop. She wanted in.
THROWING OUT LABELS
If you really want to get a sense for how much The Knife influenced Alex’s first productions, you’ll have to look under another name: Whyte Fang. She originally DJed and produced under separate aliases, explaining there’s “such a strong difference between the two skills” (she stops herself mid-conversation here to “reiterate for this article” how different they are). The Whyte Fang SoundCloud account is still up, with five songs and a couple thousand followers. It’s worlds away from the bass, chillwave, trap, and future bass-soaked genre-breakers she’s known for now, featuring an airy darkness and a touch of rock instead. On the account’s first upload, one commenter says, “Heard this on Triple R – thought it was a new track from The Knife!” This pleases Alex.
She eventually consolidated all her performances and work at the behest of her label once signed to EMI Music Australia. Under the Alison Wonderland brand, success was swift. Her debut single ‘Get Ready’, featuring Fishing, came out in 2013; she began touring Australia shortly after; and by 2014, had released five-track extended play ‘Calm Down’ featuring the song that would bring her fame across borders – ‘I Want U’. The next year, she released debut album ‘Run’, and while some critics puckered at the bangers-laced offering, others praised its diversity. One reviewer predicted it would be the turning point for her international acclaim. That person was right.
Anyone who lamented the straightforwardness of ‘Run’ entirely missed the point. Sure, you could sit and try to think your way through each song like a traditional album, but why? It’s meant to envelop what seeing Alex live is like. And, to that end, it’s a frenetic ride full of consistent breath-sucking rises followed by compression-laden drops, all topped with Alex’s vocals. Yes, she had made an entire album of trap meets future pop that was not exactly radio-friendly, and yes, she knew exactly what she was doing.
Now she splits her time between Los Angeles and Sydney, a necessity as Alex has graduated to a bona fide bi-coastal superstar. She’s been nominated for ARIA awards, heads her own traveling festival, and as of last year, graces DJ Mag’s Top 100 list, entering at number 89. By any measure it’s an enviable resume, but Alex seems nonplussed about her accolades. At the end of the day, she’s less interested in the titles others grace her with, and more concerned with her music, her DJing, her fans. “Like a lot of my life,” she tosses out nonchalantly, “I just followed my instincts and things ended up where they are.”
It’s been three years since ‘Run’ and Alex is finally ready to follow it up with forthcoming album ‘Awake’. She’s been working on it for the past year, tucked away, often running on empty while pulling 16 and 17-hour studio days. As with ‘Run’, Alex says ‘Awake’ is very much a personal narrative. “It feels like a time capsule in my life,” she says of the work. “[Producing] is like cheap therapy for me and it's so weird how clear I feel after I've finished writing a song.”
As any real human with real human emotions, Alison Wonderland has had tough times. “I was going through a very depressive state in my life,” Alex says with a sighing directness. “I talk openly about that in a lot of my songs. I was at the point of feeling suicidal because I had lost a lot of my self-worth from being drained from a very toxic thing around me. I guess by writing my thoughts out I realized I was worth something, and I went to try and search for my happiness and to make choices to get out of it. I realized I could make changes to be in a better spot in my life.”
Alex has recently released ‘Happy Place’, the lead single from ‘Awake’, and it’s a bare look at what it’s like to go through the ups and downs of feeling depressed. The song has a clear dichotomy between upbeat strings and slower, crashing melodies, a deliberate diversion from anything pop-based. This is squarely a live party jam, meant for the elucidating psychiatry that can only come with sweating things out on a dancefloor. “Give up these noises / Silence my mind,” she belts, “We all have choices / Where can I find / My happy place.” Is there anything better than being sung to by an artist once during an interview? Being sung to twice.
"I want these songs and the words that I've written to reach someone out there and help them make a change,” Alex says of ‘Happy Place’ and ‘Awake’ as a whole. “Hopefully it speaks to someone and it can help them make one small step and know I've gone through it and other people are going through it. For me, that's super important.”
The way Alex speaks about lessons she’s learned exposes a secondary album theme. She views the natural path of the universe with shades of gray – there is no absolute good, nor is there absolute bad. Alex is careful in her words, but also blunt. Despite the actions of whoever or whatever inspired the bulk of ‘Awake’, she spits out, “I fucked up and other people fucked up.”
People fuck up, so what does Alison Wonderland do about it?
“I have this theory about life, that’s an ongoing thing in my album. I believe order will always turn into disorder, which will turn into order, and back again. Sometimes you can't have order without going through that disorder because you need chaos to get yourself back up and grow.” So, has she grown? “Absolutely,” she says. She’s come back from the edge more grounded, with more self-worth and an album to show for it.
At this point she takes a pause, as if to play into her fine-tuned showmanship. “It's interesting,” she muses, “how artists seem to draw drama in the most convenient of times.”
CRAZY LITTLE IDEAS
Back to the tattoos. Alex has around 30. The tiny, sketchbook-like drawings dot every limb, seemingly without any rhyme or reason. There’s a pineapple, an alien, a tiger, several stick-and-poke designs. The Alice in Wonderland “drink me” bottle appears on her left wrist, with the aforementioned direction emblazoned on the tag – Alex mixes up left and right often. “Calm down” is also written on her, but backwards so the reminder is present every time she looks in the mirror. Call it organized chaos. “They’re placed so carefully around my body,” she says. “I counted them the other day and I was like, ‘What the hell? When did this all happen?’ They’re all crazy little ideas that have nothing to do with each other — basically my brain.”
