17th Nov2010

Get In Line For: Alana Stewart

by Todd

My favorite days are the ones where we come across something special. Music that is emotionally charged and constructed perfectly. In Alana Stewart, we found a musician that ought to be massive in 2011. To compare her to someone like Regina Spektor would lead us astray from her real touchstones, the works of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. We are so pleased to be able bring you the world premiere of her first video, Perfervid. As writer Amy so correctly assessed while interviewing Alana, this song is one of the best we’ve heard in years. Period.

TDOA: Who do you consider your vocal influences?

AS: My grandfather was a big influence. He and my grandmother have always been in charge of music at a small church in the middle of nowhere in Missouri. There are probably 20 people in the congregation. My grandpa sings and my grandma plays piano. They used to always take me to “Gospel Sangin’s” where family style musical groups similar to the Carter Family would perform in an anonymous field somewhere in the country and sing praise to Jesus. I learned from my grandpa that it doesn’t matter how technically brilliant of a musician you are- the point is that it feels good for you, feels good on your throat, feels good in your body. I never developed total faith in God but I learned about the power of a good song.
As far as professional singers that influenced me… I spent a lot of time mimicking Ella Fitzgerald, Jenny Lewis, Stevie Nicks, and all your top 20 pop/R&B female vocalists of the 90′s (Whitney Houston, Tony Braxton, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, etc.). But I think the artist I most idolize is Lauryn Hill. Ever since Sister Act 2, there’s simply no one that can beat her. She is untouchable.

TDOA: I really love the conversation on your Myspace about overcoming “role barriers.” What about your music overcomes these barriers?

AS: I am a gender dynamics geek and I spend a lot of time thinking about what is feminine and what is masculine and what levels of expression on either side is socially encouraged or condemned. I’ve always wondered why there’s so few women in music, or at least the upper ranks. I’ve settled on the idea that to perform and put yourself out there in front of a crowd is a very masculine thing to do- its penetrative, its bold, it allows no room for self-doubt or nerves. But to sing can be a very motherly, feminine act. Sometimes I give purpose to what I do by imagining that I am a replacement maternal force to all the people out there that miss being sung to and nurtured by their real mothers. I imagine that it’s my melodies and lyrics that comfort them and let them know that everything is going to be okay. So it’s interesting to me that I perform the most feminine of tasks through one of the most masculine of mediums. I’m not sure if that answers your question, but I tried.

TDOA: On that, how can other musicians challenge those roles?

AS: Musicians today are incredibly fortunate. We have a million different instruments, sounds, samples, and effects to communicate with. We have a loosening of expectations for use of language/poetry/vocal phonetics. There’s almost no such thing as a transgressive subject anymore. We can write music about almost anything we want. So the challenge is really just to be honest. Honesty never gets old and I feel that its our duty to write about what we’re honestly interested in. It’s insincere to create or inflate conflict as to inspire you and shock your audience. But for the bored artist, void of inspiration, playing around with juxtaposition, roles, expectations, conventions, etc. are good places to explore.

TDOA: Perfervid is one of the best songs I’ve heard in years – what is the inspiration/creative process behind such a great song?

AS: Wow. Thank you. That means a lot. Perfervid was the first song I had ever written on guitar. If you listen you’ll notice that the bass line is so simple it’s almost embarrassing. I was living in San Francisco. I had a view of the bay. I was living by myself. I was desperately lonely. I had recently sabotaged a relationship with the perfect man- beautiful and loyal and any woman’s dream partner. It was incredibly troubling to me why I would hurt someone so perfect on purpose. I was single for the next four years and this song was the first step in getting to know myself as Alana, the individual. This was the song where I forgave myself for my mistakes and tried to imagine a future where I was better and happier and chose to actively pursue people and environments that are well-suited to my true nature.
On dictionary.com the day I wrote it, the word-of-the-day was Perfervid, which means filled with emotions. The name seemed to fit and I titled the song after it.

TDOA: I read that you do a lot of live performances in subways. Why? What about that performance do you like most?

AS: For a long time I didn’t have a job. I didn’t know where I wanted to live so I was in New Orleans, then in San Francisco, then in Scandinavia, then in New York. Busking is a really great way to feed yourself as a musician on the road. It’s like going to the ATM- whenever you need money, you just open up your guitar case and sing and people provide what you need.
Besides the virtue of sustaining myself it’s also a great way to connect with strangers in surprising ways. It gives me strength and courage to do other things. I’ve been laughed at and had people throw change in my face. But I’ve also had people miss trains and go way out of their way to support me, buy my CD, and reach out. There’s this magic moment that can be incredibly addictive when you’re on a subway platform at 3 in the morning and everyone whose waiting is extremely exhausted- some of them even to the point of sickness. Then you sing to them and the acoustics of the station are perfect- every note rings out, every lick is eerie and beautiful and it feels amazing for my body as I sing. Then I look at their faces and my audience full of strangers have all closed their eyes, found a comfortable spot and they have these easy grins on. It’s as if I successfully seduced 20 people simultaneously. You feel like a million bucks.
Those shows are intimate. There is no bar noise. I don’t have to go through a booking agent. I don’t have to convince those people to rearrange their saturday night so that they’ll come to my show precisely at 9 o’clock. It’s ephemeral joy and everyone is having a good time.

