Published Jun 27, 2009British singer Alice Russell broke into the musical world first as a featured vocalist featured on a lot of the stuff being released by Quantic and Quantic Soul Orchestra. Soon, her collaboration with Nostalgia 77 and their gospel-infused cover of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" had people wondering - who is this girl? Subsequent features with Massive Attack, the Roots, Mr. Scruff, Roy Ayers and De La Soul would launch her solo career, and she eventually released Pot of Gold, her newest full-length album that featured older material and new tracks recorded with her nine-piece band and produced by musical soul mate TM Juke. Constantly compared to fellow revivalist-soul singers like Amy Winehouse and Adele, Alice has made a real name for herself by working with a diverse group of groundbreaking artists who have only helped her powerful gospel-fuelled voice to reach the masses. Now on a tour that brings her to Canada in June and July, Alice talks to Exclaim! about pig farming, hula-hoops and, of course, soul music.
You were born in the countryside of England - how did music first appear in your life?
I was born in Suffolk, actually, and my best friend's dad had a pig farm that was quite funny. It was over the fields and far away and it was quite dark when you walked home from the pub, so we'd often sing to keep ourselves from being really scared.
Do you remember when you were exposed to soul music for the first time?
I used to play with my little toys around the house and I'd listen to the radio and tape stuff in the day of cassettes when you could run and hit the record button. I think the one song that really made me go "what the hell is this?" was James Brown's "Get Up Like A Sex Machine." I was about nine or ten, because a lot of the stuff was in the charts in the '80s and I was born in '76, so it's really part of that era where there was quite a lot of punk and ska stuff and cheesy stuff but all sorts of amazing soul stuff in the UK charts at the time. So I got to hear all this crazy amazing music and play enough of it and started getting some pocket money and spending it on buying records and things.
So what were some of your first records?
My first soul record was a compilation that had some James Brown and some Sam Cooke on it and at the same time I bought a Beach Boys record, which is hilarious - but yeah, I loved all the harmonies and was always drawn to harmonies and gospel stuff.
I know you come from a very classically trained musical family - what was their reaction when you were coming home singing, "get on the scene, like a sex machine?"
(Laughs) Yeah, to be honest, they're pretty open-minded people. I think that anyone who loves music loves most music. There were quite a lot of times when I've tried to bring my dad stuff and try to educate him on the stuff that I like and he does the same for me. Like he'll buy me some opera for Christmas and I'll buy him some soul or some Art Blakey piano styles, which a lot of jazz masters were influenced by a lot of these classical styles as well. I think they were cool with it; I used to sit in my room and paint with the music really loud and they were really tolerant, now that I think about it. And I was the youngest, so I think I got the best deal; by the time you get to the youngest they feel too tired to order people around. Dad likes a lot of jazz stuff but some of the music I played he didn't like too much, like Prince's "Lady Cab Driver." I made him play that in the car and he wasn't impressed, but apart from that they're pretty cool, really, so I'm lucky.
You're compared to a lot of artists like Amy Winehouse, Adele and you're grouped into this whole resurgence of blue-eyed soul music coming out of the UK - what sets you apart from the rest of these singers?
Well, I don't say blue-eyed soul anymore; my violinist told me I have green eyes and yes, that's correct, there's the big difference (laughs). I think maybe because I've been doing it a little longer, but not by much. I think Amy started when she was 19. Another difference is they're all on major labels and they've got a bit more PR push and maybe more of that sort of thing. That Back to Black album is amazing - but I think they've got bigger support and bigger plans with getting that music heard by the people, where I've sort of been just been doing it and kept doing it and ended up doing it and I don't know, I think I've come to it a lot slower and in a more underground way I think.
And you've worked with some really amazing artists like Quantic and Nostalgia 77 - how did you hook up with that group of people?
