04 Jun 2013
"If you ask me, being famous looks horrible..." RFB turns its spotlight onto Arlissa to talk about Nas, Roc Nation and not going to University.
Photo: Josh Hall
For most seventeen year olds today, it can be easy to fall into the trappings of conformity, to choose the path of least resistance and follow the pack rather than your passions. For West London singer Arlissa, the typical life choices of a teenage girl were not so straight forward.
After leaving school at eighteen, the secretive songstress gave herself an ultimatum, make music for a year then either get signed or get to University.
Little over twelve months later, Arlissa found herself not only signed, to London Records, but being managed by Jay Z's Roc Nation, the powerhouse behind Rihanna amongst many others and courted for collaborations by the likes of Nas.
When RFB caught up with the woman behind that delicately warbling voice it was to chat about her musical development, aspirations and collaborations and having the self-confidence to make herself into a pop star.
Let's go back to the beginning, how did you first involved in music?
It was really long process. When I was sixteen or seventeen and everyone was thinking about which university they wanted to go to, I thought “maybe I'll try and be a musician be a singer and at least try it out”. I decided I'd give myself one year to get signed and if I didn't I'd just go. So during that time I wrote a whole tonne of songs...just kept writing and trying to find the perfect sound. Sticks and Stones wasn't the first song that I wrote but it was the first one that we found the sound for, it just happened, it was just organic. As soon as that was done, I knew what I wanted everything to sound like. We just kept doing everything in that way and when I had enough songs, basically an albums worth, my friend contacted a label for me, which was London Records. They came round and saw me, I played them my stuff and they signed me that day.
When you got to the point where everybody else was going to University, what happened that made you think “lets give music a go”?
I’ve always been a really musical person, I spent my childhood singing all the time. When I was about fourteen I came across Regina Spektor. She was just so different to anything that I’d ever heard. Her lyrics were really quirky and she would play the piano and she had this incredible voice that was so different. I think it was when I heard her that I thought maybe I could have a shot at this. My voice isn't the same as everyone else’s so maybe I could be different.
Were your musical discoveries from your parents or friends playing records?
My family have always been really musical but it's different; there was a lot of R'n'B playing in my house and I hated R'n'B. But because it was the only music that I knew, I thought that I just hated music. Then my dad had the radio on and Four Non Blondes What’s Up came on and I'd never heard anything like it. Her voice was so incredible and that's when I discovered the radio and started to listen to all these tunes that I didn’t even know existed. That’s where my current musical background came from.
What was it that made you think: it’s all well and good I don’t hate music anymore but maybe I’ll be a musician?
I just kept singing and singing. No one ever said to me, “you’re amazing”, people just said that I didn’t sound like anyone else, and I just thought that maybe if I’m unique or different then I can make something of that. I just really enjoyed it, I didn’t really know what else I wanted to do. What better way to spend life than by doing something you love. That’s why I thought I’d try it out.
It seems like a series of particularly youthful decisions, the kind you can only make as a young person...
That’s so true, if I was twenty-five now I wouldn’t be trying to be a singer. My dad’s always instilled in me that if you want to do something you’ve got to do it, you can't just wait. That’s why I didn’t really want to go to university, I didn’t want to just wait three years and try then. If you love it so much, you do it. Otherwise you’re just going to go to university for three years and do what you would’ve done anyway.
Are you twenty or twenty-one?
So you’d still be in the University process, have you got friends around you that are still in University?
I don’t have any girlfriends in London at all anymore. My best friends, all three of them are in Australia having the best time ever and the rest of them are at university. I just knew that it wasn’t for me. The university lifestyle wasn’t for me I don’t really like partying. It’s not even that I like work, I just like to be creative and spend time doing things that I actually want to do. It’s weird having no friends around at the moment though.
For your friends and the other people around you, how has the reaction been to you following a career in music whilst they're at University?
I never told anyone that I was a singer at all. Most of my friends didn’t find out until the Nas thing happened, because there’s no point in bragging about something that doesn’t really exist. You can call yourself a singer but you’re not actually out there per se. So I actually wanted to make sure that I could do it before saying, “Hey guys, I’m doing this” but I’m so happy that I waited; otherwise I would’ve had three years of people saying, “When is it going to happen?”
