You should listen.
That’s the crafty response Alison Wonderland dished out when asked how she’d go about describing her music in three words. As clever as it sounds, it’s also true—and judging by her millions of Spotify plays, people seem to be catching on.
As one of the fastest rising female figures in the genre, she’s no stranger to the dedication—if not obsession—that it takes to make it big time in the industry. Her 2019 was even bigger than her explosive 2018: two sold-out shows at Red Rocks Amphitheater, a clothing line collaboration with Pepsi and Forever 21, a co-headlining tour with Dillon Francis, and somehow even made time to release new music this summer. And it’s because music is her life. She expresses her emotions through music, making her relationship with her fans more meaningful than most artists’. While the world seems to be hers for the taking, Alison makes a point to never take a moment for granted. She’s come a long way from her classical training as a cellist in her youth, to now making genre-defying electronic music that truly feels purposeful and unique. There’s no one quite like Alison Wonderland. With another huge year in the books, she sat down to talk through her accomplishments, experiences, and her hopes for the new year.
2019 has been a whirlwind of a year for you. Between festivals, releasing “Time” and dipping your toes into fashion through being the face of the Pepsi x Forever 21 collaboration, you’ve touched just about all aspects of pop culture. What have some of the most influential parts of the last year been for you?
Honestly, I would say the thing that comes to my mind is first— although there’s a lot that happened in the last year– I sold out two nights at Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheater (with a 20,000 capacity). I think I was the second Australian artist to ever do that. It was a huge goal of mine to even play that venue and to then sell out two nights was something that I didn’t really think I was going to do. I took that opportunity and I decided to really elevate my show. So I added a string quartet and percussionist—and they’re all women as well. I turned it into a semi-live show with instruments. Unfortunately, that’s not something I can do all the time, but when I have the opportunity, it’s something that I want to keep doing… I think another thing for me was to make the call, even when I’m DJing festivals, to play my own music, which I think a lot of DJs are scared to do because not everything you make is going to be a crowd-pleaser, but it does make you more of a well-rounded artist.
You mentioned you had an all-woman string quartet at Red Rocks and you were also ranked one of the highest climbers for DJ Magazine’s “DJs of The Year” list. Can you talk about some of these accomplishments, being a female in such a male-dominated genre?
I like to go by the philosophy that I let my art speak for me, and I just work really hard. I don’t like making my gender the focus point of my artistry– I think it becomes more of an issue when you separate the genders. I think by actually taking action, and not illuminating any roadblocks, and working hard actually gives other women the confidence to know that they can do it too.
I think it is getting better, and I am noticing a change in terms of people taking female artists more seriously these days. When I started out, I think I was one of maybe two or three that I knew of. It was definitely a lot more difficult and felt like I needed to prove myself more. But I’m not going to complain about it because I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given. I think a good artist is a good artist, there’s no male or female—that doesn’t make you better or worse.
Awake came out over a year ago now and was a really deeply personal album. Can you talk about some of the emotions or experiences that inspired you to write it?
That was a life-changing album for me—more so in my personal life than releasing it. Obviously it did a lot for my career, but I was writing a lot of truth to myself in that album. Sometimes when you put pen to paper, more often than not, your real consciousness comes out and starts to tell you things. So that’s kind of what happened to me with the album—I had a lot of realizations that led me to kind of make real-life moves in my actual life to better my situation and get rid of a lot of the toxicity that was around me. I really felt like I started to feel a sense of self-worth, by recognizing that how I was being treated was not okay. And I actually really needed to do something about it. It was a really important move and at the time, I didn’t even realize how much it was going to change my life.
You have a classical background, having learned the cello at a young age. Has your background influenced the way you write music?
Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s fully influenced the way that I write because I kinda listen to my intuition and my instincts on what feels right. I think it shows in my shows more so because now I’m adding more live elements and strings to it. I really know how to write strings because it’s what I started out doing. For me, it’s really fun and… I mean really there’s a lot of depth to that. I think you’re born a creative, so I don’t know if you’re born that way and your gears are wired that way, I think having really in-depth heavy-duty classical music training isn’t going to make or break you. I know a lot of really talented producers and artists who don’t have that training. We all hear things differently anyway. It’s definitely something that’s been ingrained into me. It’s a second nature thing, I’m not sure how it does affect me.
