ALA.NI sits in the back room of an East Village bar applying black liquid eyeliner by the light of a tea candle and laptop screen. The room divides itself from the rest of the jostling bar—beginning to fill with those needing a TGIF beer—with a weighty velvet curtain. The showcase she’s about to lead, limited to about two dozen people, marks her second performance ever in the United States.
ALA.NI was born in London to Grenadian-immigrant parents (her father a reggae-calypso bassist, her mother a couture seamstress) and now resides in Paris. Svelte, with dreadlocks bleached at their ends and a wily grin that encompasses her entire being, she played to a room of mostly unknowing ears that evening in New York, since her debut album wasn’t set to come out in the U.S. for another six months. Now, after staggered releases throughout Europe last year, You & I finally becomes available to American audiences on Friday via Missing Piece Records. Over the course of its 12 tracks, the singer/songwriter blends early- and mid-20th century delivery and contemporary culture with sass and tenderness.
Having studied performing arts at London’s Sylvia Young Theatre School—which also nurtured such talents as Billie Piper, Rita Ora and Amy Winehouse—between the ages of 5 and 16, ALA.NI naturally incorporates theatrical elements into her music and performances. She gesticulates when speaking and singing, and she punctuates her lilting alto on songs like “Suddenly” with timely sighs. Her lyrics offer vivid seasonal imagery, as on lead single “Cherry Blossoms” and “Darkness at Noon.” When she sits behind her decagonal 1930s RCA ribbon microphone, she conjures a sense of intimacy with her facial expressions, hand movements and sustained vibratos.
Watch ALA.NI perform “Cherry Blossoms” at the Paste Studio in New York:
“I’m good at putting my voice into other styles. It’s why I could do something as diverse as Andrea Bocelli or Mary J. Blige, because I can change my voice. It was just a case of going, ‘What is my voice? Oh! It’s musical theater!’”
It took years for to find that voice. With a traditional education of showtunes and standards, a home life filled with reggae and calypso music (from her father, who played bass), and an early career singing backup to artists ranging from Blur to Andrea Bocelli, ALA.NI found the work alternately “easy and fun” and “draining … and boring.”
After shrugging off a Judy Garland comparison, ALA.NI says, “If I could be anyone, let me be Julie Andrews! I was obsessed with The Sound of Music and Grease!”
“I had to get brave, I think, and learn how to be myself.”
In order to take center stage, ALA.NI looked within and around her for ideas and strength. She decided to self-manage after working with an outsider for a year and a half. She borrowed branding tactics from her couture-designer mother, who also inspired an interest in aesthetics, music-video directing and more.
As a result, “It’s been four years on this album from conception to literally now,” she says. “It’s been a long time working it, but I’ve realized as my debut album—as my first album—I can plant out a lot of seeds and hopefully with the second and third, I can grow a nice career.”
But first, she recalls, “I had to get brave, I think, and learn how to be myself.”
Watch ALA.NI’s full Paste Music session: