Alice Russell: British Soul Vet Shows Ingenues How to Be Contemporary

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There are few singers of any background that belt with the blazing authority of Alice Russell, a thirtysomething, Suffolk, England-born artist who, after years of plying her trade, is just now achieving critical mass in the U.S. “With due respect to fans of Amy Winehouse and Adele,” writes All Music in their review of her newly released fifth album To Dust, “songstress Alice Russell is the true blue-eyed soul queen from across the pond.” Not as idiosyncratic as the late, great Winehouse or as plainly pop as Ms. Adele, Russell is as authentically soulful as they come these days. Hers is a sound rooted as much in Sunday morning as it is in Saturday night. And it’s a sound that’s very clearly of the 21st century.

“I didn’t want to do a vintage album,” Russell says, adding that her last release, Pot of Gold, was like “a sessions album.” On To Dust, produced by TM Juke, Russell explores her aural eclecticism. “I think we drew on everything from the dance music we love — you know, I love Mount Kimbie, Flying Lotus, and all those guys — but I also love my folk, I love Fleetwood Mac. Love the soul. And I think the hip-hop influences came in. At one point, I think we were doing footsteps on the stairs in the studio and record them to use them like drums. And trying stuff like that and then cutting them up, almost like you’re sampling the stuff you’re making yourself. We wanted to draw on that vibe with the hip-hop style, especially on ‘Breakdown’ and some of the other tracks.”

Russell counts Chaka Khan, gospel queen Shirley Caesar, hip-hop soul stylist Mary J. Blige, and rapper KRS-One amongst her diverse influences, all of which she absorbed while growing up in small-town England. “It was a different kid of fun. In my teenage years, there were lots of bands there, and all the boys — it was weird — there was a big following of hip-hop, which is where I found people like David Axelrod, the samples that they’d use. And someone’s dad would be a farmer, so you’d get a generator, go out to the forest, set up the decks, and do all that. So we still got down and did it all, but in a different way.” (Listen below for Russell’s discussion of Chaka Khan’s impact on her.)

Though a well-received Jimmy Kimmel set in May brought her to a new audience, 37-year-old Russell is no naive ingenue: she spent many moons gigging, collaborating with artists like David Byrne and Quantic, and enduring the harsh realities the music industry particularly inflicts on female artists. However, she says she’s well-preparing for handling the pitfalls of success now. “When I was 21 I was a bit of a mess,” Russell reveals. “I look at Amy [Winehouse] and what happened to her,” citing the late singer whom she’d known in passing. Russell admits she once had “insecurity problems,” struggles with managers, and times when she’d “get very, very drunk and go AWOL.” But through those low points, she learned some life truths, which she is more than willing to share with up-and-comers: “Just some advice to anyone younger: it’d be good if they’ve got good people around them.

“Do your research, and don’t do like I did with your head in the sand about management. Make sure you’re really involved with everything, and know everything that’s going on. Also, it’s just about confidence in yourself and what you’re doing. If you’re true to yourself in what you’re doing; if you’re doing something from a place of truth, you can’t go wrong. But also do surround yourself with people who you trust and tell you to calm down when you’re being a little sh–.”


To Dust is available on iTunes.

Kevin Wicks

Kevin Wicks founded BBCAmerica.com's Anglophenia blog back in 2005 and has been translating British culture for an American audience ever since. While not British himself - he was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri - he once received inordinate hospitality in London for sharing the name of a dead but beloved EastEnders character. His Anglophilia stems from a high school love of Morrissey, whom he calls his "gateway drug" into British culture.

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