Alice Johnstone

by
Alice Johnstone
Nickie Shobeiry chats with emerging Devonian singer-songwriter Alice Johnstone about her songs, her past, and her aspirations.

Did you always know you wanted to be a musican?
As much as I hate cliched answers, I have always wanted to be a musician. My first instrument was the flute which I took up when I was six, however, I was denied lessons by my primary school until I got to Year 3. So in the meantime, my older sister taught me as much as she could until I was able to have lessons. I then joined the school choir and later took up the piano, guitar and, finally, voice. My passion for songwriting hit when I was about 8, and I began my first ever book of song lyrics – now I have far too many! I now study music at the University of Bristol and I love my course. It’s an amazing city to live in and the music scene both on and off campus is incredible. Although this sounds like your typical “fairytale” answer, that’s not to say that I haven’t doubted my career choice, or that I don’t still doubt myself. The music industry is a tough business and to succeed in it you have to be even tougher. There are days when I wonder if I have made the right choice, whether I would have been better off doing another degree or pursuing other options, but I love what I’m doing so, rich or poor, at least I’ll be happy.

What was it like the first time you performed?
My first performance of something I had written myself was in Year 4 in the school choir. It was the first song I ever wrote, and it was called Free. I still have the songbook that I wrote it in, although it’s a bit cringey to look at now. My teacher Miss Gilles encouraged me to stand up in front of the choir and parents and sing it unaccompanied and, although I was absolutely terrified, I still remember the buzz that I got from singing in front of other people.

What’s your writing process like?
That is a tough question, or at least it is tough to answer… my songwriting process is unusual. Normally I have creative “bursts” where I haven’t written for a while – sort of like an addict coming back for a hit – and when I do, I guess I channel what I am feeling in those moments. The lyrics typically come with the music whilst I’m sitting at my piano in my room, although for some songs, like Chasing Rumours, the lyrics actually came first. I now also compose on a programme called Cubase, although I plug in my piano so I can record straight onto a track. However, even though on paper that all looks very organized, I still have books of unfinished, unrecorded songs, some of which I still hope to finish, and some which will probably die a death. For me, songwriting is not about writing the next big hit, or being a Youtube sensation (although that would be cool). It’s about putting to music what I feel and hopefully reaching someone emotionally. Each time I sit at the piano to write something new, I am never sure if it will ever come to be a complete song, or just another unfinished chapter in my lyrics books.

Our Last Night is such a serene song. What was the inspiration behind it?
Not to divulge too much, but I was going through a rough patch with my boyfriend, who is also at Bristol and studies Maths. Most of the time it is wonderful that we are both in the same city, but it can be tough when we feel like we don’t see enough of each other. At the time I wrote this I was feeling just that, and being the worrier that I am, I wondered when we would ever have, as I put it in the song, “our time”. Prime example of my emotions ruling my songwriting.

What about the inspiration behind your upbeat, Regina Spektor-esque song, Rewind?
Rewind is actually a bit on an anomaly, as it is one of the only songs that I wrote and recorded in one night. I think that is why I like it so much, as I was forced to cut any “song clutter” because I was so darn tired when I finished recording that I didn’t have the energy to embellish it too much. Around the time I wrote it, I was moving into a new, better group of friends, and coming out of some quite “interesting” close relationship encounters which I now regret. I think that is why “rewinding” was on my mind – I almost wished I could have erased the mistakes I had made, but I realised that those mistakes had led me to being where I was then – happier. The guy who “danced with my heart” has since apologized, although we don’t really talk anymore.

What artists do you enjoy listening to?
At the moment I am in love with Caro Emerald. I’m also a big fan of Paloma Faith, Imelda May and, of course, Regina Spektor – so I’m very flattered to be compared to her. I also have an affinity for Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone; both of their music conveys so much emotion and feels very real. Coldplay and Muse are also favourites of mine, being a Devon girl, but honestly, it really depends on my mood as to what I listen to, and so ultimately, what inspires me. I will give anything a fair listen, but I would generally put me in the jazz/ soul/ country bracket.

Do you have a favourite song to cover?
I love Sam Smith and so I’ve enjoyed playing I’m Not The Only One, but I also wrote a piece for five sopranos which was a mash up of Stay With Me, Say Something I’m Giving Up On You by A Great Big World, and bizarrely, Can You Feel The Love Tonight by Elton John. I like putting songs together Sam Tsui style, although he does a much better job than I do. I also enjoy playing some of Taylor Swift’s songs – Blank Space is a particular favourite at the moment.

