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Alison Wonderland: From Classical Cellist to Coachella

The DJ and producer on fan-loyalty and her complicated relationship with music.

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DJ and producer Alison Wonderland is back in Australia because she’s homesick. “It was time to come home,” she tells me over the phone from a studio in Marrickville, Sydney. “I never used to appreciate my mum’s cooking. I used to be such a brat. You know? Like, ‘I want McDonald’s.’ But now all I want is my mum’s chicken soup that she used to make.” She laughs. It’s a low, husky laugh that crackles with nostalgia.

Alison Wonderland’s career is malleable—a career that’s moulded around her wants. Before her early Soundcloud mixes reached over 180k listens; before ‘I Want U’ from her debut EP Calm Down clocked over three million plays on Spotify; before she played Tomorrowland or shared the title of highest billed female DJ at Coachella; before she worked with Trippie Redd, Chief Keef, or Slumberjack; Alison Wonderland was a classically trained cellist. 

Her voice softens when she talks about playing her cello, an instrument that essentially evolved into an extra limb. As best I can, I imagine her hunched over in a practice room for hours on end, purple hair curtaining her face, her tongue stuck out in concentration. Imagining her living and working in such a confined manner then comparing it with her life now, feels like mixing oil and water.

But there is something so Bjork-esque about watching Alison meld her worlds—DJing, producing, and cellist-playing—together. It’s a collision that gathered her a crowd of over 20,000 fans at 2018’s Coachella. Alison’s built a career off folding these past ambitions into her future. It’s a trait that feeds into her mantra—and ironically her Instagram bio—“unapologetically myself”. It’s why I believe her when she says, “You can ask me anything. I’m 100% honest.” It’s why underneath her successes and rotating hair colours, underneath her dad sitting front row for many of her sets, underneath missing her mum’s chicken soup, and underneath her fierce loyalty to her fans, Alison Wonderland just wants to play music.

I know you’re a classically trained cellist. What’s it like to train at that level?
When you’re training as a classical cellist, it’s so intense. It’s six to eight hours of practice a day. That includes three hours of scales and then learning pieces because you’re performing by memory. It’s learning how to sight-read and understanding theory. It is quite a solitary life. I think there was a point where, when I was playing overseas, I realised that I was working so hard towards something that I was losing passion for because I wasn’t feeling the creativity behind it anymore. You’re playing a lot of other people’s music and it’s very regimented and strict in terms of the rules. I felt like, as much as I had such a strong work ethic, I started to lose [it] towards the end because I was losing passion for it. And for me to be skilled at something, I have to be hyper-focused on it—the only way that I can do that is if I have really strong feelings towards that thing. I mean, I’ve always had those feelings for music. But I really gravitated towards creating it after that.

So you gravitated towards making your own music after performing and training as a cellist?
Yeah, I was playing in Europe and I fell out of love with it. It was six to eight hours in a practice room and I was playing none of my own creations. It felt almost sterile towards the end. So, I stopped. I actually didn’t listen [to] or [make] any music for about a year after that. It kind of felt like a breakup. But it somehow found me again. I started playing music in a band and that’s how I discovered DJing and electronic music, through the clubs. It was the first time I think it really sparked in me. Performing as a cellist compared to performing in a band or as a DJ, it’s completely different. As a cellist, you’re supposed to be completely silent, no interaction. There’s no high I can get from playing a show like that. I remember the first time I played in my band, there was 30 people in the crowd and I felt higher off the adrenaline of that than I have ever felt when I played as a cellist. I remember that night, I didn’t even sleep I was so high. I wasn’t even on anything. It was just from the show.

How does that feed into your Instagram post where you said that you were going to start playing “90% of your own music at festivals” and how you were “tired of being scared”. What were you scared of?
As a DJ you are playing other people’s shit and the crowd interaction was what made me feel alive. I was also producing other abstract shit under a different name. I still don’t consider DJing and producing as the same thing at all, even though people tend to box them in together. I got to this point where I had to make a call: did I want to be an artist, which I am because of my EP and my albums and about 20 other songs I have out, or I could remain being seen as just a DJ and not push myself. I feel like as an artist, especially with the career I’ve had and where I’m at now, I could choose to evolve and take a risk or not. I guess I was scared, partially because I hadn’t really gone out and done that before. 

