Alice Phoebe Lou: SA’s viral star who's anything but a sell-out

Jean-Marie Korff
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 Alice Phoebe Lou. (Photo: Supplied)

Cape Town - She’s been making waves in Berlin for quite some time as a street performer, but it was only recently that South Africa took notice of one of its very own talented singer songwriters, Alice Phoebe Lou.

It’s 19:00 in Cape Town, and Alice is sitting in a hotel room with a breathtaking view of the ocean on Coronado Island, San Diego, while chatting to me via Skype.

"I got invited because of my Ted talk," says Alice. "There was a guy at the conference, who organises something called the Exponential Medicine Conference, and it’s like a gathering of very important scientists and doctors and they come and they show what’s happening in medicine in the next 10 years and stuff, it’s super interesting. Yeah, he asked me to come and play and he paid for my ticket, so I’m here."

Having made waves on social media with her Ted event performance video, I ask the burning question: "Did you expect the video to go viral?"

"Not really actually, I kind of didn’t expect it," says Alice. "I’ve been making performances and videos for quite a while, and they’ve been very well received, but not nearly like the Ted video. I guess the difference was what I said in between songs, it had a bit more weight, a bit more gravity, and people really related to it and saw something different, something that wasn’t the typical, common singer songwriter just performing."

Describing her experience at Tedx Berlin as "incredible", Alice, who released her EP in April this year, says she only got invited because someone saw her play in a park. "They just wanted to get a performer and someone in their office said, 'Ah I’ve seen this girl play at this park and you should check her out', and then they did, and they asked me to play.

"I’ve been fortunate enough to realise that it’s very important at this stage in my career to decide between the different things I play at, like I get a lot of opportunities, but I shouldn’t take them all, because they’re not all in line with my morals and with exactly what I’m going for musically. So I’ve been able to differentiate between what is a good thing for my career and my message and what isn’t, and because of this idea, I’ve basically been able to get really interesting opportunities," Alice adds.

And ever since the video went up, Alice has been bombarded with love from South African fans.

"Suddenly South Africans have been knowing about my music, and it’s quite crazy, because South Africa has been like my home, and the place where I chill for 4 months of the year at, and Berlin is the place where I make music and where I have some followers and whatever. And all of a sudden most of my fan mail and these kinds of things are coming from either old school friends or people that I’ve known in my life saying, 'Wow, congratulations, we didn’t know that you could sing so well', or just random people in SA that are becoming familiar with my music, and it’s really nice."

Having grown up in Kommetjie, Alice’s original plan was to take a gap year after finishing matric before coming back to study. And wanting to be more flexible to travel, she realised that she would have to get a job that gives her that freedom.

"I started with fire dancing actually, which is a skill I picked up a couple of years before, I actually used to be a dancer. So I started doing that in Amsterdam at like the squares there, and I could make enough money to have some food and travel to the next place, and it was really a very nice lifestyle ... it’s so spontaneous and as an 18-year-old it was a lot of fun.

"Eventually I got to Berlin, because everyone was just like 'Go to Berlin it’s something you’ll absolutely love!', and like 6 months in, I was completely more broke than I’ve ever been. I tried playing with fire on the street, and it was well received but I didn’t make any money, and I was like, 'Shit I have to think of something', because I like the city and want to stay here. So, I could play some chords on the guitar, I could play a couple of other songs, and yeah, so I started playing in the subways, quite unconfident at first," she laughs.

Alice has had many offers from major labels, but has refused all of them. "Why?" I ask.

"Major labels and these kinds of platforms definitely provide the amount of cash to be able to produce an album and to be able to tour and these kind of things, and they have the connections to be able to get your music out there. But at the end of the day, for me, they have too much creative control over your image, and they can basically have the last say in a lot of creative decisions like through your music. Also the people working on your image and on getting your image out there, they’re businessmen, and they try to accentuate certain aspects of you and try to turn you into a brand or a product and make you easily consumable for people. And this kind of concepts, it’s normalised, it is the norm in popular music, but it’s not something that I want to be a part of. It’s a harder route not to go this way, but it’s definitely for me more worth it. I am completely self sufficient, I have enough money to eat and pay my rent, and I’d rather do thing in a way I feel is ethically a bit better."

Alice definitely knows what she wants in life. So it's no surprise either that she's been invited to open for The Lumineers in Johannesburg on their SA tour.

"What can people expect from the show?" I ask.

"Well, I’m going to be bringing my friend Mateo, who is an Italian and he lives in Berlin as well, and we’ve been making music together for the last few months and playing different festivals so there’s a bigger sound and not just a girl with a guitar. And he’s really been adding a lot to the project, and he plays all sorts of instruments, he really brings a whole new element to the structure. You can basically expect my music but with a crazy Italian multi-instrumentalist who’s gonna bring a lot to the dynamic of the music!"

With a promise of a Cape Town show still to be announced, and a full album next year, Alice says goodbye, and I can't help but think: "She's only 21 years old. Wow, what an inspiration..."

For more info on Alice visit her Facebook page or listen to her on Soundcloud.

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