Can you recall what the last song you wrote was about?
Finished or unfinished? The last finished one I wrote was called Not Looking Your Way, and it was about a girl at university who was talking about me behind my back, but being nice to my face. We all know the type and I stupidly thought that all the high school bitchiness would stop when I got to university. I think she made me realise that being an adult doesn’t mean that you have grown up. Growing up is a choice you have to make for yourself. In spite of her, though, I have made some amazing friends at uni, and my experience with her proved to me who my true friends really are.

Of all your own songs, which is your favourite to perform?
Probably Every Waking Hour. It is one of my older songs, but for me, it brings back lots of old memories that remind me why I love songwriting. It’s all about falling in love with someone that you shouldn’t, or at least someone who doesn’t love you back, and learning to try and cope with it. When I wrote it I was so sure I was in love, and looking back I can definitely say I wasn’t. It was a teenage crush, but I am so glad it didn’t work out because I don’t think he would actually have made me happy, and I am now with someone who does.

Can you share some of your favourite on-stage memories?
Most of the gigs I have done have been relatively intimate, however some of the best ones are. I remember being a support act for a French singer-songwriter called Flossie, but enjoying the performance far more than a gig I had recently done where I was the main event. I can’t exactly say why I enjoyed the supporting gig more – I guess a part of it could be to do with the pressure that is on you to give a good performance. When you are a supporting another artist, you are able to enjoy the gig rather than focusing on how much other people are enjoying your performance. In spite of this, I think for me, my favourite memory has got to be performing at Sandy Park Stadium in front of 10,000 people. I got such a rush from the performance and the reaction that I got was absolutely brilliant.

What advice would you give to someone about to go on stage and play?
Breathe. It sounds really stupid and clichéd, but it works. Nerves can be an issue for anyone, whether you are a seasoned performer or a newcomer. It’s all about not letting them get the better of you. I’d also say not to put too much pressure on yourself or worry about the reaction you get from the audience. If you are writing your own music, not everyone is going to like it – what is important is that you like it and you enjoy performing. You shouldn’t be performing for anyone other than yourself. Also, although it feels like it at the time, your performance isn’t going to define you. If you forget a lyric or hit a bum note it’s ok – it’s all about how you cope with it and how you interact with the audience.

Do you find being at uni effects you musically? If so, in what way?
University has affected every aspect of my life in so many ways, and musically, especially so. Bristol is such a vibrant city and the music department often feels like it is bursting at the seams, so as far as exposure to music, I feel like my horizons are expanding everyday. However, in terms of having the time to write, or even the energy, I have to say the “Uni Experience” has at times been detrimental. We are all spun this fairytale yarn about how wonderful university is – and don’t get me wrong, I love being here, however, no-one talks about how hard it can be. Not only are you starting a new course which is challenging to say the least, but you have to learn to live with strangers, manage your own finances, cook for yourself (which I love!), as well as making sure you make some time for yourself or even that you look after yourself. However, I am so glad to be studying music here, and although I think my productivity has been affected, I have learned so much more about music and life than I would have done if I had gone straight into a job. And besides, the uni experience makes great writing material!

What has been your greatest achievement so far?
I guess it would probably be the gig I played at Sandy Park Stadium. I had never played in front of such a big audience before, and one of the songs I had written was in a new genre –dance – which I hadn’t explored before. However, although I am really proud of this achievement, I also wish that I had accomplished more in my first year of uni in terms of performance. I think next year I am going to have to find more of a balance between performance and work, so I am able to play and achieve more.

If you could ask for any rider request, what would you go for?
Water is a must, so a big jug of that! Probably some manuka honey as well. I’m not sure if it a placebo effect or not, but if I have a teaspoon of it before a performance, it always seems to go well.

What’s next on the horizon for you?
I think for me, I want to get my name out there in Bristol. I’ve learned to settle into life at university and now it is time to really get heard. I’m writing new music everyday, exploring new genres and growing more confident, but without performing more publically, it all feels wasted. I’m really looking forward to getting back out there and performing my new songs because at the end of the day, performance is why I love music.