Erin Cobby catches up with electronic music legend Alison Wonderland to discuss her love-hate relationship with social media, properly shopping in a supermarket for the first time, and today’s release of her realest album yet: Loner.
Alison Wonderland, or Alex Sholler, dominates the electronic music scene as a DJ, producer and singer. Having headlined the world’s most celebrated music festivals and clocked upwards of 800 million combined global streams, her experience of the music industry demonstrates an aspirational and illustrious career. Looking back, one of the first things we discuss is how the industry has changed over the span of her eight years at the top.
“This will be my third album, and it’s crazy how much releasing has changed, especially in terms of promotion. Now it’s all Zoom and people do TikTok dances to your songs, it’s very strange.” This development doesn’t really seem like something Alex has quite gotten used to. “The more established I’ve become as an artist, the less desire I have to be on social media. If I didn’t need to have Instagram and TikTok for work, I probably wouldn’t.” She proves this statement by elaborating: “last year, I think I really freaked a lot of people out, I deleted all my social media without telling anyone”. Explaining her reasoning, she continues, “I just feel like people are showing a highlight reel on social media and it wasn’t making me feel good, so I just shut it down.”
Despite this, Alex delighted her fans all over the globe when she decided to do the production for her track ‘Church’ in real-time on Instagram Live. “That is what I love about it”, she concedes when I ask her about that social media experience. “The world can feel really small on social media so I’m able to communicate with my fans, which is great because I don’t go out much”, she laughs. This dedication to her fans is something Alex has proven time and time again, best exemplified by her almost cult-like Discord channel. “I think there’s like 2,000 kids on there now,” she tells me. “It really does feel like a community, they all meet up with each other at different shows around the world. When I see them we have a special symbol that we sign to one another.” She shows her dedication yet again by replying, “I can’t show you – it’s a secret” when I ask her to show me the sign.
So, while the music industry may have changed during Alex’s career, the way she makes music has endearingly stayed the same, hunched over on her laptop on her floor, she exemplifies the title ‘Bedroom Producer’. “That’s how I learnt how to make music, I feel I’m more creative that way”, she explains. “That’s where I’m most comfortable, at home. I’m in my studio right now, (she waves at the small and cosy room behind her) and that is a bed (pointing at an overstuffed brown couch whose pillows have toadstools embroidered on), so you can see I’ve tried my hardest to turn this into a bedroom.”
It’s evident that Alex has no time for feeling uncomfortable. I read back to her one of my favourite quotes that I found of hers when I was doing my research. “Not giving a fuck on stage is the best thing you can do as a performer.” Given, this is easier said than done, I wanted to find out how Alex got to this point. “It comes naturally, I’ve always felt comfortable on stage,” she says, frustratingly for the more prone to stage fright among us. “Getting rid of that doubting inner voice is something I learnt to do early on. I was a classical cellist, and it’s such a technical instrument that I would always be anticipating what I’d fuck up next – which ruined my performances. So, when I was 16, my dad gave me a book called The Inner Game of Music. I learnt you had to be ok with the fact you might fuck up.” She explains that this experience of learning to trust herself when she was playing classical music made DJing to crowds all the easier. “I’d already had so much practice learning to filter out that inner voice!” she exclaims. “The difference, going from playing to a silent room where there’s no audience reaction, to an audience that’s super responsive and gives that energy back to you, is crazy”. Her advice for other aspiring performers, therefore, is: “Fear is going to hold you back, you can be nervous – but you can’t be scared because that’s what’s going to stop you going full you.”
With this in mind, I ask her about a gig that stands out to her. “Red Rocks,” she answers instantly. This makes sense to me as I saw Nasir and Black Star a few years ago in the same natural open-air amphitheatre in Colorado, and it’s a performance I’m likely to never forget. Barring the venue, however, Alex’s performance sounds particularly special. “It’s all my own music”, she describes, “I’m accompanied by a string quartet, a percussionist and a choir – we had 13 people on stage last year. I can never watch my own shows but I did see a video of that show on Twitter and it was one of those rare moments in life when something turns out exactly how you see it in your mind – it was super trippy.”
Discussing performances, the conversation moves on to Coachella, a festival where Alex earned the honour of being the highest female DJ billing ever. She didn’t go this year, however, and I ask if that’s because all the reports of Coachella turning into a festival for influencers are true. She laughs, “I didn’t really notice that when I was there but I’m also just someone that filters, excuse the pun, influencers out of my mind. I don’t react to people who walk around trying to get attention, it’s not what draws me. I like people in their natural habitat, being real with who they are.” At this point I mention that I’m glad I conducted the interview from my bed then. “Exactly,” she replies. “I’m not even joking, when you said you were in bed in your mum’s house with the cat, I was like, I love that. It’s ultimately so much more endearing and appealing than someone who’s spent three weeks trying to think of an outfit to wear.”
Forever down to earth, we finish off the interview by discussing her latest album Loner, which is out today. “I made this album during the most challenging part of my life,” she tells me. “It was the first time I realised life could change in a matter of seconds. So, I decided to go back and listen to my old music – which I never do – and I realised that in these stories I was always the victim. So, as the common denominator in all these situations was me, I had to take a long look in the mirror, which was a little humiliating. But I needed to do it, I don’t want anyone to ever feel sorry for me.” Alex explains that it was making this album which helped her transform this victim narrative. “I actually named the album Loner because I had to deal with this very specific situation by myself. So, I wanted to bring power back to that word – it’s not a negative word to me, changing into a loner is actually one of my proudest moments. So really it’s my most positive and hopeful album.”
This enthusiasm for change is felt beyond just this album, however. “That’s why creating electronic music is so great, because technology is always growing and evolving, there’s always something new to learn from and I can push myself in different ways. The sonics in this genre are ever expanding,” she explains, her face lighting up. This flux is also prevalent to her personal life. When asked about what’s inspiring her at the moment she replies: “life”. For Alex, the pandemic allowed a whole host of brand new experiences, “I realised that I was missing out on a lot of things that everyone else was having. I’d been touring so much that shopping in a supermarket was a new experience because I’d only ever been in there to get supplies to travel with.”
So, it seems for Alex, that despite being a household name in the electronic music scene, she’s still constantly innovating and the world moves on at a pace to match. I, for one, can’t wait to see what she does next.