Photo by Bernardo Lima Infante courtesy of SkyHour / FIM Films.
Alicia Waller is a soprano vocalist who uses her music to spark cultural sharing and international diplomacy. You may remember her performance from our inaugural Phenomenal Womxn Festival back in August, which included works from her EP, "Some Hidden Treasure." We've been so captured by Alicia's music that we had to learn more about it, and share what we learned with you! Check out the Q&A below:
You created your own program at NYU-- what did your work in that program look like? What prompted you to create that space? Wow, NYU. That was a pretty significant time for me—really one of the best periods of my life, because it was a period of discovery. Not only had I begun the shift outside of classical and opera, but it was also the first time that I made the choice to trust myself and my own vision.. and walk into an unknown. I’d actually heard about Gallatin, which is NYU’s school for individualized study, through a good friend of mine who is a visual artist. She told me about this magical place that let you do “whatever you want.” At that time, I was in the position of reconciling the fact that I kept dragging my feet on applying to graduate school for classical voice. I got to wondering if, maybe, I didn’t want to go at all. Once I got to Gallatin, I designed a program that I called “International Relations & Music Diplomacy.” The interesting thing, though, is that I spent most of my formal coursework following the International Relations program. I decided that I wanted to spend my time working on the things that I didn’t understand as well, and I was already really happy with the music team I was working with—between my voice teacher and coach. So, I took IR classes and supplemented them with voice lessons and recording projects, because I knew that I’d have to come out of my program with some representative work, having made such a drastic career pivot.
You've said before that you seek to create music that is "as tangible, equitable, and fresh as a cultural exchange." What a beautiful concept! How do you use your music to invite others into that experience of cultural exchange? Thank you! My main interest is how to make intercultural engagement available to people without hitting them over the head with “mission.” In general, I just want to offer that, “hey, this music and these people exist,” and furthermore, “they’re both pretty dope.” The five or so minutes that my audience is listening to me, and their Google search on an unknown place or peoples afterwards, is time they might not have otherwise spent thinking about the world, or our global community. To me, that’s special. That’s what I’m chasing. In terms of methodology, when interacting with a culture that is not my own, I try to ensure that there is some sort of reciprocity in the actual art-making process. I believe that the difference between “culture sharing” and “cultural appropriation” lies in ownership and exchange. So, my motto when working with culture is that “either money, stage, or story has to be shared,” and I try to hit all three. But, in the absence of all three, it’s definitely appropriation. This, by the way, is why I’m not actually in my music video for the Devendra Banhart song ‘Quédate Luna.’ It was important to me that I respect that Venezuela and its culture are not my own. So, in a nutshell, I’m wild enough to give cultural dabbling a shot, but figure that if I dare to take that shot, it is imperative that I do my research and be genuinely collaborative in the process. Right now, I happen to be going back to the music of my own people. So, I’ve been singing and writing a lot of soul music. But again, it’s the same thing. It’s me, exploring a people by singing their songs. It just so happens to be my people right now, which offers a particularly rich depth.
What are some of the cultural and stylistic influences reflected in your music? What drew you to them? This list is way too long! I’ll give a listen to pretty much everything. I do tend to like explorative music, and vocally driven music. For example, I love, love, love Flamenco. I’m obsessed with it and can never get enough. When I first heard it, I was amazed by how everything sounded like the absolute depth of the instrumentalist or singer who was producing it. It just funnels straight to your core. I dig that kind of thing. I also really like Fado, and Morna.. and Afro-Brazilian stuff. Ah, I love Fela.. and his American contemporaries like James Brown, Bobby Womack, and Chakha Khan. I like those big funk and groove sounds, you know? Favorite singers are Donny Hathaway, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Anita Baker. Bar none. Nobody ever did it better. And, I’ve got to give a classical nod to Leontyne Price. She was magnificent. She sang from the depth of her soul too. One of the greatest voices that ever lived.
