If you've been on a dance floor in the past 10 years, you've danced to Aluna Francis' music. The British artist is half of electronic duo AlunaGeorge, best known for remix-ready tracks like "You Know You Like It" and "I'm in Control." With her bandmate George Reid, Aluna has provided vocals for Disclosure's "White Noise" and opened for the likes of Sia and Coldplay.
But that music has never been solely hers, something she's changing with the release of her debut solo single "Body Pump," a club-ready track that heralds a new direction for the artist, who says she has a body of work on the way this year. After a career spent collaborating with other artists, Aluna is finally in control.
Over biscuits and coffee, PAPER got the details on Aluna's new direction as a solo artist, reclaiming her place in dance music as a woman of color, and what it's like to release music in the middle of a pandemic.
There's so many people around the world who have danced to your music but may not know you. What inspired you to strike out on your own?
Challenge, the need for challenge, always. And I kind of realized that whenever we need to create new music, the last thing that anyone worries about is productivity. It's just like, oh yeah, I'll just meet up with George and we'll make like tons of tracks and... it will be super easy. We know each other so well. I was like, hold on let me look closer at that area because I think that I might have been hiding from a huge challenge and disguising it as a really great skill and that skill being collaboration. And I am proud of how me and George have created this kind of symbiotic relationship and we can make music in any setting and in it with any kind of criteria, which is amazing. But at the same time, I've never been one for fitting in, in comfort.
I just kind of didn't even think about it for years, making music by myself and I was like, yeah, that's the one musical challenge that terrifies me.
What about it terrifies you?
The idea that me and what I like and what I want and what I think and what I can do is not enough.
Does it feel like there's less at stake when you're collaborating?
It feels like... someone else is going to give me permission, someone else is going to tell me that I'm doing well and that's a good idea and I'm going to be able to fall back on my most honed skill, which is diplomacy and fitting in despite not fitting in.
I'm a bit of a, what you call it, cab driver philosopher or psychologist. Like I haven't studied it. I don't know what I'm talking about, but as they say, it all begins in childhood. And I know that I was always in a new environment, being the new person or the only Black person in so much of my childhood. So the art of fitting in, even though you don't fit in was like I had that skill down. Like I was invisible. I fit in so well.
So I use that in collaboration. I know that I can go into studio with a huge personality and work within that kind of framework and get a lot more than you could get done if you just came in as fully yourself and were just like, "This is what I want, this is what I like and I'm going to tell you all about it." That doesn't often work in collaboration.
[Fitting in is] a fine skill to have, but if it's all you ever do and you're only doing it because it's your strongest skill and you're scared of standing out there on your own, that's just not good enough. I don't want to continue something just because I'm scared of doing something else. And AlunaGeorge as a band is more valuable than that, it should always be something where two people come together because they want to and because it's a place where exciting things can happen.
I was just like, there's something lurking here... this undercurrent of untapped potential and it gets in the way of creativity and I could feel that happening.
Was there a moment when you had that conversation with George about wanting to make your own music, and what did that look like?
I have a band that's a duo, which is so similar to a relationship [or] being married. So it was very much like I'm saying, "Look, I need to go, I need to go on a road trip, babe, for like a year on the motorbike to find myself. You're going to have to look after the kids and I'm going to give up my career and you might even have to move out of the house that we've been living in because we can't afford it."
It was big. It's big. And mine and George's relationship is really, really strong in the sense that there isn't a lot that we can't talk about. So it's more a case of, can you bear to talk about the hard stuff yourself. I knew that he was going to react pretty balanced about it, but it was more that... I want to be there for him all the time. It's more of a tough love situation.
As I said earlier, there are so many people who know you as half of a duo or as a vocalist on someone else's song. As a Black woman in dance music, which was created by queer people and people of color, was part of the need to make your own music wanting to reclaim that space for yourself, rather than handing your voice to these men to manipulate?
As a Black person, if you were to react to everything that you noticed that is out of balance or inappropriate, we would literally be barking mad and you certainly would be very distracted from your goals, unless your goal is literally to be an ambassador for change, which is an amazing thing to do. But if that's not what you're doing, you got to put that shit on the back burner. Until you can't.
But it really came from being inspired by other people who I see doing something that might be scary or going against the norm or their own culture. In this case it's that the culture has been pretty much hijacked, so it's more of a reclaiming. It's not like I'm a Black cosplayer... there's absolutely no reason for me to be feeling completely out of place as a Black woman in dance music. That's absurd actually when you look at the facts.
So when I put that together with how I'd been feeling, employing all of that humbleness that gets you through many situations like, "Oh thank you, thank you so much for inviting me to perform dance music in your very, very white environment." Like uh, hold on, let's get a spine to start with and build that into some form of confidence. And then it was a case of, well what's next and what twists can I bring?
