Don't Call It Nostalgia: ALA.NI's Done This For Years

Jun 12, 2017
Originally published on June 29, 2017 12:49 pm

Hearing ALA.NI sing for just a moment feels like being transported back in time. On her debut album, You & I, the British-born, Paris-based singer's voice evokes greats like Billie Holiday and Judy Garland. But ALA.NI is not one for blindly indulging nostalgia: She's just staying true to the music she's always loved.

"I didn't set out to make a kitsch kind of album. I just did what I grew up listening to," she says. "It sounds weird, like, 'How did this black chick with dreads grow up with Julie Andrews as her role model?' Well, I have about five copies of The Sound of Music on vinyl. I know every single word to that film."

ALA.NI says she's tired of people who don't understand her personal history thinking, as she puts it, "'Oh, she's just swallowed some Great American Songbook and thinks she can regurgitate it.' "

"And it's like, no!" she says. "I had to overcome the fact that I am black and I was told many times, 'Oh, you sound white. You don't do the gospel stuff.' "

Although You & I is her first album, ALA.NI has spent her life surrounded by music and musicians. Her father was a bassist, while her great-uncle Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson was a beloved British cabaret star in the 1920s and '30s. That was a great source of pride for her, she says.

"I remember having a boyfriend whose grandparents were like, 'Yes, I remember seeing Hutch perform! And he had his handkerchief, and he always pulled out his handkerchief to perform! He sat down at the piano,'" she says. "And it was like oh, yeah, OK! That's one of my family."

At 12, ALA.NI attended a small, prestigious arts school with talented classmates such as Amy Winehouse, whose painful and public struggle with drugs and alcohol would result in her death in 2011.

"It made me very scared because I could see what the industry does to you," ALA.NI says. "If you're an open, sensitive soul like [Winehouse] was, it can destroy you. Because you need people who care, who love you for you, who don't get lost in the dollar signs above your head. I was very scared to enter this business knowing what I want to give of myself. It's extremely lonely."

To stay sane, she goes swimming — if there isn't a pool in her hotel, she wants there to be one within walking distance. She makes this request for the sake of her own well-being, even if it makes her come off like "a right diva," as she jokes.

Now that ALA.NI has properly made her debut after years at the periphery of the music industry, she's realized just how scared she had been to dive into it.

"Now that I feel like I've broken through that fear," she says, "whenever I have that feeling of 'Oh no, I can't do it, how come these people are believing in me? I don't even know what I'm doing!,' I look at it and I go, 'I've come too far. There's no turning back now.' "

Web intern Karen Gwee contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hearing the singer ALA.NI, even for just a moment, feels like being transported back in time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHERRY BLOSSOM")

ALA.NI: (Singing) Cast cherry blossom by the river, blowing through the flowing of my heart.

MARTIN: Despite a lifetime surrounded by music and musicians, this is a ALA.NI's first album. It is called "You And I." And on it, she tells an age-old story.

ALA.NI: It's a story of a love affair that takes place over a year. So "Cherry Blossom" is just the first one. It will always be quite special for me because of how I wrote it. I wrote it in Grenada under a duvet at 3 o'clock in the morning with the crickets and the sea as my backing, as my instrumental.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHERRY BLOSSOM")

ALA.NI: (Singing) Love, oh, everlasting love.

MARTIN: If this is all one narrative that unfolds on your album, can you tell us how the love story ends?

ALA.NI: In disaster.

MARTIN: Come on.

ALA.NI: (Laughter) No, I mean, it's weird because in order to make the album - I've been single for six years now, which is a long time.

MARTIN: Yeah.

ALA.NI: And it was so cathartic to sing about - you know, I was having an affair with a married man, basically. And I'd been sworn to secrecy where I'd - you know, I'd been a good mistress. And when I wrote the album, it finally feels like I don't have to be trapped in that love situation anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARKNESS AT NOON")

ALA.NI: (Singing) We agreed to end this love affair, to erase every word that you said that set me free.

MARTIN: ALA.NI might remind you of greats like Billie Holiday or Judy Garland, but she doesn't like those comparisons. And she doesn't like the word nostalgia.

