The highest billed female star at Coachella, Alison Wonderland is the thinking clubber’s choice DJ. To celebrate Awake, Alison’s second album, Disorder caught up with Ms Wonderland for an exclusive chat and photo shoot. Born Alexandra Sholler, Alison grew up in Sydney where she trained in the cello. Her debut album, Run, was released in 2015: lead single U Don’t Know featured the vocal stylings of the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne while the video featured actor Christopher Mintz-Platz, aka Superbad’s McLovin, as Alison’s abductor/abductee! In 2017 Alison Wonderland was named New Artist of the Year at the Electronic Music Awards. Awake, released in April 2018, attacks the highs and lows of mental illness, from a personal perspective… underscored by fat, epic beats.
DISORDER: How did you start out?
ALISON WONDERLAND: I only really got into electronic music after I came back from Europe playing cello. I heard this group called The Knife, who is a Swedish duo. And basically it changed my life. I got fully focused on electronic music, and it can make you feel something. I hadn’t ever really felt such a connection with something before, so I saved up all my money, bought a laptop and tried to sound like The Knife for so long. Failed! Because they’re amazing. But that’s what got me into production.
What is the biggest risk you’ve taken?
The biggest risk I ever took with music was being myself. When I started to produce under Alison Wonderland it would have been really easy for me to create just a club banger. But it just wasn’t me. I’ve always written songs. So I stuck to doing what felt natural. And it was a bit of a risk because at that time there wasn’t that many people in dance music doing that. I’m really glad that I did that now because it spoke really loudly and resonated with people. Actually my fans are so dope because I feel like they get me! So yeah, just being super honest and just sticking to my guns.
What makes you stand out in the electronic music community?
As a DJ I’ve always believed that people need to see this as an instrument, so I’d have GoPros [tiny video cameras] over my hands when I was playing, projecting behind me. I wanted people to see what I was doing. You know, I never really wanted to make it about my gender or what I look like, so basically I do the same thing in every show.
Do you have advice for emerging artists or DJs?
You can’t be anyone else but yourself. Sticking to what I truly believe in, going with my gut and trusting myself is the best thing I ever did. That’s the best thing that you can be. Because you can only be the best version of that, otherwise it’s not real and there’s no longevity in that. People smell your bullshit.
What about advice for your younger self?
Don’t worry about all these bullies. Don’t worry about having no friends. Stick to who you are, cos it’s ok, and one day people are going to accept you for just being the dork that you are, and it’s totally fine. Oh, and you’re gonna meet your idols! Don’t freak out. Don’t fuck it up.
Your songs are outspoken about personal topics, such as anxiety. What emboldens you to tackle those subjects in music?
I can’t really help it. There’s no reason as to why I do it. I think it’s because when I’m feeling most creative I’m feeling in extreme emotion, whether it be super happy or super sad. That’s when I channel everything. And it’s my responsibility as an artist to be as honest as I can. And it’s an outlet for me. Being a musician and a songwriter originally, it was kindoflike a creative outlet for me. The after-thought of that, it’s a good thing that I have been honest, because I’m a music fan and artists that are open about what they’re going through have always resonated with me. Makes me feel a connection. Also when my fans write to me and say, oh I know exactly what you’re going through, I’ve been through this and this [song] is really helping me – it actually helps me because then I feel less weird.
You have a new album. Why did you choose the title Awake?
It’s so weird because I had a dream… this is the craziest story! I made some merch’ in 2014 before Run [Alison’s debut album] even came out. It was a crossword puzzle, like a find-a-word, on the back of the T-shirt where it says AW and like a box with all the names of the songs on my album that was about to come out. You could find the song words. Two days ago, someone in Germany sent me a picture of that, and he drew a line… the AW at the top goes into [the letters] A, K, E – spells out AWAKE. And I didn’t plan it, I didn’t even know if I’d do a second album, but honestly I had a dream that I was going to do a second album, probably just before I started writing this one, and that I was going to call it Awake. That’s weird. I never really thought about it. A name kinda comes as you’re writing. For me, anyway, it’s a capsule in my life, so I wanted it to sum up what I was writing about. And this whole album is about realising a lot of things, making a lot of changes to get myself out of toxic environments and being at peace with how things have turned out. Awake was actually a song that I ended up writing as the long song on the album. I was asking someone the other day, is life planned for you or do you plan it? Cos I’m looking at all these things from the past that point to me calling something Awake.