I'm not going to just redo where we left off from... I am a Black woman, but I'm also a multicultural woman and I've lived and experienced many different places and so I was like, that's what I'm going to bring.
When you came to this realization and made this decision and actually sat down to make music, what was that process like?
There's lots of experimentation, lots of research because... what I was trying to do was pull together a lot of very different musical influences and find what it is about the structure of those genres that mix.
I don't like to use the word fusion because it, for me, the association is where you kind of grab a really obvious sound from one culture and then slap it onto the sound of another culture and then go, "Here you go!" That's like a tourist in the form of a song. So for me, it's always about that kind of art form of, of almost absorbing these different musical elements and then putting them out in a way that... the first thing you would hear is just something that feels fresh but familiar and something that you want. And then if you wanted to dissect it, you could be like, "Oh, that's actually an African rhythm then that's a pop synth from nineties UK house." [But] that's the first thing you're thinking. You're just going, Oh yeah, I don't know. Yes, yes. What is it? Maybe I don't know, but maybe I do.
Could you have reached this place as a solo artist without being a collaborative artist?
No, because a lot of healing happened through the process of working with somebody else and it's like I said, there's stages to everything. And one of the things that George and I did for each other was encourage each other to experiment and to push boundaries and to take risks. I think that the music that we've made has always been left of center. It's never fed directly into that kind of pop lane and it's a decision that we made through our writing process. We always wanted to provide something a little bit different.
Probably our early stuff was a little bit ahead of its time and through that process I was certainly emboldened and I don't think that I could have got there by myself because my collaborative skill is so strong that it was kind of the only thing I had at the time. I had probably lots of potential maybe, but I certainly wasn't just going to start my career with this kind of burning desire to show everyone who I was. I was terrified of existing and making music was a holiday from that era and a place where I felt like I was home and I was safe. And you know, George increased that by being a place to go home to. I have no regrets of the process, the length of time it took me to do a record by myself. Certainly not.
You became a mother last year, so how has that impacted your art?
I've been surviving on motivations just for myself. You know, I want to show myself what's possible, I want to show myself that our music is valued and is wanted out there. But now that I've made this multicultural kid, I like the idea of building a world where it's okay to be us. It's cause for celebration, in fact, and I stopped being stuck between worlds. [Being] a mixed heritage person can often leave you feeling apologetic a lot of the time... you don't feel like you're the target for the same kind of racism as someone who is visibly darker skinned and kind has a target on them. So you sidestepped that part but then you also apologize for it.
But I don't feel like that apology is valuable to anyone. I don't think that society needs people of mixed heritage to be walking around apologizing for existing. They need us to be ambassadors to bring people together because we come from those two or three or four different worlds. We kind of live in harmony with those different cultures and so at my shows, I want people to walk into what it's like to be in harmony with all the people in our society just for one night. I know that I can't fix the world like that, but a frame of reference is always nice if you're trying to move towards the time when we all get on, it's always nice to have that one night where everyone from different walks of life found a unified piece of joy to come together and feel safe. And having a kid really gives you the motivation to really like make it work, you know?
How does it feel to be putting new music, but not knowing when you might be able to perform it for people?
It's interesting. I'm getting excited. It's that old thing of, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. And I struggled with my live show in so many different ways. One of the ways I struggled was always wanting it to be more fantastic than I was able to afford. You know, I've supported some of the biggest acts in the world and so I'm standing there, I've done my show with my absolutely bells and whistles-less performance and then the first song [from the headliner], there's like 18,000 explosions, lights that could light a city and video from like 10 films cut together. I'm like, "Wow, okay. That's not what I did." And I want that. I want something that's heading in that direction. But that takes a lot of planning. And so that stuff is something that's been in the works whilst we've been in quarantine.
I've performed at so many different festivals and shows. It's now very natural for me to consider what performing a song is going to be like. And me and George ever really did that. We were more purist in our songwriting, it was just, it was the song was about the song and then we would take that out onto the road. For this body of work, it's so much about the live show experience. So I'm just so excited to actually finish. The project for me is not finished until we tour it. It doesn't matter if it's out there online. It's definitely not the full story until everybody is there in person, at a show.
Does that leave you feeling a little anxious considering we really don't know when the next time that people will be able to be together in those kinds of numbers again?
I work with daydreams, that's part of my job, so no one can stop me from dreaming. So at the moment that's what I'm doing. There are so many things that I don't know if they're going to come true, my wishes. But as a creative, you basically create things from no evidence and you're moving forward regardless of whether anyone gives you the permission to or not.
Photography: Jeremy Paul Bali
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