How did the Nas stuff come about?
That happened really randomly, I was just writing in these studios and these two people came in and said “we’ve got this song we wrote and we want you to sing on it”. They sent it out to a lot of people and then two weeks later they got back to me and they said “Nas has heard the track and wants to fly you out to LA”. I flew out to LA shortly after and met him, sung and rapped and did the music video at the same time and it was really surreal. But at the same time it felt really normal because he was just such a normal guy and we were just having a talk and a jam and then I went back home. It was just like working.
How proud were you of that when it came out?
The only thing I didn't like about it was that people thought I wrote the song about my ex-boyfriend. He really liked Nas and the next thing I saw was that the Guardian had said “Arlissa writes soul with ex's favourite rapper”. The lyrics were “all I want is you” and I dumped my ex because I didn't want him. That was the only thing that was really annoying and also it had absolutely nothing to do with the music. It happened with people being like “when are you going to bring out another Nas track?” Well, never! Or I may do features of the same but they won't be on the album.
Does it remind you that you made the right choice; obviously you’re doing tracks with Nas and playing these big shows but that’s quite superficial - obviously it’s really important, but everyone can see that. Is it more important to you that you made the right choice?
Everything I’ve done, I’ve wanted to do. I’ve not done anything that I’ve felt uncomfortable with. I didn’t want to go to university and then I wrote these songs and went to the label that I wanted to go to. I owe it to my dad because that’s what he’s always said to me; just do what you want to do
Were the people around you like: we’re here for you, or was it a little more like if you mess up, you mess up, at least you tried to do it?
Because most people didn’t know that I was trying to become a singer, the only support that I really had was from my dad. I didn’t even tell my best friend until I got signed and in a way that was nice, because I didn’t owe anyone anything and with people it doesn’t really matter if they want you to do well, some people always want you to do badly and you don't need that negativity at all. I get really caught up in negativity. If somebody has something mean to say I get really hurt by it. So I just...cut that out completely. I might've thought, “I'm not good enough so I'm not going to try”.
Was there a clear turning point from trying to be a singer to knowing that you were a singer and you could tell people?
I don’t think so, there’s not really a clear turning point. Even now if someone was to ask me what I do, I’d say: “I’m a musician…I sing some songs.” I don't like the attention. If you say “I'm a singer” then everyone goes “Oh, so what do you do?”... It’s not that I even want to be big; I just want my music to be successful. I want more people to know my music and as far as I’m concerned, not enough people know it therefore I’m still on this journey. I'm not even close to the finish line, I'd say I'm a quarter of the way.
Going back to what you said before about being in your bedroom and quietly writing and working on your songs; was there a point then when you thought “I’m at A, now I want the extras and I want to be heard”? Was that ever the initial plan when you were fifteen?
There was never really a part of me that said I wanted to be big, I always knew that I wanted to sing as a career, but I never thought of being Rihanna big, or anything like that. But now...I’m actually thinking I want to be big. Not because I want to be famous. If you ask me, being famous looks horrible, I don’t want people in my face all the time. I've never thought that you have to be known and your face has to be seen to get your music out there. If you look way, way back to people like Shirley Bassey, they weren’t known for what tea they drank. Nobody went on Twitter to find out what they like – they just bought their music and loved it. It’s strange coming to terms with the fact that that’s not happening anymore, I’m getting used to it because I know I need to do it to get my music out there because it’s just as important now which is insane. Now I want to and I want to be this girl who people know.
Why do you want that?
Literally, I just want people to hear the music.
That means you have to do all the other shit that goes with it?
You have to do all the over stuff that's not fun. I don't want people knowing my personal business but that's just how it seems to be. It’s just about my music, a lot of the people want the fame and they release stuff they don’t care about. I want to be like Adele...I want to sell records.
Are you struggling with the idea of being a 21st Century pop star?
I’m not struggling, I always thought it was strange but I’m ready for it because now I know. I’ve got one foot in I know I can deal with this.
