Hailed by Consequence of Sound for her “atmospheric vocal delivery…jazzy indie rock arrangements…(and) experimental, avant-garde textures,” Alice Phoebe Lou truly touches celestial heights with her frankly astonishing new album, PAPER CASTLES. The South Africa-based artist’s second full length recording is a breathtaking song cycle of romance and struggle, solitude and adventure, told through a free-spirited blend of electronic soul and psychedelic folk that highlight her honeyed vocals whilst revealing a limitless approach to musicality and craft. Songs like “Galaxies” and the potent first single, “Something Holy,” are like snapshots of small intimacies, brief encounters, and moments that matter, all reverberating with authenticity, resourcefulness, and passion. As unflinching and adventurous as it is heartfelt and inspirational, PAPER CASTLES begins the next chapter in Alice Phoebe Lou’s increasingly remarkable body of work.
“My closest friends have told me this album sounds more like me than anything I’ve done before,” she says. “That’s the most beautiful thing to be told by people that really know you, that are really close to you: This is really you. And I feel that too.”
Alice Phoebe Lou grew up on a mountainside in South Africa, attending a local Waldorf school that cultivated her innate love of music and the arts. She made her first visit to Europe at 16, a life-changing journey that first saw her taking her songs to the streets. Lou returned home to finish school but as soon as she was able made her way back to Europe, specifically Berlin. Armed with just her guitar, a small amp, a passel of distinctive original songs, and an utterly intoxicating voice and charm, she soon built a devoted fan following, not just in Berlin but around the world as tourists and passers-by from faraway places were so captivated by her music that they began sharing it amongst friends and social media.
Lou self-released her debut EP, MOMENTUM, in 2014, followed two years later by her acclaimed first full-length, ORBIT. Tours across Europe and South Africa – including support runs with such like-minded artists as Rodriguez – honed her already striking gifts for live performance, as did visits to the United States that saw showcase sets at Austin, TX’s annual SXSW. 2017 saw Lou’s “She” featured in the award-winning documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, with Executive Producer Susan Sarandon personally inviting her to perform the song before a private screening at The Feminist Institute in New York City. As if that were not enough, “She” was then named to the 90th Oscars “Original Song” Shortlist alongside songs by such artists as Sufjan Stevens, Mary J. Blige, Common, and Diane Warren.
Lou then paused for the first time in her fast-breaking career, allowing herself a moment to fully consider her next step. She took her sweet time, carefully searching for a collaborator that would provide “the right setting, the right context, the right capacity to give the songs the best life that they could have.”
“I was kind of starting at zero,” she says. “Nothing felt quite right. I felt a bit worried – I like to do things in a more stream of consciousness way, I trust my gut instincts.”
Her quest eventually led to a phone call with GRAMMY® Award-winning producer Noah Georgeson (Joanna Newsom, Cate Le Bon, iLe), a conversation that lasted more than an hour and instantly affirmed the partnership.
“We hardly spoke about the album,” Lou says. “We just kind of got to know each other through that phone call. I immediately felt that thing that I’d been wanting to feel with a producer, that connection. I could tell Noah would approach things sensitively rather than try to put his own stamp on it. I just felt this spark and everything rolled so smoothly from that moment on.”
Georgeson suggested Lou record at Panoramic House in West Marin, CA, a landmark residential studio overlooking Stinson Beach and the Bolinas bay and lagoon. Plans were made and in March 2018, just after her fourth visit to SXSW, Lou and her band -- multi-instrumentalists Ziv Yamin and Dekel Adin (both also of Berlin’s dark R&B combo, Hush Moss) and drummer Julian Berran – headed west.
“The studio was just exquisite,” she says. “As we arrived there were two deer in the garden, looking up at us. I literally had tears in my eyes as I realized I’d be calling this place home for the next two weeks.”