I started off with Tru Thoughts when they were starting out and they really only had Bonobo and Quantic on the label, and Quantic had only done an instrumental album at that point so he was looking into doing some other stuff, so they put us together and we started working on his second album, and eventually the Quantic Soul Orchestra stuff. Also, Mr. Scruff used to DJ a night down in Brighton every month and there was a big crew of people there, sort of like a community of people that came together, and it was all because of Tru Thoughts promoting this Scruff night that I met Scruff and Quantic and all these big record collectors who would get together in big rooms with records and do who-knows-what. So that's where I met all those guys, and later TM Juke, and it's been a gradual, natural process of meeting people and being put in touch with people that I've been lucky enough to work with.
When you listen to those tracks they sound like you all gelled musically right off the bat - was that the case?
The way Will (Quantic) works is very quick; I mean, he's very prolific. We'd just get into the studio and quite often we'd do a track in a night. He'd just write it right there and then. I do that with TM Juke quite a lot and sometimes we come back with stuff, but with Quantic he's very much there and then, get in there and get on with it. We work pretty fast together.
And the "Seven Nation Army" cover - was that your idea?
That was actually Nostalgia's idea because at the time I hadn't even heard the original - it was quite a few years ago and it had only just come out. He invited me around the corner and I went "yeah, I'll come have a listen," and as soon as I heard it I was like yeah - amazing - the lyrics and all, so it was an instant yes. We did it in a couple of hours in his studio, in his bedroom. (Laughs)
There's a lot of talk about your live show and how amazing you are on stage - so which one do you prefer, the creative process in the studio or the live performance side of what you do?
You can't have one without the other, because they become meaningless without each other. If you're touring too much you really long for the studio and to be creating this stuff. If you're still doing tracks that you've done years ago sometimes you have to keep reinventing them, which is great, but sometimes you're like "that was where I was a few years ago I wanna be doing some of the new things" - so ya have to kinda refresh yourself. At the same time, without doing the studio bit you can't go out and do the live stuff, and also from doing the live stuff you get ideas to take back to the studio. So for me, they're hand-in-hand. It's a much more interactive and communicative process when you actually do a gig live. Sometimes people can hear a track but not get the full gist, but when it's live and if you still don't get it you can at least say you gave your all to say what you've wanted to communicate with your music.
Is there an artist that you emulate or that inspires your live show?
Recently I went and saw Grace Jones. Now she's in a completely different league, but she stood there and did "Slave to the Rhythm," hula-hooping through the whole song. Her performance is almost simple - what she did with props - but it was spellbinding, the music, her voice was so full of emotion. She has that side of it and then it's the really tight band behind her, but the props, some simple changes, I was like "that's what I'm looking for." And I'm actually working on that between interviews today, looking at how we can do a bit more of that with the show. I love the theatrical side of performing; it's such fun.
You've got so many amazing collaborations under your belt - is there anybody left out there that you'd like to work with?
I love the Gnarls Barkley boys - I love Cee-Lo because of his voice and I love Danger Mouse because of that thing he did with David Lynch, so I would love to do a track with those guys. And you know Janelle Monae - I love her. The next album has a lot of those elements. It's obviously not afro-punk because I'm a little white girl from Suffolk, but we call it soul-punk and we've written a lot of the stuff along those same lines.
So tell me about the next album...
We wrote all of this stuff at the same time as Pot of Gold, but it's completely different. It's a bit more electro and more punky. TM Juke just had a kid and I've been touring like a nutter, so we've had to wait and we've put it off to August, but hopefully we can get some proper studio time to lock it down by then.
Finally, what makes you want to express yourself through soul music?
I'm quite an open person and I am quite direct with how I communicate with people. For me, a lot of the soul music came from a time of extreme oppression and segregation and I think from that came music that was very open and direct about how people were feeling at the time. It hits you right in your heart and soul, and it comes from a very political era and a very trying era and you have to respect where it comes from, but as it has developed. And it's still so true today. It's very direct and open, and that's what draws me to it, same as the gospel, music and I think a lot like punk in the same way.