For Folk’s Sake Interview: Alessi’s Ark

For Folk’s Sake spoke to Alessi about the long wait to release her album and swapping songs for hobnobs in the  Virgin Records offices in central London.

FFS: Tell us a bit about how you got into music…
Alessi: I used to write a ‘zine called Brain Bulletin and I would leave it at shows that I liked the bands of, it was mainly California bands like Rooney and Phantom planet, a while ago, then all those bands sort of blew up, I don’t know what happened to Rooney, but Phantom Planet got that gig for the OC soundtrack and got quite groovy all of a sudden.

Those bands were out quite a while ago, you must have been going to shows when you were really young…

I was about 13 or 14. My parents really liked music, I mean they do like it they play it a lot and my sister really likes music. I became sort obsessed with the music that came out of Los Angeles, I got really anoraky about looking at album sleeves. I was interested in bands like Phantom Planet and Maroon Five and they were really sweet bands and when they started out they were so completely different, and so I’d go along to the shows and I thought they were great.

Then in their sleeve notes I’d see other recommendations, and through them, people don’t really link them, but through the music that they recommended I found Rilo Kiley, and they became one of my favourite bands. People don’t really know but that whole unit are good friends, when people mention Maroon 5 they’re never associated with anything sort of cool. I think that’s mean, because when I would see them I’d see them in tiny clubs and bars and they were really nice guys, really well brought up.

My dad and I would sometimes go to about four gigs a week. I don’t know where I got this strand of obsession with live music, but I got into going to shows not just because of those bands and finding out about them, but because I started playing the drums when I was eleven and the drum teacher, Steven, played in a few bands and he really got me into, I don’t know, going out you know and dad and I would go to shows.

There were these incredible bills, incredibly lucky like Television, Patti Smith, there were some really good shows a few years ago and an amazing bill and the first gig I thought, ‘wow I’ve found something really good,’was Rilo Kiley, Modest Mouse and Bright Eyes at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. I was really lucky to be young and exposed to those kinds of shows

It must have accelerated your musical learning…

Yeah it did, and I thought the fact that those bands had a supportive atmosphere with each other was really nice.
Do you think the London folk scene has a similar sort of atmosphere?
I mean, I don’t know that many people, but I’ve been lucky to make some more friends, really through making music I suppose. And they’re all very supportive of what I do and I’m very supportive of them. [Gestures to the cover of Laura Marling’s Alas I Cannot Swim, which is hanging on the wall] I’m looking at her artwork, I don’t really know Laura, but I played a show with her in Glasgow and she’s a very nice girl. She’s been to a few shows of mine, and whether they’re friends or sweethearts or whatever, a lot of people seem to know each other. I play with Ben and Winston [Ben Lovett and Country Winston from Mumford and Sons] when I can and when they can. I suppose out of all of them the best friend that I’ve made is probably Ben, but it’s a good team. I mean I definitely feel it’s a family that existed before I found them, but I think it’s branching out and I think that’s nice, and I don’t think we all do exactly the same thing. But I don’t know that that really matters.

I feel lucky to have found people like that because, I never thought before I made the record that I’d ever find like minded people to play music with, and then after the record I didn’t think that I’d find people like the people I made the record with. So I thought darn it, first of all there is no-one and then there really are but they’re miles away [Alessi made her album in Omaha with Bright Eyes producer Mike Mogis] and you never get to see them.

Have you found more people like that since then?
Yes, I mean they’re not replaceable but I’ve found some really nice people to make music with, I mean the tour that I just did, the first ever tour, I think it was a really good family of people, Peggy Sue were on it and they’re really lovely girls, they have just got a drummer called Olly and he’s lovely, And Derek Meins, a very, very sweet man. Throughout the tour we would offer our gifts, you know sing with each other,  and I feel like through the tour I’ve made a few more friends. It would be great to be in a different band rather than just play my own songs sometimes, it’s just fun to sort of help you know, just get up and do something

Cherbourg and Mumford and Sons recommended you to us, it must be nice to have their support…

They’re sweet guys, I used to play with Phil [Fiddle, Cherbourg’s violinist] a bit, I mean you can’t really, I suppose maybe I say I’m not part of it maybe because what I do is by myself where as They’re all in bands so I kind of feel like their relationships with each other are more inbuilt but They’ve definitely been brotherly, and they make great songs, it would be great to play more shows with them. Davie [Andrew Davie, Cherbourg’s lead singer and guitarist] has a lovely voice, I like him very much.

How did you end up playing with Phil?
I met him at Ben’s house once and I just liked him straight away and he just got out his fiddle, and I thought ‘flipping heck’ you know ‘join in’ and so we did a few shows together. One show we did was just fiddle and guitar and it was pretty fun. I think whenever I can I would do anything for them and I think likewise, it’s all just time permits, you know, everybody seems quite busy.

Is it true that your album has been ready to go for a long time?

The record has been ready for a while. After I made the record things didn’t go tremendously with the record company. There was a big shake up and it meant everybody on the roster had to wait around for a bit. The record was pretty much finished, it was started not last summer but the summer before, it was a long process though, so I’ve nearly always felt busy, then it got to about winter time and I thought it’s correct, it’s ready, it’s all done and dusted, weight off the shoulders, new songs new songs. I brought it back and we were all very happy with it, but the label needed to shake things up and some guys came into change the company a bit, and now I’m on Virgin [instead of EMI], it doesn’t feel any different and I trusted them that if they though that a few artists had to hold out for a bit that’s fine. I just had to fill the time and play shows and whatever and spend time with family. It’s no big deal it was just a bit frustrating when it’s all ready to go.

