As an opera student at McGill University in Montreal, Mary Alouette developed an interest that didn't necessarily correspond to her studies: electronic music. It took moving to Brooklyn and embarking on a career as a gypsy jazz singer to finally bring electronica into the mix in the form of a new EP, "The Lark."
"Growing up doing opera, especially in Montreal, I felt like I could never reconcile the two," Alouette says, "but now they're all blending and they don't feel so segmented."
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During her 2011-2012 artist residency at Strathmore music center in Maryland, Alouette performed traditional gypsy jazz in the style of famed guitarist and composer Django Reinhardt. Alouette's delicate, at times wispy voice is perfectly suited to the genre. But her new sound uses drum kits, looping and synthesizers in addition to her ethereal vocals and gypsy jazz guitar. (The official EP release will take place in New York in March.)
The genesis for this EP was Alouette's work at ishlab, the Brooklyn recording studio where she has been volunteering as an intern and assistant sound engineer for the past two years. Alouette commuted back and forth to New York during her Strathmore residency and has continued helping out there since she moved to Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood in May.
"I wanted to start working at ishlab back in 2011 so I could be around the gear and just see what it's like on the other side of the glass in the recording studio," she says. "That was a great opportunity to become more familiarized with these (electronic) instruments and just to meet other artists who use that more in their sound."
Ishlab, which has recorded artists in hip-hop and indie rock including A$ap Rocky, Das Racist, MIA and Santigold, proved to be a veritable laboratory for electronic experimentation. Alouette enjoyed producing that style of music so much that last year she bought a loop pedal and drum machine to add to her songwriting tool kit. They have since become the foundation of her composing, on top of which she layers vocal harmonies and gypsy jazz guitar. In January, she used ishlab to record and produce "The Lark."
"There are a couple people that come in (to the studio) that use a lot of similar musical aesthetics that I like, and so I get to watch actually how their tracks are made. And I get to watch them do it, perform it, and see what happens in the software program and what happens in the instruments," Alouette says. "I take those ideas home with me when I do my demos."
In addition to making connections with other musicians, Alouette's time in Brooklyn has allowed her to meet and collaborate with artists in other media looking to grow their portfolios. She has developed a strong relationship with designer and stylist Jamie McCarty, who also styles several ishlab artists. Through other music contacts, Alouette met director Wes Anderson's assistant for "Moonrise Kingdom," Ellie Lotan, who will be directing her music video for the single "Angel." Alouette says Lotan's interest in her music and desire to increase her own visibility served as the catalyst for the collaboration.
"It's great working with people in New York who are also really ambitious and want to develop their passions and work through their passions," Alouette says.
Alouette does her best to stay on top of the electronic music scene while still keeping enough distance for her own inspiration to incubate. "It's always so hard doing music because you want to be exposed to things that are coming out and seeing what's current, but also you want the purity of your own vision," she says. "So you need some isolation for that as well. It's this balance that you have to find that I guess we're always working on."
The singer remains very much steeped in the gypsy jazz world. Many of her regular gigs are more straight-ahead acoustic. "Lionheart," one of the four tracks on "The Lark," pays tribute to that style by relying solely on guitar and lyrical vocal lines. This summer, she plans to attend the famed Django Reinhardt Jazz Festival in Samois-sur-Seine, France, where she says she is excited to jam with musicians from all over the world.
Though her new sound certainly diverges from tradition, Alouette believes her music is in line with the spirit of creativity Django stood for as an artist.
"Some people are more traditionalists, and then others are more exploratory," she says. "Django, he himself was always progressing, so I don't feel guilty about that. Anyway, whatever. We're all our own people and we have our own visions and backgrounds."