Alle Norton of Cellars Talks Recent Hardships, Working on the Upcoming Ariel Pink Album, Shares New Music, and More
Alle Norton, who often performs and releases music under the moniker Cellars, has been one of our favorite artists of the last few years. Her 2015 full-length Lovesick is a thoroughly brilliant synth-laden pop collection, and the 2016 follow-up, Phases, made Weirdo Music Forever's Favorite 5 Releases list for the the year.
Documenting a conversation with Alle has been on the radar for quite some time, but schedules, touring, and other projects didn't afford an opportunity until now. Currently recovering from an ordeal she suffered over the summer, Alle spoke with WMF before this conversation, updating where she was with her recovery, life, and music, and what she would be willing to share. WMF welcomed the opportunity to partake in the following enjoyable discussion that covered past recordings, addressing personal struggles, her involvement in the upcoming Ariel Pink album Dedicated to Bobby Jameson, a new Cellars track, and more.
Bobby Weirdo: So since I last saw you, you’ve moved to Virginia. From what I’ve seen, it looks pretty rural and quiet where you are!
Alle Norton: It’s extremely rural, and extremely quiet. It’s a nice change from L.A., and it’s good to regroup and recover from everything I’ve been through over the last six months. It’s really beautiful here.
BW: You and I touched base before this interview, and you told me you were interested in talking about what you described as “recent hardships”. Just now you mentioned things you’ve been through over the last six months. What would you like to share about that?
AN: I’ve had an issue with depression and anxiety since I was a teenager. It’s come and gone, and I’ve been dealing with that for a long time. I started getting professional help back around January or February [of this year]. I was doing pretty well for a while, but I went through a rough breakup with the person I had lived with for almost two years and I had to move out suddenly. I didn’t have anywhere to go, and it was pretty traumatic.
After that happened, things went down fast. It’s a long story, but I ended up getting more into drugs than I ever have. I’ve always tried and dabbled in things, but I'de never had a major addiction, or been on anything constantly. I’ve had entire years of my adult life where I’ve been totally off drugs, but I fell into the wrong situation where I became fast friends with someone, bonding over all sorts of issues. I don’t really remember anything after meeting her, but [apparently] I ended up doing drugs with her for about four days.
One night, we ended up doing heroin. The next day, I didn’t wake up, and ended up in the hospital. I was in a coma for six days, and it took a while to get all my brain functions back. I had kidney failure, was on dialysis, my heart was messed up, and I came close to dying. It was a crazy experience all around, and I was in the hospital for about a month. That’s why I’ve ended up living in rural, quiet Virginia.
BW: People have contacted me that are fans of your music, but don’t necessarily see updates from you directly. How are you feeling at this point?
AN: I’m feeling much better. Because I was in bed for so long, I had to rebuild my muscle strength and learn how to walk again, but now I’m happy to say I’m pretty much walking normally. My kidneys completely recovered the last couple days I was in the hospital, and other than that I just have a few minor problems. My heart isn’t as strong as it should be, but it’s OK. I have something in my left hand called peripheral neuropathy, which means I can’t feel my fingers that well, though I still have some feeling in them. Eric Clapton has it. He got it from drinking for so many years, and I guess it’s something you can get when your kidneys shut down. It affects your nerves in some places, and that’s what happened to me. I’m dealing with it, and I think it will get better pretty soon. That’s the most annoying problem right now, because it will affect me playing music for a while. I’m in a good head space, sober, and not smoking cigarettes anymore. I smoked for twelve years, so I’m glad to be rid of that.
One thing I’ve learned from this experience - and probably the reason I’ve had some of these issues - is that I haven’t been open and honest with my closest friends, loved ones, and especially my parents. Nobody knew anything was going on with me and what I was doing. I was very secretive, and it’s just not a good idea to hide things like that. As far as this interview is concerned, for example, I’d rather get this out there, and maybe somebody will realize that it’s not a road they want to go down.
BW: Well, it’s a privilege and pleasure to talk with you about both personal and music matters. Have you been playing a keyboard or any musical instruments lately?
AN: No. I have a keyboard here, but I need some more equipment before I start playing again. I’m looking forward to it, but I need to process this whole crazy thing that happened before I start getting creative again and trying to write about it.
I did record a bunch of songs at the beginning of this year – probably about five. I was working on an EP at the urging of my manager. Those songs ended up being maybe a little too poppy for my liking, but this one that I did at home was the one I like most. My manager Caleb Shreve did the mixing and helped with the arrangement. It’s a little bit different than my other stuff, but this is one of the most finished songs I have right now, so I’m glad to get it out there.
BW: How are you spending your days out there in Virginia?
AN: I get up in the morning, make myself breakfast. At first I wasn’t able to walk around that much, and needed to get stronger. Now I’m able to do chores like laundry and dishes, and I read a lot. I went to a library and I got all these [Kurt] Vonnegut books, since he’s my favorite author. I’m keeping up with the news, reading articles on the Internet, and anything that has to do with nerdy scientific stuff.
