It’s a chilly Melbourne morning and Alison Wonderland is either shaking from the cold, or she’s got a case of pre-album release jitters. Probably a bit of both, and understandably so. Her debut album Run – out today – has been a long time in the making.

Blanketed in an oversized 2 Chainz shirt, the pint-sized producer can hardly sit still as she leads me through the long and winding rabbit hole that led her to this pivotal and all-important moment in her career.

In real life, she’s quite similar to her music: infectious, unpredictable, and brimming with energy.

At one point when discussing the process behind her latest single ‘U Don’t Know’, Wonderland suddenly grabs her phone, jumps up from the couch, runs over to the other side of the room and starts belting out the hook. In case anyone was wondering if that’s her voice, it is.

Tone Deaf: I thought we’d start by going back to the beginning because you’ve got a pretty unique backstory. How does one go from being a classically trained cellist to becoming an electronic producer?

Alison Wonderland: I went to the Conservatorium High School for cello and then I spent the first year out of school in Germany, playing and studying cello, and I thought that’s what I was going to be.

Then I found myself always going to so many different types of gigs when I was over there and exploring different kinds of music, and then all of the sudden I got back to Sydney and I thought to myself, “I don’t think I want to be a cellist.”

It was a really crazy revelation for me because I’d never really thought otherwise. Then I stopped [playing cello] and played in a couple of bands. I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I was just trying to kill time – I didn’t even know if I wanted to music anymore because it was that crazy for me to fall out of love with something I loved for so long.

I guess weirdly and organically – and I always say that word ‘organically’ when it comes to this – it was never the plan to get to where I am now, or to produce, or DJ. I was doing it because it made me happy, and for no intention other than because I enjoyed it.

TD: It’s funny how things can turn out. Can you imagine where you’d be if you didn’t listen to that moment of intuition?

I honestly think I would be a really unhappy person. I feel purely at peace when I’m on stage, or when I finish a track, and not many other times do I feel that way. And I didn’t feel that way when I played cello. This is on a different level.

TD: Before you were making your own material you were touring heavily as a club DJ. How much did these early experiences shape who you are as an artist today?

It taught me that the best thing to do is to be humble, don’t think you’re better than anyone, and to play for the right reasons.

A year after I started DJing in 2009 I got offered by Bundaberg to travel around Australia to do these crappy Bundaberg gigs in pubs around the country, and that’s where my first following started.

It was literally me just playing these crappy venues but still not compromising the kind of music I played for anyone. I played 40 shows in just under two months, travelling around by myself, staying in rooms above pubs with a bed and no bathroom. I was really young, and honestly I’ve got a lot to thank for agreeing to do that.

TD: Were you dabbling in your own production while you were DJing? What was inspiring you to make your own music when you started out?

It was around the same time. I first started producing under a different name called White Fang, and I was doing that for a while to keep me sane when I wasn’t doing anything.

I really like The Knife and they’re a big influence of mine and at the time I just wanted to make music like The Knife, and that’s honestly how I taught myself to make music.

TD: Did you get to see them live before they split?

No! Actually this is a funny story – it’s like a funny segue into where I’m at now.

Last year I flew to America – and this was before I had an album out, before I did Diplo & Friends, before anything had happened – to go see The Knife at Coachella. You know what? I really believe in fate. Anyway, I went to an all-you-can-eat oyster bar in China Town, LA, and got food poisoning and missed Coachella. I have a Knife tattoo – literally the only reason I went was to see The Knife.

As I was throwing up my friend was saying, “Do you ever think you’ll go to Coachella next year?” And I was like, “Fuck that, I’m not ever going to Coachella unless I play”. I was so sick. And he goes to me: “I’ll never forget you said that.” And now it’s happening.

Honestly, so much has happened in a year. It’s fucking crazy. But in saying that, this has been a really slow burn for me, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve been working really hard, so when people say to me that it happened really quickly, it hasn’t. I can tell you right now, four, five, six years ago I was like a kid playing at 4am in an underground club to three people. And I was doing that four nights a week. I was never doing it to be known.

“This is something I’ve put all of myself into. It’s a very personal album – more than you’ll realise.”

TD: What was it like, then, to put out your first physical release last year with your debut EP, Calm Down? Because up until that point most people knew you just as a live act.

It’s kind of weird because the people who really, really hardcore followed me knew I did a quite a few remixes. My remix for Little Dragon was released on one of their B-sides in 2012, and I did a remix for Sam Sparrow that was highly played on Radio 1 in 2011.

That kind of stuff had happened, but I was really nervous releasing ‘I Want U’, the first single. Serendipitously, I got asked to do Diplo & Friends actually three or four days before ‘I Want U’ released so I got to premiere it on there. It was first time I got to do a huge worldwide thing, so it helped because the first time I’d put myself out there to a really big audience was when I finally had my own music to release.

TD: Diplo & Friends is the big break most producers dream of. What was going through your head while you were debuting your music to hundreds and thousands of people across the globe?

I remember I was in Laurel Canyon in LA when we were streaming it. I just smoked way too many cigarettes and drank way too much whiskey because I was that nervous.

I was on Twitter seeing the response. I wanted people to know it was my concept and not just me contacting other people to write me a song and then I auto-tune my voice or something, because that’s not what happens.

(It’s here when the producer gets up and starts singing ‘U Don’t Know’. She then gets her laptop out to play the original acapella voice recording off her laptop – something she swears she’s never shown anyone before.)

TD: Your latest single, ‘U Don’t Know’, has been your biggest hit to date. Wayne Coyne appears on the credits for that track – how did that collaboration come about?

That was probably the most impersonal set up of my whole album. Everyone else on the album is my friend. The song had been written and I guess he heard it and gave me a chance. But it was crazy. I love The Flaming Lips. I still feel like it’s fake.

TD: How are you feeling about the album release, and what can we expect from it? 

Fuck. I just hope people like it. It’s really, really, really scary.

This is something I’ve put all of myself into. It’s a very personal album – more than you’ll realise, and I’ll never reveal what it’s properly about. Maybe I will eventually, but right now it’s too close to me. I was going through stuff when I wrote that – it’s not like I just wanted to make a beat.

But still to this day I’m overwhelmed to the reception of my music by Australians. That’s the crowd I’m most nervous about, because I care so much about my country and I care so much about the people that have been coming to my shows for years.

TD: After the album drops you’re off to Coachella. From missing The Knife and vomiting up oysters to now playing the real thing, you’re kind of coming full circle.

Yeah, it’s a huge moment for me.

I got told about Coachella ages ago but I couldn’t tell anyone. When I told my dad it hadn’t hit me yet, and it had been about 3 months and as I was explaining to my dad what Coachella was, where I was playing, what time I was playing, as I started talking it hit me that I was playing my dream festival. And it wasn’t like you needed a magnifying glass to see my name on the poster, either.

My dad looked at me and was like, “Do you want me to come to Coachella?” and I just started crying.

I’m not even that emotional, but when it comes to this, it’s everything I care about.

Alison Wonderland’s debut LP Run is out ­­­­today through EMI.

Get unlimited access to the coverage that shapes our culture.
to Rolling Stone magazine
to Rolling Stone magazine