Interview with Alice Boyd
Interview with Alice Boyd
Alice Boyd is a composer, singer-songwriter and sound artist based between London and Bristol. Her work explores our interconnectedness with the natural world, using the voice, electronic and analogue textures, as well as novel recording techniques to call our attention to the hidden and often unacknowledged sounds of our environment.
You’re just about to release an EP called ‘From The Understory’ which was written during your residency at the Eden Project. What can people expect from this release, and how did it come to be?
From The Understory is a collection of five songs written as part of my artist residency at the Eden Project – the world’s largest indoor rainforest. The music on the EP explores our evolutionary journey and connection to the biosphere through vocal harmonies from a female and non-binary ensemble, electronics and analogue textures.
The idea for the EP started in 2020, when I was selected for Sound and Music’s New Voices programme. As part of this I spent a week in the Eden Project’s Rainforest Biome, a humid geodesic dome brimming with tropical plants from around the world. I used my handmade Arduino device to record the conductivity across the surfaces of various plants and trees, which changes depending on the movement of water in the plants, which fluctuates throughout the day as a result of photosynthesis.
My device converts this data into musical notes, which I then fed through my synthesizers to form the electronic bed of the EP. I then wrote lyrics and harmonies, as well as instrumental parts, which we performed at the Eden Project in January 2022. Over 2022, I then worked with musician Liam Evans to record and co-produce the songs.
From The Understory comes out on Friday 21st April, just in time for Earth Day. You can listen to the EP (as well as the singles already out) on Spotify, Apple Music, Bandcamp and wherever else you get your music. The EP has also been pressed onto a limited edition run of eco-mix vinyl, which are produced using leftover coloured pellets from other vinyl runs. This reduces waste and also results in a randomised colour, meaning that every record is unique.
How do you approach making something new?
I found it really useful this time to begin with a concept for the full EP. It was important to me that the five songs should tell a story together. The EP takes the listener from the evolution of plant and animal cells, through the rise of human civilisations, to the moment we find ourselves in now: the climate crisis; a fork in the road; a moment that requires urgent decision-making and action.
At my artist residency at the Eden Project, I spent time simply going on walks and letting ideas percolate. Every now and then a new idea for the songs would spring up and slowly and surely I began seeing a structure to the EP.
Voices form an important part of your work. How do you choose which voices to work with, and who are the singers we can hear on your latest release?
My EP features six singers including myself. I was really excited to work with an ensemble, which features artists Dazey, Emily Izen Row, Issa, XATIVA and zha, all of whom have their own musical career. I had always enjoyed writing harmonies, but until that point had never worked with a group of singers.
It was a lovely group because each person knew one other person well, for example Dazey was my housemate at the time, but didn’t know the others. It meant that there was an immediate sense of comfort, but also the excitement of working with a new group of people.
The process reminded me of the joy of performing with other people, particularly after the lockdowns. Live performance is something I’m excited to continue going forwards.
Do you have a particular approach to setting text?
Most of the time I begin writing songs with my guitar. I’ll find a few chords I like and continue playing them until the melody and lyrics begin to flow. I generally will write all the lyrics and melodies within two sittings. In the first sitting, if I’m following a more standard song structure, I tend to write a couple of verses and a chorus, giving me the general feel of the song.
I then come back a day later, which allows lyrics and ideas to percolate while I’m away from the guitar. I tend to complete the song in my second sitting, often adding a bridge or departure from the chorus-verse structure. As with many creative processes, songwriting can sometimes feel like a strange sort of magic. The words and melodies somehow appear as if from thin air.
Are there any musical inspirations behind your work?
I have quite a few artists and bands who I regularly go back to when I need some inspiration. From the age of about 14, I’ve been a huge fan of Dirty Projectors, led by Dave Longstreth. It’s really stuck with me and I love the new band configuration. Their recent release 5EPs features a different band member as lead vocalist for each EP, covering a range of musical styles from stripped-back folk, to experimental orchestral compositions, to hip-hop inspired instrumentation.
I also take great inspiration from artists who make work inspired by the natural world, musicians and sound artists, such as Jason Singh, Kathy Hinde, Cosmo Sheldrake, Action Pyramid and dot.i, to other artists like printmaker and book binder Amy Pezzin, writer Natasha Kaeda and filmmaker Michelle Sanders. There are so many amazing people working in this space.
Nature and the natural world are at the heart of what you do. When did your interest in nature first bloom, and has it always felt central to your artistic output?
Growing up, I knew I either wanted to work in the environmental sector or the arts. I studied Geography at university and worked in an environmental charity after that. In 2018, I became incredibly inspired by Alison Tickell, CEO of environmental arts organisation Julie’s Bicycle, who says “the arts is the difference between knowing knowledge and feeling knowledge”. It dawned on me that I can use my love of music and the arts to contribute to the climate movement in my own way.
Storytelling is an essential tool for human evolution and survival. Whether for good or bad, it has been central to many cultural shifts in human history. Music and sound has been used as a form of storytelling for as long as humans have been able to speak. It helps us express emotions, galvanise and celebrate.
What do you want people to take away from your music?
My aim for the music is to offer a semi-pop/semi-experimental exploration of our place in the ecosystems we live in. I aim to make music that is first and foremost enjoyable to listen to, with its lyrics and process often deeply rooted in environmental themes. I hope these then become more apparent with each listen, and encourage listeners to consider their relationship with the natural world.
What are you listening to at the moment? Have you got any good recommendations?
My partner Joe and I have actually started doing a monthly mix, called The Alice & Joe Show. It’s an hour of ambient, chill and experimental music. Each month, we select a mix of old favourites and new finds reflecting the changing seasons. Some of our favourites this month have been: Cosmo Sheldrake’s new song ‘Bathed In Sound’, supa sweetz’ ‘huitziltengo’ and Julianna Barwick’s ‘Flown’.
What’s next? Have you got any exciting projects on the horizon?
Next up, I am performing my EP From The Understory live. So far, we’ve had some really exciting gigs, for example in the Eden Project’s Rainforest Biome and the Barbican’s Conservatory. I really enjoy performing in unique venues, such as botanical gardens, museums and greenhouses, and hope I can continue to do this!
Over this year, I am also working with Ffern, a Somerset-based natural perfume maker, on their podcast ‘As The Season Turns’, hosted by nature writer Lia Leendertz. Each month I travel to a different place in the UK to record the sounds of the landscape. From snow melting, to the sounds of aquatic ponds photosynthesising, you can watch the behind the scenes here.
I am also starting to think about what my future music releases might be. I am interested in exploring different biomes and elements in my music making, investigating how the climate crisis is affecting them and how we can act on this.