BW: It seems like you’re in a good place, with all the crazy stuff going on in the world right now.
AN: I’ve been watching everything going down, and I’m from Houston, so the hurricane hit really close to home too. Luckily my friends and family weren’t too severely affected by it. I’m really lucky and grateful for that.
BW: Your story is literally all over the map. You grew up in Houston, moved to Austin to study film and audio engineering, and then you made your way to L.A., right?
AN: Exactly. And even before all that, I was born in Seattle, then moved to Ohio, and then I was in Connecticut until I was eleven. I’ve pretty much lived everywhere. My dad went to M.I.T., and then once he was working he was transferred quite a bit and went looking for new opportunities. He works in fiber optic engineering, making sensors for oil pipelines, so that’s how we ended up in Houston, and from there I went to Austin when I was ready to go to college.
BW: Is it significant that you grew up in what you’ve called an “offbeat evangelical church”? Did that end up influencing your music?
AN: Actually, it did. I always loved music, and then the church I went to in Houston had a full band every week. I started playing guitar and piano as a kid, so once I was about fourteen or fifteen and had been playing for a few years, I started playing with bands. We had a full PA and sound system, so I started learning how to do sound in that setting. I was in bands, playing with adults in performances and rehearsals every week until I was seventeen, when I left the church. It definitely had an impact on my music – not necessarily on the music I write, but on me as a musician, for sure.
BW: Speaking of the music you write, you’ve mentioned before that you write pretty classic pop songs as far as verse/chorus/bridge arrangements go. What training, listening, or experience do you think informed that?
AN: I think it’s because I’ve always enjoyed pop music by different artists and in different forms. I’d heard 80s music my whole life, especially because of my dad, but between the ages of eighteen and nineteen, I was always listening to the radio, and really started exploring that genre and era. There was a station in Austin that would play 80’s Prince, Madonna, Fleetwood Mac -- really classic pop records that have their own quality to them that’s not like modern pop music at all. They’re really in that format, and are catchy, and I connected with the lyrics. I wanted to emulate that, as well as the 80s sound.
I’m not sure if I’m going to continue emulating that when I start playing music again, or if I’m going to do something different. I’m interested to see what happens when I start recording again.
BW: When you are writing music, how are you thinking? Is it on paper, at a keyboard, or on computer? Some of my favorite Cellars songs, like “Still in Love” sound like they probably were composed on a piano or keyboard, and that you have a sophisticated understanding of music theory.
AN: I write pretty much everything on the keyboard. The keyboard that I wrote that song with was an Ensoniq KT-88 keyboard with weighted keys, so it has a real piano feel and sound. Even though they’re digital sounds, it feels like a real piano, which I like. I start writing pretty much all my songs on the keyboard, unless I start with bass. Sometimes I’ll play bass, and then add keyboard parts over it. I didn’t really have much theory training, but I took choir in junior high, so I had some music theory knowledge. When I was at the community college in Austin for audio engineering, I took a Theory 1 class. That’s pretty much all the theory I studied, but I have a pretty good understanding of it. I would teach myself a lot when I was teaching at a music program for kids, learning as much as I could about jazz piano, chords, and voicings.
BW: Do you still have your parents’ Yamaha keyboard?
AN: No - I don’t! I was living in an apartment in Silver Lake, and I left it in a storage room there. I was moving out and had a friend still living there. A few weeks went by, and in the meantime a developer took over the building, and everyone got evicted, so I don’t know what happened to it. I’m really bummed about it.
BW: What model was it?
AN: It was one of the 90s models, like a PSR-330. It had the drum beats and sound bank. It wasn’t a synthesizer – it had the pre-made sounds. I grew up playing it. My mom got it for her birthday, and I started playing it from a young age.
BW: Did it make its way onto any of your recordings?
AN: Yes, it did! It’s on some of the songs on Lovesick, along with the [Roland] XP-10 and another PSR-series Yamaha that was older, from around ’87. I didn’t put it on Phases, even though I still had it at that time. I mostly used the XP-10 and the Roland Juno-60.
BW: I think I’ve seen a picture of you and Ariel in a room with synths. Is that from those sessions?
AN: Yeah, it was probably at Ultrasound in downtown L.A., where I recorded all of Phases with Ariel and Don Bolles.
BW: As a fan of your work, as well as that of Ariel Pink and Don Bolles, I wanted to ask about the production on that album. It seems like Ariel Pink’s production gave you a lot of room to still be you, and it wasn’t one of those cases where the producer superimposed too much of their own desires or sound on the record. What roles did Ariel and Don have in the studio for that album?
