The South African artist was a standout performer at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, and we were privileged to talk to her about her colorful career to date.
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Alice Phoebe Lou’s journey has taken her from her native South Africa to the streets of Berlin, and from fire dancing to making music. Lou embraced the life of a street performer and the people she met while maintaining full control of her music. Her latest album, Paper Castles (self-released, like all her music; check out her official website or her Facebook page) is a collection of wistful indie pop that sounds like a soundtrack for sweet dreams. As Consequences of Sound says, “If you’re looking for an album to listen to while pretending you’re in an indie flick, Paper Castles is the one.”
What brought you to Berlin?
I traveled around Europe for six months, dancing on the street for money with fire. And that was actually my bread and butter. That was how I managed to travel and do the things that I was doing and eventually I kind of landed up in Berlin. I was 18 years old and I was learning some kind of songs and there was just this amazing street music community there and I just fell in love with that kind of lifestyle and decided to just move to Berlin and pursue the street music life.
Growing up in South Africa, what was the type of music that you listen to? You had piano lessons, right?
Yeah, I had a few piano lessons. My mum plays a few instruments. My parents both had a really extensive record collection spanning all sorts of genres with a lot of very amazing female fronted bands, very strong female presence as well. And I kind of listened to just about everything.
I wanted to know about the fire dancing aspect. How did you become involved in that?
I was a dancer for a lot of my life. That was actually my main focus for a lot of my life, dance and theater. And eventually, I was 16, I had two months’ break from school and I asked my mom if I could go to Europe. And so, I went to Paris because my aunt lived there. I’ve always wanted to learn how to do more circus performance and things a bit outside of dancing, using my dancing background. So eventually I bought a pair of these kind of fire dancing chains, and I just met a bunch of circus folk in Paris. Paris is very hard city, kind of hard environment. And these were the people that seemed the happiest even though they had very little and they were just making money from passers-by and tourists. And they just taught me the art and the trade of street performance and the psychology behind it and how to how to get your audience to come and feel comfortable and want to be involved and have a good time. And that’s something that really, really influenced where I am today because it started this trajectory of playing on the street and eventually doing what I’m doing now.
In Berlin are there a lot of street performers there as well, a community there?
Absolutely, a really nice community, because in a lot of places the street performance scene can be very competitive. And Berlin has quite a welcoming and wholesome community in that regard and that was something that really drew me in, is this idea that you’re sharing the streets with not only other street performers, but homeless people, people who are begging, drug dealers, whoever. And everyone is equal and everyone has a chance and you give everyone their fair kind of moment to use the streets as their performance or entrepreneurial space.
One thing I wonder about Paris and Berlin: which city would you say is more open to expats?
I would say Berlin, definitely. Also, Germany has taken in the most refugees of anywhere in Europe and that comes with a set of problems, of course. There’s not enough space for everyone everywhere. But Berlin and Germany have been incredibly inviting in that sense, and there’s a lot of amazing refugee integration programs and so not just as an expat or as someone that just has the privilege to be able to move somewhere, but for people that really need a new home, like refugees, Berlin has been an incredible place. I have a lot of Syrian friends, and there’s an amazing community of people that have come there for different reasons, but are using it for the same reason.
Germany also, it seems, really learned their lesson after World War II.
I think that it’s all about the history and teaching history and really, really making children and young adults aware of the history in order to not let it repeat itself, which I think is something that is a lot of countries could learn a lot about, especially the country I’m from. Basically, apartheid ended 25 years ago. It’s basically the other day, and there’s the sense of just kind of brushing it under the carpet and saying, “Okay. We’re at ground zero now. We all have equal opportunity and let’s just move on with our lives.” And that is not the case, and so learning about your history, learning about how not to let it repeat itself and how to get educate the youth about what went wrong to get us to those kind of places, is definitely something Germany learned a lot about.
Growing up in South Africa. how were you educated as a child about that period?
Well, my parents were both documentary filmmakers and the work that they were doing mainly in the eighties was documenting what was happening during apartheid. And so, they were working for news agencies in different parts of the world. My dad was risking his life, basically going into the townships, filming the things that were happening there, getting beaten by police, getting thrown in jail. So, he really experienced it first-hand. And therefore, we were able to get a very realistic impression of what had happened and where we were going. And it wasn’t the sense of “okay, it’s over now, we’re all equal.” ‘Cause that’s just that’s a very sugar-coated lie that really doesn’t make progress. It just it just keeps the divide, and South Africa still a very racially segregated place. It’s still got a lot to work through. And so, this kind of brush-under-the-carpets attitude just does not help anyone.
I wondered also you’ve been releasing music yourself. Is that something you want to continue to do?
Absolutely. I don’t think that it’s for everyone. I think some artists really want a label to be able to do business aspects of their music and just to make the music and I totally respect and understand that. But for me personally, I’m somebody who likes the business side of things. I like knowing about those things. I like educating myself and therefore being able to individualize the music industry to me and what I need from it. And it’s something that feels very empowering to me and it’s something that I want to continue and eventually open my own label then and do these kinds of things and be able to find my own place, because at the end of the day, if you don’t like something or if something is not working for you, you need to make your own version of its and you need to find a way to do it your own way.