Singer, rising in national popularity, performs May 5 at Sportsmens Tavern
By Joshua Maloni
“American Idol” debuted in 2002 and aired for 15 seasons on FOX. After a brief hiatus, it returned to television in 2018, this time on ABC. Its second season is rapidly concluding.
“The Voice” hit the air in the spring of 2011 and has broadcast two cycles every year since its inception.
Try to do the math here: If, say, 10,000 people auditioned for each season of each show – which, in recent years, would be a gross undercount – that would be 340,000 singers competing to “make it big” in the music industry; to achieve fame and fortune almost overnight by means of sudden popularity with millions of television viewers.
That’s discounting all the one-and-done copycat shows that tried to succeed with a similar reality TV format, but failed.
And what is the result? How many actual, viable singers can we name off the top of our heads? Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Adam Lambert, Kellie Pickler, Daughtry.
That’s about it.
The folly for these wide-eyed contestants – and that’s what they are – is in trying to ride the wave of “flavor of the month” to a maintainable music career. Yes, these shows provide a tremendous platform that can’t be replicated or outdone. But just as strong as that wave of support is for a singer in season, an equally strong “yesterday’s news” counterpart soon blows them away. It moves toward a new cycle, and new singers.
A better way to become beloved with the masses – albeit one that’s much more difficult – is to get out and gig. To build a fanbase organically – learn firsthand what grabs the audience’s attention and what will turn people back to their beers, brews or buds for conversation – and take advantage of video platforms to pair moving images with moving lyrics.
Not to sound like someone twice my age, but that’s the way it was done in my day – and in previous decades, where artists built a lasting legacy. The bands and the singers we revere today – the ones we’ll still pay money to see live, and take special notice of when they release new material – are those that gigged their way into our recognition.
All of this is to say “California country” artist Alice Wallace is poised to become a sustainable star, because she is not an overnight success. Far from it. Truth be told, she had to move back in with her family and give up a steady job in order to get on the road, travel (a lot), and hone her musical skills.
That’s a far cry from attending red-carpet events and strolling the Magic Kingdom with celebrity judges.
Along the way, Wallace has grown into a singer/songwriter whose recent release, “Into The Blue,” was lauded by Rolling Stone magazine as a country/Americana must-listen.
Her singing chops are an undeniable blend of old-old-school country, Lilith Fair and a bit of ’90s alt-pop-rock. Wallace’s songs would be just as welcome at a country fair as in a Tarantino film.
Wallace has talent, determination, and a team behind her that’s skilled in gaining press as the musician rides from town to town. Steadily, then, she is growing her fanbase, getting her music out to new and larger audiences, and getting on the radar of industry experts.
The singer/songwriter recently chatted with Niagara Frontier Publications, detailing her musical upbringing, explaining why “The Blue” is her best work to date, and anticipating her trip to Buffalo (where she hopes it won’t snow on show day).
“I’m really excited to come to Buffalo,” she said. “It’s my very first time.”
An edited Q&A follows.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your back story and what got you to this point.
Alice Wallace: This album, I am so proud of. It’s actually, technically, my fourth album, but I feel like it's the album I've been trying to make, and now I did. Like, I just needed the life experience and the time on the road to write these songs. And I needed just, you know, to hone who I am as an artist for a little while to get to this point.
But, you know, I grew up in a very musical household. My parents sat around singing Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris songs when I was growing up. And you know, there was a lot of’60s, ’70s, like, country rock; Linda Ronstadt; Dolly Parton; then, obviously, the Gram Parsons, but then also The Who and Led Zeppelin and just some really great influences when I was growing up.
I kinda feel like I taught myself to sing, listening to Emmylou and Linda Ronstadt. But it wasn't until like in the ’90s when I was in high school and the Lilith Fair era of Jewel and Sarah McLachlan and those kind of women were on the radio that I kind of went, “Hey, maybe I could do this?” And I really started picking up the guitar and writing songs.
So, it’s kind of just been a progression from there, of kind of combining all these different influences. You know, I kind of found that, over time, I started going further and further back. I taught myself how to yodel. And so then that became kind of a part of my set, and I started listening to some really old, like, classic country, and some of the cool old yodelers of the day – you know, Carolina Cotton and Patsy Montana. I've always kind of considered my voice my instrument, and I'm always trying to explore new ways to use it and incorporate it into my music.
I mean, that's kind of me in a nutshell. It’s kind of like Linda Ronstadt meets Jewel means Patsy Montana; trying to just combine all these different influences and make something new and original out of it.
Q: I can hear all of those artists in your songs. I'm wondering: Was it a conscious decision to sort of meld all of those influences together, or was it just kind of what came naturally to you when you started doing this?
Alice Wallace: It's really just what came naturally, just because you hear all these different things and then you just start writing songs; and just can't help but be influenced by all of these things you've been absorbing your entire life and continue to absorb. So, it wasn't really a conscious decision, but that's just, I know that's what it is, because I know what I'm drawn to, as far as music goes. And then, when I sit down to write a song, I, you know, I think of those things that I'm drawn to, and how do I create something like that, you know?
It's been a process. But I do feel like, on this album, it's interesting now I go back and I listen to my old albums, and I'm like, “That doesn't really sound like me,” you know? And I feel like I, finally, I have album where I'm like, “This sounds like me. This is what I've been trying to say with my music.” And it's really A wonderful thing.
And like the musicians we got on board for this album and just like the production behind it, it's so amazing to listen to, and just go, “These are songs that I wrote. They sound like this now.” It's incredible.