There’s a lack of validity you sometimes feel when you’re in your own head. So I wasn’t really sure how people would react when I did announce that. But it was one of the most positive things that I had seen happen. I did make that call to be a full-on artist. When I did those Red Rock shows this year, that was all my own music. I had a full string orchestra, I had a percussionist. I really tried to bring all my songs to life. I never want to remain stagnant. Every time I’ve been scared of something, I feel like it’s held me back. The time we live in, there’s the comment culture. I don’t think it’s very good for a lot of artists because a lot of people can feel scared because they don’t want to be told or hurt by people’s opinions. But I made a choice… I just don’t want to get to this place where I’m an old lady and I think, “What if?” I made a choice to say “Fuck it. It’s time to evolve again.” I wanted to play all my creations. Then I can never really feel like I had a bad show because I put everything into it.

From the outset, it seems like you have a pretty ravenous fan base. Emotionally, how does it impact you having such a huge amount of people so deeply invested in what you create?
In terms of my fan base… here’s the thing. I’ve never been able to split work with myself because work is me. Everything I write, everything I tweet—what you see is what you get. The only thing is that I’m a little bit more introverted off-stage. That’s it. In terms of the people that are fans of mine that are very dedicated, the feeling I feel is grateful. For a long time, I faced a lot of people not taking me seriously or understanding what my message or my art was about. Without the support of my fans, I would not be playing the shows I play, I would not be getting the opportunities I’m getting. I did base a lot of my early career on building a fan base rather than a radio kit and making sure that I was being as real as I could and attracting the people that got me. And I think when you put yourself out there as an artist and you are as honest as I am, you kind of speak your truth [and] it’s going to attract a very dedicated fan base that do expect a lot from you. But it does keep the cogs moving for me. 

A reminder of sorts…
Every time someone gets a tattoo of me, it reminds me not to be whack ever. I don’t want to be a whack artist, I never want to properly sell out or let anyone down. I feel like, when I want to give up, they’re the ones that get it. I even cancelled a month this year in Europe because I was working on my mental health. Instead of people getting angry, I had a bunch of people message me and encourage me to do it. I think you attract the fan base that… your vibe attracts your tribe. I hate that saying, but it’s the only way to describe it. I feel like the people that do come to my shows are really open minded. I’m using my platform to encourage the people that follow me to be open minded. Whenever I play my sets, the fans get there early, they watch the support acts and they follow them. I like to put on younger up-and-coming artists, people who I believe in. Obviously it does get a lot, but when I do need time for myself I just say, “Hey guys, I’m logging off, I’m taking time for myself.” They get it. No one has ever been aggressive. It’s always been encouraging. And, you know, when you are someone who attracts a lot of attention like that, there’s going to be some people who attack those kind of people. It feels like a really great community of people. As much as it does get noisy, my fans are the people that have allowed me to get where I want to get… apart from my hard work and years of rejection!

[Laughs] I really believe that there’s a lot of good in your fan base.
There really is. I saw a tweet recently that said, “Alison Wonderland’s stans are the K-Pop stans of electronic music.” [Laughs] I think I can influence people for the better. I have a group of fans on Discord who checked a girl into hospital because she was feeling suicidal and they’d never met her. And they helped pay for her therapy. There’s a lot of good that comes with that platform. I was saying to my step-mum the other night that I get a little bit sad when celebrities make everything about them. I’d like to see more big artists passionately talk about the fact that the earth is about to fucking ruin itself. I don’t hear that enough. For me, I think that if you have that many people listening to you, you should really use that [to] heal things and create a good mentality. My life does get really hectic and I do have to take time off, but people have always been really understanding. It’s important to be honest with them.

I really admire that. But, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if there wasn’t something big on the horizon. So, spill the beans. What is it?
[Laughs] Well! Number one, I’m back home in Australia, I’m homesick so I just wanted some time to talk to you guys. Number two, I don’t stop so obviously I’m working on new music. I don’t really know what I could tell you… I could nod, but you can’t see me! It’s a lot. I have a lot planned. I’m just checking in over here, before I make my next move.

For more Alison Wonderland follow her here.


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