Alice Phoebe Lou
Words - Dan Charles
Photography - Angela Ricciardi
The first time that I ever saw Alice Phoebe Lou live was when she performed at the Central Methodist Church in the Cape Town CBD in 2017. I can’t recall too many details about the show because a lot of life has happened since then (remember that collectively-traumatising global shut down?) but what I can remember was that the church pews were packed to capacity like a newly-opened box of cigarettes and I can remember the reverent stillness and quiet that fell over everyone in the crowd as the band played that night. It was the kind of quiet that gently falls over an entire room like a weighted blanket and swaddles everyone within a shared sense of warmth and solace. It was the kind of quiet that buildings like the Central Methodist Church were built for - the quiet that comes when witnessing and allowing in something sacred. Something holy.
Although there aren’t many details that I can recall from that show that, there was one moment that I can still remember vividly: when Alice took the opportunity to seize the quiet that had been cultivated amongst the audience in the Central Methodist Church to share a particularly vulnerable son. The song hadn’t been given a title yet and was not written with the intention of ever being released (although it would later be released on Alice’s Sola EP under the name Haunting). It was written as personal means of catharsis and self-soothing with lyrics that bluntly addressed a trauma that Alice had recently endured - the kind shared amongst so many other women that would eventually instigate the overdue societal reckoning of the #MeToo movement only a few months after that performance took place. Played without the accompaniment of her band, the song’s skeletal chord structure felt both brittle and bold in it’s tenderness and Alice sang with a voice that carried the simultaneous serenity and rage of a placid river that had been set on fire - harnessing her hurt and washing it away all at once. Her sharing that felt like a real gift and was a true a testament to the trust that was built between her and the audience within the quiet of that room.
For those that may not know, I should probably clarify that Alice Phoebe Lou is not some kind of gospel musician (although I can understand if I might have led you to believe so, I did spend a lot of time talking about a church). Gospel music is meant to make one feel closer to God, whereas listening to Alice’s nostalgia-saturated songs of connection, intimacy and empowerment can make you feel closer to yourself and and to the people the you care most about.
Starting out as a busker on the streets of Berlin, Alice would recall seeing the effect that her songs had on the passerby who would stop and listen to her in an an interview with the Seattle, Washington-based radio station KEXP in 2019:
“There’s just moments where you see it in [somebody’s] face that they’re going through something or have had a really hard day and they are just moved very deeply and needed some sort of catharsis and needed to just stop what they’re doing and just sit down and have a cry or whatever it is that allows them to release whatever’s happening.”
With the aid of collaborators within the Berlin music community that she would befriend and recruit into her band, her initial blues/jazz/folk inspired balladry would evolve into a tapestry of lush, grooving and experimental arrangements that would blossom on her seminal sophomore album Paper Castles in 2019 - an ethereal, independently-released album filled with songs that sound like acid-soaked psalms for the ones devoted to honouring the gentlest of feelings. Having received immense critical acclaim, Paper Castles catapulted Alice and her band across the globe - playing over 100 shows across 4 continents that year.
Unfortunately, the trajectory of Alice’s touring schedule was suddenly halted along with the rest of the world during the pandemic. However, the process of readapting her creative process resulted in the writing and recording of her two latest albums, Glow and Child’s Play - two albums that capture the warmth and gentleness of Alice’s sound to tape and see her exploring the topics of love mover honestly and unflinchingly than ever before in her discography.
Earlier his year, Alice returned back to South Africa for the first time in three years for a large-scale performance at The Old Biscuit Mill that would allow her hometown audience the opportunity to witness these new songs that provided them a sense of joy and solace during the aftermath of the pandemic live for the first time - while also having all the profits made from the shows donated to Rape Crisis and The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children. When the show sold out within a matter of days, Alice organised another, more intimate performance, at The Homecoming Centre Theatre to give as many people the chance to come together for the sake of her music before she goes back to touring the globe and working on yet another album. I was one of the many people that missed out on the first show but, as Alice started playing on the modest stage of The Homecoming Theatre, I could feel the same quiet that fell over everyone in the crowd at the Central Methodist Church years ago. Something sacred. Something holy.