With her new Audiojack collab 'Believer' just released, iDJ meets former Nouvelle Vague frontwoman Liset Alea
Just landed in stores this week is Believer, the latest in a series of releases from Gruuv bosses Audiojack that have seen the Scottish duo teaming up with a number of different vocalists. In the case of Believer, the vocalist in question is Liset Alea, sometime frontwoman of lounge cover merchants Nouvelle Vague.
But there's a lot more to Alea's musical history than just singing bossa nova versions of alt-rock classics. Born in Cuba but raised mostly in the US, she started out in D&B/trip-hop outfit Etro Anime, before going on to work with various members of the F-Comm extended family – Llorca, Alexkid and Olivier Mateu, better known these days as melodic house and techno producer Rodriguez Jr, but still just Olivier and still one-half of F-Comm electro duo The Youngsters when he and Alea, who have now been an item for some years, first met.
These days, Alea divides her time between solo work, her and Rodriguez Jr's live project RJLA, and occasional shows with Nouvelle Vague. But she still found time to lay down a breathy, dreamy vocal on Believer – and to answer some questions for iDJ.
We're talking today because of your EP with Audiojack, so let's start there… how did you come to hook up with Jamie and Richard?
“The guys reached out to me directly, they sent me an instrumental and I recorded my ideas in my home studio in Paris. I sent it back to them and we went back and forth from there, creatively.”
You're probably best known for your work with Nouvelle Vague. You joined the band when they already had several successful albums under their belt – was that a daunting experience?
“It was thrilling, as I was myself a fan of the concept, I loved the originals of all the songs they covered and I thought Marc Collin the producer had a great idea of re-framing them in a tropical laid back vibe. As someone who was born in Cuba and grew up listening to The Cure and Joy Division obsessively, this project was sort of perfect for me.
“I was in the band for eight years and we definitely had to perform the songs from the first two albums the most. My vision was to bring my songwriting to the project, and the last album Nouvelle Vague released, I Could Be Happy, is a blend of originals and covers, including two written by me, one of which is in Spanish. I am proud to have achieved that.
“It’s as if I were returning to my teenage years and imagining writing a new wave track that would be covered in the future by a French bossa band. It all came together, so after that I was ready to leave the project and move on to new adventures.”
Are you still working with Nouvelle Vague, or is your solo career a full-time thing now?
“I have done a few one-off shows with them but I am mostly focused on collaborations, new challenges creatively and my work with Rodriguez Jr – we’re preparing a full length album together under the project name RJLA.”
As well as Audiojack you've worked recently with Patrick Topping and Alexkid, so again – how did you those collabs come about?
“Patrick also reached out to me directly, he mentioned he was a fan of my work with Alexkid. The Alexkid story goes back to 2001! I was on tour with my then band from New York, Etro Anime, we did drum & bass and trip-hop and we were opening for French house project Llorca. The percussionist of this project told me there was a guy in Paris looking for a singer and recommended me.
“I was living in Amsterdam at the time, so I took the train to Paris to meet him and I recorded Come With Me in, like, half an hour at the studio on Boulevard Magenta. When I heard the instrumental I was immediately enthralled: it was so funky and warm with an 80s irresistibility, it just carried me away and I improvised a melody. That collaboration went so well, F-Comn sent an intern in a van to come pick me and my stuff up in Amsterdam and I moved to Paris to tour with Alexkid for two years!"
And I believe you and your partner Rodriguez Jr also work as a trio with Alexkid, do you not? So tell us about that…
“Yes, that was how I met Rodriguez Jr in 2003 – via the F-Comm label. He was part of The Youngsters at the time and we met backstage at the Francofolies. We created a trio project with Alexkid which we called Honeythieves.
“The album never came out because we all had so much going on in our careers, but our songs were synched on TV series such as Entourage, Beverly Hills 90210 and Six Feet Under… it was a success without ever coming out, ha ha! I guess we should release it now as a 20-year anniversary of not being released!”
If Wikipedia is to be believed you were born in Cuba but have lived in New York, Paris, London and Amsterdam. That's several 'world clubbing capitals' right there – so go on, which city has the best nightlife and club scene?
“I was most definitely born in Havana, my family exiled to Miami in the mid 80s, I went to the New School Jazz conservatory in New York, I moved to Amsterdam for three years with my trip-hop project, Paris for a total of 15 years now, and London for two years as I was signed to EMI as a songwriter, so yes it’s all true.
“Best nightlife? I love partying in Brazil and Mexico. And Australia has incredible energy for festivals, it’s electric.”
You work as a solo artist as well as doing features and collaborations. Given the choice, would your own work as a lead/solo artist take precedence, or do you enjoy working with other people and if so, what do you get out of it?
"To be honest, I really love collaborations because you are given parameters, which in my experience increases creativity: whenever I am faced with limitation or boundaries, I become hyper-creative. Maybe that’s the Cuban side of me. And then you also have to let go of the song at some point and pass it on to the collaborators. Working with others creates a blend of coloirs that are unexpected, there’s nothing like two different worlds combining to make something greater – it’s the definition of love.
“On the other hand, working on a solo album has always been incredibly cathartic and healing: I have to truly face the demons and the potpourri of influences I have, and distill everything to make a cohesive sound. My last solo album Heart-Headed was life-changing for me – I was in a different place when I finished it than when I began. That’s what solo albums do. Hopefully for the listener as well.”
In the past, singers in electronic music have often not been given the respect they're due, IMHO – samples not being cleared, vocal performers not being named/credited, their lyrical contributions not being deemed worthy of a songwriting credit/share of the royalties, etc. Things do seem to be improving somewhat in that regard, though… any thoughts on the subject?
“Absolutely. I am very happy with the Spotify credits section now – I can immediately see who the vocalist is on a track which I ALWAYS WANT TO KNOW, even when it’s a sample! But I still see tracks from mega world famous DJs and producers who do not credit the singer, and it makes me crazy. They’re immediately on my shit-list!
"A melody is a gift that the listener takes with them, something that becomes a part of their cells, something they can walk away humming and accompanies them. I’m not sure the bass drum alone does that (although the bass drum drives the emotion even deeper). A melody can make or break a track – like a sax solo, ha ha!”
What great vocalists do you yourself most admire?
“I’m a fool for Tracey Thorn and Alison Moyet… raw velveteen emotion! Sade, Goldfrapp, Peter Gabriel, Bjork… and I think Roisin Murphy is fantastic.”
Finally, apart from the EP with Audiojack, what else is coming up/going on for you right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
“I am about to release a track called Au Revoir with Rodriguez Jr. It was the very last thing we recorded in our apartment before moving last month, we literally finished the vocal takes and unplugged the equipment.
“It was so moving to record this, knowing it was the closure of a chapter, the gratitude for the life we lived, and the creative culmination of everything we experienced during the year of lockdown inside that flat. It was so powerful to sing “the sky is wide open,” knowing we would soon take a one-way flight to Miami! Life is an ever-changing melody.”
Words: Russell Deeks
Audiojack X Liset Alea's Believer is out now on Crosstown Rebels – buy it here.