“This Album Saved My Life”: Alison Wonderland On The Long Road To ‘Awake’
It's a record which, in her own words, saved her life.
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Alison Wonderland isn’t quite sure she’s alive right now.
The Sydney-born, LA-based producer is in the middle of a whirlwind week of promo, performance, and travel. In less than a week, she’s hopped from Seattle to LA, LA to Dallas, Dallas back to LA, then from LA to here in Sydney. And, tomorrow, she’ll head back to LA, after being in Sydney for less than 48 hours.
“I’m really not alive right now,” she tells me over the phone. “You’re actually doing a séance and you’ve conjured me up.”
Ghost or not, this is Alison Wonderland’s life right now. The international globe-trotting is a far cry from where she started out in the early 2010s, frequenting iconic Sydney venues like Candy’s Apartment in Kings Cross.
In a few (exceptionally busy) years, she went from the dingy darkness of Candys to being the highest-billed female DJ ever at Coachella this year. And, as Alison tells it, that road hasn’t always been easy. In the lead up to her latest album, Awake, Wonderland was in the middle of an intense period of emotional abuse – which she revealed led her to attempt suicide.
It’s this dark period that she chronicles on Awake, a record which, in her own words, saved her life.
You’ve been very open about your mental health and the struggles of being on the road all the time over this album cycle. How have you learnt to manage the stresses of being on the road?
I’ve kind of worked out how to manage my life now around touring. I’ve been touring for about 10 years, obviously not always as worldwide as I am now. I have a good crew that I work with and my friends and I make sure that do take time for myself during it.
I look at my schedule and if I see an opportunity to have a week off to chill…then I’ll take that week off. That will happen occasionally, so I’m not constantly on. And I just eat really well on tour, and make sure I look after my body. It’s really important. If I’m touring, I usually book my friends as support, so we can hang out, too.
There’s a lot of people that I’ve made friends within the industry, and we talk about it and we text each other when we don’t feel that good – because, again, it’s just the weirdest lifestyle ever.
Awake was written over a couple of years, and it was all about you dealing with all of those kinds of pressures. Has putting the album out into the public space been cathartic for you? Has it given you some closure?
Totally. It really has. I honestly said this recently, but I still feel quite emotionally drained from that album. It was way harder for me to write than Run. Not only because it was the second album, and I didn’t really expect Run to do what it did, but also what I was going through at the time was just an extension of what I started going through in Run. And it was really like the worst time of my life.
When I was writing the songs, I was so honest about it all and it actually gave me a lot of clarity into what was going on and what I needed to work on. So, writing the songs for Awake kind of like made me take real life steps in my life. And that saved my life. This album saved my life a little bit.
There’s that saying about song-writing – that it’s just people just working shit out as they’re writing, and they get to the end of it the process and it’s like, “Oh, that’s what was happening”. Was that the way it was for you?
Pretty much, yeah. It was step-by-step. I wasn’t really thinking when I was writing the album that that was all happening, but in hindsight, I was like, “Holy crap”.
When I wrote ‘Church’, I realised something that made sense in real life. When I wrote ‘Easy’, I realised something that made sense in real life. A lot of things I was writing were happening in that moment, on the day, even.
Then when I finally wrote ‘Awake’, which is actually the last song I wrote for this album, it’s kind of about admitting a lot of things and coming to terms with waking up and moving forward. And that’s how I felt at the end of the album.
These songs are incredibly personal. Are you ever scared about putting them into the public space?
Yeah, I was, because the people I was writing about were gonna hear it, and my parents were gonna hear it.
When I did put my album out, my dad was like, “Are you okay?” And, obviously, I feel like I’m pretty candid in interviews and online, so I think my parents and family and friends knew what was going on anyway, but it was still scary.
Because as soon as you put it out, and it is so personal, it’s just like everyone’s reading your diary. And I write pretty literally. I don’t use all these fantasy adjectives like, “Rolling through the hill of the mountain, and I’m stuck in a snowy….” you know? I don’t write like that. I’m literally like, “Hey, I’m fucking sad. Help.”
It’s pretty literal. I think if you were to read my lyrics on the album, you’d kind of work out what was going on.
You’re a quiet person, but onstage you have this larger-than-life persona. Do you feel like a different person when you’re onstage?
No, I just feel more comfortable onstage. I feel like I’m being more myself. I just feel like really free and at home.
It’s also really cathartic, especially when you’re vibe-ing with the crowd, if they’re on the same kind of vibe as you. I hate using that word, but if they are feeling what you’re feeling and moving with you, then the energy between you and the crowd is just inexplicable and it’s better than sex and drugs and food and everything put together.
Not that I do any of that, except food, but it’s better than any high you can imagine – that’s a better way to put it.
You have a really close relationship with your fans. You interact with them all the time. How important is it for you to have your music connect and help them?
I literally feel connected to them – so, in a way, I never thought it was important to get connected to my fans. It’s more just like, I’m writing this stuff and these people actually get what I’m saying, and I feel so grateful for them. They give me the time of day, and I give them the time of day. It’s just mutual respect.
I’m a fan of artists and I’m a fan of music, so I’ve written to people that I love before and they’ve never written back, and I’ve been really sad [laughs].
You moved to LA a few years ago. I remember you speaking at Sydney’s Electronic Music Conference, and I remember you talking about the tall poppy syndrome of Australia, and how it was great to get to America. How has that experience been over the last couple of years?
It’s been amazing, honestly. Maybe it was just an insecurity thing back then – I thought that it was worse than it was. The vibe of Australia is so good right now. I’m super lucky, actually, so I think it was just an insecurity thing, because when I started making music I was getting a lot of shit, and you know? I wasn’t really feeling the love that much. And I just kept going.
I just never felt cool enough, and then my manager, who is like my best friend, just said to me, “Just keep doing you and the people that [you] connect with.”
I came back and I played these really small parties for Awake, just for the people that bought the album and stuff, and it was just packed. Like, there was a line around the corner, and my Scarehouse tour last year was crazy. I think I kind of just felt really insecure before, but now I feel pretty happy that I get to come home to be honest.
I get really nervous when I play Australia, because it’s where I started and, for seven years of my career, it was all I had. I feel like I owe Australia the best that I can give them, because [it’s] the reason I built myself.
(Lead image: Jess Gleeson)
Alison Wonderland will tour Awake throughout Australia this November. For all dates and details, head here.
Jules LeFevre is Junkee’s Music Writer. Follow her on Twitter.