Have you chosen to go through this route, the tiny live shows, rather than trying to skip it and go straight to the top?
It’s not real if you don’t do it properly and I want to be in it for the long haul, I don’t want to be number one and not do it properly. It’s really strange playing to such small crowds who don’t really know your music but it’s really satisfying when they stay and enjoy the music. I am a pop singer and I really enjoy pop music, I love a good pop song if it’s feel good. I’m not talking about crazy electronica, just talking about a good song. To me it doesn’t matter what the genre is, as long as it’s a good song.
Is that what you always set out to do? Sonically did you always want to make sure you were pulling in as many different things as possible?
Sonically I've always wanted to stay different and stay true to myself. But at the same time, when you're writing with other people and for joint features, that's fun too because you've got a side to it. I just think you should do what you want?
Do you enjoy making the music?
The past few years have just been so fun coming up with the sounds. I loved going to the studio. Before I'd be having a piano lesson or going to school or going somewhere else and just think “urgh” and then it'll be a studio day and it's so much fun. It's so incredible how you go from nothing to a song. It's strange how that works.
What is that process for you?
It’s a long process but I write a lot, I write loads of letters to people who I want to write a song about, just so I can get everything I want to say on paper and then I’m able to structure it. Then it just becomes a jam session, I’ve got my friend on guitar and I sing with him and I sing how I feel. It’s really organic. It's a really nice process and I love doing it. Coming up with all these crazy sounds...Bigger. More. Better!
And what are you like in the studio? Do you take charge?
Yeah. I go into the studio. I sing. I always want to know what other people think because as long as I'm happy with it, which I normally am, I just need to make sure it's perfect to everyone else's ears. I'm constantly critical but I'm also very into details but it's still really fun.
From what I can tell, the most important thing for you is that everything that comes out is the best representation possible of what you're doing and who you are. Moving forwards do you think you'll be able to continue doing that?
Even when I was signed, I had finished most of my album and my label gave me complete creative control. I think they'll always give me creative control because they believe in me which is very, very cool. It's good to have a label that believe in you because then you can do what you want and they'll support it.
When you got signed was there a part of you that felt that you'd been doing it so independently that you didn't want to go in to sing and have people try and change it?
That was always a worry but if someone really loves the music they're not going to mess with it. That's a worry with everyone but it didn't really come into my head that much.
How do you feel about pop music now? When you look around at the people that you're meant to be similar to are you happy?
That's fine but I listen to a lot of older stuff. I always think it's more interesting. But at the same time, l like Matt Corby who's just the best male vocal I've ever heard. There's loads of people. There's always going to be good and bad but that's always going to change whoever the person is.
Have you ever had the thought “what would I be doing right now if I was at University?”
I was going to go to Royal Holloway, I got a scholarship and everything. I thought Royal Holloway was in London because it says it's a London University so I applied and then when I got in and went to see the Uni I was like “oh my god, what have I done”. It's so boring.
What was the scholarship?
It was just drama. I wanted to do drama, I wanted to act and I was actually a performer as well.
Have you acted?
Yeah, I've done a few adverts back in the day.
A few old episodes of the Bill?
No, no, no. I've never done anything like that. I did a short film on channel 4 on truancy and it was used as an educational video for school.
Were you one of the truants?
Yeah, I was at a party, somebody died and I walked over his body, it was horrible.
Those things are always so dramatic too. Don't skip school or your friends will die!
That's basically the video. If you skip school then you'll die.
Do you still want to do stuff like that?
Oh yeah, I definitely want to act too!
It feels like a lot more people want to just get out there and do creative stuff, whatever that might be!
If you're a creative person, you're just going to want to do everything. You can sing, you can dance, you can act, you can paint. You want to do everything. I don't think anyone who's really creative only want to do one thing.
So do you want to do all those things?
I've painted and then my friend was so much better so I stopped but I was decent. Yeah I definitely want to act but I can't dance to save my life so that's never going to happen but you can't have it all.
As long as you can paint, act and sing, you're kind of OK!
Woo! I'll do my very best on all three areas.