ALMA Leaves Behind EDM w/ Genre-Bending New Album ‘Have U Seen Her?’
Unless you’re Finnish, you might not yet know who ALMA is; but there’s a good chance you know her music. During her short career, the twenty-four-year-old rising pop star has graced the track listings of pop sensations such as Charlie XCX, Ariana Grande, and Miley Cyrus. Now, with her recently released and long-awaited debut LP Have U Seen Her, she’s teeing up to become a pop sensation herself.
In 2013, when she was just fifteen, she auditioned for Finland’s version of American Idol. After placing fifth, she returned to high school (she was still a teenager, after all). But not a year later, a judge from the show, rapper Sini Sabotage, asked her if she would like to come on tour and start collaborating together. You can surely guess what her answer was.
Her first few singles, “Karma,” “Dye My Hair,” and “Chasing Highs,” set her up as a rising star in the EDM world, as hundreds of millions of streams racked up. But with Have U Seen Her? (via Sony Music Germany/Republic Records) she has finally found her true voice. Dancey yet punky, glittery yet grungey, her genre-bending is surely part of her unique appeal.
Still under quarantine, BlackBook hopped on the phone to talk with her about her complicated relationship with LA, her leaving behind EDM, and, naturally, that signature green hair.
Did you do anything to celebrate the release of your debut album?
Yeah, some of my friends threw me a small quarantine party. They baked me a super cute cake, and we just got a little drunk. But obviously, like six months ago, I thought I was gonna have a huge party. I thought I was actually going to be touring at the same time. But, you know, when this happened, it threw us.
Have you been listening to a lot of music lately?
I’ve been listening to old stuff I was listening to when I was a teenager. Like Gorillaz, MGMT, stuff like that. Also, someone I always go back to is Amy Winehouse. She’s such an inspiration for me.
What role is music playing for you right now? Is it catharsis? Escape? Or something else?
It’s been a huge therapeutic thing. I haven’t been listening to a lot, but I’ve been making a lot of music. The first week that we were allowed to go outside, I went and got a studio set up for myself. I’ve been actually trying to learn how to produce, and it’s been a fun, therapeutic challenge for me.
When did you start getting into music? I know that you were on the TV show Idols when you were fifteen, which is quite young.
After Idols, I just went back to school. I was there for like a year. But then I started working with this rap label and was touring with this great female rapper (Sini Sabotage). And from there, I found producers to work with. I’ve always been singing in English, even though no one sings in English in Finland. Then, I don’t know how, but somehow people in Germany and the UK and America, they heard my tracks and suddenly everybody wanted to sign me; it was weird.
Had you always wanted to be a pop star?
Uhhh… yes. When I was very young I had wanted to be a pop star. Then when I was a teenager, I kinda didn’t want to be anything. I just wanted to have fun. There was a point where I was like, “Fuck it.” But then I went to the studio, and I just fell in love with making songs. It just happened.
Was there a moment in your life that really affirmed your skills and talent?
I think the first time I realized that I can actually make a career out of this was probably when Elton John played my track on the radio. Obviously for me, and for everybody, he is a legend. That was definitely a point where I was like, “Holy shit. People actually do like my music. There must be something good in me.”
You obviously write your own music, but you’ve also made a name for yourself writing for other pop stars. Is your songwriting process different when you write for someone else?
It’s not that different actually. I tend to write from my perspective. But obviously when I work with someone like Miley Cyrus, I try to talk about her life. Though I still try to mix my life in it; otherwise it’s very hard to write, if you don’t have anything through which you can feel the feeling, ya know?
A lot of musicians have complicated relationships with touring. The highs of performing can be followed by some pretty low lows. What do you do to stay focused and sane on the road?
I wasn’t staying focused on my first two tours, I was being very young and stupid. My voice just couldn’t handle it. You can’t party and do tours. That’s just a fact. In the long term, it’s just not possible. I lose my voice if I go to the club after the show.
Do you have a pre-show routine?
Yeah, we kick each other’s butts.
Literally kick each other’s butts?
It’s a bit weird, but we did it once, and now we’re paranoid if we don’t do it.
It’s an interesting ritual. I’ve read that you used to get nervous before going on stage, I’m assuming this helps? How else do you alleviate that anxiety?
I was very anxious during the early stages of my career. The first two years that I was touring, it was very hard to go to the stage. But I was just doing it. I forced myself to the stage and then it just got better. That’s my secret. Just go and do it. It’s gonna take a little while to love, but you just have to jump where you’re scared.
You have this song, “LA Money,” which doesn’t talk about the city in an entirely flattering way. Can you talk about why you have a complicated relationship with LA?
There are two sides of LA: There is the dark side of LA, when everybody is just super fake and they want to get something out of you; and then there is the LA where people are positive and encourage each other. I think the song is just about the other side. When I first went to LA, I’d never been that lonely. I’ve never been that scared or annoyed about a place and people. It’s about those times.
You’ve mentioned that you feel pressure living in the public eye sometimes. How have you learned to cope with that pressure?
Obviously in Finland, my home country, I’m on a different level of fame. I’m really famous here and it can be hard to be on the streets sometimes. I’m not the best when it comes to coping with fame. I think that sometimes it’s weird that some people really care that much. When it gets to be too much, I just take a plane and go to a different city.
Your neon hair is kind of your signature look. How’d you come up with it, and what does it mean to you?
My sister dyed her hair green when she was fifteen. She’s always been the bravest of the two of us—we’re twins. When she came out of the shower, I was like, “Oh my god, that’s the craziest hair ever. I have to do it.” I have to say that I copied my sister 100%. And now, it’s so easy because all I have to wear are black jeans and a black shirt and people are still like, “Oh, you have a cool style.”
Do you ever feel like changing it?
Not really. If I were to change it, it would be weird. But, if I did, I would probably go with neon orange.
Do you get people who tell you your personal style is incongruous with the music that you make?
Yeah, but even though people think style is really important to me, it’s not. The only thing I care about in life is the music that I make. Style just isn’t important to me. If I want to wear something sort of punkier, I don’t see any problem with that. Same goes for genre. I love pop music because you can make punk-pop, you can make indie-pop, you can make R&B-pop…you can mix everything.
You mentioned that Amy Winehouse has had a big influence on you. Who else has influenced you?
I was searching everything on YouTube. I could have literally been listening to Amy Winehouse and then the next thing I would be listening to was Prodigy, or something like that. During my teenage years.I was going to pop festivals; but then I would go to Germany and go to crazy punk festivals. I just love music. Music for me is not about genre, it’s about the attitude, and if it makes me feel something.
What do you want to say about your debut album?
I had to make a decision. Do I want to keep on making EDM style records that I’ve never connected with that much, even though I love them and they’re part of my journey? With this album, it’s always been clear—I wasn’t going to make a dance album. I can make singles that are dancey and feature on other people’s songs, but when it comes to my album, it has to be 100% me. It took a little time; I had to fight for it.