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Alice Phoebe Lou

Images and Video by Jan-Willem Dikkers

“It can be overwhelming to write a song when you feel
as though you need to hold the weight of
all the social, political, and inequality problems in the world.”

— Alice Phoebe Lou 

Alice Phoebe Lou
Alice Phoebe Lou is a Berlin-based, South African musician, singer, and street performer. She has released a total of two albums and two EPs, including last year’s EP Sola (2017). Most recently, Lou wrote and recorded the Oscar-considered title track “She” for Bombshell (2017), along with a music video directed by Natalia Bazina. Lou has toured in Europe, South Africa, and the USA and has been nominated for the 2016 German Critics’ Choice Awards.

Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Kiesler, was an Austrian-born Hollywood actress in the late 1930s-50s and a recognized inventor. Fleeing an overbearing marriage to further pursue her acting, Lamarr met MGM producer Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in London and continued on to Hollywood where she filmed hits such as Algiers (1938), I Take This Woman (1940), and Samson and Delilah (1949). Lamarr was also a self-taught inventor whose ideas included a radio-guidance system, developed by herself and composer George Antheil for evading Axis jamming technology. Although the invention was not used in World War II, the Navy adopted it in the 1960s and their work is incorporated into today’s Bluetooth as well as other technology. In 2014, Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Directed by Alexandra Dean, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) relays the life of Australian-born actress and inventor, Hedy Lamarr. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival to critical favor, including a spot in The New York Times Critics’ Picks and five audience awards. Musician Alice Phoebe Lou’s song for the film, “She,” was included on the Oscars shortlist for Best Original Song.

Berlin-based artist Alice Phoebe Lou cares deeply about how her music connects with others. Beginning as a fire-dancer turned street musician, Lou still enjoys taking her music outdoors, where resonating with a random stranger is more meaningful than a paying audience. Recently, she’s been making music that reaches audiences through film. Lou wrote and recorded the title track for Alexandra Dean’s critically-praised Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017), executive produced by Susan Sarandon and winner of New York Film Critics “Best Documentary” Award. Lou’s song “She” received its own recognition on the Oscars shortlist for Best Original Song, and she released a mesmerizing music video for it which premiered on NPR’s All Songs Considered. Lou discusses with us how her track for Bombshell came about and why she encourages other musicians to try busking.

Where you from?
I’m from Cape Town, South Africa.

When did you start making music?
I played piano as a kid, but I was more into dancing. I was a performing arts kids, always putting on plays. I started writing songs as an angsty teenager and eventually was writing proper songs when I moved to Berlin.

Who did you listen to growing up?
My parents always had something on the record player—PJ Harvey, Cat Power, Morcheeba, Portishead, Patti Smith. I was influenced a lot by my parents’ record collection.

When did you decide this is what you were going to do?
It wasn’t something natural to me, like “I’m going to be a musician!” I traveled around Europe as an 18-year-old, and I was actually performing on the streets as a fire dancer. I found that you can travel Europe with very little money and live this bohemian, nomadic lifestyle, which was amazing for me.

In Berlin, I tried doing a couple cover songs on the street, and people reacted really well. It seemed like a fun thing to try so I gave up my ideas of going to university in Cape Town and carried on playing on the streets. That’s when I realized this music brings me immense joy. So I figured I’d carry on and see where it led.

What role would you say busking played in your development?
Everything. Busking teaches you so much about crowd dynamics and how to create an immersive bubble where people feel welcomed. It’s about creating an environment that moves people and finding direct channels to people’s emotions.

I always recommend people busk, even if they have been performing for decades. I’ve convinced people to busk, and it’s always a hard experience even for really seasoned musicians because it’s humbling in a very scary way. But it teaches you so much about yourself and people in general, and definitely about the effect of music on people’s emotions especially when you’re surprising them with street music.

“I found that you can travel Europe with very little money and live this bohemian, nomadic lifestyle, which was amazing for me.”
— Alice Phoebe Lou

How would you say your relationship with the busking community has changed as your career evolves?
A lot of buskers who come through Berlin know my music, because Berlin’s the kind of place people pass through during the summer. I’m a little bit infamous now which is frustrating because I just want to be a nameless, faceless person sometimes. The appeal of playing to strangers is that when they care, it actually means something.

