AlunaGeorge is undoubtedly, unashamedly and unapologetically in control
2016 was pretty shitty for us all. In one way or another, most of us were weighed down by political turmoil, icons passing on or some other macabre truth about the world exposed that trampled on our hope for humanity. For the Aluna half of ALUNAGEORGE, her 2016 was quite the challenge. But, as one listen to the duo’s stunning second LP I Remember will tell you, she’s never been afraid of a challenge before.
Between the release of their brilliant sophomore album, a monstrous support slot for one of the world’s biggest artists and collaborating with Australian music scene’s poster boy, ALUNAGEORGE may have faced challenges last year, but they have emerged with deep focus and a stern unwillingness to do things any other way but their own. We caught up with Aluna Francis, while the duo are in Australia for the ton of festivals on at this time of year, and she told us about changing their live shows, the essence of female empowerment that runs through I Remember and about the time Sia literally picked her out of the crowd at a party thrown by Katy Perry to support her on tour.
2016 has just left us, probably for the better. You guys dropped your stunning second record I Remember. Is it fair to say that your 2016 was a little better than most?
I think that 2016 was just a big challenge for me. I was touring from April to now, pretty much, and we had to adapt our show to so many different levels. We started the year with the explosion that is Coachella – we had to put on a massive production. We’ve never put on a production like that, ever. It’s always just been me and the band. All of a sudden, we had to have this whole thing and we did our best. We had to throw in as much artistic ideas as we could at the wall and see what stuck. It wasn’t this high brow, well thought out plan. We then did our normal shows and festivals and stuff like that, and after that we had to adapt again to an arena show [for the Sia American tour]. At that point, because I’d done Coachella I began thinking about the best way to use this opportunity. I thought the best way would be to really challenge ourselves to strip back the show and be able to hold our own of 17,000 people without production.
That’s interesting, how did you tackle that?
Well I decided to not put on most of our popular songs and things like that. I wanted to tour the new album even though I knew people hadn’t necessarily heard it just to see how those songs went down with Sia fans. I think that Sia fans are very into a good melody and an interesting message. So I just took this bravery step and thought, “OK, I’m going to use this opportunity to really embody that.”
So I guess you could say that 2016 was the year where you forced yourself to step out of your comfort zone?
Do you think the way you guys constructed I Remember reflects that in any way?
The album was more about 2015, because that’s when the bulk of the songs were written. I think that I didn’t achieve everything I wanted to with this album. One of the mistakes we made was that so many of the songs on I Remember were designed to be singles and I wanted to avoid that, but that just didn’t end up happening for whatever reason. So I think that that’s the challenge for 2017 – to really share with our listeners all the different ways that George and I write music. A lot of the songs we write aren’t single material; they’re much more subtle than that. We’ve heard all those songs, but other people haven’t. The plan is to really share this year as much as we can.
I love that idea. Moving away from how 2016 weighed us all down, do any moments stand out as particular highlights? Obviously Coachella and the Sia support must’ve been two pretty incredible moments for you.
Yeah, you’ve hit the nail on the head there. However, I think my favourite moment was a performance we did at the Belasco Theatre in LA. It was for 30 Days in LA by Red Bull and they said to us, “OK, we want to make your show a special show. What, if anything, would you do differently?” We’d been to New Orleans for the first time, and met some people there. A couple of the songs on I Remember have live trumpets and stuff like that, so I thought that it would be amazing to have some second line musicians to actually come from New Orleans, do what they do within what we do. They were really down for that, so that’s what we did. We had a few days rehearsal, and it was really magical. What I wanted was for an audience to have a pure music experience that made them jaw-drop and not think about anything else. We really achieved that at the Belasco, and it was such a moment for me. The production that we put on had so much feeling to it, and when the musicians came on at the end of ‘Full Swing’, people did a double take! They finished the show by walking down into the audience, and the audience created a circle around them and they completely improvised. It was just so cool.
I love that! It makes going to see live music really memorable and worth it. I wish I was there.
Yeah! Well, we did a documentary on it that is still unreleased so hopefully that’s going to come out pretty soon.
Alright, let’s talk about I Remember. Stunning record. There’s a pretty diverse range of themes on the album, but one that really stood out to me was this theme of women being in power and asserting control over their own bodies and over themselves as women, especially with ‘I’m in Control’ and ‘Mean What I Mean.’ Were those messages inspired by personal experiences of yours or was it more just general social commentary? Or was it like a mixture of both?