(All photos by Adrienne Isom, courtesy of Devious Planet Media)
Q: When did you know that you were good at this – that you could make a career out of this? And tell me a little bit about the progression to get to where you are with this album. Like you said, this album is maybe the best representation of who you are as an artist. How did you get to this point?
Alice Wallace: It was a process. I started writing songs in high school; I was playing coffee shops and bars in college. Then I moved out here to California about 10 years ago with the idea of doing music full time. But then, you know, I kind of bounced around. It’s expensive to live in California, so I got these various jobs, and I would still play gigs on the weekends.
I always, you know, I wanted to do music full-time; it just took me a long time to get up the guts to actually do it, because I am kind of this person that likes to have security. And, like, “OK, let's be organized. Let’s have a plan in place.” And music just seemed terrifying, to kind of jump off the cliff into this, you know, uncertain world of being a musician. But finally it was just, you know, I'm like, “Life is this too short. I have to do this; this is what I love to do more than anything.”
And so, it was like six years ago I quit my job. I moved back in with my parents, because that way I could tour full-time. I just hit the road, and I just started traveling. I would just book a few shows and just get in my car – and usually all by myself – and just start driving and start playing.
I feel like it was those years of touring and hearing some of these stories everywhere I went. And just like learning from people, and from other musicians, that really helped me to understand kind of who I was as an artist, and you know, what perspective I wanted to be representing. And you know, my songwriting has changed a lot from whereas I used to write a lot of songs about myself and my emotions, like now I want to tell stories about people. There's so much to be talked about and to be written about – in the world right now especially.
It's just been this process of deciding this is what I needed to be doing with my life. And it certainly hasn't been a smooth road, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I just feel really lucky to be able to do this. And the response to this new album just makes it so much better. You know, people are really loving this album, and it feels so good, too, to feel like I'm moving in this direction that I've always wanted to be.
Q: How vital is the gigging to the whole formula? How important is it to go and to play those shows and to travel the country and to get the feedback from the audience?
Alice Wallace: To me it’s been absolutely crucial. You know, I think there are some artists who can just – maybe they get enough lessons and enough polish from enough coaches that they can just kind of get out on stage and they're like a finished artist right out of the gate. But, I think for most people, you have to go out there and look at the audience every night, and see what they respond to. You know that when you tell a story, it either hits them or it doesn't, you know? Or you sing a song and either it resonates with them, or you're just saying words that don't mean anything.
And so, for me, it was absolutely crucial in figuring out who I was, and who I wanted to be, and seeing other artists who do it so masterfully.
I've spent a lot of time actually in Texas. And in Texas, the storytelling songwriting is so prevalent, and some of these guys get up there and they have an audience just wrapped around their finger from minute one with these incredible stories.
Really living as a touring artist is just kind of this master class in just learning how to interact with the world. And so, it's been a pretty incredible experience.
Q: What does “California country” mean to you, and what can people in Buffalo expect?
Alice Wallace: The “California country” thing is definitely, I think it does harken back a little more to the ’60s and ’70s, because really, you know, it was Gram Parsons with the cosmic music; and it was Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and The Byrds and kind of that Laurel Canyon sound. That really, still to this day, influences “California country” very strongly – the ’60s in Los Angeles. And then you also have some of the influence from Bakersfield, and like the people that came over earlier from the Dust Bowl, and kind of the honky-tonk and hillbilly music that came from that.
It’s kind of this melting pot, but then it's also like you add in, you know, we've got the desert and we’ve got the ocean. I feel like it just kind of melds so many different influences.
And, you know, my songwriting kind of does the same thing, where I have songs that sound like the desert, and then I've got songs that sound like the beach.
I think “California country” is a little more eclectic and, you know, it's not quite, it doesn't have, necessarily, the same kind of twang that Nashville country does; but I love it out here. I love the influence from so many different kinds of (people), and all the kind of hippy, ’70s culture that I grew up with from my parents. So, yeah, I think, to me, that's what “California country” is.
Q: Certainly, you've had a lot of great things happen in your career of late. What would you like to accomplish for the rest of this year, or even in the next 12 months? What will be the next milestones you want to reach in your career?
Alice Wallace: I’m just planning to do a lot of touring.
Music, it's a tough field these days. You know, there’s a lot more musicians doing it, and there's so much talent out there. And, really, if I can just get to the next level, where I can stay on the road constantly and really, you know, just get some more radio play.
It's tough to get to that next level where you can do it full time and feel like, “OK, I've got a solid career here.” It's a very finicky industry right now. So, I'm really just kind of taking it one day at a time. Just like, “OK, let's play the next show; let's plan the next tour. Let's just keep the press going. Let's just talk about new songs. Let’s make more music videos.”
Almost all the songs on this album are just, they're basically stories waiting to be told in a video. We’ve released two videos, for “Santa Ana Winds” and then for “The Blue,” and then we've got plans for some more. I feel like this album is just so worthy of as much attention as I can give it. And so we're just going to try to try to keep that going as much as we can. …
This year is shaping up to be pretty incredible. I’m feeling very lucky to be involved in all of it.
Alice Wallace performs at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 5, at Sportsmens Tavern, 326 Amherst St., Buffalo. For more information, or for tickets, visit http://sportsmensbuffalo.com/. Find the artist online at www.alicewallacemusic.com.
(All photos by Adrienne Isom, courtesy of Devious Planet Media)