Halfway between Finsbury Park, North London, and Hampton Court, south west of everything, is Ravenscourt Park, a place for yoga, 4x4s, legions of dogs and, one suspects, chit chat about who might win The Great British Bake Off. The measurements have been calculated with impressive accuracy – it really is neutral ground. In Ravenscourt Park, the estates have electric gates that glide open to allow cars the privilege of slipping in and out.
Opposite one of these estates is a narrow alleyway squashed up against a large, black gastro pub. At the bottom we knock on the door of a skewed outhouse where we are greeted by George Reid. Aluna Francis is sat on the floor of the hallway twisting her hair around a curling iron. “I’m guessing you’ve heard,” she says, furrowing her otherwise fresh face. “Oh, you haven’t. My makeup artist has had a car crash.”
“She’s ok,” Aluna’s stylist quickly assures us, but it doesn’t take a genius to sense that the real problem is that she’s not coming.
Aluna says that she briefly considered going to Boots to get fixed up, atop one of the high stools in front of one of the beauty counters. Calling an emergency makeup artist (they exist) seemed like an even better option. She was on her way.
It’s all very new to us. In seven years of Loud And Quiet we’ve not once had a makeup artist, let alone stylist, on a shoot. The closest we’ve come was when we photographed Bat For Lashes in 2009, but even she did hers herself. Maybe others always did it before we/they arrived, or maybe we weren’t special enough. The latter is definitely more likely, but trumping both is that we’ve never really interviewed anyone so clearly poised for an assault on glossy chart music as AlunaGeorge.
The outhouse is the duo’s base and none-too-shabby recording studio, equidistant between their homes in Finsbury Park (Aluna) and Hampton Court (George). They’ve been here for almost a year, in a room down the end, creating polyrhythmic RnB pop embroiled in George’s glitch electronics and Aluna’s pitch-shifted vocals. They find duties like this, which have mushroomed since they stepped off tour with Brooklyn’s Friends this year, and more so since the release of debut EP ‘You Know You Like It’ in June, “distracting, but not horrible”. And in their corner of Ravenscourt Park, they cheerfully welcome me, pushing work on their debut album to one side for another afternoon.
“Music was never something I thought I could do with all my time,” begins Aluna, who, not unlike the quiet-but-only-by-comparison George, is instantly familiar, “but I was in Sainsbury’s car park, ready to go in for a job interview and my mum who had driven me there was like, ‘Errm, do you want to work at Sainsbury’s?’. So I said, ‘Errm, no, I don’t actually’. So she said, ‘Do you want to be a singer and do that properly?’, so I said, ‘Oh, erm, yeah’. And she said, ‘well, go on then’.”
Aluna says that her mum denies any recollection of this extremely humane act, even if it does paint her as the most understanding parent in recorded history. “She had her hippy roots out for a second,” says Aluna. “Well, she is a yoga teacher.”
Poor George’s pardon from gameful employment in French Connection never came. FCUK! And this, in the face of his natural gift for music, or a gift instilled in him from an early age, at least. “Like a lot of kids, I was encouraged to learn a musical instrument,” he says, “so I did piano lessons and hated it. Then I thought, ‘oh, guitars are cool’, so I switched to that, but it was classical guitar and I realised I wasn’t in a rock’n’roll band.”
Years later, George learned ‘Mission Impossible’ on a friend’s bass guitar of a Christmas present, something he found even easier than most. Inspired, he started to pick up instruments again, “because everything’s better when you’re already good at it,” he notes.
By 16 he had started making music while Aluna, unbeknown to him, was doing as her mother had instructed, enrolling in singing lessons and lending her vocals to her then boyfriend’s compositions.
“When I started out, it was before the complete access-all-areas computer revolution,” says George. “I was so into Radiohead and then I heard ‘Kid A’ and was like, ‘oh, maybe I should be sounding like this as well now. Huh, my guitar isn’t making that noise?’. So I got a rubbish old keyboard and hooked it up through all of my guitar pedals that I’d acquired through being such a Radiohead fan, and I wrote a song with a loop pedal and digital 4-track.”
