It’s been a while since we’ve heard from quirky popsters Alphastates but that’s not because they’ve had a massive falling out. Rather, their lead singer lost her voice and then they suffered a sudden lack of confidence. But now they’re back, with perhaps their finest record yet.
They’ve been a long time out in the wilderness but Alphastates have finally returned with a follow-up to their 2005 debut, Made Of Sand. Just where the hell have they been? Did they disappear in a blaze of sex, drugs and indie electronica? Were there diva strops and Commitments-style fallouts? Nope, the truth is much more prosaic than that.
“Life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” notes Catherine Dowling. This includes the not insignificant fact that Alphastate’s singer lost her voice.
“I had a node in my larynx and I had no voice basically. We’d been doing a lot of gigging and I had loads of damage and the specialist said ‘I think you’re kinda screwed.’ Then with natural repair and I did some alternative therapies and got my voice back.”
As a band Alphastates aim for sonically interesting, and frequently succeed, but Dowling’s compelling breathy voice and almost nonchalant delivery – a bit Beth Gibbons, a bit Elizabeth Fraser – is the lynchpin that holds it all together.
“It was an absolutely horribly frightening place to be in, because one of the things I enjoy most in the world is singing and I had to take a complete break," she recalls. "I was really hoarse. I sounded like Bonnie Tyler on crack.”
While Human Nature was not exactly the dreaded difficult second album, it had a somewhat complicated gestation.
“We actually made the record about three or four times. We had it finished and even pressed up copies, but then after a few weeks we’d listen to it and go, ‘No, this doesn’t inspire me’. We’re our own worst critics, but I think every artist is. Most musicians don’t do it for cash. If you do, you’re in the wrong industry. There must be a passion, a raw ache from the inside out. We all wanted to be inspired, and there were some creative arguments, but we all had the same goal – to make a really good record that we liked.”
With the increasing popularity – and bankability – of female vocalists, 2009 may just be Alphastates’ year.
“There’s actually some really cool female vocalists at the moment. I think Amy Winehouse has an amazing voice. Some of the albums that have been out may have been a bit commercial for my tastes, but she’s a total star.”
“The thing is I was never a fan of female vocalists, per say. I mean, I think there’s been some great female vocalists, but a lot of them have been hidden away because marketing men want the girl with the pretty little voice and kind of femaleness that’s easy to promote.”
“I love Patti Smith and Billie Holiday and Nina Simone – people who had some kind of tragedy or were singing about something that was coming from the gut, that was real. I like that element of darkness in music. I really admire PJ Harvey. I know she gets compared to Patti Smith but I think she’s really got her own style and she really pushes herself. I like female vocalists who’ve got something to say – strong women.”
Talking of strong women, two tracks on Alphastates’ Human Nature – ‘Astronaut’ and ‘Mercury’ – feature admonishments from Dowling that she will not be forced or pushed around. Was she writing from experience?
“It would be a lie to say for any person who writes lyrics to say they’re not personal, whether directly from experience or sublimely and subtly. I suppose your subconscious kicks in a lot of the time when you’re writing. You can only pull from your personal experience, whether as an observer or directly.”
For the most part though, Dowling does prefer to tackle her subjects obliquely. The songs frequently hint at something more going on under the surface.
“I like when I write a song to have something that everyone can interpret in their own way. I like to leave things open because once you put a song out there, it’s as much everyone else’s song as your own.”
Human Nature is due to get an American release – “I can’t say anything until it’s finally confirmed” says Dowling. In the meantime the band will be touring Ireland this year, and hopefully beyond.
“There’s talk of a couple of festivals, but there’s nothing definitely confirmed. I can’t give away anything just yet.”
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