Interview: Meet Alice Phoebe Lou, the South African artist determined to do things her own way
Alice Phoebe Lou, an artist Far Out has championed for a long-while now, is a musician that embodies a truly independent spirit that can only be admired and one that is set to embark on a major European tour in support of her latest album Paper Castles.
This singer-songwriter, who made the bold decision to move from her home in South Africa and thrust herself into the energetic Berlin scene at just 19-years-old, independently self-released her beautiful third record much to the pleasure of her cult following.
Having honed her sound busking on the historic streets of the German capital, Alice Phoebe Lou had barely attempted to write songs prior to her move to Europe. While a major tour quite rightly suggests things are going well for Alice Phoebe Lou – but things haven’t always been the same. Building on her experiences, her transition from being a teenage fire-dancer in a foreign continent to street busker and, eventually, to an Oscar nominee has resulted in hard word and the utmost dedication. Now, with her new material, she is touring internationally to sell-out crowds… it’s safe to say the last few years has been eventful.
I sat down with the rising star to get the low-down on her unique upbringing and her fascinatingly quick rise in the music industry. She talks very fondly about how fortunate her childhood was in a picturesque setting, but the 25-year-old is fully aware of South Africa’s imperfections: “I was lucky enough to grow up in quite a remote part outside of the city on the side of a mountain where my parents built a house together just before I was born,” she told Far Out exclusively. “I went to a local Waldorf school for the first decade of my life and spent a lot of time in the garden,” she adds somewhat setting tone for the our wide-ranging conversation.
“Cape Town is surreal in its beauty but also in its inequality and so many people have grown up in that part of the world with so little facing such dark relics of apartheid and racism.” It was in that moment that I realised that Alice Phoebe Lou was not the sort of person to take anything for granted. While we spoke candidly about her picturesque childhood, she was quick to compare that so suddenly to those less fortunate. “I was definitely more fortunate than most and I definitely feel some sort of guilt at having had such a beautiful childhood and such a divided and difficult part of the world where so close to me so many were suffering and still suffer,” she continued.
While South Africa has it’s obvious flaws, there are reasons to be hopeful in the premise that times are changing in her home country, at least from the underground up: “Young people are taking the reigns and dance music from the townships is popping right now,” she added with a renewed excitement. “Parties are more and more inclusive and the youth is making waves. South Africa has influenced my sound because I grew up surrounded by struggle and the music that comes out of it is powerful.
One inspiration that comes from close to home is her parents who, having encouraged Phoebe Lou’s creativity from a young age, are documentary filmmakers which has installed an artistic outlook into her from childhood. “They’ve always strived to create things that they love and matter to them rather than working just for the money,” she told me. “It’s been tough because the industry they are in is so underfunded especially in South Africa and I’ve watched them struggle to make ends meet since day one and struggle to realise their ideas and projects because of a lack of money and opportunities.”
“I’m constantly inspired by the art and culture that comes from where I grew up.”
Alice Phoebe Lou.
She added with the upmost admiration: “But they keep pushing and keep trying and find success to be more in the quality of what they are doing rather than the cheque at the end. It definitely influenced the way that I conduct my business and the trajectory of my career, as I am not looking for a lucky break or to use certain opportunities for fame and riches, but to rather build my career over time on a sturdy ground and relish in the small victories that build up over time and continue to keep my moral code intact.”
The decision to leave her parents and Cape Town behind can’t have been easy one, especially at such a young age when she decided to venture to Europe for a gap year that, despite its label, is still going strong now six-years later: “I was very intent on studying at the university in Cape Town after my year traveling around Europe,” she explains while we tackle her decision behind not returning home. “But after my experiences in that year and falling in love with the lifestyle in Berlin, being able to play music on the street and get by, I decided that I needed to give it a go to live in Berlin. I was 19, not knowing what to expect, having very little money and connections there but a very strong feeling that it was something that would be good for me.”
It was essence of positivity, the sense of destiny and overwhelming confidence in the music that she makes that strikes me as a reason for the success Alice Phoebe Lou is currently enjoying. While Berlin has changed her outlook on life, her core beliefs remain the same: “I barely wrote songs until I got to Berlin and really started going for music as a path,” she explained when we talk about Berlin as a creative city to live. “All the experiences I was having, the people I was meeting and the process of becoming a woman in such a vibrant city and creating a new home; a chosen home, all contributed to me having content for song-writing.”
