Do you remember a time, not so long ago, when pop music felt strange? Alliances of visionary producers and charismatic singers spawned a series of songs that were as radical as they were catchy: hits like Destiny’s Child’s Say My Name, Aaliyah’s Try Again and Tweet’s Oops (Oh My). It was great, wasn’t it? AlunaGeorge thought so too. Now, when the Top 40 has never been more homogenous, they want to shake things up again. “I guess we’re always looking for the exception to the rule. You just have to hope people get bored and want something else,” says Aluna.
AlunaGeorge are Aluna Francis and George Reid. “Aluna” means “come here” in the Mwera dialect of Tanzania, “pupil” in Portugese and “Mother Earth” in Mayan. “George” means George. Aluna writes and sings the melodies and lyrics. George arranges the music into uncanny and seductive new shapes. They met in 2009. They live in London. They have released two fresh, irresistible singles, You Know You Like It and Your Drums, Your Love, and they have only just begun.
AlunaGeorge are entering 2013 with fans in all the right places. They are among the final three contenders for the Brits Critics’ Choice Award and on the longlist for the BBC’s influential Sound of 2013 poll. Pitchfork, which has championed them from the start, booked them to play at its Paris festival in November. In the fashion world, Moschino asked the duo to perform at their London Fashion Week show and Next Models has signed Aluna — confirmation of her idiosyncratic star quality.
Aluna was born in Wales and moved between the UK and US before settling in St Alban’s in her teens. It wasn’t one of the world’s great musical hotspots and her search for musical collaborators led her to pack up and move to London, where she found herself squatting in a north-west London flat with an artist, below a bunch of ex-convicts who had been in prison for murder. A fan of such striking vocalists as PJ Harvey, CocoRosie and Fever Ray, “I was finding out how to use my voice for what it is rather than try and be something I’m not.”
In 2006 she joined quirky electro-pop outfit My Toys Like Me and enjoyed singing but was unhappy with her lyrics. The experience taught her to focus more on writing songs that contained some emotional truth. “If I can’t sing them and know what the hell I’m talking about that’s a big no-no for me. I read about old-style songwriters like Sammy Kahn and all these little tricks and games you can play. That was kind of a turning point.”
In 2009 George asked My Toys Like Me if he could remix their single Sweetheart and met Aluna for the first time at a meeting with the band. At the time he was living in Kingston, Surrey and playing guitar in “math-pop” band Colour. “Lots of boys wanting to show off by playing in stupid time signatures,” he says self-deprecatingly. Influenced by Warp Records acts such as Flying Lotus, George aspired to be a producer and began honing his skills in electronic music, combining laptop software with loop pedals.
Despite their different musical backgrounds, Aluna and George realised they wanted the same thing. Both fans of leftfield instrumental production, neither could fathom why someone didn’t turn these incredible beats into pop songs, so they decided to do it themselves. “We hit on a way of doing pop that was our own,” says Aluna.
The very first song they made together, the glitchy, twilit Double Sixes, was given away on their website. Another early song, Disobey, ended up on an episode of the US version of Skins in 2010 soundtracking a sex scene. Aluna recalls awkward situations in George’s bedroom where she’d be recording “sexy lyrics” in his makeshift vocal booth which consisted of a towel over the door.
In summer 2011 relatively unknown UK label Super released the You Know You Like It single and funded a memorable low-budget video featuring a squad of dancing Alunas. “Everyone was doing us favours,” says Aluna. “No one got paid. And ever since people have been trying to get us to replicate that video!” Publishers and labels came calling, including hip Brooklyn-based Tri Angle Records, who gave the track an extended lease of life by releasing an EP including Just a Touch. They signed to Island in January 2012, which meant they could move into a small west London studio and stop annoying George’s neighbours.
They’ve been hunkered down in the studio for most of the year, preparing their debut album for the first half of 2013 and turning down some tempting offers. But Aluna did find time to sing on Rustie’s After Light (because, hey, it’s Warp), while George has brought his remix magic to Florence & the Machine (Spectrum), Friends (I’m His Girl) and Lana Del Rey (Born to Die).
AlunaGeorge’s songs hinge on the chemistry between Aluna’s cool, commanding, distinctly British vocals and George’s disorientating brew of warped samples, twitching beats and thick, woozy bass. Take their calling-card, You Know You Like It. Aluna improvised the singsong chorus at a bus stop in Harlesden and sang it down the phone line to George. The verse was a song she wrote at college a few years ago “about being defiant”. “I’m no fool,” she sings. “No, I’m not a follower.” George set it to a slippery, unpredictable rhythm and swathed it in a dreamlike haze. The contrast’s the thing.
The album demonstrates the breadth and fluidity of AlunaGeorge’s sound: the strutting, taunting Attracting Flies (“Your invitations are fake/Must be from a ticket tout”), the sleek 80s soul groove of Bad Idea, the slippery, dream-like Body Music, the aquatic slow jam Diver and the joyous, widescreen love song Superstar. This is exotic, imaginative pop destined for Radio 1 playlists as much as it is for blog acclaim.
As the album progresses, AlunaGeorge report that Island are happy to let a good thing breathe. “They kind of leave it up to us,” says Aluna. “They’re like, just do something wonderful.” You can be sure of that. British pop just got a lot more interesting.