A L L I E learns the art of letting go

One of Toronto's best up-and-comers talks her reggae and jazz roots and making major career moves.

November 11, 2015

“Stretch, meditate, write, dance, get in the studio and mix or record,” explains vocalist a l l i e, listing off what a day in her life currently looks like. “Read a book, watch a movie, cook dinner with my boyfriend,” she continues. “Life has been really simple lately—in a beautiful way.”

It’s admittedly a great time for a l l i e (née Allison Lee), who just a year ago didn’t think her new four-song EP, Moonlust, would become a reality.

“At a certain point I had given up on this EP,” she explains from her home in Toronto. “I wasn’t going to put it out. I had writers block for almost a year and everything felt forced, so I had to step away for a bit.”

Although songwriting proved to be frustrating, 2014 had its major highlights: after being selected as one of RedBull Sound Select’s first Canadians artists, a l l i e went on to support acts such as Sza, Kelela, and Tink. In the meantime, the writing hiatus proved fruitful, giving her an entirely new perspective on her life and music.

“When I came back to it I started re-working some of the songs and realized that it represented a chapter in my life that I really wanted to share—the good and painful parts. Moonlust is about me losing myself a bit, and then finding my way back.”

Raised in Toronto’s west end, a l l i e enjoyed a childhood immersed in music: her mother and grandparents played instruments and she often hung out with her father’s reggae band as they practiced and sound checked.

“That’s how I started getting comfortable singing in front of people,” she explains, recalling how she later went on to perform with the band. “I’d be jamming with all these older Rastafarians, singing Bob Marley and reggae flips of old jazz standards.”

Gregory Isaacs, Desmond Dekker, and Otis Redding were early influences, but jazz vocalists Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Dinah Washington, and particularly Billie Holiday helped shape her approach to her own voice.

“Billie Holiday was a huge inspiration for me because she didn’t have the biggest voice and wasn’t able to hit the highest notes, but it’s what she did with what she had. The tone of her voice and the emotion in it outweighed all the technical stuff. I’ve never felt like I have a big voice, but I do have a unique tone, so I really relate to her.”

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In 2013, a l l i e released the Strange Creature EP. It featured songs that spanned what she calls “the Montreal years”: relationships, breakups, dropping out of Concordia’s English program, and living in Montreal, a city she fell in love with. Its soulful sound put her on the map, and now her latest offering intends to stretch that sound further. On Moonlust’s standout tracks—“Yemi’s Song” and “Remedy”—a l l i e’s warm vocals float over opulent beats. Its chill, eclectic sound is one you can imagine vibing to through Toronto, New York, and London.

The last year has seen her working with co-writers (“I Can’t Wait” with Toronto’s Birthday Boy), new producers (Elaquent, Nick Wisdom, and Da-P), and most significantly, getting into sound engineering. “I mixed all the vocals on Moonlust with my friend 2nd Son,” she explains with pride. “I shied away from it for a long time but it’s been so satisfying to shape a sound exactly the way I want.”

With all the growth that brought Moonlust into existence, it may also represent a closure of sorts—at least on an emotional level.

“’Keep On’ is my favourite song on the EP because it really sums up the last year of my life. I wanted to scrap it so bad, and I re-wrote it a bunch of times before landing on the final version. It’s about wanting to quit, and feeling rejected by someone whose approval you really want,” confides a l l i e. “But instead of giving up you keep on going, and you realize that that person was actually a huge asshole and that you don’t want or need their approval anymore. It has a sad tone to it, but it’s so uplifting to me.”

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