By Ella Clair, Jake Amy and Hugh Heller
Radio silence. Then - the audio connects and there we are. Sat in two bedrooms in different Melbourne suburbs; locked-down. Alice Skye sits mid-frame, wrapped in a black hoodie. Snug. Her eyes are big and brown and her short hair flicks out behind her ears, where she is wearing small silver hoops.
In 2015, Alice Skye was studying a science degree at The University of Melbourne. Uninspired, lacking direction. Five years later she’s on the way to releasing her highly-anticipated second album, produced by Jen Cloher. It was thick with icy fog the morning I called Alice to find out how it is that she’s landed here.
From what I can see, Alice’s room is quaint. There’s a bookshelf brimming with spines, and vines around her bed head. “I probably own too many things, but, I really love making up my room.” There’s incense burning. I see the holder atop her bookshelf as she points it out. Alice tells me her favourite thing in her room is a piece of art made by her cousin; a print of possum fur that hangs grandly above her desk. She spins the webcam around to show me. Over Zoom it looks vibrant and orange, albeit slightly blurry.
Alice was born in Western Victoria, growing up in the Grampians, where her mum still lives. “It’s really flat, but then there’s these huge mountains. I’m really biased but I just think they’re so beautiful and special,” she blinks slowly and I see her imagining it. Later, she went to school in the small town of Horsham. “Sometimes in Melbourne I feel trapped,” she says sharply. As much as this city has been a dream fulfilled for Alice, sometimes it can feel like everything happening here is the most important thing. She tells me she often forgets to take time out to go home and rest.
With two older siblings, Alice’s British mother raised three Aboriginal kids by herself. Alice is a Wegaia and Wemba Wemba person whose father passed away before she was born. “It was just us four together,” her voice cracks, “Family is family you know? It can be beautiful and terrible.” Still, she speaks of her mum in awe and with gratitude.
“I still feel sad that I missed out on being raised by my dad; talking to him about what being Aboriginal meant to him. Definitely. Not a unique story either. There’s so many Blakfullas that don’t get to be raised by their community. My mum made sure that I had that through my aunties. I was really lucky that I grew up knowing that it was something to be proud of. My mum played a really big role in that. I’m really fortunate.” Shuffling in her seat, Alice tells me she was a pretty anxious child. Experimenting with songwriting towards the end of primary school, she didn’t find her writing chops until a bit later. “They were so embarrassing,” she chuckles. The 2007-ish indie-rock moment was her catalyst. Whimsical songs about jumpers and teacups. I tell her about the first song I ever wrote and she returns the favour. We create a safe space. “I wanna wear no shoes to a furniture store, and tell the sales accountant that he won a free cat.” Alice recites her early lyrics to me like spoken-word. She’s not sure if she’ll ever let its melody see the outside world. She’s gotten a lot better since then.
High school was fairly normal for Alice but laced with stinging discrimination. “I hadn’t figured out who I was. There weren’t a lot of other Aboriginal people in my year,” she acknowledges. As a teen, Alice reckons she was a bit of brat. However, her reasoning seems entirely justified. It’s a shame: it seemingly conflicted with her academic aspirations as she mostly got in trouble for calling out rude and racist teachers. She smirks, “I honestly enjoyed letting them know that’s how I felt.”
Songwriting is a coping mechanism for Alice. She writes only because she needs to, because there is something calling for her attention. Calling her to work. “I don’t think a lot of people grow up feeling very comfortable being honest and expressing themselves. It doesn’t feel encouraged sometimes.” So releasing the songs from her first album, Friends with Feelings felt strange to Alice. Nerve wracking. When she’s on stage she often gets caught up in delivering the best performance she can. “Sometimes I forget how lucky I am, that I get to do that onstage and that people come and listen,” she exhales a smile, “especially because the songs mean a lot to me, because... they’re my feelings.”
Her band consists of twins that she’s known since childhood. Tight-knit. Drums and guitar. Alice plays keys. She struggles to find any words to describe her own music. “I’m such an indecisive person! I have no idea what other people hear.” She is humble, not disconnected. Considered, but not calculated.
As common in twenty-something discourse, our conversation steers towards astrology. Alice’s sun sign is in Leo. “I’m... pretty heavily into it,” she laughs. That means her 25th birthday is imminent. She uses astrology as a tool for self reflection, “I think I thrive for validation. There’s something in the Leo part of me that just depends on it.” Apparently, her Libra moon makes her fall in love with 10 people at once. She is so open and warm, I can imagine it would be easy to fall in love with her too.
Alice’s face lights up with the glow of her phone screen. “I’ve got some Thelma Plum, Avril Lavigne,” she giggles at herself, “Mitski, Weyes Blood, and then for some reason Usher.” That’s her recent Spotify search history. She admits she’ll never grow tired of listening to Mitski. The Usher presence? Inexplicable.
“I love sad soundtracks. I listen to a lot of different ones. Any Cranberries album is a good go to for me.” Alice says The Cranberries cover the full emotional spectrum for her, from melancholy to angst. “Dolores O’Riordan, lead singer, just makes me feel. She just has such a beautiful voice,” Alice sighs. Joni Mitchell is reserved for when she really wants to wallow.
However, sometimes Alice avoids listening to music. It’s a lot of emotional work, see. “Music makes me reflect a lot and sometimes... I don’t want to reflect.” Instead she’ll listen to podcasts or watch TV. “It’s kind of like a little bit of a solace. A thing you like, that gives you something that you need.” She is adamant on the importance of that space.
“I don’t really feel super entangled with music making at the moment,” Alice admits, “I am still working on things but, sometimes I’m just a really boring person.” During lockdown she’s been watching a TV show called Vida. It’s about two Mexican American sisters she tells me, “It’s also just really queer”. She says it dips in and out of English and Spanish. Alice likes that it’s not subtitled. Keeps her guessing.
