wax Poetics

Alice Russell & Quantic

English singer and producer duo expand their comfort zones

published online
Originally published in Issue 52
By David Ma

Photo by B+
Photo by B+

Look Around the Corner, the newest project from Alice and multi-instrumentalist producer Will “Quantic” Holland, is an effort that exudes comfort. Or as Alice belts out on “Magdalena,” an uplifting joint that captures the album’s entire feel, “To be content is to know yourself!” Both Alice and Will, artists in their thirties, have ascended mainly in the last decade by sticking to their guns and making what moves them. Will dabbles in different bands and labels, stylistically altering his sound each time through increasingly varied, intricate compositions; Alice sounds as strong as ever but is now a bit more expressive—you can picture smirks, frowns, or even sass as she delivers her lyrics. The two are comfortable in their own skin and artistry, but more importantly, comfortable with each other. “We really just got together and did what came naturally,” Will confirms. “Nothing on this album felt uncomfortable. Everything just came from us wanting to do what sounded good together.”

The two met before on 2004’s “Somebody’s Gonna Love You,” a track from Alice’s second release, Under the Munka Moon. They’ve been in contact ever since and have toured together for Tru Thoughts, the prolific U.K. imprint founded in 1999 that pushes modern soul, funk, and jazz. Last year, almost a decade since they first met, Will’s compositions of bossa nova, jazz, soul, and reggae finally anchored Alice for a full-length effort. By now, Will was no longer in the U.K. and had relocated to Cali, Colombia, immersing himself in Latin rhythms and setting up a studio now famous for housing local musicians. For Look Around the Corner, Alice packed her bags for Cali to record with Will—and his troupe, Combo Bárbaro—in his analog studio.

Through the years, Will has recorded under various handles and subgroups, all with a sense of genre blurring and bending he’s known for. He grew up in a musical family, and his father had a steady guitar gig on Welsh television. He also remembers his mom for a hodgepodge of instruments she had strewn around their home. “By the time I was born, my father had taken up banjo, and both him and my mother had a house full of instruments—dulcimers, a piano, and various British-made banjos. My sisters had ukuleles, and my dad taught me how to play guitar. At one point, I also reluctantly took piano lessons with my mother’s friend,” he laughingly remembers.

Will’s eclectic approach is “something that just comes out,” he says. “As a musician, you enjoy learning different songs and styles, so once you play them for a bit, they just become another string to your bow.”

Though his early work used more samples, his later songs benefit from playing his own instruments, something that “allows [his] work to breathe.” His time in Colombia produced two albums: 2007’s Tropidélico by the Quantic Soul Orchestra and 2008’s Death of the Revolution, credited to Quantic Presenta Flowering Inferno. Both earned favorable reviews and showed Will’s affection for reggae as well as an emphasis on dub and its quirky studio techniques. Over the span of a month, Alice stayed with Will while Look Around the Corner was ironed out. According to Will: “We both made sure to make enough time for the project, as the little bits of time we’d previously made songs together had been very fruitful. In Cali, Alice came with ideas for various guitar and rhythm parts I had prepared for her. Each day recording, she was present, and we’d arrange songs with Combo Bárbaro, going over everything until we got a take we liked. It was simply fun and easy.”

Like Will, Alice grew up in a home bound with music, specifically Dusty Springfield, Stevie Wonder, and her idol, Minnie Riperton. Out of circumstance and interest, she was flooded with tunes at an early age. “My dad was a pianist and organist and was also a music teacher,” she says rather lovingly. “I remember falling to sleep to the sound of my father practicing Bach Variations and other delights. And there were full blasts of opera coming from his beloved hi-fi too.” She adds, laughing: “Also, baby-sitters where quite expensive, so I was placed in choir rehearsal instead!” Her choir background is evident on her second release, My Favourite Letters, a release she considers her “first real album.” On it, you hear early elements and timbres that were honed on Look Around the Corner

Alice, much like Minnie Riperton, flutters over the music, never overwhelming arrangements, and uses understatement for emphasis. As her songs got more play, producers also began remixing her work. Her cover of the White Stripes’ “7 Nation Army” received an outpouring of support from British DJs and even caught the attention of David Byrne, singer and songwriter for the legendary Talking Heads. Byrne handpicked her to sing on Here Lies Love, a project between Byrne and Grammy-winning producer Fatboy Slim. The song, “Men Will Do Anything,” finds Alice over an up-tempo, drum-heavy number. The experience of working with Byrne alone was worth it, according to her. “We met to record in London,” she remembers. “We were both on tour at the time, so we were both a bit tuckered out. But I remember him answering the door late night in a bright green jumpsuit. [laughs] There he was, a hero of mine wanting me to sing for him.”

This new pairing of Will and Alice comes at an opportune time. Both work in ever-expanding comfort zones, evident in the album’s mix of folk, soul, cumbia, and jazz. Both have toured extensively and collaborated with many artists with wide-ranging approaches. Both had parents who preferred music to television and involved them early. More importantly, Look Around the Corner is a compelling album where neither star oversteps their place.

Alice sums up the project thusly with nods to both Will and her idol, Minnie Riperton: “Will actually had the Minnie Riperton issue of Wax Poetics on his bookshelf. I kept reading about her relationship with her husband, who was also her producer, and their love of writing and recording together. Minnie was really in my thoughts, and so I had her very much in mind when we wrote Look Around. To me, it’s sort of an ode to Minnie. And by recording it all in Will’s small in-house studio, I can assure you things were pretty sweaty. [laughs] And I think you can hear all of that when you listen to the record.” 

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