ALA.NI is rhapsodizing over a bar of dark chocolate spiked with pink peppercorns that she’s found in Ouro Preto, Brazil. The singer-songwriter, who was raised in London but now resides in Paris, is touring to promote You & I, a debut that cannily blends late-Thirties Café Society jazz and mid-century pop. (The tour will bring her to the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where she opens for Son Little on October 19.) Speaking from Brazil via FaceTime, she outlines her cocoa theory: “It can’t be too overly sweetened and over-flavored and adulterated. It needs to be raw. I think we as people are a lot more aware now and want that rawness — we want to taste the earth and the bitterness.”
At that, ALA.NI lets out a self-deprecating laugh as she realizes that her chocolate pontificating could be an apt description of her music, too. The vibe of You & I has been tagged as nostalgic and retro, and tracks like the dusky ballad “Darkness at Noon” and the gently swinging “Ol’ Fashioned Kiss” have drawn comparisons to Billie Holiday and Judy Garland — fair enough, given that ALA.NI recorded and performs with a vintage 1930s RCA microphone that she affectionately calls Monster. The songs are pitched as an antidote to what she sees as “robotic computer music” that focuses on sounding “really low and beat-y or very high and trancelike.” Instead, her treasured microphone — which she sourced from Munich after meeting a collector of antique musical equipment on a beach in Grenada — allows her voice to settle into the middle ground: “That’s where our hearts and the molecules in our body resonate to it in the most peaceful way.”
You & I — originally released as four seasonal EPs in 2015 before arriving as a full album earlier this summer — isn’t a stylistic pastiche. “I didn’t set out to make a kitsch album,” she says. Her interest in the past is less stylistic and “more about how music was made back then.” The twelve songs center on ALA.NI’s voice, supported by atmospheric guitar and a smattering of background instruments (including the lesser-spotted flügelhorn). This foregrounds the stark emotions of what she calls “a love story, a very intimate affair,” that was written off the back of a breakup with a Swedish beau.
ALA.NI grew up surrounded by music. Her great-uncle Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson was a face on the 1930s London cabaret scene; her father played bass and guitar in a reggae band. She recalls accompanying him at a young age to rehearsals that consisted of “a whole room of men playing reggae music, smoking massive amounts of marijuana” and remembers lying on a chair with “literally a cloud circulating above me.” ALA.NI’s father encouraged her to sing, and as she ventured into the performing arts scene, she found herself flipping between “reggae at home and then ragtime or theater at stage school.”
That stage school was the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London, whose alumni include Amy Winehouse and Rita Ora, and ALA.NI began gigging as a backup singer to a mix of artists like Mary J. Blige, Blur, classical tenor Andrea Bocelli, and Ora herself. It wasn’t for ALA.NI: She recalls feeling like “my soul was being destroyed” as she went through the rigmarole of backing up “artists who didn’t appreciate their position.”
Pressed on that last point, ALA.NI lets out a defiant laugh and says, “Fuck it, I was doing Rita Ora on [BBC TV show] Jools Holland and was so bored they could see it on my face. It was a lot of someone to do her nails, someone to do her hair, someone to do her clothes, someone to put her shoes on, someone to wipe her arse.… I was like, ‘Dude, just sing.’ ” Eventually, Ora’s crew dumped ALA.NI at the TV studio, leaving her to hang out with Damon Albarn’s band. “That was that,” she says. “I got fired!”
Inspiration to make good on her own ambitions came from reading a biography of her uncle. “It was a poignant moment,” she says. “He was bisexual, black, and living in the Thirties and he pursued, conquered, and achieved.” After a reflective pause, she says, “So I have no excuse as a free, liberated black woman that I should be able to achieve the things I want in my heart to achieve.”