“Your language too has soft and beautiful words, but they are not always appreciated. What could be more musical than your word cellar-door?” – Harper’s Magazine, 1905
Cellar door. Considered possibly the most beautiful phrase in the English language. Edgar Allen Poe’s favorite phrase.
Thematically, it signals a gateway to another, often magical world.
Also: a pivotal discussion point in Donnie Darko.
It was the latter that inspired Alle Norton to name her nascent musical project Cellars. “It has a dark connotation. I can relate to that,” she says, then laughs. “Maybe it comes from the cellars of my love life.”
For Norton, Cellars serves as both an emotional and musical gateway. Her new album Phases is awash in swooshing synths and digital beats. It’s warm, it’s pop, it’s glittery, and—most importantly—it’s honest.
You can discover the genesis and DIY ethos of Cellars forming in Norton’s hectic, nomadic childhood, where she bounced from Seattle to Los Angeles to Ohio to Connecticut to Texas. Throughout, music was her constant.
“I got into music as soon as I could talk,” she remembers. “Singing along to Barney, singing in churches, whatever. Picked up the piano at 8, first guitar at 12.”
After a brief dalliance studying film in Austin, Norton fully embraced her musical passion, beginning with a string of coffeehouse performances. Soon after, she finished her degree in audio engineering, and began to turn her folk-like ruminations into something more multi-layered and digital.
“I got into engineering and production. Became a total tech nerd,” Norton says. “It turned out I like doing everything on my own— bass, programming drums, keyboards, mixing, mastering. That’s why my records have been pretty much just me.”
Her songs began to take new, and old, shapes: within Cellars, you’ll hear past echoes, be it the gloomy synths of Depeche Mode, the art sensibilities of New Order, the keyboard hooks of Nu Shooz or the maverick spirit of Madonna.
It’s early digital pop with a modern sensibility, heavily influenced by the 80s…a decade Norton, ironically, never experienced first-hand. “I attribute my ‘80s passion to my dad,” she says. “I grew up listening to Squeeze, The Tubes and Oingo Boingo. He was a child of that era, and I think just absorbed his tastes. Also: I may not have been born in the ‘80s, but I was conceived in the decade.”
After a move to L.A., Cellars was the way to take Norton’s bedroom recordings and engineering acumen into a live setting. It also provide some emotional influence. “I didn’t know anyone here when I moved here,” she remembers. “I think coming here at 23 like that and adjusting and learning on the fly really shaped my character.”
The move was fortuitous. After releasing her first album Lovesick—a virtual one-woman production—Norton met her musical idol Ariel Pink, a do-it-yourself, lo-fi maverick in his own right.
“He’s kind of the reason I make music the way I do,” she says. “He taught me how inspiring and freeing it is not to rely on other people or a band to make music. And it was so flattering that he offered to produce my new record.”
With initial tracks conceived at Norton’s house, the songs on Phases truly came alive in the studio, with Pink adding in new layers, alternating song structures and even inviting a few guests long, including Benjamin Jared Miller from HEALTH, funk superstar Damon “Dam-Funk” Riddick and Tendai “Baba” Maraire of Shabazz Palaces.
Lyrically, Phases serves as individual snapshots of Norton’s life since she moved to L.A. First single “Nighttime Girl” explores the singer’s life early on in the big city. “I was tired of writing love songs,” she says. “So I’m here in this new place, exploring the world. It’s about the experience from getting away with my obsession with love, figuring out who I am.”
Musically, it’s a diverse record: “Do You Miss Me?” is a love song that evokes The Cure, while “Still in Love” conjure up images of the Material Girl herself. And as Norton notes, “Nervous” takes it funky robotic cues from Blondie’s “Rapture.”
Soon, you’ll be able to witness all of Phases live…something you wouldn’t seen if you’ve never been to Los Angeles. “Touring is my #1 priority,” says Norton. “I can’t wait to travel, get out there and share these songs live.”
For Norton, another new door is opened.