When Alice Phoebe Lou opens her mouth to sing, out flows a voice that seems far too big to live inside such a small frame.
With a vocal ability and range that resembles Florence Welch and Joni Mitchell, and lyrics reminiscent of the spiritedness of Joan Baez, at just 21 years of age, Lou seems to have a clear idea of what her purpose is.
Catching up with her recently in the Kommetjie home she shares with her mother and twin brothers, Lou looks like a pixie out of a contemporary folk tale with her loose blonde hair and flimsy Indian-print dress pulled over black leggings and boots.
For nine months of the year, Lou is a devoted street musician in Berlin. A city, not unlike Cape Town or Johannesburg for that matter, with contentious social and political issues.
She shares a flat in Neukölln; a district in Berlin with a gentrification policy that is a sore point, where creative foreigners, like herself, are often shunned by locals who blame increased housing and food costs on their influx.
Certain parts of Berlin also still bear the physical scars of war, of division, such as the historical Mauerpark, the site of the old Berlin Wall.
Mauerpark today is a creative, interactive space, with a weekly market, and where a variety of artists perform. It exemplifies a new spirit of freedom.
Busking in Berlin
Fertile ground for inspiration, it’s also the place Lou busks at weekly, where she sings her songs, like The People Run this City, about the radical changes that have affected Berlin.
“It is important to keep the essence of the city creative, crazy, abstract, alternative,” says Lou, “It’s what makes Berlin so unique. It’s gone from being an oppressive space to where the people now make the decisions, where, if they don’t agree with issues, they protest. It is truly a city run by the people.”
At the same time haunting and edgy, Lou’s compositions usually tell stories of life’s hardship and of hope, and often deal with her own struggles as a street musician.
Berlin Blues, for instance, tells of an arm injury that left her unable to perform for weeks.
“I play my music on the street as a gift,” she says, “and in return, people support me. It’s here where I’m most happy, most at home. I love being free, living my life not relying on the world’s typical structures and formulas, but rather doing things simply through a type of a bartering exchange.”
If not at Mauerpark, Lou can be found performing on Warschauer Strasse, the subway she busked at for the first time ever, stone broke, and at the end of her gap year.
She explains: “I grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, The Velvet Underground and Portishead, and I’ve always loved music. But I went to a Waldorf school where the focus is on developing all of one’s various skills and talents. It made me interested in many things, not just music. But when I saw these artists busking on Warschauer Strasse, I just knew. It was what I wanted to do.”
She laughs. “I was so shy then, that first time I performed, I couldn’t look up from the floor at the audience.”
Alice with her brothers. (Romy Maxine)
Today, it’s a different story. Says German photographer Romy Maxime, who has followed Lou’s career these past three years, “When other musicians play, they may draw a crowd of 20. When Alice plays, there are so many people, I stop counting. I feel sorry for the acts after Alice, because most people leave as she packs up!”
Last year saw Lou perform two of her own compositions, Girl on an Island and Berlin Blues on Tedx Talk Berlin, where, in between sets, she spoke about her commitment to singing on the street, and her desire to use whatever power she has through her music, to initiate positive change in the world. Very Joan Baez.
In 2014, Lou also opened the live show of indie folk musician José González in Berlin, and The Lumineers’s show in Johannesburg.
But this year is a big one. Before she started packing her bags to leave Kommetjie for Berlin, Lou recorded her first, independent album at Popsicle Studios in Cape Town. Produced by Thor Rixon, Graham Dixon and Matteo Pavesi (also a musician), Lou financed the album herself through EP sales on her website and at performances.
“It’s a collaboration between amazing talent,” she says, “people like Ryan McArthur, Tutti Espi, Alliz Nicholas, Ryk Otto and Ariella Caira all perform on the album.”
Fresh from Austin, Texas, where she performed with Pavesi at the SXSW Festival these last few weeks, Lou is now back home in Berlin to do her favourite thing.
“When I perform on the city’s streets, I look at the people moved by my music and the things I say, I see people buying my EPs, and I’m like, ‘if this isn’t success, then what is?'”