Busking on the Berlin streets is where it began for Alice Phoebe Lou and, given its significance on her career, it is still something she occasionally continues despite being able to sell out venues. “It’s so important to me to keep playing on the streets for a number of reasons,” she explains. “It’s my roots, it’s how I started everything and how I grew as a person and an artist. It’s the most accessible concert out there, which is very important to me, that anyone can attend, that you’re playing for businessmen and people without a home, that you’re bringing music & culture to the street to where it’s needed.”
Phoebe Lou has tremendously reaped the rewards of making such a life-changing decision to turn her back on University for a somewhat uncertain future in an uncertain industry. Last year marked a major shift in her blossoming career as her song ‘She’, which featured in the film Bombshell, was picked up for an Oscar nomination. “I was totally surprised and overwhelmed,” she explained somewhat unsurprisingly. “It had already been such an honour to have the song in that incredible movie. The whole experience was very special to me.”
Despite giving a nod of the head to crowds in London, it was one experience in particular that has stuck with the nomadic South African, an experience that epitomises the empathy for others which we detailed earlier: “Playing in Palestine was one of my most profound musical experiences, as it was such an incredible feeling of gratitude from the audience and such a different kind of show,” she said with the utmost sincerity.
The way Alice Phoebe Lou tours echoes that independent spirit which rears his head in everything the talented songwriter does, as she explains: “There are really no average days at the moment, very little consistency. I’m playing the role of the tour manager too to cut down on costs, so it’s all just finding solutions to problems, trying to wake up the boys, get us to soundcheck on time, stay hydrated, eat some good food. Always ends with a fun show and meeting new people and then sleeping on a new stranger’s couch!”
These experiences have helped shape her new record Paper Castles, which she is quite rightly immensely proud of, opening up about the creative process behind the record, she explains: “The songs had built up in between tours and going home to have some time out. I had stopped making music with my long-time collaborator and I was kind of starting from zero and trying to build up my confidence and write songs that were direct from my experiences and use song-writing as a form of therapy. I was looking for the right producer for a really long time but hadn’t found someone that felt quite right. Once Noah Georgeson was on board it all went so smoothly and the recording process was a total dream.”
She proudly adds: “Paper Castles feels like the most honest work I’ve ever made. It was a total ease and joy to make it and I was surrounded by such good musicians and people who lifted me up and allowed me to play with it and have fun and that’s all I really want from this record; that someone listening to it feels the playfulness and the love and live energy of it.”
Alice Phoebe Lou is living proof of it being best to not plan your life away, instead surf the waves that the world throws at you as you never quite know what’s waiting just around the corner.
Paper Castles is available on all streaming platforms and you can check out her tour dates below.
Alice Phobe Lou 2019 European Tour Dates:
April 10 – Leipzig, DE – UT Connewitz
April 11 – Dresden, DE – Polimagie Festival
April 13 – Hannover, DE – Faust
April 15 – Bristol, UK – Thekla
April 16 – Manchester, UK – Deaf Institute
April 17 – London, UK – Earth
April 18 – Nottingham, UK – Bodega
April 20 – Utrecht, ND – Tivoli
April 21 – Amsterdam, ND – Zonnehuis
April 23 – Aachen, DE – Kulturbunker
April 24 – Brussels, BE – Botanique
April 26 – Vienna, AT – Flex
April 28 – Prague, CZ – Futrum
April 29 – Erlangen, DE – E-Werk
May 1 – Friberg, DE – Jazzhaus
May 2 – Munich, DE – Ampere
May 3 – Zurich, CH – Bogen F
May 4 – Stuttgart, DE – Im Wizemann
May 6 – Cologne, DE – Kulturkirche
May 7 – Mainz, DE – Kuz
May 8 -Kiel, DE – Pumpe
May 9 – Copenhagen, DK – Vega
May 11 – Berlin, DE – Columbiahalle
May 30 – Jun 1 – Barcelona, ES – Primavera Sound Festival
Jun 29 – Werchter, BE – Rock Werchter Festival