We chat with fromtwoman Aluna Francis about the duo’s transcendent sounds, facing music industry pressures and using your voice while still creating bangers.
By Briony Smith
AlunaGeorge are like the Marty McFly of the pop world, returning from the future bearing wonders that were not due to be discovered by the basics for many music cycles. The London duo of vocalist Aluna Francis and producer George Reid have used the minimal production of R&B, house and hip-hop for years to create bangers that transcend genre in their paradoxical simplicity and complexity. AlunaGeorge didn’t sound like anyone else. Now, everyone sounds like AlunaGeorge. The pair released their latest album I Remember last fall, and have been touring it ever since, scoring some serious opening slots: first for Sia, then Coldplay. (You can catch them on their last few tour dates this fall.) Now, they have two new dancehall-infused jams in rotation, “Turn Up the Love” and “Last Kiss,” perfect for late summer nights grooving out under the stars. We grilled the gorgeous—and very well-dressed—Aluna on using her songwriting for good, the perils of the music industry and crafting the perfect wardrobe.
You use your songwriting to discuss issues that women grapple with every day, like racism and sexism. How are you practicing self-care while on tour during these scary times?
I pull the two things together. I used to think that I would have to clear my mind and get into a happy place and focus completely on the performance—as though that was different from my own thoughts and feelings about the current moment—but now I tend to actually focus on what might be concerning me at that time, because it really helps me to connect with the audience, especially if I know it’s something everyone might be concerned about. That way, you know that you’re not the only one thinking about these things. I did a similar thing during the election when I went to a Black Lives Matter meeting; a lot of people I spoke to were feeling very isolated, but just being in a room together with people made it less isolating. That little bit, even if I don’t talk about it much on stage, I’m still using that.
How does making music help you take a stand against racism and sexism? Does making art empower you?
Music is my lifesaver. Throughout a lot of these big, tumultuous moments, I do have the luxury to try to turn my emotions into songs, even if they don’t see the light of day. I’ve done that with a couple of things: “Mean What I Mean,” “Not Above Love,” “Turn Up the Love.” I’m not the person that is at the dinner table shouting their opinion the loudest and adamant about the fact that I’m right. I’m more conversational. I want to know what the black and white and the grey is, and that is a lot easier for me to do in a song, to process some of those thoughts and see what comes out in the end.
“Mean What I Mean” touches on issues of consent, and you’ve shouted out Taylor Swift recently on stage for how she handled her assault trial. Why do you think that this is such an important topic to discuss now?
I realized that there’s a real gap in the thinking of young women; like, yes, I don’t want to be raped, obviously, but what about everything else in between? What about date rape? What about the simple act of meeting your guy and thinking that you’re just gonna get to know each other and then the situation changes? I also feel like the pressure of being seen as a sexual person and sexually free almost messes with your ability to protect yourself and make sure that every step of the way you’re happy with how you’re being treated—and why is that happening? Because it’s not “sexy” to say “oh, I don’t think you’re doing that right” or “I don’t like the way you just spoke to me, it turns me off, so you can put your dick back in your pants.” That suddenly turns into “Oh, you’re such a bitch,” so I was like, “how do you make it lighter and more fun, but bring up the subject?”
As a woman of colour, do you feel there is enough representation of WOC in the music industry?
I remember when I was first starting out, I was in an indie band, playing guitar, but I didn’t necessarily want to ask my white friends what they thought of the music. They were like “yeah, it’s not really too convincing; I don’t feel like someone like you would be in a rock band.” And that did crush my dream a bit; I didn’t have the voice for it, maybe, but I always felt like I didn’t have the look for it so I do think there’s a long way to go before a woman of colour can feel like she can do any type of music. I’m hoping [women of colour] can look to me and be like, well, she’s not a number-one hit artist, but she still has a career and she’s gotten through without being pure R&B or hip-hop, or a sexy, take-your-clothes-off mama. I’m hoping I can inspire the next change in the system.
You previously toured with Sia. What did you learn from her?
The way that she’s done a “fuck you” to the whole visual side of the business is really cool. When you’re watching her show, you’re like, “Oh, I wish I could see her,” but you’re also entertained by the vast creativity that she’s expressing—and if I had to choose one, I definitely would pick the creativity.
Do you feel that women in the entertainment industry are pressured to look or behave in a certain way?
As a woman in these times, you’re faced with a multitude of choices and, in a very short period of time, you have to decide, for example, what to wear. You also have to decide whether you’re willing to deal with whatever consequences come with that outfit. That’s what I find the hardest: navigating your way through the fact that what you wear says something about you, so you have to figure out what you want to say, and what you don’t want to say.
Your music is often described as transcending genre. How do you describe your own music? How do you feel your music has evolved since you started out?
I don’t really do the descriptions of my music because nothing has ever really stuck—I leave that up to people where describing music is their job. Over time, the lay of the land in pop music has changed around us. We can do what we always did, but where we used to be a complete anomaly, it seems like we’re not so unusual anymore; I think we tapped into a direction that everyone was gonna go in early on. [We use] minimalist production that used to be seen more in instrumental adult music or hip-hop beats and then pulling that into the traditional songwriting zone and seeing if you can get those things to fit.
Your two new singles were recorded in Jamaica. How did that environment influence these songs?
When I was talking to local people there, they were talking about how proud they are of the history of Jamaica: they freed themselves from slavery through fighting hard, which gives different context to the perception that we have outside of Jamaica that everyone’s there is chilling out. Now I see it’s ‘cause they’ve done their dues and they have the right and the freedom now to chill out if they want to. They’re all working hard, but they hold onto it as a legacy: “we have the right to do this and be the people that we are.” The message of one love, and how everybody supports each other, comes from them getting together and freeing themselves. That’s a strong and powerful thing, so I was really inspired putting all of that history together, and how it felt to be there.
What sets you apart in the pop landscape right now?
Well, there’s definitely less standing apart than we used to. That doesn’t really matter to us; what we were looking for at the beginning was something that we hadn’t heard before, but that particular challenge is never quite finished for us.
Do you have any goals for what kind of music you want to make in the future?
We’ve never done that because we usually work so organically and fluidly, with no parameters on ourselves. I really like the idea of that as a challenge to see what we come what we come up with.
And how has your look evolved from late? You have such an amazing sense of style, so what is influencing your looks—both onstage and off—these days?
I was watching a show on HBO about minimalism and I came across this idea of the 33 wardrobe and I becoming obsessed with designing and wearing a 33 wardrobe. Then this tour came up, and I was like, “how do I get my stage outfits and my off-tour outfits to go together in this minimal wardrobe?” So I chose a colour— a vintage-looking red—from one of my favorite vintage pieces, a red 1950’s bathing suit with white stripes, that I was using for my stage outfit, and I already had some of those [to match]. I don’t actually have a lot of clothes on tour. I haven’t counted whether they fall under the 33, but it’s probably not far off and it’s really relaxing. I don’t feel bored of my outfits.