It’s hard to know if it’s actually affecting you or if it’s the way you’ve always been.
That’s the whole existential question: Would I be like this if I didn’t have that training, or would I not? I don’t know. I don’t know any other way.
How has your style of music, or the way you write or perform your music, changed over time?
Honestly, again, the less I think about it, and the more I just feel my way through music, the better. I definitely feel like vocally, I’m a lot more confident. I know where my voice is and I know how to write songs a little bit better now. The more you do it, the more you learn. I was listening to my first album the other day, and I was like wow, there’s something vocally that I don’t think I would’ve been able to do that back then. Sonically, I believe that people are drawn to certain sounds, and if they listen to their intuition while they’re producing, they’re always going to have certain sounds even if it does evolve and I think I’m drawn to certain drum and synth sounds that I choose throughout all my music. There’s just probably a better-executed version of it, the more I learn how to do things.
Your release “Time,” with Quix, it’s pretty unique compared to the rest of your collection of work, can you talk a little about how the collaboration between the two of you came to be?
Sometimes, when I want to get a new perspective on things, I’ll trip on mushrooms. I had this vision when I was tripping that I would make a song that played with the concept of time, because I really do believe that time, to me, doesn’t sometimes exist. When you’re caught up in a moment, time will speed up or slow down, and it doesn’t actually feel exactly like seconds on a clock. So I wanted to make a song that actually didn’t stay at the BPM that it started at, and I wanted it to evolve and stretch and move. And that’s actually what time does, it doesn’t stick to a beat. The next day, Quix and I were hanging out, he’s a good friend of mine, and he played me this 8-bar loop of a house track that was just an idea, so it was kind of like that riff that you hear at the beginning. It didn’t even change key or chord or anything. So I was like “Wait, I know exactly what to do with this,” and that’s how it came about. I could hear already that it would sound so sick slowed down, and then we could speed that up and make it completely chaotic— kind of evolve into this completely chaotic beat that people will feel, rather than notice it speeding it up. So that’s the whole concept of time.
That’s definitely something you can hear when you listen to it, it’s very experimental but you can hear the concept of it come through when you’re listening to it.
Exactly—we make a lot of experimental stuff, but it’s never the singles that the masses hear. It’s more like the B-sides on my album. For me, I also loved the track so much, I was just like, “Fuck it, I want to put that out as the single,” because I make the stuff anyway, just some people may not have heard that side of me. It was really fun. I love that track.
What would you say the reception was from people when they heard the song?
Honestly, so positive! I wasn’t sure it was going that way, but yeah it was really positive.
Looking forward, you have your Warehouse Party Tour, what’s going to be different about this tour for you?
It’s going to be more stripped back– This is a niche tour, I just wanted to do something that was off an album cycle that was interesting. I’ve been running Warehouse parties and festivals like that for a really long time. So to bring it internationally was something I’ve always wanted to do and I finally have the ability to do that. They’re more kind of, specialized for that environment, they’ll be a bit more industrial, the production’s going to be a bit different from the classic Alison Wonderland set up. It’s going to be a bit more gritty and raw—I just want everyone to have fun, you know?
Between all of the writing and performing, and other things you’ve got going on on the side, what would you say it is that really keeps you going?
Music. I don’t do anything else. No— for real, I don’t have any hobbies and I spend a lot of time by myself. I’m a little bit of a loner and I’m not mad at it, you know? I would just say probably that when I really do doubt myself, the thing that does keep me going is the fans because they do reach out to me and send me things, and it reminds me that my music is actually affecting people in a good way, and I don’t want to let anyone down. And I feel really close to the people that listen to my music. I would say they keep me going. And so does my manager—he is my best friend, he’s been my best friend since we were kids. He’s definitely had to pick me up off the ground quite a bit in the past, so I do owe him a lot.
What are some personal goals that you have for yourself, looking forward to 2020?
I’m definitely going to be writing a lot of music. There’s a lot going on next year, actually. I just kind of want to keep going and doing what I love, so for me, a personal goal would just be to keep writing music that actually means something and that I’m proud of. That’s probably my biggest goal.
Photography: Tom Oldham
Lighting: James Hole