In Studio: A Conversation With Alyson Alonzo
San Antonio native Alyson Alonzo visited our studios late one afternoon after nearly all the staff had gone home for the night. The building was quiet and the rich evening sun poured in through the windows. The setting seemed to fit Alyson’s style to the nines; her vintage voice and dichotomized new-wave beats blended into the caramelized evening. After her short set (you can listen and watch below), she sat down with us for an interview where she discussed her vocal techniques, musical influences and family history.
Miranda Whitus: When did you start making/composing music?
Alyson Alonzo: When I was in high school, I wanted to study filmmaking, and my parents got me a nice Mac ... I was editing, and sitting there for a long time, and I noticed my computer had a program on it called Garage Band. I started mixing electronic loops together, but I wasn't singing on them yet. I made a project called Musica Bombastic on MySpace and I would… just spam my music and see how many hits I could get. That was it for me, I thought that was the coolest thing ever! Then people were like, ‘hey, you're a girl so you should sing.’ I guess females usually have nicer voices. I sang on one song, and people kept asking me to make more songs, and that's kind of how it started. It turned into this evolution of me just making songs on my own and then I joined a bunch of different different bands-- local artists were finding my music on MySpace and asked me to come sing for them. But I was in a few different bands before I found the way I should be singing.
Speaking of other bands, are you still working with Sugar Skulls?
I'm just waiting for the EP to finish getting mastered and as soon as it's done I'm going to fund everything to get it published.
How did you guys [your musician friends] meet?
Man, the thing about local music [in San Antonio] is that it's-- I hate using the word 'scene' now because Austin has a ‘scene,’ we have a community. Everybody that knows each other has already played shows together and I already kind of know that whenever I get booked for something I'm never going to formally fit the bill, but if I'm playing a show with my friends then all of our friends show up, everybody's mutual friends. Everybody supports each other. There's not a lot of backstabbing and snaking gigs like what happens in Austin. That's what I really enjoy about it. I met a lot of my friends from open mic night at Martini Ranch. We used to do open mic night and Nina [Diaz] used to host it and we would all just catch up there, play a few songs, have drinks and hang out. We just started playing shows together around town. I remember when Nick [Long] started playing under the name Lonely Horse he was singing at the picnic tables at Pedicab, that was when I was doing my first gigs. We kind of all just go way back. It has been an evolution of a community. It started really small, a tiny magic spark, and then everybody just got better and did more stuff and started doing more meaningful shows... and it's awesome!
Do you remember your first show?
Yeah, it was weird... I wasn't even supposed to be on the bill. It was like a James Brown tribute show and Suzy Bravo was headlining and J.J. Lopez [from KRTU] was the DJ, and I knew the promoter that was putting on that show and he was like, ‘yeah go ahead and sing up there for the last fifteen minutes’ and I remember nobody else on the bill was cool with that and they shut off my mic five minutes into the first song. It was kind of the worst, but I didn’t go about [booking the show] the best way, because I wasn't really booked, I just knew the guy who put together the show. But it was cool because I had friends there and they shut off my mic but I was still singing and they were still stomping on the ground and clapping. That was really my first gig ever. The first show I ever booked was at Pedicab, I used to play a lot of shows at PediCab. I played a lot of free shows for free food.
You played at the OK Computer concert at the Tobin Center [with YOSA], how did you get the gig and how was that experience?
That was insane, I never though in a million years that I'd do that gig. Troy [Peters], the conductor, asked me to play. Troy got Jaime [Nina Diaz's keyboardist] to play and I had heard about it from them before anything, I knew that they were doing that show. I just didn't know how to get booked for it so I asked Jaime. He said he'd talk to Troy and Troy ended up calling me and he got a hold of me when he had two songs left. It was either ‘Lucky’ or ‘Airbag’ so I just swooped on 'Lucky,' because that was like my favorite one… It was crazy, that had to be one of my biggest dreams come true. I pretty much watched to Tobin Center get built. I have this job where I walk around downtown and I watched that structure getting built and I always thought how cool it'd be if I could play there... and then it happened! It was just a weird manifestation of thoughts. It was neat.
