Alicia Clara Lets Us into Her Literary World on ‘Outsider/Unusual’

Photo Credit: Tess Roby

Surprisingly, Alicia Clara has a “very short attention span” when it comes to books. I say surprisingly because the Montreal-via-Switzerland singer-songwriter creates the sort of works where you need the lyrics sheet to pour over the words and turns of phrases.

“It’s really hard for me to go through a book,” Clara explains. “I have to really be hooked by this story. And if I am, then this is the only thing I will do, but I kind of put it off. I have the same thing with movies as well, where I put off long activities, because I'm not sure I'm going to be able to go through the whole thing.”

Anyone who feels the same way as Clara should really listen to Outsider/Unusual, the artist’s debut EP that came out in February. At only 26 minutes, it’s a fascinating yet brief entry point to Clara’s literary world, with artful lines such as “I poured some gold in your cup / to squeeze out some hazy truths” (from “Hazemaze”) or “deep blue sea of stones like eyes / staring down our predictable lies” (from “Stones Like Eyes”). It really does help to have that lyric sheet on hand, because otherwise the words are subsumed in the overall picture painted by Clara’s otherworldly vocals and the sonic tapestries provided by her band, blending together dream pop, indie rock, shoegaze and even funk.

Even though Clara’s writing veers towards the enigmatic, with relatively few hooks or choruses to immediately reel in the listener, one of the singer-songwriter’s earliest influences showed her the power of being direct. “When I was a teenager,” says Clara. “I was really inspired by Lykke Li, who has a very simple but honest style of songwriting where she just says it like it is. She’s just like ‘my heart was broken,’ and that’s it. She’s not trying to conceal anything, not trying to embellish a story, and that's actually something that has stuck with me.”

These days, however, Clara’s inspiration comes from artists who share her preference for conjuring mystique and intrigue in their writing. “I do feel like I might be a little more cryptic in my songwriting which probably at the time came from Stevie Nicks,” Clara says.  “I guess more recently, I was really into Westerman from London and Helena Deland [from Montreal].”

While Clara is the architect of her songs, they’re brought to life with the help of her band (Michael Kalman, Patrick Drummond, and Luke Pound), who sound as if they’ve played together for years.  But, the four only really came together last summer when Quebec’s COVID-19 public health measures were eased, so that they could all gather at a safe distance.

“I think it was primarily professional in the sense that for the first two months that I had the band, we ate breakfast once, and jammed once a week, and that was it,” Clara says. “And when we started hanging out as friends towards the end of the summer, we actually bonded really fast. I think we were all extremely excited about having a project to do during the pandemic. [It’s] a bit like falling in love, where the first few months or weeks [you’re] super excited about everything.”

Outside of last summer though, much of our social connectedness during the pandemic has been virtual.  This includes not only classes and workplace meetings, but also live music. However, instead of feeding off a receptive crowd, artists have to adjust to playing for an audience completely unseen online. It can be quite daunting, especially if like Clara, it counts as your very first show.

“I don't know, I really hope I can play live shows at some point,” Clara explained., “Because I kind of feel jealous of anyone who's got to experience that before [laughs]. I just got there at the worst time.” Her first live performance ever was canceled the same day that the Quebec government declared the COVID-19 pandemic a public health emergency. Instead, Clara’s debut performance was for a live stream concert, something that the artist isn’t particularly looking forward to doing in the near future.

“What I don't like about live streams is that the mistakes you make [are] kind of documented forever,” Clara adds. “I feel like at shows if you fuck up, no one will necessarily hear it in the room itself. And also you can laugh it off and just smile on stage. People will be like ‘Haha, she fucked up.’ It's fun, you know. From a pre-recorded side, it's kind of like ‘Why did she fuck up?’ There’s no excuse [laughs]. I just feel like with other people in the room, it's more of a shared experience than me trying to plan a show [online].”

After everything that’s gone on in our lives since the pandemic hit, nobody would be faulted for feeling pessimistic. Clara herself admits feeling this way, as much as she wishes she could be optimistic, particularly with such a major step in her career as releasing her debut EP. “I’m happy to be releasing this [EP], but it’s a little bit bittersweet,” Clara says. “And without shows or anything, it feels like I’m kind of doing that for, I don’t know, for nothing, not really for nothing, but it’s weird.”

Considering the subject matter of Outsider/Unusual, in particular the title track and “Stones Like Eyes,” where Clara realizes there might be no such thing as happy endings or tidy resolutions, the EP acts as a fitting soundtrack to our current times. In the long-term, we can imagine a day where things finally do get better, but our future is still quite murky in the short-term. We’ve all had to learn to deal with the prolonged discomfort of the unknown. Clara herself is trying to push past those feelings when writing new material, though the artist admits that attempting to start a new chapter isn’t the easiest with a COVID state of mind.

“[B]efore really jumping into a second [EP], I’ll probably just look at everything that I've written and, who knows, maybe I’ll decide to change it and maybe I’ll find a new chapter. Right now it’s kind of hard to tell.”

Outsider/Unusual is out now (Hot Tramp).

Alex Viger-Collins is the host of Ashes to Ashes, your home for modern pop in all its forms, every Tuesday at 8:00 PM EST.