The Festival Experience with... Alice Russell

Henry Lewis spoke to the UK jazz star about working with Talking Heads' David Byrne, caning it at Bestival, her first Glastonbury and much more.

Henry Lewis

Last updated: 8th Jun 2017.
Originally published: 7th Jun 2017

Image: UN Women UK / Alice Russell

Described by the music press as having "gritty power and authentically raw soulfulness", while Talking Heads' singer David Byrne is quoted as saying: "Working with a singer like Alice was something new, terrifying and ultimately amazing", Alice Russell truly is one of UK soul's leading lights.

In just under ten years, the singer released an impressive five albums, including 2012's Quantic hook up Look Around The Corner, and most recently To Dust. The latter was praised for defying convention and saw Russell sticking to her roots, while taking time to exhibit her smouldering vocals on massive lead single 'Heartbreaker'.

With a summer of live shows ahead of her, including a homecoming show at Brighton's Funk The Format Festival on Saturday 17th July, we spoke to Alice about her relationship with festival season.

This summer you have a homecoming festival show at Funk The Format, have you done many Brighton festivals before? 

I haven't no. What with moving house and having a child, I've not really been doing any festivals the last couple of years and before that I was always away doing other festivals so I wasn't doing any home gigs. When I got the call that there was a festival going on around here I was like "come on then yeah, let's do it", it's literally round the corner so it's going to be wicked.

The Funk The Format line up looks amazing, as you live so close will you be staying to watch? 

Yeah I think Norman Jay is after us then Goldie is headlining so we should get to see the Heritage Orchestra. Strings, drum and bass - here we go. [laughs]

And how are preparations for your set going?

We were rehearsing last week, we're a six piece so we were just getting all organised. We're doing quite a few old ones, then a few from the latest album, I say the latest it came out a few years ago now. We just try and do the high octane ones as much as possible, because people are there and it's normally a shorter set. You only have that hour, whereas you normally have an hour and a half or two hours at a normal gig so we just want to keep it as fluid as possible with segue and up tempo numbers so that the crowd are really up for it. 

And I guess if you're playing in front of first time fans then you want to reel them in straight away?

Yeah it's a little taste for people so it's about not going into yourself too much and doing all the slow ones, we cut out a load of the more down-tempo ones. We did Ronnie Scott's, that was the last gig I did, so we had a few more acoustic ones but our festival set is definitely faster and more fun. 

Jazz shows are strange because throughout our career we've done all sorts. If we're touring the states and north america we can play at a 400 capacity venue and the next one could be Montreal Jazz Festival in front of 9000 out doors so we've always done all sorts so it's never been one thing or another.

The last one I did with the album was the Electric Ballroom in Camden which was great, I love that venue. It keeps you on your toes on tour when you from doing a show in-front of a few hundred people to doing a big festival and voice versa. Doing shows like that mean you get to meet your heroes, so we did a show where we met Randy Crawford which was unbelievable.

Back in the day we did Glastonbury and Bestival so I think we're pretty much alright to perform in-front of any kind of festival crowd. You just get a slightly older crowd at some of the jazz festivals, not all though, apart from that it's pretty much a crossover of fans across different festivals.

You've worked with some amazing artists during your career, including David Byrne from Talking Heads no less

Yeah Dave Byrne was working on a musical called Here Lies Love, about (former First Lady of the Philippines) Imelda Marcos and her shoes. He got lots of different female singers to sing on the studio album that came with it. He's such a great guy and a complete genius. I got an email while I was in the states and it landed in my inbox on my birthday and I was like "that is a good birthday present" I didn't even check the project, as soon as I saw it was David Byrne, I was like "yep, I'll do it".

He's just one of those people that is completely mellow, I did a gig in New York and he just came along and sood in the crowd. But he's also working on thousands of things, and the fact that he knew of me considering I'm quite an underground artist, he's one of those where you think "how do you ever sleep?"   He knows about so many new artists and old artists and he's just such a knowledgable man and he makes you feel so lazy because he does so much. 

What was the first festival you went to as a punter or as an artist?

When I was 16 I went to Glastonbury before I left home but I toured with Quantic a few years ago and that was my first experience with a band so we were in France, then in England and we were all still quite young so it was quite messy and quite funny just going around in the back of a transit van.

I lost my voice at Bestival, the first Bestival that ever was. Because it was so small at the beginning so you'd get to see all the people you'd never see from the music industry. It was quite a friends and family type of vibe and ended up having to have an operation on my voice after that first Bestival. I was definitely just shouting loads, and partying and talking too much but it was very enjoyable though.

Who headlined at your first Glasto? 

Bjork, I was quite young so I didn't see loads, it was one of those where you don't see many of the main acts. Still when I go to Glasto I end up in the periphery watching some random punk band that I've never heard of, that's more my vibe. All I remember from that fist year is that Bjork played. We were at Art College and one of the older guys was like, I'm going to take my van do you all want to come? and off we went. The last time we played we had three festivals in one weekend. We played Glastonbury, then had to leave which was horrible, so we got a bit drunk in the van then went over to Montenegro then eventually on to Paris. 

We actually recorded half of it before I had Alex which was last June so we have some of it there already and we're talking about maybe releasing some singles later in the year. Just back to it now really. We've not had time to fully work them out yet so they wont be in these festivals sets but buy next year we should be blasting them out.

With the election just around the corner, would festival season be a much happier place if Jeremy Corbyn came out on top? 

Yeah definitely, but part of me thinks that the Conservatives want to lose anyway. There's some undercurrents going on there, but obviously if he did win it would be amazing. We're all hoping for something not depressing come Thursday so let's see. I'm into my conspiracy theories but we won't talk about that now.

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Festivals 2018