I try my best to play on the street as much as possible even while touring, and life has been getting busier. Unfortunately, I’ve had quite a bad problem with a stalker. I couldn’t play much on the street last year because every time I showed up he would be there. Hopefully we’ll be having help from the German government, and people can get him to leave me alone so I can do what I enjoy doing and not be perturbed.

Sixto Rodriguez, known simply as “Rodriguez,” is an American singer-songwriter from Detroit who wrote and recorded music in the early 70s. In spite of weak reception in the US, and unbeknownst to Rodriguez, his music gained popularity in South Africa, Australia, Botswana, New Zealand and Zimbabwe from the mid-1970s onward. Some of his songs became especially meaningful in South Africa as anti-Apartheid anthems protesting the government. In the 1990s, following rumors that Rodriguez had been dead for some time, two South African fans set out to discover his whereabouts, a story which is the basis for the Academy Award-winning film Searching for Sugar Man (2012). Rodriguez has since gone on to tour, re-release his albums, and record live albums.

You opened for the legendary Rodriguez on his South African Tour. Had you known his music growing up?
I definitely had. He was someone whose record was in every slightly lefty household. The documentary paints him as our biggest star, and I think that’s a little sensational. But he definitely influenced a lot of South African people’s lives, and it was amazing to go on tour with him.

It was strange as well because he’s got such an anti-establishment rhetoric, and that’s kind of why people were into his music at such a difficult time in South Africa’s history. But when you go to the concerts it’s 99% white people, a lot of whom aren’t really doing anything to change the social circumstances that still exist in South Africa. But it gave me a lot of perspective playing to thousands of South African people when most of my shows have been overseas. It was like a weird homecoming.

You’ve received a lot of recognition for your song “She,” which is featured in the fascinating documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. How did that come about?
Alex and Adam, the director and producer, reached out to me. Most of the film’s music is older, and I think they wanted to end the film on a more uplifting song sung by a current female artist.

I suggested a few things and ultimately wrote a song that seemed to fit them best. It’s not like my other songs. It’s got a different energy to it. The first time I saw it at the Tribeca premiere was crazy because I was so into the documentary because it’s about a fascinating, inspiring person. By the end of it I had totally forgotten my song was in it, so when I started hearing my song it was like, “What’s going on?”

What are some things that you like to address through your music?
In my late teens, I was disillusioned that my songs needed to have so much gravity and weight. It can be overwhelming to write a song when you feel as though you need to hold the weight of all the social, political, and inequality problems in the world.

It’s less important to me now to didactically say things or comment on problems in society, as opposed to making music that moves people. My songs are very personal, but at the same time they could be personal to anyone. Writing songs anyone can relate to and feel something—that’s all that really matters to me.

“Busking teaches you so much about crowd dynamics and how to create an immersive bubble where people feel welcomed.”
— Alice Phoebe Lou

You’re working on recording a new album. What can you tell me about it?
It’s exciting because for the first time in a long time I’m working on something with no stress, just good things. We spent two weeks in an incredible studio in Northern California close to Stinson Beach. It was like living in a castle with all the gear in the world that you could ever want, plus an incredible producer and musicians working so hard with me to finish the album. I have only good feelings about it.

Who would you most like to collaborate with and why?
I like to throw parties in Berlin, and the point is to create an evening where my friends traveling through Berlin, who would otherwise play in a tiny little bar, can be more appreciated than that. For me, that’s the most inspiring way of collaborating—not just aspiring to collaborate with established people, but to create things in your own community.

What are your interests and passions outside music?
I love organizing events. I’m also booking a stage at a festival this year and branching out into those kinds of things. My emphasis is on community and bringing out the best in the people around me, as they seem to do to me.

I love cooking. I love discovering new places. I love playing places that are totally outside of my comfort zone. The weirder and more random the show, the more interested I am.

What’s your favorite book film and music right now?
I’m very inspired by Haruki Murakami books generally, but right now I’m reading a book by Anaïs Nin. She’s an incredibly inspiring writer from the ‘30s and ‘40s, before feminism was even called feminism. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a favorite film. I’m inspired by my friends’ music at the moment. There’s a lot of South African musicians doing amazing things.

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