The Australian DJ traded a cello and classical music for a laptop and EDM.
(This story is the first by new contributor Emily Tonn.)
Alison Wonderland’s road to becoming a DJ may not rival her namesake’s trip down the rabbit hole, but it has a few fantastical turns on its own.
A young Australian-born Alex Sholler trained to be a classical cellist in Germany. Like so many other cellists, she saw her future in classical music, but then she heard Silent Shout by Swedish electronic duo, The Knife—an album that Pitchfork’s Mark Pytlik reviewed, writing, “the operative adjective here is ‘evil.’… Call it ‘haunted house’.”
That experience that made Sholler reevaluate her classical studies and say, “Fuck this, I don’t love it anymore,” she told Thump’s Zel McCarthy. She got a job and earned the money to buy a cheap laptop. She decided, “I’m gonna sit in my room with the curtains down and not eat for a day and write music. And that’s kinda what happened.”
Sholler switched her obsession from hyper-focused hours of practicing drills and bowing techniques to becoming a self-taught producer and composer of her own, and within five minutes of her first primetime gig, she picked the moniker Alison Wonderland and quickly became one of Australia’s hottest DJs. Wonderland will play The Republic Wednesday night.
She didn’t entirely put her classical education behind her, though. That background gave Wonderland an eclectic ear for good composition, though she battles her formal upbringing to make sure that everything she puts out is raw and not tampered with.
“The more I think about harmonies and chords and tones and all that—the theory part of it—the more it stops you from writing something that comes form quite a primal place,” she told Thump. “I think that’s where you should write music…to be a producer you need to be a musician, 100 percent.”
Wonderland’s reputation and adrenalized sound has made it possible for her to collaborate with Mad Decent recording artists Djemba Djemba and Lido as well as the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne on her debut album Run. Still, Wonderland felt nervous before her U.S. debut. The DJ worried that her grass roots sensibilities would not connect with U.S. audiences. When she made her American debut at the 2015 Coachella festival, “I was having nightmares,” she told DJ Magazine's Jordan Diaz.
“My friend was standing in the crowd on the first weekend and there was no one there before I started, and I text him like, ‘What if no one shows up? What am I doing? Why am I here?’ He was like, ‘Relax and press whatever buttons you press.’” The result was a killer debut.
As she developed an American audience, she also developed American haters who questioned whether she was actually performing when she played parties. To answer critics, she set up video cameras on stage to capture and show what she did. It’s a charge that often follows female DJs, which is why she shies away from being identified as one. “That fucked with me because I practice a lot and I put everything into this,” Wonderland said. “I know how to DJ and have been doing it for a long time.”
Some of the questions were fueled by a thread of sexism that runs through the EDM community, but also the way she would sometimes step out from behind her gear to party with the audience—something that she felt was important to make an electronic set visually more than just lights and a psychedelic rear-screen projection. Getting closer to the crowd connects her to them, Wonderland says.
“I think standing at a desk with a silver back of a laptop with a big Apple symbol lit up in front of your face is going to completely disconnect your performance with the audience.”