The last 10 years have been quite a musical journey for Kelli Ali. She’s also been travelling far and wide in other ways.
The one-time Sneaker Pimps singer, who has since changed her surname in honour of her father, has undergone something of a musical reinvention with recent album Rocking Horse. When musicOMH catches up with her she has at least pulled into a layby to stop for breath, mind, where the questioning begins.
We find her excited to be talking about a new album again after a while away. “It’s wonderful to be in that position again”, she almost sings through her broad Brummie accent. She sounds very happy. “It’s been a few years since Psychic Cat, my previous album, and if you’re not making records I think you grow and you learn. This one was definitely a gradual process.”
Rocking Horse was completely inspired by a journey Ali and friends took in the US and Mexico. “I left London four years ago to go travelling, and we were backpacking around Mexico and California, so all I could take was a guitar. I’m very used to writing things with sequencers and synthesizers.”
The trip turned into something of an odyssey. “We ended up being away for a lot longer, meeting new people and finding new music. One of the beautiful things about meeting new people was discovering their native music, and folk music in particular – people like Joanna Newsom and Vashti Bunyan, who we were listening to towards the latter part of the trip. They might be well known to a lot of other people but it was the first time I’d encountered them.”
Since completing the album, she has been rediscovering the joys of live performance. “It’s lovely, absolutely gorgeous. We got the band together in the summer, and we’ve just been having the greatest time. They’re incredibly imaginative and intuitive, the musicians I’ve been working with – I was looking to people who weren’t tied to traditional things.” With no electronic backing to speak of, the volume is noticeably quieter. “It’s beautiful to be able to hear what you’re doing as well!” she exclaims. “It’s very liberating. I love all kinds of music, but for this period of my life I feel right, the band feels right. You’ve got to keep challenging yourself, and this is me moving forward.”
Ali completed the album with celebrated producer and composer Max Richter, about whom she has many compliments to offer. “It was lovely to work with such a gifted composer. He was very laid back throughout, and he didn’t try to change it too much, which I was really pleased with as the songs were pretty much completed. I thought he would but he kept the original forms, he saw the beauty in what was there and it was really a thrill to work with him. He’s got a really interesting way of working with sounds, it was like painting a series of works.” She pauses briefly. “I’m very much interested in going for more abstract and instrumental these days.”
The sound, almost unrecognisable from the Sneaker Pimps and early Ali stuff, is stripped back to its bare bones, almost completely acoustic. It’s an aspect of the music its author enjoys most of all. “It’s very sparse in places, and I think one of the reasons for that is I’d already written a lot of the parts. If the songs aren’t really complete you try and compensate with loads of layers, but if they’re finished you don’t have to bombard it with all these textures. We were both very keen production-wise to make something that was very fragile, delicate and organic.” Her thoughts turning to the live environment, she says, “Considering how you perform it live, if you have a 20 piece orchestra it’s difficult to take it and apply it to this music, so it’s great to have just a few of us on stage.”
Whenever she performs songs from the album, it’s inevitable Ali will be reminded of her American odyssey, a fact she’s only too keen to gush endearingly about. “We had so many really emotional experiences! My other records were far more referential rather than literally based in personal feelings. This is the first album where I’ve decided to write about specific emotions and feelings I’ve had. It was easy to do that on the road!”
Continuing her flow, she thinks of the compositional process. “If you’re outdoors you’re sitting by the campfire writing these songs, and that’s all it is. I think because of the circumstances I’m finding I’m much happier, and now I’m always singing in a higher range. Before I was younger so I wasn’t as aware.”
One tale she’s keen to tell is of the truck drivers she hitched with on the journey. They even encountered one on meths. “We were hitching and it became such an amazing way to travel! In Baha it’s really desolate, so you can only use a car or hitchhike, and we didn’t have a car. This American guy was kind of laughing at us as we were talking about what we were going to do, as it was the only option. We’d never hitchhiked before, and we waited for two hours but the first guy who picked us up was a Mexican who was on some kind of speed. I think it’s because they drive for so long they have to stay awake and concentrate. He had this roaring song he was playing, it would go “un, dos, tres, quattro”, and he would look at me every time the “tres, quatro” bit hit. I can remember how it went even now. So by the end of the trip, six hours on, we were singing, and after that we were completely enamoured with the truck drivers! We went across Baha with them, they were so kind and generous, our guardian angels.”
“Then, after eight hours driving one day we were at the side of the desert, and were picked up by this truck driver who was drinking meths. He had some kind of courage that would help him overtake, and we just had to trust him! We were unsteady on our feet for a while after though!”
Now, back in the UK, Ali has clearly taken a lot from her experience, allowing as it has done the possibilities for a new musical direction. It’s one that’s clearly made her smile, and as she trills farewell and returns to rehearsing, she leaves a happy vibe behind her.