ALA.NI: I didn't set out to make a kitsch kind of album. I just did what I grew up listening to. It sounds weird. Like, well, how did this black chick with dreads grow up with Julie Andrews as her role model? Well, I have about five copies of "Sound Of Music" on vinyl. I know every single word to that film. And if you don't understand my history, you just go, oh, she's just swallowed some, like, great American songbook and thinks that she can regurgitate it. And it's like, no, I had to overcome the fact that I'm black and I sound - I was told many times, oh, you sound white. You don't do all the gospel, like (vocalizing) stuff.

MARTIN: Like a black singer's supposed to sing.

ALA.NI: Like a black - what is black and white? Soul is exclusive to blackness; that's ridiculous.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUDDENLY")

ALA.NI: (Singing) Suddenly, I'm woken by a vision of your blue eyes, so lovely.

MARTIN: Music is in ALA.NI's DNA. Her dad was a bassist, and her great uncle was one of the most beloved British cabaret stars of the 1920s and '30s. His name was Leslie Hutchinson, but he was known as Hutch.

ALA.NI: I remember being maybe about 13 or 14 and hearing about this uncle and sitting around a radio with my grandmother. We all listened to this BBC show about him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We present Hutch's song album.

LESLIE HUTCHINSON: (Singing) I'm with you once more under the stars.

ALA.NI: It just gave me a real sense of pride. And I remember having a boyfriend whose - I think his grandparents are like, yes, I remember seeing Hutch perform. And he had his handkerchief. And he always used to pull out his handkerchief before he sat down at the piano. And it was, like, oh, yeah, OK. That's one of my family.

MARTIN: And this was your - is this on your dad's side?

ALA.NI: It's on my mom's side.

MARTIN: So you had music coming and going, both sides of your family.

ALA.NI: Yeah. My mom can't really...

(LAUGHTER)

ALA.NI: ...But we would always stand in the kitchen cooking and singing songs, like Carpenters or something.

MARTIN: Carpenters?

ALA.NI: Oh, yeah. That was one of the staples.

MARTIN: So you know now I got to ask you to sing a Karen Carpenter song.

ALA.NI: Oh, we used to sing (singing) I'm on the top of the world looking down on creation and the only explanation I can find...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOP OF THE WORLD")

THE CARPENTERS: (Singing) Only explanation I can find...

MARTIN: ALA.NI started in the entertainment industry when she was just 5 years old. At 12, she went to a small, prestigious art school with a whole lot of talented classmates, including Amy Winehouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REHAB")

AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) They tried to make go to rehab. I said, no, no, no.

MARTIN: Winehouse had a painful and public struggle with drugs and alcohol, and she died in 2011.

ALA.NI: I don't really like to talk about it too much, but it was shocking. It made me very scared because I could see what the industry does to you. If you're an open, sensitive soul like she was, it can destroy you because you need people who care, who love you for you and who don't get lost in the dollar signs above your head.

And I was too - I was very scared to enter this business knowing what I want to give of myself. It's extremely lonely. So being an artist isn't easy. And if you don't have the mental strength to get you through - like this morning, I went swimming. That's where I find my sanity, in water.

MARTIN: So you make sure when you stay in hotels, they have pools.

ALA.NI: I sound like a right diva when I'm a requesting it.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ALA.NI: Like, I need a pool. I need swimming pools. And if there's not one in the hotel, it needs to be at least five minute - in walking distance. And they're like, oh, my - so, yeah, it's starting to get a little bit like, oh, here comes the diva. But it's necessary. It's like if you want me to stay sane, I need water.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO THE RIVER")

ALA.NI: (Singing) Someone left me all alone. I am far away from home, scared to be wild and free.

MARTIN: So you've been around music. You've been at the edges of the music industry your whole life. But it is only recently that you've decided to - to expand the metaphor - dive in with both...

ALA.NI: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Feet. Have you thought twice about whether or not you should have done this earlier?

ALA.NI: I kind of did when I first started because - well, yeah, I realized how scared I was to do it. And now that I feel like I've broken through that fear, whenever I have that feeling of, oh, no, I can't do it. I can't - what am I doing? How comes (ph) these people are believing in me? I don't even know what I'm doing. And then I just I look at it, and I go, I've come too far. I can't turn - there's no turning back now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO THE RIVER")

ALA.NI: (Singing) And the tides, they flow like life keeps changing. Every little thing is all right here.

MARTIN: ALA.NI. Her debut album is called "You And I."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO THE RIVER")

ALA.NI: (Singing) To the river (scatting). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.