The life of young Alessi Laurent-Marke, who performs under the name of Alessi’s Ark, resembles a dream you’ve probably had once or twice. In case you need reminding, it’s not the one with the underwear, nor the one where you blissfully strangle your mother. It’s the dream where you go from being a music enthusiast to a gifted multi-instrumentalist, fêted by the press, fated, it would seem, for stardom, and on the verge of becoming the ‘next big thing’. That’s where you and I wake up, experiencing three seconds of dream-bleed bliss before reality serves up a schedule that is decidedly desiccated of exciting, rock star moments. But for Alessi, it seems, the dream keeps going. Her most recent EP, The Horse, has sold out, earning her a great deal of critical attention on the way. Her debut album, Notes From The Treehouse, recorded in Nebraska, with Mike Moggis of Bright Eyes fame, could well do the same. All this is a little hard to square with someone who, during our interview, asks if I would like to contribute to her zine, Brain Bulletin, and apologises a little breathlessly for eating a yoghurt.
The point is that if anyone is immune to the Alessi hype, it’s Alessi herself. There’s something of a schism between her personality and the persona that the PRs are trying to conjure up in the build-up to Notes From The Treehouse. It’s particularly evident when you look at the story of her venture into music. Quite a few of the versions published in the music press make Alessi seem like Aphrodite, springing forth fully formed from seemingly nowhere. As Alessi tells it, the journey had a little more toil. It starts in high school where, Alessi says, she was writing the zine, “about the music I was listening to” and playing the drums. The zine was mostly about her favourite music, including Bright Eyes, and Alessi distributed it around West London, where she still lives. The turning point came at 15, at which time Alessi was taking GCSE music. “I had to compose a song for all the other girls to perform,” she recalls. It was during this process that she fell in love with making music and made the decision to pursue music full-time. “I decided to leave for a year, to keep the zine and the songs flowing.”
The legend goes that Alessi was supported wholly by her parents. Asked if there was any tension between her and her parents over her decision to leave school, she confirms that she had their backing: “without their support, I don’t think anything would be possible.” In fact, it was her parents who were on hand when something of a storm in a tea cup over her name. “I used to perform by myself, just as Alessi, which is my normal name. But my parents named me after the Italian company.” Factor in the Alessi Brothers, who seem to have nothing better to do these days than get stroppy about someone having a similar name (well, you wouldn’t want to tarnish their legendary reputation), and you have the recipe for a minor brouhaha. “When they found out I was making music, it kicked off from both sides,” says Alessi. The family sat together around a table for a few days with a dictionary. It was Alessi’s mother who suggested changing her name to ‘Alessi’s Ark’. “I believe in involving friends and family as much as possible,” says Alessi, “so I liked the idea of a boat, where everybody is welcome, even friends that are geographically far away – we are together.”
Perhaps the inevitable question, however, is whether she has any regrets at leaving formal education at such a young age. She is wistful on this point, insisting that she’d like to finish school and go to university, one day. “I will do at some point,” she says. “I’d like to do musical therapy.” She says this with such characteristic charm that it takes a while for the implications to sink in. Even though she’s just begun, Alessi has also been hard-headed enough to think about her career after music. It’s something that, during the course of our interview, begins to seem quintessential to her personality. On the one hand, she most definitely is the charming, wide-eyed creature that her music suggests her to be. On the other, she’s quite canny, and, it would seem, quite aware that even if dreams can become reality, they can quite quickly turn to nightmares, and that nothing is ever sure in the music industry.
For now, though, she does seem to have the full and rigorous backing of EMI, who discovered her while she was a short way into her experimental sabbatical from formal education. If they’ve given her the opportunity, however, it’s Alessi who has really driven the agenda for her first album. Hiring Saddle Creek staple Mike Mogis to do production was, for example, entirely her idea: “He produced my favourite, most recent music…so when it got around to being asked by the label who you want to work with, he seemed like the ultimate person to work with.” It was Alessi, too, who wooed the busy, to the point of unbookable, Mogis. “Bright Eyes were on tour here – we are talking about two summers ago now – I went to the hotel and gave him the demo. At first it didn’t look like we were going to work together, he was too busy, but then a slot came free, so we headed over to Nebraska to record.”
Asked whether going from Hammersmith to Omaha was a culture shock, Alessi responds simply that it was “unbelievable.” “I can’t emphasise enough the kindness of Midwest people…I went over there with my Mum and they just took us under their wings.” Simply from the way she talks about Omaha, you can tell that she has fallen in love with the place. She speaks about it with a passion that lets you visualise it as she sees it, without the need for too much poetry. She recommends artists to go and see, clubs and bars. Having a look at some of the blogs from the locals, you get the feeling that they are just as enamoured with Alessi as she is with them. “The amount of music coming out of there is amazing,” she says; “there are three or four bands every night.” After a slightly embarrassed silence she adds, “which is a lot, you know, comparatively”, no doubt suddenly aware that we are having this conversation across the airwaves in the great metropolis that is London.
Mogis too, it would seem, has had a profound effect on Alessi. I remark that her sound developed significantly from the her first EP, Bedroom Bound, to The Horse, where Mogis came on board. “He’s just a special man,” she confirms. “I don’t feel I was pushed into things, but Mike was my right-hand man. He made me not frightened to try things.” This included, for example, bringing in Jake Bellows of Neva Dinova to do vocals, the idea being to bring a male perspective to some of the tracks. That said, she points out that Notes From The Treehouse won’t be exactly like The Horse EP, with some tracks retaining a simple, clean quality: “some songs have been on a journey, some have stayed the same…I thought it was an integral thing to keep songs simple and not too over-decorated.” It will also include the first song she ever wrote, at the age of 14.
It’s on the point of her songs that mostly feature guitar and seem, for want of a better word, ‘folky’, that we get talking about the recent comparisons to Joanna Newsom, Laura Marling, Feist et al. Alessi seems perplexed. “Those are all nice ladies to be compared to, but I don’t know what the songs [on Notes From The Treehouse] sound like…I guess we are all ladies.” She suddenly brightens: “I guess for each of us it’s all about the lyrics…they should always be at the front of my songs.” Indeed, if there is a niche into which Alessi could be pegged, it would be character-driven music. She confirms this herself, when we talk about the transitions her voice seems to make between songs: “I don’t overthink it…I just think about these people I’m singing about and find them in my mouth.” Which is probably the perfect insight into the world of Alessi’s music, for those not yet converted.
She is, of course, touring in support of the new album, out at the end of March. You can catch her on the 4th of that month at the ICA, her “favourite place in the whole world”. New single ‘Over The Hills’ comes out around March 20th (neither of us are sure if it is officially her second or her first, and share a laugh since we both really ought to know). All this means that the Alessi hype machine will be spinning into overdrive soon and, you never know, Notes From The Treehouse could turn out to be the sleeper hit of the summer. The thing about Alessi is she’s so captivating that you do really want to be there to find out. Odds-on that she makes good. It’s well hidden, but underneath the charm and otherworldliness there’s an ambitious streak that, ironically, might help the dreamer keep dreaming.
Notes From The Treehouse is released at the end of March through Virgin Records; www.myspace.com/alessisark