Recently, Alice found out she can’t eat gluten. So, during lockdown she’s been exploring the realm of gluten-free cooking. For comfort, she leans towards liquid deliciousness, like lentil soups and curries. Garlic and chilli. However, flourless chocolate orange cake is her pride and joy of this venture, even if it did end in a non-COVID related trip to hospital for her border-collie/kelpie, Gizmo.
So, it’s not hard to imagine Alice as the normal, mundane science student she once was. Maybe her cooking’s gotten better. But that’s where she was at in 2015. Uninspired, lacking direction. Never played a gig in her life. It was her older sister that sent her CAAMA Music’s call out, seeking young women to apply for the Alkura competition (Alkura meaning ‘woman’ in the Arrernte language). CAAMA is Australia’s longest running Indigenous music label, having worked with Aboriginal artists for over 40 years. Alice was selected.
The experience took place in Alice Springs, where a young Skye got her first studio time. “Also, just meeting other people doing the same thing. Such a game changer,” she reminisces. There, Alice was mentored by the likes of Stiff Gins and met one of her closest friends today who has become a sort-of sister. “It definitely made me feel like… I could keep writing music and that it was a viable option for me,” she stumbles trying to encapsulate the significance of this turning point in her life.
It seemed CAAMA took a liking to Alice because they invited her back to record her debut album. “I’d never even considered that I would do that but I have enough songs and I was hating uni and wasn’t doing anything I really enjoyed. So it was like, why not?” she says with unassuming modesty. Alice has learnt a lot since that point. “It does feel nice to have a bit more of an understanding of the music industry and how it works. It can be really intimidating at first,” she says with relief, adding that she hopes she only keeps learning into the future. She has this soft and somewhat surprisingly determined hunger about her.
“I think we were trying to finish the vocals when the bushfires were really bad. I lost my voice because of the smoke in the city,” Alice explains, eyes bulging at the unbelievable chaos that has been 2020. The events of this year have changed how Alice is finishing her second record. The team she’s working with got most of it done last summer. Now, in lockdown, she’s having to send bits and pieces of the new record back and forth, instead of working in the same room as everyone involved. It feels like a big shame to Alice. “We’re just trying to make it work,” she sighs. Maybe it will add something that being in the same room wouldn’t. More time to think? She giggles at my positive spin.
Politically active and vocal across her social media platforms, Alice admits she’s exhausted by the recent surge in conversations surrounding Blac deaths in custody and what people of colour face in Australia. As much as she’s glad to see conversations from America being brought over here, and as important as she believes it is that they are, speaking on it for Alice has become a form of difficult, emotional labour. “This year’s been really rough,” she laments, “We’ve been here before and we’ve been saying these things for a really long time. So, it’s hard not to feel pain around it.” Alice feels it viscerally when she speaks on these matters. Sometimes she just wants to make music.
“If you have a platform, it puts you in a pretty unique position that some people that have incredible things to say don’t have,” she clarifies. Alice believes that non-Indigenous people with platforms should take hold of the responsibility to educate and start conversations. She says it’s hard to carry the weight of that responsibility as someone who is directly affected by such issues. “For First Nations people and people of colour, there’s a responsibility to rest, as well. You can’t fight without resting first,” her voice jumps in with this point, ensuring it’s heard.
Having grown up with the acoustic pub cover gigs of Horsham, Alice is amazed by Melbourne’s music scene. “I feel lucky to live here and see people play. Especially a lot of Blacfullas here, I feel really inspired by them,” the corners of her mouth turn upwards, eyes glinting, “People like DRMNGNOW and Kee’ahn, Birdz and Mo’Ju. There’s more than I can name!” For the most part, Alice has found it to be a supportive community, even if occasionally she finds the amount of talent intimidating. “You’re like, what do I have to add to this? There’s already so many good things,” she admits, openly and vulnerably.
Alice reckons we still have a really long way to go to make sure that our music industry reflects real life - with its array of different kinds of people, genders and experiences. “We also have to make sure those people feel safe and valued. There are still spaces where you can feel really tokenised,” Alice acknowledges with a croak in her voice. She also explains the frustration at times when she’s not been addressed at gigs by the sound person, being the only woman in her band, “Or not spoken to, like I know how to use my instrument. It’s just little things like that.” Alice is gentle and admits she doesn’t command the strongest presence. She believes this has inhibited her ability to call out these micro-aggressions in the moment, frustratingly.
“I don’t think it makes sense to have a really amazingly diverse lineup without it being the same backstage.” Her clarity in providing this solution to tackling these kinds of discriminations is abrupt and unexpected. Refreshing. “The more people are valued in each individual space in the music industry, it’s gonna be more comfortable for everyone.” The words fall out of her mouth with more ease and conviction than anything else she’s said so far.
The week before the pandemic hit, Alice Skye and her band were preparing to head to their first SXSW. She hopes they’ll get to go another year. She’s been involved in a bunch of online events as the music industry has begun adapting to the restrictions placed on live shows. “I thought it would be my introverted dream, but I miss the real thing,” she says with a mournful undertone. Alice has no answers for our industry as we stumble towards a devastated post-pandemic future. For now she’s taking it day by day, just like everyone else.
Alice has no big plans for the rest of her day, except buying the necessities for a celebratory damper-fest for her housemate’s birthday. While we’re separated by the bounds of lockdown law, I really feel I get a sense of who she is. I understand now her adoring industry nickname ‘universal little sister’. Looking forward, all Alice really wants is to be able to keep writing and making music. She is grateful that this is where she’s landed.
Keep up to date with Alice here
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article.