There were definitely personal experiences, but a very particular part of a personal experience that I’m always interested in is the pay-off. Often, it can come from somewhere good or bad, but it’s like, where is it that you learn something that’s positive for your own future. That’s where the social link comes in – I’m looking to society to give me the answers. One of the things that I was finding was that women have done so much work. All of that history is there. All of that learning is there. But not all of it is being applied, which I think is the next step. For something like ‘I’m in Control’, I was creating a song that basically celebrates the fact that, as a woman in the West, you do have access to a lot of different information and philosophy you could use to feel empowered and in control. It’s possible now. So, why not try it and see what happens? So, I did try it. I thought, in regards to my personal life, “How about I actually say that I’m in control and tell somebody what it is I want and see what they do?” I actually got really positive results from it, which was crazy because I assumed the opposite, because of the connotations about being bossy and men being scared of strong women. So I thought how about you internalise it, so you’re not actually fighting for it – you just are. I can’t say I wake up in control and go to sleep in control every day, but those times was what that song was about in particular.
That’s sick. Obviously I’m a man and have no idea what its like being a woman having to deal with the patriarchy beating women down and electing a president who is infamously misogynistic, but it’s really cool you, and so many other people, are making music like that.
Interesting you say that, because what I found is that guys really like it as well. There’s a part of that where they can celebrate with women – it’s a joyous moment where men and women can both celebrate a woman being in control. I know a lot of heterosexual guys really want to know what girls want and girls aren’t always confident enough to tell them. In all sorts of relationships, regardless of sexuality or gender, there has to be some level of communication where you can tell someone what exactly it is you want. I’m hoping that it’s as inclusive as possible.
I Remember was a lot more collaboration-heavy than your first record, wasn’t it? From what I understand, your collaborations on Body Music were really minimal.
Minimal to zero.
Well in that case, what inspired you to collab more?
It’s just through being so immersed in other artists. We’ve played so many shows now, and I meet people backstage all the time. The collaboration bug just starts to sink in there. The reason we didn’t do it on Body Music was just because we were really trying to establish our own sound and our musician skills. It’s been a while now, and what we’ve realised through being in the studio with other artists is that we have a very, very strong way of working that other people found difficult to interfere with. No matter how many people were in the studio with us, we always guided the whole process to an AlunaGeorge end point. So then it became fun, because people would bounce off what we were doing so it became an opportunity to extend the collaboration between George and I one step further.
If the collaboration bug has infected you, do you think that’s something you’ll continue with albums down the track?
I think so! It’s hard to go back entirely but there will always be the core writing process, which is just George and me. We do so much writing – we might produce 70 songs for 10 or 12-album tracklist. There’s so many processes, even if we have one or two sessions with other people.
Are you glad you did in that order then?
Absolutely, and I don’t think we could have done it the other way around. We were so obsessed with working together that working with other people was really unappealing, if I’m honest. I was scared of working with other people because I don’t like the process. Jumping in the studio for one day with somebody just isn’t as fruitful. We still do it as a cherry-on-top moment, once we’ve done the core work. We’re very serious about what we do and we spend so much time and energy on particular areas. We spend tons of time on melody, tons of time on lyrics, tons of time on production. You don’t necessarily have that time when you’re just in the studio for one day with somebody.
Yep, that makes total sense! Now, obviously, you’re in Australia. I’m an Australian writing for an Australian website. I have to talk to you about your collaboration with Australia’s golden child, Flume. How did that process come about?
That was actually a longer process. We’d bumped into each other all the time, but we’re both really shy so we didn’t even talk about getting into the studio for, like, two years. Then we just said we were going to do it. We spent a few days in the studio and we’d work on top of that while we were on tour. We had a few festivals that we had synced. There were a few sessions where we didn’t come out with anything at all – it was about just getting to know each other creatively. We really come from very different music backgrounds, so it was a real process to even understand how each other works from the get-go.
So you didn’t go into the studio with the pre-disposed expectation of, “You’re going to help us with a song on our record, and vice-versa.” It was more of a natural thing, is that right?