What pieces of yourself do you bring to your music? What pieces of your music have become part of you? I bring my whole heart to everything I do. It’s exhausting sometimes, but it’s the only way I know how to be. I bring my dreams, fantasies, alter egos, hopes—all of it. Recordings are kind of funny because they really are snapshots of a time, or era. Sometimes when I look back at my older ones, I’m amazed by how deeply they resonate. By this I mean, I’m amazed by how much my heart still recognizes them.
Your work offers something truly unique that listeners haven't heard before; what challenges and triumphs have you experienced in creating the space for something new? Oh man, the million-dollar question. Making something totally new is possibly the most professionally fulfilling choice that I’ve made so far. But, it is also one that I sometimes second-guess. The truth is that it is hard. This is because not only do I have to make the art, but I also have to manifest a brand-new audience that is open to receiving it. Where, if I’d made straight ahead classical or jazz, things like marketing and just knowing who to send my work to might be a bit more logical. In the end, though, it just requires a bit more creativity. I’ve had to think harder to understand potential audiences, but the reward once actual connection is made is so much sweeter, and genuine. Another triumph is just seeing it all come together. It’s pretty dope to imagine something and watch it survive from infancy into a fully-fledged living organism. It’s even better when the final product exceeds your expectations. You go into creativity never really knowing if it’s going to work out, you know? At least, that’s the way I go into it, because imagination is delicate. It’s hard to carry our speculations and little fantasies into the tangible world. So, when they make it—when they “grow up” and mature–it’s a really special thing. Absolutely no one can take that away from you.
Throughout your career, you've been responsible for almost all of your own marketing and finances; what have been your greatest takeaways from that experience? First take away is that I can’t wait to hand it off! Yes, I am responsible for pretty much everything. I do work with a label, however, which is innova Recordings at the American Composers Forum. I’ve also recently signed a licensing agreement. So fortunately, I am not alone there, because there’s a lot to the business of music that I don’t particularly enjoy. But, most everything else up to this point has been funneled through me. Here’s the thing though, when I first got started with recorded music, I’d imagined that it worked like classical music. So, I kept looking for managers to just let me audition. But it doesn’t work that way on this side of things. Here, your talent is great, but they want to see your whole “thing” before really investing. For me, this meant that there was an initial development that I had to do entirely on my own, including identifying my own brand, marketing, and not to mention getting together my first record! This was really frustrating to me because I did not want to be alone. But now I appreciate it. Precisely because I had to figure it out, I’ve been able to make decisions that feel authentic to me. So, when something is out there about me, it’s real and not “put on.” This is a huge blessing. Moreover, this whole process has forced me to understand this business in a way that I probably otherwise might not have learned.
What have been some of your proudest or most meaningful moments so far in your musical journey? Oh, two things.. maybe three! First, was going to Portugal to work on a docu-campaign with a company called SkyHour. They’d found out about my interest in music diplomacy and took me over to follow my research on Portugal’s seminal music, which is called Fado. This was the coolest thing, because it’s my biggest dream to share culture and music with people in fun ways. This hit the nail on the head. I hope to do more. Second, is releasing my first collection of music—my debut EP, ‘Some Hidden Treasure.’ When I was little, I dreamed of heading a band, and singing onstage making unapologetically dope and forward-thinking music. The EP is that, and sometimes I can’t believe I actually did it. Third, is a review of the EP from a fan in Mexico. He dedicated an entire YouTube video to me! That alone was mind-blowing. But the best part was what he said. He said something like, “she’s a soprano, but she has the soul of a musicologist.” I’ve never felt more seen in my life. I was like, “that’s it!” That’s the whole thing: culture and sharing. Genuine sharing. That meant a lot to me.
What can we look forward to hearing from you in the future? I’ll be putting out a music video very soon. Be on the lookout! Otherwise, I’m dreaming up some stuff. We’ll see how it shakes out.
*You can stay up to date on Alicia's projects by checking on her website.
What one piece of advice would you give to young musicians with big aspirations? The world needs courageous people. Why can’t you be one of them? Make what you want and go for it, but be open along the way.