Lou and her troupe – which also included engineer Samur Khouja (Gruff Rhys, Michael Kiwanuka, Regina Spektor) among their number – stocked in groceries and set to work, spending long hours in the studio interspersed with good food and good times.
“We became a family,” she says. “It just rolled so smoothly. There was not one question mark, not one moment where I felt uncomfortable or questioned anything we were doing. Everything that happened throughout the process was smooth and really wholesome.
Though Lou had arrived with a sheaf of striking new songs, she had not yet conceived how the record might sound, trusting her fellow musicians to join her in crafting arrangements whilst at Panoramic. Two weeks were spent experimenting with synthesizers and surprising sonic flourishes, “using whatever means we had to add to the music,” the electronic elements underlining and emphasizing Lou’s naturalistic song structures.
“All the music was a conversation,” she says. “We all gave each other space to put our ideas on the table. There was no ego, no bullshit; we were all in it for the right reasons. Which was wanting to have the best come out of it. It was very special.”
The interconnectivity between Lou and her fellow musicians prompted Georgeson to record the core of the album live in the studio, expertly capturing the human vibrancy while also conjuring the feeling “that we were performing for you.”
“By the end we were all just completely blissed out,” Lou says, “like we’d been on some amazing musical holiday. It felt like we’d smashed it.”
PAPER CASTLES proves a strikingly dynamic work, rich with both whispers of nostalgia and an unstoppable sense of forward motion. Songs like “Something Holy” and the plaintive title track see Lou embracing her choice to lead an unconventional life with all its many surprising twists and turns, gaining experience through adversity and finding strength in vulnerability.
“I’ve always made quite melancholic music,” she says. “A lot of it comes from the darker parts of myself or maybe they are about my darker experiences and me kind of confessing to them. But I’ve never really felt like my music is sad, I feel really good while playing very sad songs. I find those emotions really beautiful. I personally like letting those emotions come up so I can feel them and then work through them, I can let the anti-bodies come in so I can feel better again. These darker places are a part of me and I can find them wonderful and enjoyable as well.”
Indeed, much of PAPER CASTLES was penned in the wake of a series of seismic personal adjustments, among them the long overdue demise of a toxic relationship both romantic and professional. Songs such as “My Outside” and “Skin Crawl” – the latter joined by a provocative companion video which sees Lou’s bandmates and closest male friends serving as furniture and other household items – touch on “sexual and verbal harassment and how that proceeds to the larger problem of sexism and sexual aggression.”
“I’m a fiery independent person that doesn’t allow anyone to get in my way or tell me what to do,” Lou says, “and yet, I ended up in a situation with someone where I was very oppressed by them. Their manipulation, their alpha energy, really put me in a place where I felt squashed. I went from that to a very, very dark place, where I didn’t understand where I was, what I wanted to do, how to make music, how to exist, to slowly building myself up again. Just myself, not relying on anyone. Now I’ve found a band and a way to express myself, on the stage and in the studio, that is just so fucking beautiful and free, that’s just playful and full of love.”
A truly global artist who simply can’t stay put, physically or creatively, Lou is now eager to return to the road, ready to introduce fans old and new to the songs of PAPER CASTLES.
“We’re all so excited,” she says. “I’ve basically been getting a lot of disciplines together, in terms of how I’m going to treat my body, how I’m going to treat my mind. Just making sure that I can go on this tour and come out of it feeling invigorated, feeling refreshed rather than spent. Because I really need that.”
Both layered and unhurried, bittersweet yet life affirming, PAPER CASTLES is an incontestable milestone for a constantly moving artist. Alice Phoebe Lou’s amazing journey has brought her to this cusp moment, resulting in an artful and strikingly honest collection of words and music that accurately and at long last represents her personal truth.
“It feels so good,” Lou says. “It’s really exciting to be able to fully spread the new album, the new me in a sense, because I’m very different to who I was even just two years ago. I’ve allowed myself to change and showing people where I’m at right now, it’s such a thrilling prospect.”