Talking diversity in music, pineapple on pizza and personal growth with Alison Wonderland.
ALISON WONDERLAND has had a BIG year.
Born in Sydney as Alexandra Sholler, the now LA-based producer, DJ and artist got her legs for music by training as a classical cellist and playing with the Sydney Youth Orchestra before branching out on more alternative paths. She has spent years defining her sound, was nominated for two ARIA Awards in 2015, won an EMI in 2017 and has worked with the likes of Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips, Dua Lipa and Djemba Djemba. Alison Wonderland is truly a wonder woman and a force to be reckoned with as she continues to blaze trails for Australians and women in the music business.
This year, Wonderland has broken records at Coachella when she became the highest billed female DJ to ever perform, experienced the rise and fall of her beloved Wonderland Warehouse project and released her sophomore album AWAKE, a body of work that she claims saved her life. Now, as the year approaches its end, Alison plans to bring her newest album home to Australia, where she is set to perform her AWAKE tour in a series of intimate shows for her biggest fans. Purple Sneakers caught up with the star to chat about everything that’s been going on, from music making to personal growth and authenticity as we can only guess what her next move will be.
I guess I have to kick things off with a topic that I can’t NOT ask you about which is Coachella this year, where you became the highest billed female DJ to ever perform. How does it feel knowing that you’ve broken this record for women in music?
Honestly, it’s so awesome for me because I’ve always been myself as an artist. I’ve never compromised who I am to get where I’m at and I feel like the less you outwardly complain about being a female artist and the more you do for the female community, then that’s the best thing you can do. Actions speak louder than words and being able to see my name that high on the Coachella lineup and know that this is paving the way for more women out there was such an amazing feeling. I was really surprised when the poster came out, I’ll be honest. Because they don’t tell you. So it was super surreal. Also, I played Coachella three years ago and to see where my name was now compared to three years ago was really surreal. I had a moment of realisation where I realised that all my hard work had paid off.
I guess the best [advice] I can give to anyone out there who is frustrated and working in their bedroom and really trying to do something is, like, and I say this a lot, but you’re going to hear a lot of people tell you no before you hear yes, like, possibly years which is what happened to me, but you just have to work hard. Keep working hard and don’t stop. And if you really believe in what you’re doing then it’s gonna be easy for you to work hard. Don’t be discouraged by people who say, “You can’t do this,” or, “You shouldn’t do this…” For example, I was told very early on that I shouldn’t sing on my music.
What?! Oh my god!
Right!? Which is cool, like, people can think that… But I was writing this song and I wanted to sing on it. Not necessarily to be a singer but I just felt like it would mean more if it came from me. I’ve been told that the music I was making wasn’t cool or the music I was DJing wasn’t good and there was a lot of rejection and no one writing back to emails and all that stuff. So when I see people who do understand what I do and resonate with it, I feel really close them. I think that’s why I’m so close to my fans, because I’m so appreciative and without them I genuinely don’t think I would be where I’m at. The right people will get you.
Whenever someone asks me how I deal with when someone doesn’t like my music I’m like, “Honestly that’s okay,” because there’s people that do get me and do like my music and other people are gonna like other people’s music that they get and that’s what so beautiful about the world. When I saw the Coachella lineup I was really like, “WOW, we did it guys!” because it felt like a group effort.
YES! Absolutely! And I guess that’s another thing I wanted to ask you about with regards to that is the fact that, as an artist, you’ve been very open about your struggles with mental health issues in the past, so what do you say to people who say that the type of electronic music you produce and the way you produce can’t be as emotional or therapeutic as other musical genres?
Well, I don’t really get that said to my face, but I’m assuming people have said that. I guess it’s fine and it relates back to what I was saying before which is that there’s gonna be some sort of music that they resonate with and that helps them emotionally. And I hope that they find that and if they don’t feel that with my music then that’s fine but I think the reason why it does resonate with most people is that fact that I’ve been really honest and kind of written exactly how I felt and not been scared to put myself out there and always been exactly myself.
And you know, at my shows I don’t like pretentiousness. I want everyone to dress how they want and be who they want and be good to everyone around them and not feel like they’re at a show to be seen, but they’re at a show to feel something and genuinely let go. And I guess that’s another therapeutic aspect of it… But hey, if people think that electronic music doesn’t make them feel emotion then that’s totally fine! There will be other types of music that makes them feel emotion and sometimes there is some electronic music that might not feel that way but there is other electronic music that does. We need diversity in the world and there are going to be different sights and sounds and tastes. Like, I LOVE pineapple on my pizzas but I have a friend that thinks it’s disgusting and when I do it he wants to throw up even though it’s my favourite thing ever. But I can’t get angry at them for not liking pineapple on pizza! You know what I’m saying!?
