“When I sing, I like to give the song whatever it requires.”

Alanna Eileen is so damn talented, to put it bluntly. Her work exists in almost a sacred space – unseen to many, but it’s an engaging aura that seeps deep into one’s being. It’s delicate, yet astonishingly firm.

We spoke with Alanna recently. It was change for us to connect with an artist who, if we’re being honest again, seems ready to take over the world with her sound. Her EP Absence and latest single, “Knowledge,” has us thinking she may just be primed to do so.  

Okay – so starting off, can you take us down your musical journey at the beginning a little bit? What were you into as you were growing up in Melbourne? Were there any artists or moments in particular that led you down a path of making music?

I grew up in Perth, Western Australia, before moving to Melbourne via Tasmania later on.  Music has always been a part of my life, because my father was a country singer when I was growing up.  I was encouraged to sing from an early age.

As for particular artists, I was probably inspired by everything I came in contact with: the pop songs on the radio, the Roy Orbison tape my family would play in the car, traditional Irish music, classical concerts and artists like Joanna Newsom, Bill Callahan, Bright Eyes and so on.  Linda Ronstadt was a big influence on my singing.  These days, I love artists like Robbie Basho, Nick Drake, Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Sharon van Etten and, particularly, Sparklehorse.

Melbourne is an incredible community for artists. How was it able to shape you as an artist?

I think it shaped who I am in the sense that I had a lot of formative experiences there.  I wrote my first EP and played my first headline shows in Melbourne.

You’re now splitting your time between Sydney and Auckland – what has taken you to those places?

I’m predominantly based in New Zealand, with Auckland being a temporary base.  Early next year, I’m moving down to Dunedin.  The decision to relocate to New Zealand came about because I fell in love with the natural landscape.  It felt like home to me in a way that nowhere else had.

And how have both places helped you to grow as an artist? They’re similar, but different, so I imagine there’s a nice range of things to absorb from both settings.

I think New Zealand changed me as a person and, consequently, as an artist.  I first went there to record an album in 2016.  The landscape is so enriching and a lot of the people I met at shows were very kind and generous.  I had been living and performing in Melbourne for a few years and leaving that familiar environment changed my perspective on a lot of things.

“It was a hybrid of old and new feelings that, combined, gave me enough distance from what I was trying to express to make it singable.”

When someone hears your music, one thing that immediately jumps out are the harmonies. Given some of the beautifully minimal elements of your work, can you walk us through the voice being so prominent? We’ve talked to some people in the past about the balance between vulnerability and strength of voice, and we’d love to hear your thoughts.

My voice is my main instrument and, in that sense, it’s generally the focal point of my work.  I like the vocals to be prominent because, to me, the lyrics are important, as is the tone.  I also love harmonies.  I think there is strength inherent in all vulnerability, because it often takes significant courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable.

A lot of my favourite musicians have quite fragile voices, but it’s something you can play with to grant a song light and shade.  When I sing, I like to give the song whatever it requires.  Sometimes, it needs a very hushed, gentle delivery, whereas other times, something loud or more abrasive would be better.  It depends on the song.

Looking at your EP ‘Absence’, “Absence Tonight” is captivating songwriting – a blend of light major chords and a heavy in the words. How do you find a balance in the narrative and writing like that?

When I wrote “Absence Tonight”, it seemed to just tumble out, and I think the melody is reflective of that.  I wrote the verses, then fit them around a chorus I had written about three years earlier.  It was a hybrid of old and new feelings that, combined, gave me enough distance from what I was trying to express to make it singable.  It’s hard to deconstruct the process, because it was intuitive.

In the studio, I played it on electric guitar; I think that benefited the song.  The lyrics refer to stars, the moon, reflections and water and I think the electric guitar has an incandescence that compliments those words.

“Reliquary” – so many things I could say or try to interpret from it, but I’d love to know if there’s a story behind it and what the process was like behind its creation.

I wrote “Reliquary” when I was living in a shared space in Melbourne.  There was no privacy and it was quite hard for me to adjust.  I think the environment fuelled the way I approached writing — I had to do it quite quickly, as moments of solitude were rare.  Because of that, I used to spend a lot of time playing the guitar as opposed to singing, and that’s why the guitar is quite developed on “Reliquary”.  I was also reading a lot of Mervyn Peake at the time, which gave my writing a gothic edge, in addition to using the lyrics to abstractly delineate some personal things I’d been through.

Between the EP and what you’re working on now, were you writing, touring, collaborating? Have you done work with other artists, or do you tend to focus on your solo efforts?

Between the EP and now, I’ve been writing, traveling, playing shows and recording.  I recorded a full-length album in New Zealand last year.  Unfortunately, it didn’t work out and won’t be released.  That was a learning process and a difficult experience for a lot of reasons, but I think these are the things we grow from as artists and as people.  It also lead me to what I’m working on now.

As for collaborations, I haven’t done a lot of work with other artists, but it’s something I’d like to explore to a greater extent in the future.  I love working with musicians and talking about music; I love being in the studio, thinking about production and playing different instruments.  My first experiences as a musician were collaborative — singing harmonies with my father at his shows — and I’d like to collaborate more in the future, which I think will eventually take the form of me playing with a band.

So first with “Knowledge,” is it part of a fuller body of work in the making, or is it a single that you felt was needing to be freed now?

“Knowledge” is the only song being released from the album I recorded in New Zealand.

The world of the song is so vivid and observant. Is it a personal story, or does it reflect the world that we’re in right now? I mean, I guess the two aren’t mutually exclusive… 

I think it’s a mixture of both.  It’s a personal story that I tried to write as if it were a fable.  After writing it, I realised it was about more than what had happened to me.  It’s speaking about the ramifications of seeking validation from external sources, which is valid to the world we’re in right now.  It describes a journey of change.

Related to that, how is the artistic scene and music world that you’re a part of responding to the world? I know Australia has its own issues and referendums and elections going on right now, so do you see the art reflecting these major cultural moments?

I feel quite isolated, so it’s hard for me to comment.  What I’ve noticed is an influx of praise and recognition for talented women in music, particularly in New Zealand, and I think that’s a good direction to be moving in, as many aspects of the music industry have historically been quite exclusionary towards women.

Finally – what lies ahead? Tours, more writing, more recording, etc.?

I’ve written an album that I’ll be recording overseas next year, but before that I’m heading to North America to travel and play a show or two.  I will be releasing my first album in late 2018.