The sound of a xylophone drips over a seated and rapt crowd in the fading sunshine of Brainchild festival. Alice Phoebe Lou is playing ‘Ocean’. It’s the height of European summer and well into Alice’s annual migration up north. “I’ve found a very cheeky way to avoid winter all year round,” she says with a grin as she introduces a rumbling rendition of ‘The City Sleeps’.
Leaving home at eighteen for a European gap year, and with every intention of returning to South Africa and diving into university, Alice was instead swept irrevocably into the European creative scene. Armed with a Belgian passport and a pair of fire poi she spent a couple of months in Amsterdam before heading to Berlin.
“The freedom was amazing. I mean the next day you book a train and you just go,” Alice says as we catch up the morning after her Brainchild performance over a smoothie bowl. “I went to Berlin and started busking because I was running out of money. And through that I was suddenly meeting so many incredible people.” With a guitar in tow now and a couple of cover songs, she took to the Berlin streets as a busker and just about never left.
“There was a separation between the person I was when I left South Africa and the person I was then – I was changed by my environment and I wanted to do something different,” she explained. “I realised that we can have new expectations of ourselves – and I think that change is really important. I suddenly had that thought and realised actually I can do whatever the fuck I want.”
She moved to Berlin a few months later, rented a tiny room which overlooked a graveyard (“I loved it, it was super eerie.”) and busked everyday for two weeks to make enough cash for more equipment. From then on it was an organic progression. “It was just this really nice process that was just all my own,” she smiles. “There are so many different ways to progress as a musician. But the most fulfilling feeling is when you create something for yourself.”
And as an almost entirely independent artist Alice has truly worked her way from the ground up. A scale-tipping performance at a TEDx talk in Berlin in 2014 was just one of the catalysts which was propelled her onto festival stages, opening for Sixto Rodriguez and just about taking her around the world. However, Berlin has always remained a steady homing springboard. As one of the central hubs of the European creative industry, it is brimming with young, hopeful artists from all corners of the planet, while the youth culture is richly engrained in the graffiti-smeared corners of the city. But it’s not all sunshine and cheap beer.
“A lot of people go there really excited to pursue their art and music, but Berlin just has so many temptations and it can be such a dark place,” she admits. “You can see people just slipping down this slope and not actually fulfilling their amazing talents. I was really lucky to have experienced the trance party scene in Cape Town for many years,” she adds contemplatively. “I learnt very young how to have some sort of limitations and also to enjoy things without the pressure of getting wasted all the time.”
It’s a tough world, the music industry. Even tougher if you’ve decided to take it on from the everyman’s level in a city as full of positive people as there are intense, drug abusing ones. “[Playing on the street] is being ok with being vulnerable basically – and that’s kind of what I like about it the most,” Alice explains. “It’s taught me so much about vulnerability: my own vulnerability, the human collective vulnerability and the stigmas attached to those things. Busking challenges those initial stigmas – of it being associated with the lower class and the poor – and it’s so important to do that.”
With a solo EP coming out on the 19th of July, she has been hard at work of late. The EP’s release is partly to fund her upcoming album through a simple crowd-funding campaign. Those who wish to support her music are invited to contribute any sum of money and in return receive a digital copy of the EP as well as a physical postcard of one of her 35mm film photographs. “I like that socialist way of dealing with money. Five Euros for some people is 50 Euros for others.”
For her, keeping things constantly evolving is imperative. She dreads too much routine or her daily musical endeavours becoming an over-familiar norm. “I love doing loads of different things. I like to grow and to change,” she says. “For me an ideal month is playing a big festival, a small festival, a couple of street gigs, a weird funky conference and someone’s living room. It keeps it changing, keeps it alive, and keeps me feeling like I’m not repeating myself and then losing all the magic that I started out with.”
This ties in with the process of stepping off streets corners onto festival stages, her constant collaborative efforts with the musicians she comes into contact with, and bouncing between playing solo and with a band. Her independence lends a boundless freedom to the work she does – and while she never falters in her trajectory to make what she does a success unto herself, she hasn’t yet been tempted by a record deal or lending her music to the looming commercial sphere.
“Who knows though,” she adds with sparkling receptivity. “Maybe one day I’ll find a label which is incredibly aligned with me. But right now I like this idea seeing how far I can go on my own.”
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Listen to “Orbit” below on Deezer.