Yeah we definitely had to see whether we could work together at all in the first place. I started working with him at the beginning of his process of writing his second album. At that point, he was still half in the process that he was using for his first record. I don’t know what he’s said about the two different ways of working but he certainly hadn’t been in the studio with a singer who does things the way I do. I’m very intrusive in the way that I work. If you show me a track, I’ll ask you to take every single instrument away and leave the piano. Then I’ll ask you to bring back each element, and I’ll change them all to fit what I’m doing. For somebody like Flume, he was just like, “What on earth are you doing?!” People consider me to just be a singer, but what they’re referring to is a top-liner. I’m not a top-liner – I’m a songwriter, and that includes the music. The same thing happened to me with Stargate as well. They said, “You’re producing right now” and I said, “I’m not producing. I’m just stating my opinion on every single part of the music [laughs]” To me, it’s a very practical thing. I need to get the right melody and the right nucleus of the song working altogether. If somebody has written music without the vocals in mind, then it has to be edited to make room for the vocals so things just aren’t layered on top of each other arbitrarily.
We touched on it before just a bit, but you also supported Sia on her American tour. Australia has watched her grow for years now, before she was all anonymous and what not, and now she has achieved supreme visibility. How did that come about, because she is such a big deal especially in the states?
Well, Katy Perry actually has been a supporter of AlunaGeorge for a few years now. She took us on tour with her in Rio and in Mexico. Obviously, her and Sia are really good friends. Last year, Katy wanted to put on a Grammy’s party with only artists – no management, no press, no other people. She did that, and she got myself, Sia and Jack Garratt to perform.
That is mental.
I know! Sia watched me perform, and I watched her perform on piano. She asked the audience to sing along to ‘Chandelier’. I’m a very obedient person, so I literally sang along. She came running off stage, and she ran to me and was like, “Oh my god! You were the only one who did it!” She gave me a big hug – she wasn’t wearing any of her wigs or anything like that – so she had that little memory of me in her mind when she was choosing her support acts, so that’s how she came to that decision!
I’m going to have dreams about that party for days on end.
Hahaha, it was such a full on show. You got a bit of everything!
Katy Perry, bringing people together.
She’s a real supporter too, which some people might not expect. She supported Jack Garratt since his come up too. I got to know her through Diplo, who I’ve been mates with for ages. I met her at Coachella a few years ago and she was just aware of me. She used an opportunity she had to reach out and give us a little booster.
Following on from that, were you surprised at the level of camaraderie between musicians, especially musicians who are at such a high level of fame like Katy Perry?
Yeah, for me it was really rare to be supported by another woman. I had tried to get support slots from different women that I admire and they were having none of it! I tried not to read into, but she (Perry) was the first who was so on board with having me support her, and then Sia was the second.
It probably doesn’t help that people like to pit women in music against each other which is so tired.
They sure do, I’m so over it. That’s why I brought loads of girls together on ‘Mean What I Mean’, because I wanted people to see that we don’t pit each other against each other.
Yeah, that’s so cool! Fast forward to present day, you’re in Australia. You’ve done this huge run of festivals and shows. How has that run been so far?
It’s changed a little bit! We did festivals in 2014 – people kind of knew us, they would come to the stage and have a good time. This time around I’m getting a tent full of people who know the words to heaps of our songs so I’ve noticed a real market difference. I’m so humbled by it – we rarely come here, we don’t do press here; I don’t know how that’s grown. Obviously I think the collaboration with ZHU and Flume has helped, because they’re super popular here, but it’s all good for me. At either the Falls set or Field Day – one of those two – the audience made me cry because they were being so emotional and I just loved it. It was so cute.
I’m glad Australia can give that to you, that’s gotta make the 24 hour or however long flight from the UK to here worth it.
On a final note, you said you’re ready to share some less radio-friendly material. You’ve got a documentary in the works, which is insane. What else is there to AlunaGeorge’s 2017 besides just kicking ass?
What I want to do is release a song every month. Give me a gold star if I can achieve that.
You’ll be getting a call for me if you miss a month, don’t you worry Aluna.
[Laughs] thank you. It’s not so much about the writing, it’s about the way that music gets released at the moment. There’s a shift in the way its all happening that is still in transition. I have to make a decision – I either have to fight tooth and nail for this or get pushed around by the system that’s in play that is, frankly, out of date. That’s the challenge this year.
Words by Jackson Langford