Alice Russell

M quizzed soul star Alice Russell on songwriting and working with David Byrne…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 20 Nov 2013
  • min read
UK soul voices don’t come much bigger than Alice Russell’s.

As a collaborator with the likes of Quantic and David Byrne and acclaimed solo artist in her own right, she’s one of Britain’s most under-rated musical talents – and indeed has been for some time.

This year saw the release of To Dust. It's her fifth solo album and shows off an unquenchable songwriting thirst which seems to get bigger and more innovative with each release. It follows the success of her My Favourite Letters with producer TM Juke (Alex Cowan) in 2005 and her second full length effort, Pot Of Gold.

Alice plays at Camden’s Electric Ballroom on 21 November but in the mean time, check out our interview below where she reveals her songwriting secrets and how it was working with David Bryne…

How did you first get into music and the first artists which inspired you?

Music was always around me. I was raised on more classical stuff but the music I found for myself which I really liked was on the radio. I was too young at nine to buy records so I’d just record songs off there. Cameo and James Brown’s Sex Machine were in the charts at one point. I didn’t understand it but I loved the groove. I got into blues, gospel, Aretha Franklin, then hip hop which led me onto the likes of David Axelrod. I’d listen to these songs, then return to the originals to see what they’d sampled.

How did you move into making music?

I was always making up little songs, then originally started recording with collaborators like Kushti. It made me feel I could do it but it was a while longer yet until I had the confidence in my own material.

It never really felt like a moment of ‘this is what I’m gonna do’. It sort of happened. I was into it, it was fun and became like second nature from a certain point.

You’ve collaborated with the likes of Mr Scruff and Quantic. How have these collabs informed your own songwriting?

Well writing on your own is a completely different process to working with someone else. It’s introverted and I genuinely think it leans towards being more melancholic. It’s more fun to work with someone else although I like both processes. Writing with others and bouncing ideas around can feel more alive.

Sometimes it might be just one lyric change in a line and it completely changes the whole vibe of a song. Things like that happen when you work with others. Especially with Will from Quantic. We know each other really well, have toured together and have this relationship verging on brother/sister. You don’t feel embarrassed to show off any idea.

It means no holds barred, which is a really good, open way to work. With new people you are a bit more guarded with what you share.

What was working with David Byrne like?

Amazing. He’s obviously a hero. He’d written the track and picked me as a singer so we met in the studio. He’s another open minded soul as we all know and anything and everything can happen in the studio with him. It was a great honour to collaborate and we’ve kept in touch ever since.

Meeting your heroes is weird. I met Quincy Jones at a jazz festival and it just becomes really natural. People are people but when you stop and think about it, you’re like ‘oh my god that person worked on some of the most influential albums of all time’!

What does your latest album To Dust mean for you as a songwriter?

Every project is like work in progress for the next one. I never think I’m ever going to be satisfied with anything I’ve made. I think that’s a human condition. If you are satisfied, then you’re a bit of weirdo.

I still feel like I’m learning with each project and I’ve got a lot more to come. To Dust is very exploratory record made with TM Juke. The mixing took ages, it was hilarious. We did five versions of each song. And really played around with them.

I feel like - what’s next? You need to keep going. I’ve not done anything I’m completely happy with.

How do you approach songwriting?  

It’s very therapeutic. As an adult you’re constantly trying to get back to that child-like feeling of playfulness with creativity. As an adult you get further and further away from that freedom of trying anything out. That’s where the fun and exciting ideas come from. So you always constantly need to remind yourself to get back to that place. Going back to not judging too much while the idea is hatching is a great thing. Then you can judge later on when it’s trying to take form.

Does your voice impact the writing side of it?

That’s an after thought. It’s great for me working with people who aren’t singers. They come up with different lines for me from the ones I would. I’d dream up something, sing it and the lyrics will appear with it at the same time.

My voice is secondary to the idea. You write the song first and the voice sees what it wants to do afterwards.

What do you find most satisfying? Being in the studio or out on tour?

Playing live thing is more free. You can’t go back and re-do something. I really like that instantaneous performance – and the connection with the crowd. It’s not just us on stage. It’s about whoever comes to that gig. It’s more communication where with the studio, the best part of the songwriting is when that idea first appears. You come up with the idea and it’s really pure. Then during the recording you sometimes go back to the demo version because you want to retain that purity. Every time you repeat it you’re getting further away from that first essence.

What are you up to next?

We’ve toured and toured a lot over the last few years. You can certainly think of ideas on tour but often don’t have the time to make them into anything more than sketches. So I’m excited about finishing the tour and getting some clear time until summer festivals. We’re gonna go into the studio, write my next album and hook up again with Quantic.