In that space of time I wrote some new songs and the label thought that they were fun and should be on the record maybe in exchange for some other ones, so in that space of time I went back to Omaha and recorded two new songs, in exchange. I mean everything’s been kept and will available in some form but we put ‘The Dog’ and ‘Hummingbird’ on the album. I’m really happy because it means everything is a bit more fresh.

You hear about people who are super lucky and they get to put it out straight away, I mean you’re blessed if you’re able to make a record at all but some people are lucky to be able to able to churn it out like Conor [Oberst], He made a record while I was there, when I was there he would come in and rehearse then he went off to record it, and it’s been out for a while now and this hasn’t come out yet. I don’t feel funny about it, it’s just the way it goes and the weather of music for some people, it was right for him and he didn’t have anything to wait around for.

Yeah so there are some newer songs and I feel like the waiting made sense now because actually the record would feel different if it had the original line-up of tracks. So now it’s really ready, and it will be ready in March with proper artwork.

So the Horse EP that’s out now contains tracks from the original album sessions?
They’re of the Omaha sessions so they will be new to people, medium new to me. I’m excited because there was a surplus of music and I wanted people to hear it. The single the horse was going to be a B-side, but I thought, ‘flipping heck make it an EP!’ Because there was just too much music and you never really know if it going to come to you so you want people to hear it. It’s a well, you know, it might dry up!

So it will have The Horse, Neighbour’s Birds – which was going to be on the record but has been replaced by one of the newer ones – Patchwork of Dreams, Same Story and Let’s Race, and that was originally on the Bedroom Bound EP, we brought it out to Omaha and made it a bigger sound, more orchestral, just a fuller sound. It feels quite fun to redo something. Then the other ones were fresh… I suppose the Horse was on bedroom bound too! Oh!

It must be so different recording with Mike Mogis from recording in your bedroom

Yeah it is different in terms of what you leave with, but he made it feel like home he was a very nice man.

Did you have a lot of instruments at your disposal?

Mike has a good unit around him, sort of like a family of friends, the core members of the record are really him – he played pedal steel guitar, bass, sequencing and some percussion – and then there was Shane Aspegren, Jake Bellows and Nate Walcott has an awful lot to do with it. So even though there really wasn’t that many people they’re all wizards that play a million things and he knew them all. There was nothing more humbling than when he got some of the Omaha Symphony in because you sit there and have these ideas and he just makes them happen.

I read an interview with you in Vice Magazine, how did that come about?
That was a while ago, it was the first thing that was ever written about me. I did a show with a fantastic guy called from Los Angeles called Michael Runyon, one at The Social and one at the Old Blue Last, and I didn’t really enjoy the show at the Old Blue Last, it was loud and smoky but there were some really nice people nearer the front who were listening and one of the guys from Vice came up afterwards and said, ‘I really really liked it.’ So it was a natural thing, they were just there.

Did that get you attention from other places?

A few people did write to say ‘I found your music through it.’ I really feel like a lot of people have stumbled on the music online just by accident or somewhere along the line a friend has told them, which I really like. Because I like making mixes for friends, it’s my favourite thing to do, and just hoping they’re going to like number 7 as much as you… so a lot of the messages that I get say ‘my friend told me about you’ or ‘my boyfriend did’. These are quite sweet things so it almost feels like they’re your friends so ultimately everybody’s just buddies
What are you hoping will happen with this album?
I don’t really know what the plan is, around the EP launch I’m going to do a few shows at some record shops, I loved going to instores, I always had fun, They’re super intimate and you always get to talk to people afterwards and I love talking to people,  I think it’s fun. So yeah, I think probably a tour, maybe supporting somebody, I don’t know how many people would come just for my music itself. I’m always up for playing you know, I’ll still be doing whatever shows people ask. I imagine a tour, I don’t actually know, they [Virgin] probably know.

If you do a headline tour does that mean you get to choose the support?
Yeah, that would be brilliant, there are so many nice people, I think it would be nice to play with Mumford and Sons, that would probably be me supporting them, but I don’t really care about positioning on bills. It doesn’t really bother me, playing is fun. There are lots of people I would like to play with.

I wanted to ask you about how you write your songs, where do you get the ideas?
I don’t think I’m here exactly. I read a lot and I think that the words and the things I sing about – although I feel things when I sing them – I suppose that they aren’t always from my own experience or they’re places that truly are imaginary or I’m writing from what I see is happening to friends or family, and you make up stories, you know when you watch somebody that you don’t know and you think ‘maybe he’s thinking about that’ or whatever.

I suppose it’s a bit stupid but I tell people that writing songs is a bit like cooking, you don’t want to think about it too much, obviously you care about it a lot, but thinking and caring are sometimes a bit different and I like to just throw in a few things, so that the chances are, if you’re writing from a few angles, there’s a little bit of you, honest and true, and then there are things maybe about your friend or somebody that you’ve heard about, and then the completely fictional there’s got to be some kind of part of the music that’s going to touch nearly everyone, hopefully. Because if you cover all that ground then something’s got to stick, if it’s too autobiographical people will think ‘it’s nothing like my life’.

Sometimes I don’t really know what I’m saying but I know what I’m playing you know sometimes the words and the music are obviously in parallel because they’re working together but they’re alternate in meaning. Something in the middle feels right and I can project it in a way that I mean it, but I just couldn’t fully explain it.

The songs that you’ve written so far, did you write them completely by yourself or do you ever have input from other people?
I write them by myself, actually I’m really excited, because when we were on tour Derek and I were working on an idea for a song. That’s great to find a like minded soul which is fun, but also someone to write with, just because it can be quite solitary, I mean obviously I’ve chosen this, it’s not even chosen It’s just what I do I guess, I don’t really think of writing with other people, but it’s something that I’d like to do.

Interview: Lynn Roberts

Alessi’s EP The Horse is out now