What Alex calls “crazy little ideas” are actually breadcrumbs that collectively, tell her story. Life landmarks, personal quirks and her musical career can be traced through each scratch of ink. On her foot are the words “Dance Yrself Clean” as homage to LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy. He’s the person she credits with her current style of lyrical writing. The Knife’s logo is on her ribs. She also has a TNGHT (the duo consists of Scottish producer Hudson Mohawke and Canadian producer Lunice) tattoo. While the idea of meeting any of her heroes sends her into a panic, it’s this last one that hits closest to home. TNGHT is playing Alex’s traveling festival in Australia and New Zealand called the Wonderland Scarehouse Project.
“I’m so nervous!” she proclaims. “The fact that I'm able to book artists that I fan so hard over is the coolest thing ever.” Yeah, aside from everything else Alex does, she also runs her own festival that even comes with its own mobile recording studio called Studio Wonderland. And, she has absolutely zero chill about who she’s booked. “The line-up is so fucking dope,” she says. Featuring the likes of A$AP Ferg, Lido, Quix, Lunice, TNGHT, and more, Alex coyly admits, “I'm half doing this for myself just so I can watch them play seven times. I'm freaking out.”
This is one thing that is strikingly convivial about Alex: no matter how famous she gets, she still becomes completely unraveled at the mention of her personal heroes. James Murphy? “I'm obsessed and I never want him to hear my music or know who I am.” What about Hudson Mohawke, who Alex also adores? “What if he hates [my show]? I would be shattered. I'm literally like, ‘Please don't ever come. I love you too much’.” It’s hard not to break into a peal of laughter. Alex, a woman who is popular and powerful enough to spearhead her own festival, fans so hard over artists that she’d rather permanently mark her skin with their words and iconography than ever meet them in real life.
ON A SPIRITUAL LEVEL
Electronic music continues to march toward an apex fusion with pop culture, and with it has come a slick parade of overly crafted personas. Built for social media, a near endless factory line of alter egos, quippy catchphrases and hashtags seem to be constantly competing for attention, wedging clever content into timelines to capture as many eyeballs as possible. The thing about Alex, though, is that she’s never partaken in any of it. Alex today is Alex back then. Her Twitter is an uncensored public journal, her Instagram live feeds spur of the moment decisions to divulge weighted thoughts. For years, she’s subscribed to the same day-to-day uniform of knee-high socks, a pair of platform kicks and an oversized, well-worn T-shirt (usually Adidas). Her recent-ish slogan, “fuck me up on a spiritual level” isn’t something that was brainstormed by a management team when strategizing merch sales, it was unexpectedly blurted out during a show.
“It's actually kind of a cool story,” she says. “I was playing this show, and sometimes in front of tens of thousands of people it's hard to really feel that connection. I really needed to feel that connection; I needed to feel something that lifted me and carried me over the edge. I was thinking, ‘How high can someone fuck you up?’ and so I just said, ‘I need you guys to fuck me up... on a... spiritual level!’ The response was so instantly crazy. And then people started tweeting it at me. About a week went by and I thought, ‘Maybe I should put this on a t-shirt’. Honestly it really sums up my shows and what I want people to take away from them.”
This is all to say Alex believes in honesty – both in personal and artistic spaces. “My job as an artist is to be honest,” she says with insistence, as if underlining the words. “Being an artist is self-expression and it needs to come from an honest place. I have the platform to reach a lot of people. I'd rather know at the end of the day I gave it my all. Although it is scary for me, it is my diary and I am honestly expressing myself in the songs. To half-ass my admission and my description of what I was writing about and where I was then – it's not doing justice to the song or my fans.”
Alex mentions her fans a lot as we talk. To her, what she creates musically and what she leaves onstage with them are not things that live in isolation – they live in harmony. This isn’t because she’s moved past the “uncool” stigma of her youth. No, quite the opposite. It’s because she’s finally able to stand proud in it. More people might know her name, but the part of her that was a gypsy outcast, a misfit… it’s still there. Only now, she claims it. Alex hopes that by baring all, not just in her music and shows, but in her personal struggles and triumphs, there’s the chance she can help others learn to find comfort in their own truths.
“For me, going to a show or listening to music, especially in this time that we live in is a form of escapism.” She’s so sure of her words, speaking with a sense of earnestness that feels like she’s clasping our hands through the phone. “It's a form of forgetting where you're at and feeling vulnerable and letting go and not worrying about what anyone else thinks and forgetting about your phone and just getting on another level.” Honesty, spirituality, and living in the moment. These aren’t hollow concepts Alex’s adopted to endear herself to the public, they’re truisms. Alison Wonderland, party guru, at your service.
Should anyone doubt just how much Alex cares about imparting this intangible vibe, take this memory she recalls as we rue the presence of phones at parties. “I'll tell you something,” she urgently pivots in a way that makes us sit up a little straighter. “I just finished a six-week bus tour around America. At one of the stops I couldn't help but notice a guy in the corner with his phone up for about 45 minutes. And he was recording. It was during ‘U Don't Know’ and I walked over and I said ‘Mate, I've seen you record the whole show. That's on you if that's what you want to do, but sometimes it's great to be lost in the moment so why don't you put your phone down just for this song and dance with me?’”
“I hope he left that night realizing that you can gain more from being in the moment.” On this zestful note, it’s clear a moment with Alison Wonderland is a moment worth being in. You never know, she just might sing for you.
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