BeatCrave brings you artist, Alice, as part of Know Your NYC Band series. Now she may not be a collective group, but this singer-songwriter probably has more passion in her body and soul than all the members of The Polyphonic Spree put together. Alice (Stopkoski) has been in bands before, but it wasn’t until she was solo under the spotlight that she found the core of her sound. With vocals that can come off only soothing to the first-time listener, but wise with an edge to those with an ear, Alice has been entrancing music goers through her lilting melodies that coat her meticulous guitar strumming.
Discovering new music and searching for different perspectives on her own music, Alice has been awarded by several songwriting competitions and playing shows throughout the city. She is also currently putting the finishing touches on an upcoming debut album. Until then, check out our exclusive interview with her where, just as any song of hers, she pours out honesty.
There is an edge to your vocals that definitely does not go unnoticed. Who are some of your influences purely based on vocals?
My early influences were the usual suspects for a female singer-songwriter.. Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Nick Drake, Ani Difranco, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. I love Bjork too, though I don’t know that anything in my voice is derivative of her sound. Currently I’m listening to a lot of Lucinda Williams and yearn for her guteral rasp. I think, of the more current artists out there, I gravitate to the vocals of artists like Meiko and Yael Naim, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Amy Winehouse because who isn’t in complete awe of her voice?
It’s impossible to sum up the NYC music scene because of its great diversity. What are some highlights for you?
I really enjoyed the NYC scene when Luna Lounge was on Ludlow and Brownies was still open. I think the Brooklyn clubs that have cropped up in the last few years have really lent a lot of cool flavor to the music scene. Just as it felt like Manhattan was getting kind of stale, the Brooklyn clubs seemed to broaden the palette and attract some really innovative and interesting music.
Of course, the Williamsburg Live Songwriting Competition is a big highlight for me because I connected with so many great solo performers. Every year that contest, and others like it, shines a light on the raw solo performance and reminds the NYC music scene that there’s a lot to be said for one voice, one mic and one instrument.
The ordinary musician plays as many shows as possible. You’ve gone past this trait by taking part in several songwriting competitions. Would you suggest other musicians to do the same?
I would. I am a big fan of songwriting competitions. But I also have pretty tough skin and can handle the let-downs (there have been MANY). I have singer-songwriter friends who have told me that they could never put their work out to be judged so formally. I understand that too. It’s not easy to open yourself up to something so subjective. What makes a good song? Everyone’s got their opinion on that. I don’t agree with what a lot of people think are good but I’m a curious person so I like to know what people think of mine.
The practical side of me also says, why not get a read on what the industry thinks of you? If you are going to eventually put yourself fully on the line, maybe it’s best to know if you’ve got a product that’s viable. Contests are one way to test that. Each year there are different judges and I have different songs and when you do place or get recognized it kind of gives you a psychological boost. It helps you keep going, even if in theory, you think it’s all B.S.
What are the advantages of being a solo musician?
One big advantage is the obvious lack of conflict over artistic direction. I’m the captain of my own ship and I don’t have to worry that I’m not being true to what inspires me. But that gets lonely too. There’s something very special about bands that stay together for years, but bands also have huge disadvantages which is why so many break up… It’s like a relationship and it can take a lot of trial and error to find the right chemistry.
Getting back to the advantages of flying solo, however, I find that it makes me a better musician, performer and songwriter because you really have to capture your audience when it’s just you and an instrument. Dynamics and structure become really important. A lot of bands get away with pretty or interesting sounds but the song structure is lacking. It’s okay because ultimately it sounds good and we tend to be a little more forgiving when there’s a lot to distract us, but the solo performer is raw and totally exposed. Every note is heard and mistakes are more likely to be remembered. The song is in its purest form with no bells and whistles so it better be compelling.
It’s exciting to know that you’re working on an album. How is it going?
It’s going good but I’ve run into the kind of irritating issues that anyone who’s ever made an album runs into. We’re in the mixing process right now and I’ve been having a hard time with one or two of the tracks, figuring out the right blend of elements. What’s so frustrating is that it could be something so simple to fix, like just bringing the volume of an instrument down a touch and panning it to the right. It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack, that process of identifying the “problem” to your ears. Paolo Degregorio, of The Deli Magazine, produced the album and he’s been very kind to put up with my tedious requests for different mixes of the same song, sometimes only to go back to a very close variation of the original mix.
