At the ripe old age of 17, Alice Phoebe Lou decided she’d had enough of life in her native South Africa. She slung her guitar across her back and headed for Europe. Everywhere she went, she sang on the street, mainly doing covers of other people’s songs. But then she discovered Berlin and its cutting-edge arts scene. She’d found her home and her creative self.
Lou settled in Berlin and started honing her own songwriting skills. Like many indie musicians, her career is growing fast thanks to word of mouth. Visitors to Berlin come to one of her shows, are bowled over, and take their experience home to share with others. Now Lou can fill venues with over 500 seats when she tours.
She started making home-made CDs as a busker, even designing and printing home-made covers. Now she makes recordings in a studio, emphasizing in interviews how important it is to maintain control over every aspect of her product. “I can’t handle having to answer to anyone,” she claims.
Now 23, Lou has a philosophical depth that belies her age. She has described her songs as having three levels of meaning: a personal meaning for her, a “storytelling aspect,” and a universal human truth. Keep an ear out for exhortations to fight against normalizing hate, one of her most central themes. Individuality is the paramount human right in her view, and anything that threatens the flowering of the individual is an enemy to well-being.
In 2014 she made Momentum, which she calls an EP although it includes eight tracks. The opening song, “Berlin Blues,” is a worthy introduction to her intensely focused voice, tight vibrato, and exact intonation. At first the guitar is the barest framework holding up the tapestry of her singing. Despite the name, “Berlin Blues” is a love song to that city and its attitudes. When the drums come in after the somber intro, Lou sings about freedom – of ideas and intellect, mostly. (You know, typical pop stuff. Ha!) “There is a place…where ideas are for free…and your great mind is no longer the minority.”
In “Grey,” Lou shows off some serious R&B- and jazz-singing chops, spinning out long, melismatic lines that end with a little flourish of vibrato like you might expect from Dianne Reeves. Unlike most of the best-selling artists nowadays, Lou understands that ornaments are just that: decorative elements to hang on the main notes, not a substitute for strong melodic singing. The arrangement is mesmerizing, a combination of percussive synth and electric guitar, provided by Matteo Pavesi:
Pavesi (known simply as Matteo) is the co-star on Lou’s album Live at Grüner Salon. Lou carefully chooses the musicians she works with for their individuality and musical instincts. Besides Pavesi, she also works a lot with producer Jian Kellett Liew (A.K.A. Kyson).
Most of the songs on that live collection have also been released as studio tracks. A stunning exception is “She.” Again, individual freedom is the theme, specifically that of a strong, curious, sexually energetic woman. “She caught a hole in the fence and she ran…she didn’t want to lose her desire.” Lou flips the pitch up to headvoice at the end of each line, giving the song a decidedly African sound, a sensation increased by the repetitive, chant-like simplicity of the melody. Listen to that crowd react with cheers all the way through – these people appreciate what she has to say:
Lou’s debut full-lenghth studio album, Orbit, came out in 2016 on Lou’s own label, Rtbe F-L Groove Attack. Orbit continues to focus on personal freedom, and characters longing for communities without too many rules. “Girl on an Island” has a folkish sound, with parts of the melody reminiscent of Verdi. The lyrics start out telling a story, but end up as more of a lesson: freedom is a state of mind. (The live video offers a great view of the creation of the lilting waltz accompaniment.)
There’s a return to an amorphous jazz style in “Haruki” – I can imagine Billie Holiday just slaying this one. While the text, urging someone to wake up after a long sleep, might be directed at one of Lou’s personal acquaintances, it’s also a warning to all of us that we’ve “forgotten how to live for the now.” This is a good example of Lou’s own theory that her songs can be understood on multiple levels.
Some of Lou’s most intriguing poetic imagery shows up in “Orbit,” the album’s title song, which lilts in a slightly creepy triple time accented with the natural creak of a guitar’s fingerboard. It’s hard to tell whether the opening lines are purely metaphorical or some kind of science-fictional vision. “One foot on the pavement,” she sings, “and one foot in the Milky Way.”
As usual, Lou challenges the listener to pursue a full and meaningful existence: “Do you want to be just a machine in this crazy society?” It’s safe to say that, for her fans, the answer is a jubilant “No!"