Thursday 14 January 2016

Meet Allison Bell

In February, soprano Allison Bell performs Louis Andriessen's ethereal Dances with Britten Sinfonia as part of the Barbican's celebration of Andriessen's life and work, M is for Man, Music and Mystery. The concert is part of a BBC Total Immersion day devoted to the music of Louis Andriessen, We caught up with Allison ahead of rehearsals to find out a bit about hat makes her tick...

... highlight of your career so far?
It would have to be a tie between my first Lulu Suite at Tchaikovsky Concert Hall with Vladimir Jurowski and the Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra (Svetlanov) and singing guest vocals with the Violent Femmes at the Troxy in London as part of their reunion tour in 2014. They were one of my all time favourite bands as a kid and it was so unbelievable to be sharing the stage with not only them but also two more music heroes of mine, Steve Mackay from the Stooges (who sadly passed away recently) and Mick Harvey from the Bad Seeds. Both concerts were surreally within weeks of each other and both equally incredible, pinch-myself moments.

When are you happiest?
Long sunny days, deep in the wilds of Tasmania, with good friends and lots of cheese and wine.

What is your greatest fear?
I have a few. Religious fundamentalism. Xenophobia. Stupid people with guns.

Earliest musical memory?
My mum singing Split Enz 'Six months in a leaky boat', loudly, along with the car radio - I must have been 3 or so.

Which living person do you most admire, why?
My childhood music teacher in Tasmania, Rennie Herbert. She instilled in me not just a curiosity and love for music and culture but literally devoted her life to becoming effectively the surrogate mother to a great many kids, like myself, who came from very poor, dysfunctional backgrounds in rural Tasmania. Rennie gave us not just music but a sense of hope, self-worth and self-discipline. Through her we saw there was a bigger world out there to explore. And she's still there for me today, aged 90, whenever I need advice or moral support.

Embarrassing moment?
I think my embarrassment meter must be faulty, I very rarely get embarrassed. I probably should. I'm sure my friends can give you pages of material. Ok, I guess I did find it pretty uncomfortable having to warm up in my hotel room at the Hôtel de la Tremoille in Paris when I was singing around the corner at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, knowing Jack Nicholson was staying in the room next to me. And I knew he was in - we had come up in the lift together. I was singing Polly in Weill's Threepenny Opera, which involved an unconventional warm up to say the least. One where you have to make really ugly, brutal noises before you make the nice ones. For a huge cinephile and lifelong Jack Nicholson fan, yep, that was actually pretty bad.
If you were an animal what would you be?
A high-soaring bird like an eagle. A lyrebird would also be fun.

What is your most unappealing habit?
Impatience. Belligerent when hungry.

What is your favourite book?
There are too many to choose just one but my more recent favourites are Stoner by John Williams and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Both quietly but profoundly beautiful, moving.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
I only have to get the faintest whiff of lactose to become a congested mess so I have to avoid dairy in order to sing. So it's got to be eating cheese. With an ice-cream chaser.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Giorgio Locatelli to cook, no question. My ideal dinner party involves getting tipsy and laughing raucously rather than cerebral, challenging conversations. Nothing too high brow. So with that in mind, and narrowing it down to the living, I'd invite Bill Murray, Larry David, Louis CK, Chris Lilley, Susie Essman, Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer.

How do you relax away from concert platform?
I want to say getting out in nature, on a remote coastline somewhere, reconnecting with the elements etc. But it's more likely that you'll find me in my pyjamas, binge-watching any number of TV series and films for days at a time. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Being able to keep a roof over my head as a freelance musician. Also having such wise, loyal and supportive friends.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Don't wait for that moment where you feel 100% ready or 100% secure in yourself and your abilities to go forth and do your thing. That moment never comes. Most of the people you admire are just as scared as you. It's a privilege to be out of your comfort zone most of the time - it sounds cheesy but that's where the magic happens.

In a nutshell, what is your philosophy?
Stay in the moment. Don't sweat the small stuff. Mind your own business.

Allison appears with Britten Sinfonia on Saturday 13 February at 3pm at London's Milton Court Concert Hall in Louis Andriessen's Dances. To find full concert details and to book tickets click here.

For full details of the Barbican's celebration of the life and works of Louis Andriessen, M is for Man, Music and Mystery click here.

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