Alice Phoebe Lou Discusses Writing Tips, New Album And Getting Chosen By Paul McCartney To Record A Song

After Paper Castles came out in March 2019, the South African singer-songwriter Alice Phoebe Lou became one of the hottest acts on the indie circuit. 

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Known for crafting intuitively catchy music clad with funky basslines, electric guitars and glistening synth arrangements, Lou has made a name for herself as an exemplary independent artist. With no label, the 27-year-old—who lives in Berlin these days—dons all sorts of caps, overseeing her writing, her production, her merch, her accounting, etc, etc. In that regard, her success is all the more a testament not only to her talents and ambition as an artist, but to the changing tides in how the music industry operates. Perhaps that’s why Lou’s third studio album, Glow, is so exciting.

Coming out on March 19, the record shows Lou in her element—an auteur, calling the shots, forging the visions from her mind into reality. Recorded entirely onto tape, the album’s tasteful arrangements take the listener on a journey through themes of heartache, new beginnings and self-discovery. Throughout it, Lou takes great care to show her authentic self, revealing some of the harder parts about what being an individual in today’s world means. 

Lou hopped on a Zoom call with American Songwriter to discuss it all and more. In addition to her own release, Lou also recently collaborated with Paul McCartney, arranging a cover of his song “Deep Deep Feeling” for his forthcoming album, McCartney III. Quickly becoming a case study for success in the indie world, Lou offers fascinating insights on everything from songwriting tips to how to listen to your own emotions to what it’s like to work up a song for an ex-Beatle. Read our conversation below: 

American Songwriter: Your career really took off after the release of 2019’s Paper Castles—what has the time since then been like for you?

Alice Phoebe Lou: My career, in general, has been a really nice, slow and steady trajectory. I’ve never been someone who wants instant-fame or anything. The idea of going from working and doing my thing to being suddenly successful and famous is actually kinda scary. I feel like you need to learn things along the way to be able to handle success. I’m so happy with the way things have happened. It’s allowed me to build my career on a steady, solid foundation. 

Paper Castles was the moment where I was finally able to tour the United States and properly get paid for shows and stuff like that. Things were starting to really happen, I was able to sell 1,000 tickets to a show in London. So, it really felt like a big milestone. I also toured a shit-ton with that album—2019 was like the “Never-Ending Tour.” It was amazing, but it was also intense. I have the energy for it, but because I’m independent and take on more roles for myself—like, overseeing my merch or being my own manager at times—it makes for a lot of work. It wasn’t like I would just perform and then go to sleep; I had accounting to do! So, it was “bam, bam, bam” and I kept thinking “Oh wow, when is this going to end?” And then, bam, it ended!

Fortunately, though, I had lived through 2019 before 2020 came around. I got to release Paper Castles and make all those connections. If I hadn’t gotten to do that, 2020 would’ve been so bad for me. I would’ve been one of countless artists around the world right now who feel like fucking shit because they weren’t able to go on these tours they had planned. So, I’ve been extremely lucky. 

AS: What was it like when everything stopped? Was it nice to get a break and write for a while?

APL: Well, I was having trouble writing—after touring so much, it was hard to get into the headspace of writing again. I was feeling a lot of pressure to make hits and I didn’t know if I had it in me. I went from touring the world to living alone in my flat in Berlin. It was surreal, confronting, intense, lonely and all of those things, but, thank goodness, I somehow got the songs together. I was going deep into those hard feelings and taking inspiration from them—sometimes, that’s what you need to write songs that you really mean.  

Then, we recorded the album in September, which felt so good. We recorded it, we mixed and mastered it the next month, and now it’s coming out in March. It feels like this really nice, rolling, happening thing… which is great during a time where everything feels suspended and stuck. At least musically, I feel like things are happening and I’m really rolling with it. I hate waiting until songs feel dead to me to finally record them—that idea freaks me out. I’d hate to go on tour with a batch of songs that I’m over. 

AS: You mentioned earlier that you “take on more roles” for yourself as an artist—that’s kinda emblematic of the increasing independence artists have these days. In a way, having the artist wear so many hats at once is unprecedented in the industry. How do you feel about it? Does it give you more artistic freedom? 

