In a world where 90% of new female singer-songwriters sound like they’re trying to be the next Ellie Goulding or Laura Marling, Arlissa remains a refreshingly distinct voice. Still only 20 years old, an out-of-the-blue collaboration with rap legend Nas saw her shoot straight to the top of the pile of ‘ones to watch’ and blog-hyped buzz-acts – 600,000 YouTube views and a nod on the BBC Sound of 2013 list followed; it was all topped off by a performance on the Top of the Pops New Year’s special.
Half German, half American, yet raised in South London’s Crystal Palace, Arlissa’s latest single Sticks & Stones is released in March and sees her blending a heavily rhythmic beat with a suitably transatlantic sounding chorus, all wrapped up in a package that leans toward flavours of world music. Meeting her in London’s fashionable Soho House, we set to quizzing her on just where she feels she fits into an already crowded segment of the market.
“I think it’s good that there are so many people trying to break through – It gives everyone a chance to listen to different music, which is very important,” she enthuses; keen to stress she doesn’t see other acts in terms of direct competition. “I’ve never really thought about it that way – for me it’s just like, I’ve written all these things and I want people to hear them. That’s where I am. I’m not really focusing on the other people around me. I listen to them, and I enjoy them, but I’m not like ‘oh my god, competition!’ – the more, the merrier!”
She opens up about the influences behind her material, telling us “the thing that got me into music in the first place was Regina Spektor – her lyrics are so quirky and cute. Then in terms of when I started writing the album, I got heavily involved in Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel – the way they changed things up and made them really cool. Especially at a time when music was sounding really samey. I was listening to a lot of Vampire Weekend too – I knew I wanted to get that kind of tribal feel. I wanted it to be earthy and organic; real instruments and big sounds.”
If anything, Arlissa’s immense, worldly vocals are at odds with her everyday persona – chatting to her, she comes across as bubbly, confident, irrepressibly focused and singular in her intent; yet tempered with a sweetness – perhaps even a fragility – that stands at odds with the percussive energy of a song like Sticks & Stones. It becomes clear that in many ways, her songs act as a kind of armour, a catharsis that offered an escape from the darker days that fuelled them.
“All my songs are very personal,” she tells us, “but Sticks & Stones… I wrote it during a time when everything was going really bad. I’d split up with my boyfriend, I was losing friendships with people and everyone was so angry and mean. And I’m not an angry person at all. I couldn’t deal with the conflict. I wrote the song as a kind of cry for help – why does everything have to be so difficult? And that’s basically what it’s about; letting go and being a good person – you don’t need to walk around being so angry all the time and giving off this horrible energy. And after I wrote it I did feel a lot more peaceful; I let go of all the sad people about me.”
Relationship woes weren’t the only troubles to plague her formative years – as a 15-year-old looking to make her first steps into the music industry, she flirted with the idea of becoming a member in a girl-band, only to find the experience deeply unsettling.
“I met this guy who was trying to put a band together, so I went down to his studios. It was my first time in a studio so it was really exciting. And I actually quite liked the songs, but when I went to sing he was like ‘can you sing it all sultry, whisper it a bit…’ – so I was like, this is clearly not right for me; it was really easy to say no at that point. Being told to do something differently to what you naturally do just sounds so wrong to me, I’m not sure I could do that at all.”
With this degree of focus toward forging a career in music, does she feel like she missed out at all on the usual teenage experiences of university and the like?
“I had a university place and I deferred it; I said I’ll give myself a year to get signed and if I don’t then I’ll go to uni.” Evidently, the gamble paid off. “At times I see my friends on Facebook having the time of their life there, and I’m a little sad, because I’m working so hard to get my sound together. But at the same time, I’m not really a party girl and to be honest I don’t think I could have hacked university life – my bedtime is like 10 o’clock!”
Her career up till now has been something of a jumping-in at the deep end – in addition to the Nas collaboration, last year saw her playing Bestival’s Big Top stage, which turned out to be quite the nerve-wracking experience. “It was like my second show ever. I was terrified because nobody knew who I was, nobody knew my music. I had those weird in-ear things – which I hate more than anything – I just didn’t know what was going on; I walked on stage and thought ‘maybe I’m not cut out for this music business, maybe this is the end?’ I kept having to burp all the time too! But as I did more shows that year, I got more confident, got more comfortable on stage.”
Arlissa is quick to offer praise for her label, London Records: “It’s so nice to just have a little family there – I know everyone really well.” And she has words for her management, Roc Nation: “It’s really cool – just the name ‘Roc Nation’ – it’s pretty intense.” Indeed, it’s the involvement of Roc Nation, following the Nas collaboration, that has her already eyeing up the possibilities of US success. “I know I’ll probably go to America soon – I’m not sure when, but to have a base there already, that’s really cool. I feel confident, like it could be OK out there.”
Looking ahead, the ambition in her eyes shines through. “You’ve got to remember that music is your job now, and it’s what you do to earn money,” she tells us, breaking into a smile, “but at the same time, what better way…?”
Arlissa releases her single Sticks & Stones on 4 March 2013. Hard To Love Somebody, featuring Nas, is out now.