Alysha Brilla is a combination of old-world soul and new-age beauty. The singer, songwriter and musician has a newly released album called Womyn, a project near and dear to her heart. So much so that she not only produced it but also conceptualized the title track’s music video herself. Later this year she’ll be taking time off for a huge trip to Tanzania. We caught up with her before she could fly the coop and talked about her Juno nomination, musical inspirations and whatever a djembe is.
You’ve just released a new album called Womyn. Tell me about the process behind it.
I first write the songs and create demos of them on my computer with the music it needs. I bring it to my band and we record them. I play and write music, but I also produce it, which can get expensive, but is also all-consuming in other ways.
You play instruments as well, right? The piano, guitar and something else. I’m not quite sure what that last one is.
[Laughs] It’s a djembe [gem-bay]. It’s like a West African hand drum. I play some percussion and will play on a full drum set if there’s ever one around. But I have a djembe and sometimes you’ll be able to hear it on my record. It’s a really cool sounding and cool looking drum.
You write all your own songs. What kind of emotion and work goes into that?
It’s always the thoughts and motions that I’m having at the time. For example, on my last album a lot of the songs are about a breakup that I had just been through. That was all I had been thinking about. If I woke up thinking about it, I’d write a song about it. Whereas, this new record was made during a period when I didn’t break up with anyone, so a lot of the songs are more about what I’ve been focused on for the last year, which is a mix of feminism, social equality with the same soulful, upbeat vibe that the last record had.
How was the actual award show?
Great. It was held in Winnipeg and I had never been, so that was a fun experience. I was able to bring my mom, dad and my little sister, which turned into a cool story: There was a contest held by Tegan and Sara where fans who won got to go up on stage at the Junos and sing with them. I told my little sister, who lives in Halifax, to enter because she sings too. She thought it was a long shot but sent in a youtube video of her singing anyway and actually got chosen! So, she got to sing onstage with Tegan and Sara and afterwards she said to me, “How funny is it that I got to sing at the Junos before you, Alysha?”
You have a really distinct sound and style in your music. How does it blend with your personal style?
I love older music like 50s jazz, but also music from all over the world from the 60s and 70s. I guess because I like that type of older music, I tend to go for clothing that is inspired by that era, as in the vintage pin-up look. I usually wear red lipstick. My style is pretty fun and playful, kind of like my music.
Do you come from a musical background?
Yeah, my parents are musical. My mom is my Irish side and my dad is sort of a mishmash. He was born in Tanzania but has some Indian roots. Those two things definitely inspire me because my mom’s Irish side had her singing all these folky Irish songs to me when I was young and then my dad introduced me to a lot of music from all over the world like reggae and East African music. My dad plays the guitar and actually played in bands when he was young in Africa , so when I learned guitar, it was on the one he played when he was a teenager.
I figured that a title like Womyn had something to do with feminism.
Yeah. There are only two songs (maybe three) that touch on that vibe. The others are still my lovey-dovey songs. But the reason I spelled it that way was because there’s an American feminist group that spells woman that way as a way of giving women an identity aside from just a prefix on man. As far as why I’ve been focused on that, I’ve been in the music industry for a little over 10 years and I’ve seen what a male-dominated industry it can be. I ended up leaving a major label in New York because I found that women were not respected in those social circles. Now, I work with a lot of women; half my band mates are women. I love being able to connect with and empower other women and myself through those relationships.
I loved the video for the title track Womyn and how it had all different kinds of women, and even a trans woman, as the stars.
Thank you! I am so happy with that video. The idea was something that I had been thinking about for a while. I really wanted to show a diverse range of women and I had the idea of how it would look, I just didn’t know who would be in it. I put a call out on Facebook and Twitter for anyone who identifies as a woman—any race, any age, whatever—to come out. I was thrilled and excited with who came out. As you can see, it was very diverse and just goes to show that clearly there’s this beautiful, broad range of women who exist in society.
In 2014 you were nominated for a Juno Award. What was that experience like?
I had been invited to attend the nomination announcement…couldn’t say for sure if I was nominated. Literally the last category they announced was the one that I was a nominee in so I spent the entire time thinking that I didn’t get nominated! Once I heard my name, I jumped up and down and screamed.
Who are some artists in the industry that you look up to?
Well, I looked up to Amy Winehouse while she was still here and I still admire her music and creativity. Honestly, I really do look up to some of the bigger pop stars like Lady Gaga, Adele and Rihanna even if my music doesn’t sound like theirs. I like Rihanna because she’s from Barbados and even though she’s a pop star, she still has an island feel to her music. Sam Smith from the UK, too. I’m so in love with him.
What would you say the perfect musical career looks like?
The perfect musical career for me has always involved touring. I love traveling, I love playing music and I love meeting new people, and those three things are all encompassed in touring. Ideally, I see myself touring the world with my band, all the members of which I love.
What’s been your favourite live performance so far?
That’s tough. I feel like each performance is different, but as far as a big stage, probably the Montreal Jazz Festival I played at about 3 years ago. There were around 10,000 people in the crowd and it was the biggest audience that I’ve ever performed for. Before I started I was so nervous and usually I’m not but once I got up there I wasn’t anymore. When I was done it was such an adrenaline rush. I immediately wanted to do it again and again.
What’s coming up for you?
I’ll be doing some travelling. I’m going to Tanzania where my dad was born to revisit his roots with him. He hasn’t gone back since he came to Canada thirty years ago. We’re going to visit where he was born, where he grew up, his father’s grave. It’s going to be very emotional. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to document some of it for my sisters and maybe even a bit for my fans. It’s a journey that I’m really excited about.