Your voice, I've read a lot that it's often compared to Amy Winehouse, but I thought it has more of a bluesy influence and that mixed with the modern beats is a really interesting combination. How did that manifest itself?
I sang a lot to old records. Ella Fitzgerald is a huge influence of mine, I think her voice is flawless and timeless and no matter what, her voice will be the voice that I compare everything to. Her voice is just perfect. There was this video that I found, ‘Angel Eyes’, she's performing in front of an orchestra and it's the most beautiful song I've ever heard and I trained my voice listening to that song. [I take] a lot from Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. That's where I learned how to control my vibrato, listening to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald's voices. I learned how to use my voice in a deeper way by listening to Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone. A lot of it is just trying to emulate the stuff that I love. I had already been listening to older music. My grandma listened to older music so I heard that, and I knew I didn't want to make pop music. I didn't want to sing like a pop singer... I wanted to sing in a way people don't do anymore. It was trial and error though, I was in a few bands that I didn't sound right for until I found Jeffery and we started playing together in Sugar Skulls.
The third tune you sang [in our studio], "Devil's Door..." the lyrics and the setting of it seemed to describe this tortured situation that really feels like a classic blues era setting. Where did the lyrics for that come from?
That song, is a really personal song. It's kind of about me going through the motions of getting sober and fighting that influence and just kind of realizing that I needed to take a step back. I didn't drink for a year and three months and then I took a break from writing. I had writer's block. Then I started writing again and that song just came out. It was one of those things I didn't have to think about. That was one of the first full songs that I'd written that I was actually really pleased with because it means something to me. It's about me and my struggle with sobriety and my grandma's struggle with sobriety. I want to shoot a video for that song. I want it to be one of the really good songs on my new EP.
On your Soundcloud you have a playlist of songs called "Bedroom Recordings." Is that how you do most of your recordings?
Yeah, I record on my bed. I have that looper and then I hook it up to my computer and I just sit on my bed on the laptop and hit record. Pretty much everything on that playlist is made in the bedroom. A lot of them are old MySpace songs, but all of my songs started out from my bedroom.
What do you do besides music?
I have a weird pest control job. I walk around downtown and I shoot lasers at trees to scare the birds away! That's my job. I've been doing that for like three years. I got that job when I was working at Starbucks so it was really great transition. I think I've been there longer than everybody I work with so they made me the supervisor so I'm kind of making my way up with the bird job and the music job so it's like which one am I going to pick? Bird job career, or music? [laughs] I also do freelance audio/visual and theater tech stuff. I worked at SAC for three years in the theater department as theater and tech and a stage hand. Then I started freelancing by doing hotel A/V. Then when I moved out to San Francisco I was fortunate to continue doing corporate and hotel A/V and I landed a gig at UC Berkeley doing theater tech stuff. That's a good trade to have because it kind of taught me the value of the people backstage, and the value of being onstage too. That's what I really like about [theater tech] because it's all aspects of putting a show together. I know how to set up lights and sound now... so if anything happens on stage I don't have to rely on anybody to fix it for me. I can just get it done.
What's in your future? When is your EP to be released?
I want to release it in August. I was thinking about doing a full album in December... I have a lot of songs and so it's just a matter of me booking the studio time, setting a date to record it and getting it mastered and then getting the money for all the merch. I have a date booked at Hi-Tones in August, I haven't released the date yet, I have to get all my ducks in a row first.
As Alyson was getting ready to pack up, we noticed her watch. Inside the frame was a small black and white picture. "That's my grandma," Alyson said. "She died last year... but she was a huge influence on my life. She was probably my biggest fan... it's a huge deal to have that support from family. She's still a big deal in my life. I miss her a lot. She was a cool lady."
Catch Alyson later this summer at Hi-Tones for her album release gig.