When I was a teen, I wanted the impossible for someone born in 1987: to have come of age in the '80s. In attempts to replicate the pastel-hued adolescence of the Brat Pack, I sang Madonna into my hairbrush and wore shoulder-padded blazers from the thrift store unironically. I spent Friday nights watching Square Pegs on TV Land until dawn while eating snacks as a distraction from the resentment that I felt toward Weemawee High's student body.
As high school bled into college, my rabid appetite for all things '80s shifted solely toward music. I learned about bands like Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, the Smiths, and Depeche Mode from cool older friends who still practiced the art of making mixtapes on actual cassettes. I checked out Left of the Dial, a four-disc compilation featuring essential tracks from the '80s underground music scene, from my local library during Thanksgiving break my freshman year and fell in love with the electric buzz of OMD's "Enola Gay." It was my way of living in the '80s, and I loved every moment of it.
Listening to Cellars, the current project of Alle Norton (who was born in 1990), offers a similar effect. Cinematic like a montage from The Lost Boys mixed with the melodic perfection of the Cocteau Twins and Blondie, Norton's forthcoming album Phases revives the best of '80s emotions through catchy backbeats and pulsating synths. Norton's ability to create such gripping earworms stems from her training as a sound engineer in addition to her nostalgia for the '80s.
I was thrilled to talk with her about Phases and her latest single, "Do You Miss Me," which feels like the perfect track to blast while driving through the city in a retro Corvette with the top down (while wearing Ray-Bans, of course).
Dianca Potts: Phases reminded me a lot of my favorite darkwave and synthpop bands from the '80s. Could you talk a bit about your musical influences?
Alle Norton: My music taste changed a lot as I was growing up. When I was a kid in the early '90s, I distinctly remember hating everything that was synth-y and '80s because at the time it felt just dated and cheesy, and it gave me this weird nostalgia for my childhood. I didn't really like the stuff that I listen to now [until] I started listening to college radio and got more into underground music in middle school and early high school. I [discovered] bands like Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine, and I just continued down that path and got more into older electronic stuff and Italo pop as well as classic rock.
DP: How did you get into making music?
AN: I've been singing since I could talk, and when I found out what a piano was, I wanted to play it and just taught myself how, along with guitar when I was eight. I grew up playing music with a rock band in this weird evangelical church that I went to as a kid, and I was playing every week, which was good for me as a musician. Once I got out of that, I got into recording, and I went to school for sound engineering. I had messed around with it a bit when I was younger, and I started making my own recordings at home on my computer. I started listening to a lot of [the] stuff that influences my project now when I was 20: Debbie Deb, Sheila E., Latin Freestyle, and a lot of early Madonna, and that developed my sound a lot.
DP: The namesake of your project originates from Donnie Darko. What about the film inspired you to choose Cellars as your moniker?
AN: It's so funny, because people always ask me about it and the only things I remember from that movie are the plane crashing into the house, the bunny, and Drew Barrymore saying that "Cellar door is the most beautiful word in the English language." That stuck with me. The notion that those words are the most beautiful words in the English language has a really long, vague history; no one really knows who came up with that idea first. It was printed in Harper's Magazine at first in 1905 and [in] other books before that, so it's really interesting that people mention that movie because it has very little significance to me.
DP: What attracted you to the '80s?
AN: I think the thing that fascinates me most about the '80s is the development of technology and the way that encapsulates the entire decade. We were trying to make everything digital, we were trying to make everything computerized. We were trying to move forward and push ourselves into this future that we wanted to happen right away, but we didn't have the means or capabilities yet to have what we have now. It's kind of funny that we were using digital tools to imitate analog music, and the way that it came out was so different and radical. It's not even like you can take '80s pop seriously, and that's what I love about it. It's so cheesy, it's silly. It's great!
DP: You have a degree in studio engineering, and you've worked as a house engineer at venues in the past. It's really unique that you've experienced both sides of the industry, as an engineer and now as a performer. Can you talk about the differences and similarities between those roles?
AN: I remember when I was engineering always wanting to be on the other side, even though I really enjoyed what I was doing. When I moved a few years ago, I intended to keep engineering and work at a studio, but then I just decided to make my music, and I started playing shows. I hadn't really played out before that, I was just recording songs in my room for a few years. I didn't really know what it was like to perform live — so that was a learning experience in itself — but having been an engineer in live sound makes it a lot easier to communicate with the people that I'm working with.
DP: When it comes to engineering and being a performer, you're occupying traditionally male-dominated spaces. Were there ever any instances where you had to deal with sexism or bias?
AN: It was more so when I was engineering. I would get comments — people would always be like, Are you sure you know what you're doing? It was a very subtle way of speaking to me that sort of implied that I shouldn't be doing what I was doing. I've been sexually harassed on the job so much … people hitting on me or touching me or calling me things. I don't know why they think they can get away with it.
DP: For Phases, you collaborated with Ariel Pink. What was it like to collaborate with someone else?
AN: It was really cool, because I don't collaborate as a rule when it comes to writing, as far as my music goes. I just can't, it's my catharsis, it's my way of getting all my craziness out of my head. Collaborating with someone on production, arrangement, and soundscaping was so much fun and so eye-opening for me. It was such an honor to work with him. Just having someone to bounce ideas off of in a production sense was really cool.
Listen to Cellars' new track "Do You Miss Me"!
DP: Is there a song on Phases that you're most in love with or proud of at the moment?
AN: They all mean different things for me and are from different times and places [in my life], but my little baby song is "Still in Love." It was just on Pitchfork and I didn't think that anyone was going to like it. It's like an '80s prom ballad, a super-sad "I think my boyfriend is cheating on me, but I'm still in love with him" kind of song. I was listening to Diana Ross's "Missing You," one of my favorite songs of all time, when I was writing that song. It's the slowest, cheesiest ballad on the [record], and I was really surprised someone else said it was their favorite, because I wasn't expecting anyone else to like it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dianca London is an assistant at Lenny.