The good news is that I’ve recently solicited a little extra help from a respected musician friend of mine, Mike Savino and I think we’ve solved one such problem. I might need another week or two of listening in order to find the solution for the other one. I’m a perfectionist and I know it will never be perfect but there’s a certain length to which I must go to make sure it makes me happy, at the end of the day. We are close!
Is there a certain track you’re proudest of so far?
In terms of the songwriting on the album, I’m proud of it all and think its representative of some of my best work to date. The title track, “Box of Me” is so simple and pleasing to me though… that if I were to pick a favorite, that would be it.
Where did the idea of “Box of Me” come from?
I started thinking about the stuff we collect and the nostalgia of it all. It reminded me of when I first moved to NYC and returned home for Thanksgiving. I walked into my old room and was immediately struck by a sadness for all the things that I didn’t take with me. That feeling came back as I prepared for another chapter in my life to begin. I wondered what do we do with all our stuff? These pictures that you only look at when you move them from one place to another… the letters, the books with torn corners.
I wished someone was there with me to look through it all but no one really cares about the trifles of your life, and who can blame them? They don’t hold any significance to anyone but you. But I’ve put my trifles into a song and onto an album, so I’ve fooled you into paying attention to them. “Box of Me” is a question (would you like to see this box of me?) and you buying the album is the answer.
Did you really do the video on your mac?
Yup. I’ve now made two videos on my mac. The second one is for a single off the album, “Lover’s Fate”, and it’s going to air around the country on local stations and affiliates of ABC and NBC. It’s pretty cool how we can do everything ourselves now. iMovie is the greatest thing since sliced bread; I’m in love with my Mac.
You support a few charities. How important do you think it is for musicians to work with charities?
I do think it’s important for musicians to lend their talents, partly because music is a great mobilizer. I saw that in the fall when I organized a night of live music at the Sidewalk Cafe in order to raise money for my NYC marathon charity team, The Bachmann Strauss Dystonia Foundation. It was no work at all to get the musicians on board and people were really excited to see the show. We had a great turnout and it’s just such a no-brainer. Music is a great tool to raise awareness and inspire good deeds.
I also volunteer with a wonderful organization, Musicians On Call, which brings music to the bedsides of hospital patients. When you see the relief music can bring someone who spends 80-90% of their time trying to manage pain, it’s hard to argue that music isn’t a healing force. Also, I believe selfless acts make you a better person, so the healing is reciprocal.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I read tabloid stupid magazines while standing on line at Duane Reade (I don’t buy them and somehow that makes me feel better about knowing all the details of Jennifer Aniston’s relationship with John Mayer). I guess Duane Reade would also qualify. I could spend hours in drug stores just cruising the aisles picking up things I don’t need like hair dyes I’ll never use, makeup I’ll never wear, and vitamins I’ll never take.
Is there a good independent radio station you listen to?
The Peak out of White Plains is always on my radio tuner and though it’s not independent, it’s a great station. But as truly independent stations go, I’d say WFUV, WBAI and out of Hackettstown N. There’s a station I grew up listening to -Centenary College Radio. Particularly, I loved the George McManus show featuring all underground music, which I’m sure went off the air years and years and I don’t want to think about how many years ago.
Where is your favorite place to relax in NYC?
I love the waterfront along the West Side Highway for long runs and just hanging in one of the parks in the summer. The did such a great job with it. On a rainy day, I like to shoot some pool and play darts at The Edge in the E. Village.
What’s your favorite song lyric (that’s not your own)?
“This hairdo’s truly evil, I’m not sure it’s mine” – Kristin Hersh from “Teeth”
Tell us one thing about yourself we probably don’t already know.
I suffer incredible stage/performance fright from time to time and I have to actively work to manage it. High pressure scenarios such as playing live on the radio or to hundreds of people during a songwriting competition has taught me some great tricks and now no one knows… I’ve got everyone fooled!
Photography courtesy of Alice Stopkoski