Content warning: this article discusses suicide.
Alison Wonderland closed the main stage of the inaugural Your Paradise festival, Fiji, 2014, at 3am. We, plus half the frenzied crowd, then had to get on transfers off the island at 5:30am. Passing out was perhaps inevitable. Jack Beats and Hayden James were waiting outside in a buggy while Alex Sholler, the human behind the AW moniker, and I scrambled to get our shit together with her tour manager Madi. We dragged boots and clothes together into bags and sped off like Mario Kart, screeching on two wheels across the island, dodging palm trees. As the morning light began to break through the darkness, we ran across the gangplank pier with overflowing bags and dishevelled heads, just as the catamaran pulled away into the sunrise.
“I’d had a fight with my boyfriend,” says Alex, recalling the festival. “We were breaking up and I was like, ‘Cool, fuck you.’ So I wrote the top line for Run in my cabana on that island. I recorded in my voice memo, I sent it over to get mixed, and that’s the one on the final recording. Isn’t that crazy?”
Alex has been through some crazy shit. But she’s feeling good.
“Coachella’s over, the Awake album’s out, I’m feeling like I can chill now.”
Alex is laughing as she says this, probably because she’s on such a heavy schedule with no chill. I’m one of countless back-to-back interviews she has today, before heading off to a radio station – presumably for another interview round. Her legendary tour manager Krissy Jaman was absent during the interview due to a Japanese visa issue – they’d flown from L.A. to Seoul for a day, then China for a day, now Sydney before the next leg of the Asian tour. (Later that night, she played Civic Underground for her album launch party, supported by Young Franco. There was definitely no chill.)
Well, actually, maybe a hint of chill. The album, Awake, is about coming out of something negative – an awakening, as if from a nightmare, something unreal. For Alex, part of that has required a significant lifestyle switch up.
“When I play now I’m completely sober,” says Alex, “because I’m such a technical DJ I don’t enjoy being wasted and playing. There’s a real connection when you look out and read a crowd when sober. It’s a different kind of letting loose. I feel more satisfied when I feel everything from a real place.”
The track No reflects a few situations Alex found herself in, including the environment behind the scenes of some aspects of the electronic dance industry – the occupational hazards and social toxicity.
“That was a really hard time for me. I’ve really been there. I’ve really seen a lot. No was targeted at someone, my experiences with them, plus using all these enablers to get to the parties, encouraging people to do things that weren’t necessarily good for them.”
The true extents of her difficulties were publicly heard on Monday in a video interview with The Feed on SBS Viceland. Writing the album has been a tool for healing and getting out of a dark place. Alex reveals that, while in this dark place, she attempted suicide. She shared with the program that a hectic touring schedule combined with dealing with the deaths of several friends and a troubled relationship didn’t create a “great mental perspective.”
Awake has connected with a wide audience. The whole point is for other people to experience your art as a reflection or manifestation of their own internal struggles, your unique yet also universal experiences, our understanding of what it means to be human. Not even understanding what it means but just what it feels like. A line repeats in the chorus of her track, Easy –
“Walked into the bathroom,
Just so I could cry,
Wish I knew why,
Wish I knew why.”
It’s a simple lyric that cuts through the lack of self-understanding in depression, and the heartbreaking frustration and loss it causes. When Alex spoke to me just a few days ago, her voice showed no signs of this. Her face seemed radiant. Awake. All chill.
“I realised that if I wanted to be productive and grow as an artist, I had to really be conscious of what I was doing, be present, and actually create.”
Later that night for her home city album launch, there was no rockstar boozing or drug fuckery in sight. Just a professional performing with a supportive team, on that real shit. And an inspired, frenzied crowd that looked like they could have torn the underground venue down around them.
As of this year, Alex is the highest billed female DJ to ever play at Coachella. From playing the opening sets at UNSW Roundhouse, an accomplishment I share with her, to doing a Diplo & Friends mix just before releasing I Want U, an accomplishment I do not share with her, she has since catapulted to the global stage.
“I say to Wes [Pentz] all the time, ‘Thank you so much, you don’t even realise what you did for my career.’ It was super organic, like a lot of things for me, probably because I hyperfocus on this. It’s all I do. Things don’t happen overnight for anyone. When people say it’s about luck and timing, that’s not true. It took me ten years. Opportunities happen all the time if you’re constantly working.”
Now she’s had the opportunity to pull together some epic collabs. Some tracks on the new album sound like Alex’s producing for a Childish Gambino topline, like Here 4 U with BLESSUS. Add in Joel Little, Slumerjack, Lido, Trippy Reid, Chief Kief… I can’t list them all, but Alex always ensures she does.
“I’ve produced for other people and not had any credit,” she says. “I’d write a track myself, send it to a friend and ask, ‘Do you have any suggestions for a snare here?’ I’ll credit them for that. That’s important to me.”
Chemistry is key, she says, whether you’re famous or unknown.
“If I vibe with you, let’s work. It’s like sex.”
We have a laugh, but she presses the point that you need to work with someone who respects you as an artist and trusts you in the studio.
“There’s a lot of ego in the industry and I want to feel equal in the studio. I’m not gonna bring up the woman thing but… that’s all I need to say.”
With the Coachella billing, many have jumped to the equality topic, but she says it shouldn’t even be a subject or question.
“People like me are trying to break that mold. I don’t feel male or female on stage. I just feel like an artist.”