Friday, January 28, 2011

Siren Rising: Interview With Alana Stewart

Meet a girl who could very well be the next big thing in music.

With traffic-stopping pipes and ambitious lyrics, Alana Stewart is nothing short of brilliant. The Williamsburg-based singer sounds like a cross between Fiona Apple and Jolie Holland.

Watch the video "Perfervid" here and then read the interview. Prepare to be blown away.

(Also, her song "Momma Said" gives Amy Winehouse a run for her money and was played on BBC radio this week.)


Where are you from originally?

A.S.: I was born in New Mexico in the same place where the first atomic bomb went off, the same little military town. It's called Alamogordo. We lived there because my mom's first husband was in the military.

Throughout my whole childhood, I lived in different places like Hawaii, Korea and Florida. Then when my mom divorced her first husband, we moved to Cupertino because her new husband is a software engineer. So I went to high school in Silicon Valley. When I was 17, I moved by myself to San Francisco. That's where I feel like I come from — San Francisco is my city.

What was the difference between having an itinerant life and then a more stable one in Cupertino, which is a pretty nice place right?

There was an increase in our standard of living. My mom's first husband wasn't that great, and he gambled away all of our money, so we were kind of white trash [laughter]. When she divorced him and married her second husband, our standard of living improved a lot. Materially, we had a better life in Cupertino, but it was just tough. My high school was 80 percent Chinese. It was really lonely because I didn't speak the language. I didn't make that many friends.

Then, where did live you in San Francisco?

I moved to Russian Hill. I just got lucky.

What musicians do you look to for inspiration?

Cat Power was really great for me because she uses such simple chord structures and such simple instrumentation, and her simplicity gave me the confidence to write my songs. Because I was like, if Cat Power can command an audience and have such a great following with these songs that only have two chords in them, like C and G, then darn it, I can make a song too. I deserve that. I want the right to make songs too even though I'm not a master guitar player. It gave me a lot of courage.

Also, Feist. If you go to her concerts, she's so cute. Sometimes she forgets the lyrics to her songs. I saw her perform on stage by herself with this looping pedal in this huge theater in SF with over 1,000 people. It was just her, her electric guitar and her voice, and it sounded beautiful.

If you can find the band, the drummer, the lead guitarist, then more power to you. I love full-sounding music. But just because you're by yourself, that doesn't mean that you can't make really good music. So I needed that. I needed like, step one.

When did you start singing professionally or just in general?

I've always been singing. But I started learning to play an instrument when I was about 21. I bought a guitar and a keyboard, and started playing. "Perfervid" was the first song that I ever wrote and learned to play on the guitar. It's just four notes. It's a really simple scale. Anyone can play it.

In San Francisco, I didn't see that many women playing instruments. There are some really cool female performers who are really talented. But I think the difference between men and women is that guys do stuff and they don't really care whether they're good or not. Their egos get ahead of themselves. Women, we have to be really confident in something before we'll let anyone see us do it. When it comes to music, a lot of the women you see making music are really good. And it's because they don't show anybody their stuff until they're really confident — and it's just special.

Finally, I learned how to play the guitar. It was tough at first, and I was really ashamed of myself for not being a master guitar player. But I'm finally at a point where I feel like I sort of know what I'm doing.

Have you had any vocal training?

I took jazz vocal training in high school. Jazz teaches you how to improvise really well.

Did you go to college?

I tried school out, but...I was an advertising major, and then I tried women's studies. But I didn't like women's studies because it only gave me the women's perspective on gender, and it didn't give me the man's perspective of gender. It only showed how women suffered in gender dynamics, and I was interested in both sides of the story. With advertising, I felt really uncomfortable selling people shit that they don't need. I tried it out at City College [in San Francisco] because it was cheaper.

I'm obsessed with gender studies. If you were to visit my apartment, all my books are about like women and economics and labor systems. I'm really obsessed with how men and women cooperate and don't cooperate in life. I like studying how boys become violent, so one of my favorite authors is James Garbarino. He's really good. I read non-fiction all about men, women and children, for the most part. It's kind of weird.

What singers do you like in San Francisco?

There's so many great female songwriters in San Francisco. Honeycomb, they're really good. Sonya Cotton is really good. Jolie Holland was spending a lot of time in San Francisco too.

Do you think that you'll stay a while in New York?

I'll stay here a while because moving is so expensive. Everyone here is working. It's so easy to find musicians to be in a band. It's easy to find videographers. It's so easy to find people for your team, and it makes my life so much easier. I know they're talented. They want to work. They want to be there, which you don't get in a lot of other cities. People are really married to their day jobs in another city. Here, peoples' day jobs are their passion.

Have you lived in Williamsburg the whole time?

I was living in Bushwick for a second with a boyfriend, but we broke up, and ever since then I've been living in Williamsburg. Living with your boyfriend isn't a good idea all the time. It kills the magic.

Do you party late and sleep in, or are you pretty straight and narrow?

I used to party and sleep in. Now, I can't afford to do that. I try to work as much as possible. Right now, I'm working on a screenplay which is a fictional journey to find my biological father. I never knew my father. I'm working with an entertainment attorney, producers and a crew, and trying to find money and people to make the movie with. So I'm spending all my time doing that. It's hard to ask someone for $100,000 or more, but I think it will be okay because I've worked really hard on the script. People seem to think it's good.

What is your biggest fear?

My biggest fear is that my fiancé will die in some really unexpected way. That would really mess up my well-being. He doesn't live in America yet. He's a Swedish citizen. He came here on vacation a while back, and we just fell in love.

How did you meet your fiancé?

He was camping in my neighbor's backyard and I thought that it was really silly that he was sleeping outside while he was on vacation.

Did he bring his own tent from Europe?

He wasn't even in a tent. He put a blanket on the ground. It was so silly.

How long have you been engaged?

Like a couple of months. We met in the summertime. His name is Rickard.

Do you have a mantra, or something you tell yourself when you hit a bump and need to keep on moving?

Higher standards —my whole life. Higher standards for friendship. Higher standards for music and recording quality. Higher standards for everything.

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