TDOA: Explain “melody rules all” to me – what does that mean for making music?

AS: For me, for my brain, I hook on to a good melody long before I ever discover and memorize lyrics, and recall the melody long after I’ve forgotten every word of a song. So because I find melody so fixating and important, I always write songs beginning with the melody and find lyrics that fit within the architecture of my melody second. English as a language, and American methods of morphing and transforming that language, offer a really wide palette for lyricists to illustrate worlds, feelings, and scenarios even with constricted melody limitations and precise percussive/melodic elements of the song. But at 4 in the morning, when you’re almost passed out from exhaustion and your brain has no more batteries left, it will always be the melody of a song you cling to.

TDOA: I’m intrigued by your commitment to finding joy, regardless of your connections to other people. Can you expound on that a little? How has that affected your music career?

AS: Well, not surprisingly, my mother didn’t exactly want me to pursue music. She would have preferred me to sell my soul selling out for a career in B class Advertising or low brow prostitution-as-Photoshop-manipulator than sing to strangers for spare change in a New York subway. I had a really difficult time reconciling my career pursuits with my loyalty to my mother. She had always been my greatest love. Challenging her was a serious conflict and I wasted a lot of money and time trying to live my life according to her need for bragging rights. Now I truly, honestly, don’t care or consider my parents advice on this matter. I ask for advice from people who are experts in the concerned context. My mom was never a professional musician so I don’t ask her advice on how to be a successful professional musician. As it turns out, there are successful female musicians out there and some of them even sometimes talk about their careers and how they support themselves.
It took a while to grow the confidence to tackle my creative pursuits. It takes time and energy to write songs, record them, and share them, and in the beginning no one hands you money so you can do this. I had to give up a lot of things other people take for granted, like an apartment, and with that, belongings. The thing about music is that it sustains you when you don’t have other luxuries. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a stereo or new clothes or enough privacy. An ability to make your own music means the ability to manage your own emotions. I never let anyone steal my peace.

TDOA: Stylistically, which of your contemporaries would you compare yourself to?

AS: I suppose Regina Spektor reflects the most similar style to mine. I admire and perhaps try to imitate her playfulness. Her vocals and lyrics are the dominant element. She has a very strong voice. She sings with authority. She can be incredibly brave with her voice and then turn it around on a dime and express a child-like vulnerability. She’s great. I’ve always liked her music. I think one of the differences between her music and mine is that mine has more of a bedroom quality. If I could choose between selling out Madison Square Garden and knowing that a million people have Perfervid on their Bed-time Seduction playlist I would definitely choose the latter.

TDOA: Can you talk some about the video for Perfervid? I really liked the story about it on your Myspace page, and think it fits perfectly with the work you’re doing. I just watched the video and it’s absolutely gorgeous.

AS: Of course. I got really lucky with the Perfervid video. I was busking in a subway in Brooklyn and a really handsome man named John Smith (not kidding) came up to me and bought a couple of CD’s. He didn’t have money so he gave me a gift-card to Apple and we corresponded a little bit after that. He gave one of the CD’s to his brother in LA who is a cinematographer and as it turns out his brother fell in love with the song and decided he wanted to make a video for it. Tom (Smith) came out to Brooklyn. We shared the cost of his plane ticket and he spent five days with me just following me around and getting to know each other. I felt incredibly comfortable with him. I’m not always comfortable taking showers with boyfriends and lovers but Tom came in, I barely knew him, and we got this incredible bath tub scene. He was completely professional and I’m proud to call him one of my newest friends.
Tom goes by ‘Spool’. You can find more work of his here: http://vimeo.com/spool. Great guy.

TDOA: What’s next on your agenda? Will you tour the U.S.?

AS: Right now I am trying to give these songs oxygen and put them out into the world. I’ve been busy. I wrote a screenplay. I wrote all the music for it too. I’ve written enough music to record an entire other album right now- I think I’m getting better at writing songs which is encouraging. But I really want to give these songs I’m releasing now a fair chance to live and breath. If I completely blew off promoting them and just went on to record and push another album, that would be like child negligence. I don’t want to neglect my children. So yes, that means a tour. So I guess that means getting a car is on my agenda too.

To learn more about Alana Stewart, follow her on Facebook!

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