Don’t worry, I relate SO HARD. And talking about diversity brings me to a question I want to ask you about your new album, AWAKE. One thing that you did push yourself with when you set out to create this album was to collaborate more with other artists, whether it be writing or bouncing ideas back and forth. Why was that so important for you with this body of work?
I think to be able to grow as an artist musically, it’s important to open yourself up to other creatives. And I always feel, even if I don’t end up using anything from a session, I always feel like I take something away from that for myself. And I’ll be honest, I’ve started writing some more music recently, like some more shit.
[Laughs] yeah! And I feel like my writing and my production has grown because of seeing what other people have been doing and learning from them. And the beautiful thing about art is that you can always grow and you can always progress and you’re always learning and changing. It’s not really about being relevant. I really hate that term. It’s more just about opening up your mind to new sounds and techniques and ways of thinking and for me that was really important. Like, I didn’t want to make another ‘Run’, I wanted to progress as an artist for myself. And for the people out there, like, no one wants to listen to ‘Run’ 2.0, I mean maybe they do I don’t know… But for me it was important to push myself, and collaborating was a really important part of that because if you get a good creative connection or chemistry with someone you’re going to think of something that you’ve never thought of before. And that’s the coolest thing ever.
Do you feel like writing from the heart, no matter who you’re writing with or even if you’re writing by yourself, is the key to elevating your final product?
One hundred percent. I feel that writing from the heart is what will keep you going as an artist and what will keep people listening to you. I can recognise when something’s not genuine when I listen to it and, whether it’s subconsciously or at the forefront of your mind, if you’re listening to something and it doesn’t hit you the right way, it’s literally because it’s been written like a formula. And that’s also fine because those types of songs get the formulated, commercial success, but there’s no longevity in anything like that. I love stuff that’s from a real place. This is why I love Kanye. This is why I love Lana Del Rey. This is why I love The Knife or LCD Soundsystem. When you hear them you can tell it’s from a more primal side of them, you know?
So you’re saying authenticity is key?
YES! Authenticity IS key! Straight up! That’s why I think people follow me on Twitter or Facebook or whatever as well because, like, I’m always just being myself on it. And that’s why I follow people. Like, here’s the thing. I’m a fan of people who push things. That doesn’t mean I always agree with them. Like Kanye for example. I don’t always agree with what he says, but as an artist he’s always pushing things and growing. It’s almost like he gives so much of a fuck he just doesn’t give a fuck and I think people like that have longevity, because they are really able to speak to people. You can tell when someone’s writing lyrics that are real.
So that whole thing of trying something new and if it doesn’t work you try and try again, what do you see yourself try next now that AWAKE is out and you’ve got the Australian tour coming up in November. What’s in store for you next year?
Well that’s the thing! Like, if you asked me what I was having for dinner tonight I wouldn’t even be able to tell you because I don’t know.
Does anyone really though?
[Laughs] exactly. But I always like to go off my intuition and that goes for my music and that goes for my career. In hindsight I can see what’s been done but when I’m in it I’m just like go, go, go, go and pour myself into it. I guess it’s a little like a trance. So, I’m just gonna keep being real and keep putting myself out there and sometimes it will work out and sometimes it won’t and thats life. So we’ll see!
And speaking of go, go, go I have one last question! This weekend you performed in New Orleans and live-streamed the set directly to your YouTube channel AND you freestyled the set. How do you feel about freestyled versus pre-queued sets?
Oh man, it’s so fun. That’s how I started out. Like, sometimes I have to pre-plan shows because of the production around it and, like, when I’m doing my AWAKE show I sing live for a couple tracks and I’ll be playing cello, so there are things that need to be planned around that. But when I’m in a club and I’m right next to people and I’m feeding off their energy it’s my favourite thing in the world.
So before we go, in five words, what do you want your fans to take away from this interview?
Umm… can I do six? Oh no wait I can do five! They are “Wouldn’t be here without you.”
You can catch the AWAKE tour at the dates below!
THU 22 NOV – THE TIVOLI, BRISBANE
FRI 23 NOV – THEBARTON THEATRE, ADELAIDE
SAT 24 NOV – FORUM, MELBOURNE
FRI 07 DEC – ENMORE THEATRE, SYDNEY
Tickets via Secret Sounds.
Interview by Clare Neal.