APL: I stuck to my guns as a slightly-anarchist 19-year-old who started making music quite late in life. For me, becoming a “commercial artist” wasn’t really an option. I was like “No, I’ll never do that because it’s not me.” Now, I’m so grateful that my younger-self stuck to those guns. It’s just who I am and it allows me the freedom to do what I want. I have a few bandmates, a manager and a few people who help with PR; that’s already so many opinions and inputs coming in. When I start to imagine what it would be like to have a label telling me what they prefer I do, that’s enough for me to be like “Alright, music, it’s over! Let’s move on.”

It’s not that I feel everyone should feel that way—that’s not it at all. It’s much more so a personal thing. It’s how you want your life to be, how you want your career to be structured. So, my advice to people who see how I do things in an independent way is: understand all the pieces of the music industry—how they all work and how they fit together—and apply them to you, as a person, as an individual and as a musician. There are so many different ways you can engage with those different pieces. You can adapt and fit them to a structure that works for you.

Gone are the days of the label having a structure that they put onto every artist who signs to them—labels are having to adapt too. They feel the pressure being put on them. We live in a world where labels don’t monopolize music anymore. Now, anyone with talent and a bit of imagination can do those things for themselves.

Some artists just want to make music and have other people do the other parts, which is fucking fair enough. Not everyone wants to do those things. But, the power is in understanding the roles and why they’re important. We’re getting more ability and agency, as artists, to make those decisions for ourselves. It’s like, you win some, you lose some, you learn along the way and you start to figure out what’s best for you. 

Now, that process is even more difficult for women. Not to pull the “feminist card,” but even in a subtle way, there’s more audacity from other people telling us what’s best for us. Especially in the music industry—you’re, generally, going to be one of the only women in the room. So, you have to fight that much harder to be like “This is my vision, this is what I want and this is the world I’m going to set up.” But, it’s becoming more and more possible, which is fucking exciting.

Alice Phoebe Lou, photographed by Andrea Rojas

AS: Tell us about Glow—you mentioned that you were having a hard time writing songs at first. How did this record come to be? 

APL: I had been on the road, moving, for so long and suddenly, I was able to sit still in the same spot for longer than I had in years. It put me in a place where I was raw, emotionally. That can mean a lot of things—you feel the darker things more intensely, but you also feel the beautiful things more intensely. It was an interesting, paradoxical place to be in. I was both feeling more myself than ever—because I was confronting myself and working on myself—but I was also feeling the sadness more intensely. 

But, what I was learning through all of these feelings, was how important it is to sit with that sadness, to sit with pain, to sit with the skeletons that come out when you face things. Maybe it’s cliched to say, but we live in a world where escapism is very encouraged. We are so quick to distract ourselves from any real emotions that are coming up. In the moment, it’s easier to distract, to scroll, to do whatever you need to to make yourself momentarily feel better. But, in the long run, if you just sat for another 20 seconds and let that feeling wash over you, you would maybe come to a place where you can actually work with your feelings and begin to fix them. 

So, yeah, that was the headspace I was in. I kinda just didn’t center myself in the songwriting, which I think is the best way to put it. The emotions would come up, I’d be like “Oh, alright, apparently I need to sing about this.” Even if in the moment I was like “Hmm, this might be a little too personal,” I would be like “Well, I’m just going to do it.” I was being true to myself and the words that were coming out. Whereas before, I think that I was more self-conscious. I felt I needed to center things and make them more listenable and accessible from the point of view of the listener. So, I just listened to my fucking self and sang the songs that I felt needed to be sung. 

AS: Do you have a particular process for songwriting?

