Very few acts blow up without any warning, usually rainfall precedes the deluge; tips from media corporations, a single that strikes a chord, a back catalogue previously released on a knowledgeable DIY label. Yet inconceivably every year, a couple of artists shortcut this traditional rite of passage, appearing like a bolt out of the blue. Alexandra Levy AKA Ada Lea is one such example. When Saddle Creek introduced us to their latest signing in May, just over two months ahead of the release of her debut full-length ‘what we say in private’, few recognised her.
The album that followed announced the arrival of one of 2019’s most unique voices. On ‘what we say in private’, Levy is a musician-come-property-developer, treating each song like a house bought on the cheap, stripping it out entirely and rebuilding it from the ground up. She cycles from freak-folk to experimental lo-fi to stomping indie rock all within the span of a single song.
Our meeting place, Manchester’s Castle Hotel is over 3000 miles away from the Montreal bedroom that spawned her debut. Levy is 15 days into a European tour that takes in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, France and, of course, the UK. Waiting patiently in the stick-thin corridor that connects the bar and the toilets, Levy is calm amidst the storm, studying the pages of Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’.
After I introduce myself, we retreat upstairs to the rundown ‘green’ room. Levy is shy and considered, each questioned is followed by a long pause, one pause is so long that she has to ask, ‘yeah, what was the question?’
When I ask Levy about her sudden ascension, she says “Yeah, it’s very surprising [that people know me and come out to see me], part of me still feels like no-one really knows who I am which has kinda helped me”. Lea perfected her craft privately. Other than a few demos on Bandcamp, she kept her work close until she grew confident enough to present it. “It was three years of discovering myself and my interests. It took that amount of time to get myself to a place where I felt comfortable enough writing my own songs and presenting them to people and it just became very clear that this is what I wanted to be doing”.
Following a devastating break-up, Levy took advice from a friend to isolate herself for six months, keeping a journal throughout to document the process. This pursuit burst the banks, Levy’s inspiration overflowing like never before as she worked through the night transforming her journal entries into songs and paintings. “It felt like I’d discovered this secret doorway that I could come back to at any moment, that I was on the verge of creating something really interesting to myself”.
The process was chaste, immaculate even, she had no audience to convince, no label to please, no questions of whether people might like it clouding her judgement. “It just came very naturally. There wasn’t that drive or desire to feel appealing to the outside world, which I feel can be very confusing. Now I feel it a lot with the songwriting process, I ask myself often ‘will people like this?’ and that period felt special in a way because I wasn’t asking that question, it was just very honest and pure”.
The record initially began life as a concept album, where one partner in the break-up was represented by the sun, the other, the moon. On ‘yanking the pearls off around my neck’, Levy forgets which one was which, singing “You always followed the sun / And I the moon / Or have I misremembered?” “I feel like that marked a really important moment, you go through so many phases in a relationship, there’s like a push and a pull and these tensions between two people and it changes so much over time that you can’t remember where you started”.
Though imprints of the original concept remain, the finished product is far less abstract. Having initially tried to closet her feelings within this sun/moon casing, Levy boldly decided to transgress societal codes and present her innermost thoughts and feelings, sharing with the world things that we usually like to keep to ourselves, hence the title. “I felt like there needed to be an outlet for that. So many friends were dealing with similar things, but it feels so isolating because these things are not talked about that widely, so it felt like the right thing to do.
“I feel like they’re just things that we don’t love to talk about, the negative emotions, and I think that can be really damaging. I think we don’t talk about these things to protect ourselves and to stop us from feeling like we’re a burden. It’s also hard to hear from other people you care about that they’re suffering in some kind of way, you feel kind of helpless in your service to them or trying to be of service to them. You don’t exactly know how to deal with them so as yourself feeling these emotions, you feel like, ‘Why would I burden my friends and family with this if there’s no way they can help me?’”
‘what we say in private’ then is radical, a record that not only challenges musical conventions, slipping from genre to genre, but also societal ones, breaking harmful traditions that have taught us to keep our feelings in at the expense of our mental health. Though our chat leaves me awestruck, the performance that follows later is the moment her exceptionalism truly hits home. She blazes trails in each and every direction, the audience following each paths she lays down without question. She’s one on her own, unparagoned, and though she may have fears about whether she can recapture the inspiration that informed ‘what we say in private’, I hold no such reservations as lights that burn that bright rarely lose their shine so quickly.