Can you describe the album in three words?
I guess, unapologetically-myself-always.
And, what are your favourite tracks?
There’s a song – I actually Tweeted about this the other day – called Easy that means a lot to me. I love all the songs on my album but Easy is really special because I wrote it the day I had done what I actually described in the chorus, where I walked to the bathroom to secretly have a cry, and I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone any more and I wondered, why am I feeling like this? I had no explanation. And I was going through a depressive series, I guess, and I then wrote the song and played the demo to my friend, and didn’t say what it was about, and I started tearing up. And they said, are you ok? And I was like, no. And it really helped me. So that song is really meaningful. And another of my favourites is a track I did with [American rapper] Trippie Redd called High. I really love pushing boundaries; when you have someone from such a different world you have an opportunity to either cater to their audience or cater to your audience. But I wanted to do something where I didn’t cater to anyone. Just me, how I felt. And I knew it was going to be super polarising. And it is, but in the first five days of the song coming out it has three million views. At the beginning a lot of people didn’t know what to do with the song, but now everyone’s coming back to me being “holy shit” I can’t stop listening to it. And for me it was such a sonic journey. I just love that song. I have so many heavy songs on this album and I think my favourite ones are the ones that aren’t heavy, lyrically vulnerable, which is really crazy. The last song, Awake, is where I basically sum up the whole time that I was writing the album. And again, something had happened that day and I was like, oh my god I’ve got one more song in me. And just let it all out – where basically I’m saying, I’m not being the victim in this, I’ve also done things wrong and other people have done things wrong. And the best way for me to come out of this is to accept what has happened in the hope that everyone comes out of this ok. And I’m sorry that I fucked up and I get it, and we all fucked up, and now I’m kind of awake to the situation.
What inspires you the most?
I’m inspired by my emotions. When I’m writing I don’t speak to anyone. I don’t like to listen to music. I don’t really like to be aware of where I am – usually I’m just in a little corner of a dark room. Musically and creatively I’m not inspired by anyone.
What is your creative process?
I like coming up with the music first. I write better over a bed of music.
What is one thing you’d like to change about the music industry?
It’s already changing. You know what? I would love to change that social media is such a platform for everybody’s fucking opinion who doesn’t know fucking shit about who you are. Alright, everyone is supposed to have an opinion. But I don’t want to see it all [laughs]. Because even if it’s super positive, I don’t want to know. It affects the way you feel about how you’re going to go in writing this song. So I don’t like to look at social media when I am writing cos it does affect me. And then, like, my opinion gets swayed – oh they like that song more so should I do something like that? I don’t want to think like that. Ever.
What’s the last album that changed you?
Silent Shout by The Knife. Cos that’s what got me into producing and I still listen to it all the time?
Where do you feel most yourself?
On stage. I fit in most on stage. I am completely awkward off stage. I’m good at speaking to people cos I’ve learnt how to do it, but I feel the most free and comfortable when I’m playing and vibing with a crowd. I feel the most me that I ever am, the most primal self, like I don’t give a fuck what I look like. I could be up there making whatever fuck face I’m making and sweating and mascara running down my face… and that’s the last thing I’m thinking about. I’m just so into the music that I’m literally not there; I’m on another planet. There have been times when I’ve blacked out and been completely sober.
What’s next for AW?
Dude, I don’t even know what I’m having for dinner tonight. All I know is that I’m gonna get the food that I’m craving and I’m going to eat it, and I’m going to get what I want. So basically that’s how I live my life. I’m always going to stay true to what I want and what I’m craving and what I need, and see where that takes me. The only thing I can do is be the best I can for myself, and push myself.
If you could see yourself in five years, would you want to?
Awake is out now. Alison Wonderland is on a world tour.
Photography: Yoshitaka Kono
Art Direction: Rebekah Roy
Make-up: Samantha Coles using MAC
Hair: Darren Agyei-Dua using Bumble & Bumble
Interview: Lauren Ablondi Olivo
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