APL: It’s different for every song. I never really found a strategy that consistently works, it’s more-so all over the place. There was, however, one thing I did with this record that I have never done before and it really helped me. I was getting to a point where I was so overly-critical of the words I was writing down that I would stop myself and hold myself back. I’d try to be clever or mathematically write the lyrics to a song. The way I escaped that was: one day, when I was just strumming this four-chord progression, I pressed “record” on my phone. Then, I just started singing the first words that came to my mind. The first verse was fucking shotty, really, like, I thought “I never want anybody to ever hear that.” But, I just kept going, for about 10 minutes. Then, I listened back to it and wrote down the words that I had really, properly improvised from the depths of wherever the fuck those things come from. I wrote it down and… it worked!

I went on to use that technique to write about half of the album. It was so nice because so many of the phrases were things I wouldn’t have been able to come up with if I was still stuck in my head. I tried not to edit the words too much afterward, too. It meant that a lot more vulnerable, shameful and over-emotional things would come out, but that’s what I’m playing with on this album. I’m allowing myself to be overly-emotional and really feel these peaks and valleys of my feelings. I exaggerated it, even. I allowed myself to not always have my shit together. That was a really interesting experience, but, ultimately, I was able to write in an even more intuitive way using that process.

AS: What was the recording process like for Glow?

It was quite collaborative. For previous albums, my insecurity often manifested in me just going along with whatever my producer or bandmates thought, over my instinctual feelings. It still sounded good and the ideas were good, but often, they weren’t my own. With this album, it finally feels more like it’s “mine.” I finally had the confidence to be like “No, I don’t want that, I want this.”

To give it a bit more pretext—in March of last year, we were given a tape machine. My friends and I wanted to figure out how to use it, and I was like “Well, I have this two-chord song… let’s try to record it and see what happens.” A few weeks later, we released it—it was “Witches.” That was such a beautiful process and I really fell in love with that method of recording. There’s no computer, you’re listening, you’re doing each take as a one-take, so everything feels more alive. You don’t see certain imperfections as errors, you see them as adding to the texture and liveliness of it. You focus on getting the sound of the instrument where you want it, then you record it, rather than trying to get it halfway there and then doing the rest of the work with plug-ins and digital enhancement. So, after that process, I knew that that’s how I wanted to record music. It just felt right to me. 

The whole process was just a bunch of friends hanging out, building up these songs with no egos, no bullshit. I felt like I was in charge, in the best way possible. I was heading this project and no one did anything without consulting me because it’s my fucking record, which should be obvious, but so often, it doesn’t work out that way. 

We didn’t try to fill everything—we only had 16 channels on the tape machine. It was a nice limitation, in a way. We would record a song with a simple arrangement, get it just right and then maybe sprinkle-in a synth sparkle here or there. We also got the oldest microphones and the oldest amplifiers we could. Whenever you hear an extreme effect, it’s not digital. There are two songs where we put my voice through the Leslie speaker. There were also songs where we put the master track through a Fender amplifier and recorded it—that was for “Lover // Over The Moon” and “How To Get Out Of Love.” It created this old effect without feeling gimmicky or put-on. The whole thing was so intuitive and natural, everything had its place. There was no pushing or fighting. And using this old gear and getting in touch with these old methods of recording was awesome—that’s how most of our favorite albums were recorded. But, we weren’t being purists about it either. Just because most of what we were using was from a certain era doesn’t mean we can’t put some Juno on it to make it sparkle!

AS: In December, you were one of the artists selected by Paul McCartney to record a cover off his upcoming McCartney III—what was that experience like?

APL: It was so sweet and out of the blue! It was a campaign, so it was coming from this campaign-type thing and had parameters and stuff. But, in the end, when I look at it, I got to listen to one of Paul McCartney’s songs before it was released so I could make my own version of it… that’s super sweet!

Basically, he didn’t want to release singles, but instead made billboards with the sheet music to his songs so people could get an idea of it ahead of time and make their own versions. To go along with that, for each song, one artist “received” the song and got to make a short interpretation of it. I’m not signed to Universal Germany and I don’t really work with them, but I think they pitched a few German artists for the one song and I ended up getting it, which was super random. It was so nice. I heard that he liked it, which was cool. It was difficult too, though—it was a difficult song to make an interpretation of, but it was fun and nice. He’s a legend. 

Watch Alice Phoebe Lou perform “Only When I” off her new album Glow below:

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