George – or Tall George, as he was then, he thinks – uploaded his new electronic experiments to Myspace, which caught the attention of a producer on the site. “But he couldn’t write music at all; he was just a technical producer, and he really liked this stuff I’d made so I would trade with him. I’d send him my tracks, of, like, me pissing about on a keyboard for eight minutes, and he’d send me software.”
“I was in a band called My Toys Like Me, at the time,” says Aluna. “George asked if he could remix one of our tracks [‘Sweetheart’].”
Between them, Aluna still with one ear cocked to the studio door for the sound of an arriving makeup saviour, the pair tell me how, after a couple of serendipitous Myspace searches on George’s part, they began working on a batch of original songs together.
“Then it became a choice,” says Aluna, “because the guy I was working with at the time went a bit mental and was like, ‘You’re either one hundred per cent committed to me and this band or you can fuck off.’ I was like, ‘I don’t like you very much’.”
The makeup artist arrives and pokes her head into the studio. “Oh no, it’s even worse,” she says referring to the light (fairs fair, there’s not one external window in the small room), so we follow her back to the hallway.
“I was listening to loads of instrumental hip-hop music,” continues George while Aluna consults the makeup artist, “like really glitch heavy stuff, trying to learn how to do that sort of thing, and I just couldn’t figure out why no one was making them into proper songs. Why hasn’t this music got a song on it? Sometimes you try it out and realise, ‘oh, that’s why it hasn’t got a song on it’ – sometimes the music doesn’t let anything else breath.”
George was becoming more and more enamoured with the lighter side of electronic music, where Air, Prefuse 73 and Royksopp play. He “adored” Chris Clark too, and Aluna shared his quizzical obsession – why was so much of the most inventive electronic music never made into melodic, accessible pop songs? George’s beloved Radiohead has been onside for years. “It’s one of the most remarkable things about them,” he says. “They have all these eccentric sounds going on, but you can always hum the song back to yourself – there’s always a sneaky pop song in there somewhere.” He notes that there are some others out there doing it, making music that is simultaneously popularist and “bloody bizarre”, in Timberland’s case. “I find him quite remarkable,” says George. “There’s so much going on and I think, ‘oh, wow, he’s got away with that, hasn’t he’?”
“The thing about pop music is you can’t just let it come to you,” says Aluna, dispelling the popular myth. “You do need to find it because there’s tonnes of really good stuff, it’s just that the major players aren’t showing it to you. Occasionally you get someone like Gotye going to number one, but ultimately you need to do your research now.”
“Gotye’s not my cup of tea,” says George, “but when something like that does go to number one it restores your faith in people in a way, just because it’s a bit different and it’s not instant and it’s gone to number one. When that Usher track ‘Climax’ made it into the top ten, although it is a dubstep track it’s got so little going on in it, it’s wonderful. I think people are more accepting than some people give them credit for.”
AlunaGeorge’s next stab at your smarter-than-average pop song is new single ‘Your Drums, Your Love’, out later this month on Island Records. It’s a resounding success whatever way you look at it, featuring manipulated Purity Ring–style vocals one minute and Aluna’s girl band, cutesy chorus the next. George leaves the vinyl crackle in, and the globular intricacies of Royksopp. There’s a good reason why Radio 1 are pinning AlunaGeorge as popstars of La Roux proportions, and let’s face it, if Radio 1 think it they can make it so.
As we walk into the park for photos, George receives a text to let him know that their new single has made the radio station’s playlist, which sparks a short burst air punching. A week earlier AlunaGeorge played London Fashion Week, performing at Moschino’s runway show. George, who was given a suit from the fashion house for his troubles, to his credit, remains as grounded as any other Radiohead fan. “That show was fun,” he says. “I mean, you don’t get anything out of it, because no one gives a shit that you’re there, but you don’t know how fleeting this is going to be, and it’s good to have stories like that to tell your grandkids.”
When I ask Aluna if she’s less of a worrier than George, she simply shakes her head. She looks good though, in full make up, even if she didn’t really need it. When you’re going to be a pop star, you might as well get used to it.
Originally published in Loud And Quiet 42. Read the issue in full here.