AN: Ariel really did give me a lot of room to be myself. I had the songs basically written and demoed before I even went into the studio. I played them for Ariel, who was doing other collaborations at the time. I think he may have been interested in producing pop stuff that was different than what he does. Don was really helpful with harmonies and arrangements. It was my original arrangements, and then we messed with them. Don played drums on a couple songs, Ariel played synth on most of the songs, and we just mashed it all together.
It wasn't like we started from scratch in the studio, and Ariel and Don produced the album by massaging the songs out of what we made there. I’d tried to work with producers where we came up with songs together, and that didn’t work out for me – it just never turned out the way I wanted. The fact that Ariel and Don took my songs the way they were, added to them, collaborated with me on the parts that they thought were good, and gave their insight was really cool.
BW: Did you meet David from Part Time back during the days when you lived in Austin?
AN: Yes, that is when I met him! Actually even before that I met him briefly when I was doing sound for a band that I later ended up touring with, called Ringo Deathstarr. I didn’t even remember that meeting, but later around 2011 he added me on Facebook, and I started listening to his music on Soundcloud. I messaged him and told him that I really like his music, and it reminded me of Ariel’s stuff, since I’ve always been a big fan of his stuff, too. We ended up having an on-again/off-again relationship for about four years, give or take. And we’re friends and still talk.
BW: You were involved in the upcoming Ariel Pink album, Dedicated to Bobby Jameson, right?
AN: Ariel, Kenny Gilmore, and I worked for about two months in Ariel’s living room last year. We were just sitting on the floor with cables everywhere…you know, exactly what you would imagine Ariel Pink’s recording style to look like. Kenny is an extremely talented engineer and musician. One of the songs was “Dedicated to Bobby Jameson”, on which I play guitar at the very end. We sat around jamming, adding parts here and there, and Ariel would tell us what to play now and then. We didn’t do “Bubblegum Dreams” or “Another Weekend” there. We did “Death Patrol” in Theophilus London’s studio, and [Theophilus London] did backing vocals on that. We did “Time to Live", “Time to Meet Your God”, and some other songs that ended up not making the record all in the living room, so I’d say about 50% of the album was done in Ariel’s living room.
BW: When you were doing this tracking, did you know it was going to be an album, and did you have a concept for it, or were you just playing music and recording at that point?
AN: We knew that Ariel had written these songs for the album. He had already made recordings of some songs, showing a vision, but we didn’t really have the songs set [when we started] at all. He talked a lot about Bobby Jameson. It all happened really naturally.
BW: Are you on the track that Dâm-Funk is on, “Acting”, or were those separate sessions?
AN: Yes, I’m the female vocal on that. We actually went into the studio for that. Dâm-Funk came in, and I guess Ariel and Dâm had already recorded a version of that for something else, so they redid it there in the studio. Pretty much everyone’s parts were improvised. Dâm-Funk is an amazing synth player. I was astounded watching him play, and it was really cool getting to see him rock out on the Juno-60. Ariel sang his part, I doubled some of Ariel’s vocals, ad-libbed the cheesy lady parts, and that was basically it.
Oh, and Dâm played drums on that, too! He laid down the drums first, before any instruments or anything. He had the whole song in his head, played the entire drum track straight through with no punch-ins or anything. He had the song exactly memorized. We played everything else to his drums, and it was amazing because everything fit perfectly, just the way it was supposed to be. He’s a super impressive human being.
BW: I know it’s early days into your move away from L.A., but at this point, how do you feel personally and musically about the last couple years that you spent in L.A., and where you are now?
AN: I’m definitely at a crossroads. I love L.A. and really fell in love with the city. I initially saw myself living there for the rest of my life, or [at least] a very long time. After a near-death experience and having to get away from there, my perspective has changed a bit.
L.A. really is a great city, but there are parts of it that can be really dark and intense. Especially if you already have emotional issues, whether you’re in the music or film scenes or not, it’s a stressful place in general. I’m not sure if I’ll be back any time soon. I’m planning on staying out here [in Virginia] for at least a few years. I really want to go back and get my bachelor’s degree. I have an associate’s degree in audio engineering, but I want to get a degree in music education and teach music at an elementary school or high school. I did that briefly, and I enjoyed working with the kids and having a job that allowed me to work on my craft as a musician, forcing me to practice all the time.
Luckily, I have a bedroom, and will have all the stuff I need to start recording again pretty soon. So I still plan on just making music in my bedroom the same way I did for Lovesick and the same way Phases started out. I don’t need a studio to do what I do until the end of the process. I look forward to seeing what happens, and hopefully have the time to write a bunch of stuff. It makes me happy to be writing music and playing all the time, even if I don’t end up doing anything with it.
And I’m happy to have had the experiences I’ve had – being on a label, traveling, getting to work with Ariel and Don, and being a part of other things. It really has been a dream come true, doing what I did on the music side of things. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have done that.
You can listen to and buy Cellars music here.