Alexandra Levy on her debut album as Ada Lea

Ahead of her debut LP as Ada Lea, we chat to Alexandra Levy about Virginia Woolf, the colourful visualisation of music and breaking down the barrier between the public and the private

Feature by Katie Cutforth | 16 Jul 2019
  • Ada Lea

Ada Lea is both a person and a project – the pseudonym of Montréal-based musician and visual artist Alexandra Levy, who takes Ada from both her middle name and the name of her grandmother. On the day of our conversation, a bilingual version of her single the party was released, performed half in English and half in French. Levy explains that her relationship with the two languages is somewhat unbalanced, English being her preferred method of expression. "It felt a bit strange to do a whole song in French but really natural to do it in English and French. That’s how I communicate too – I kind of switch back and forth."

This summer will see the release of Levy’s debut LP under the guise of Ada Lea, curiously titled what we say in private. The record is a beautiful conundrum; a kind of controlled chaos achieved by layering bases of songs with unsettling sound effects, extracts of voice memos, the noise of trucks and aeroplanes. Levy’s enchantingly gentle voice takes centre stage, despite the busyness, imbuing the record with human tenderness at even its most frenzied moments. 

Despite the obvious magnitude of her recent signing to Saddle Creek, the Nebraska-based label that has represented the likes of Bright Eyes, Big Thief and Hop Along, Levy remains determinedly modest. "I still don’t feel like a professional musician," she explains, sounding somewhat bewildered at the suggestion that she might be. "I never want to approach things as being a professional – the idea really frightens me. I feel if I did start to do that I would lose the curiosity that amateurs have. There’s always that magic at the beginning of something that is kind of lost once you gain some sort of knowledge."

Levy took up singing almost by accident – she was studying jazz double bass at The New School in New York City when tendonitis forced her to redirect her musical attention. "I needed to rest my arms and my body. I knew because I wasn’t able to play bass, this was the perfect opportunity to practise singing. No one could really judge me for it and I could make an excuse… I was kind of hiding the fact that I really wanted to sing so badly and I think after a while of doing that I just became more comfortable with owning up to it and not being so shy."

Though the final realisations of her songs are collaborative, they originate in a very personal place. "The songs and lyrics themselves are something I really need to do by myself. I’m most creative when I’m by myself. I like to write structures and the base of the songs, as if it’s a plant and I’m planting the roots and then I can go to the full band. We play it a bunch and we tour with it and slowly it changes."

As well as a musician, Levy is a painter and visual artist, often finding inspiration for her art in music and vice versa. Her artwork is much like her music - abstract, vivid and disarming. With the new record, she took her creative duality a step further by producing ten paintings, each with a clear association to each track on the album. "I just purchased big canvases and let the album play and did the rough draft of each painting while listening to the songs and switched paintings every three-and-a-half minutes.”

Colour in particular is important to Levy, whose latest artist photos show her in a flowered chiffon blouse with a pastel pink and olive trim, lips, cheeks and eyelids in pink and odd nails painted bright yellow. She describes how visual compositions are at the heart of her creative process: "I do find myself thinking in colours and forms, lines and shapes, and scenes whenever I’m working on music. Sometimes I’ll begin a song and it’s just feeling… it sounds stupid to say but just feeling blue or green – it’s just this mood."

True to character, what we say in private is vibrant, visceral; it bleeds colour and emotion while maintaining an overall feeling of understated power. Despite the variation in style, Levy sees it as a whole rather than a collection of parts. "We recorded all the songs in two days, so they came from the same place. It does feel like a time and a place." The record is also characterised by Levy very visually. "Each song is different," she muses. "But I think overall it’s kind of different shades of blue green, like a sea foam. Sea foam is a colour that I see when I think of the album as a whole."

Despite being relatively new on the scene Levy is already making waves, challenging the typical structures and traditions of the industry she has come to inhabit. "We’re shown that things need to be presentable and manicured. I definitely want to be respectful of the industry but I also want to challenge that. I personally want to see more of what goes on behind closed doors; what people don’t share. That’s more interesting to me."

Amongst a plethora of fantastic female influences (Sylvia Plath, Karen Dalton, Frida Kahlo, Eva Hesse) Levy cites the works of Virginia Woolf as the foundation of ideas explored on the new record, quoting from Woolf’s diaries down the phone: "If one lets the mind run loose it becomes egotistic; personal, which I detest." There is respect for the formality, the performativity of art and music, alongside a desire for it to come from a genuine, albeit slightly messy, place. "The public and private are kind of side by side," Levy explains. "I wanted something like that with this album – I didn’t want it to feel organised. I like the chaotic aspect."

The record certainly achieves this musically, flicking seamlessly between raucous and subtle, impulsive and steady, candid and surreal. Lyrically too, Levy finds ways to blur the line between the public and the private. On wild heart she sings 'God watches over us in disbelief / And I take your head with my hand', constantly zooming in and out on herself and her life as though afraid of the egotism described by Woolf – searching for meaning in this world which seems ever more individualistic.

what we say in private is released on 19 Jul via Saddle Creek