Alejandra Deheza—or “Alley”—is the half-Costa Rican, half-Bolivian, Guatemalan-born front woman for School of Seven Bells and formerly On! Air! Library!. She moved to New York City in 1999 by way of South Florida and DC, where she grew up, and brought with her years of poems and stories and a desire for new adventures. We spoke with Alley during her most recent adventure, touring with School of Seven Bells, which she formed with Benjamin Curtis in 2007. She shares with us the story behind how she began to write and sing, and who inspires her work today.
stated: Hi, Alley!
ALEJANDRA DEHEZA: Hey, what’s up?!
stated: Thanks for making the time. I know you are touring right now.
ALLEY: Yep. Surely am. Last night we were in Minneapolis. We’ve done 4 shows so far. We’re in a Sprinter. One of those big vans. Dude, it’s SO comfortable. I have a whole sofa back here pretty much. Hahaha.
stated: Nice! And so where are you headed right now?
ALLEY: We’re driving 28 hours to get to Vancouver.
ALLEY: I mean, not straight—we have two off days to do it.
stated: I looked at your Twitter feed last night following the Minneapolis show and someone said in a message to you, “School of Seven Bells ain’t no Fuckin’ joke. I can’t hear out of my left ear.” So what are you doing live during this tour promoting Disconnect from Desire that would result in THAT comment?
ALLEY: Hahahahaha. Ummm…it’s the guitars probably. That’s what I think. And the drums too.
stated: That’s usually what does it. It’s certainly not your voice. Speaking of which, you are increasingly recognized primarily for your voice, but writing is the spark that lit the way to becoming a singer. Have you always written?
ALLEY: Yeah, definitely. Since I was in third grade probably.
stated: You mean like keeping journals? That sort of thing?
ALLEY: Ummm, you know, that’s funny. I got an assignment when I was in third grade to write a poem. It was like one of those things that you go through in a creative writing class, but it was THIRD grade. I remember doing the assignment and was like, “You mean I can do THIS whenever I WANT?!” just thought it was really awesome. “Why isn’t everyone doing this all the time!?”
stated: The passion was there in third grade! Is it the desire to write that led you to New York?
ALLEY: I just needed to move! The last thing I needed to do was stay in the suburbs of South Florida. You know what I mean? I needed to get out. I’d been to New York. And honestly I don’t see any other city I would have moved to. Other than LA maybe. But the whole thing that I was thinking about NY is that, number one, I’d been there, and number 2, well…three things…it’s awesome…and numer 3, I don’t need a car. Hahaha.
stated: What situation led you to begin singing?
ALLEY: Actually, you know what happened? There was a friend of mine that I had just met in New York—one of the first people I met in NY—and he asked me what I wanted to do while I was there and I was like, “well, I want to be a writer.” He said, “the only way you are going to make money off of poetry in New York is by putting it into song.” It probably isn’t true, but I remember him telling me and it totally stuck in my mind and I was like, “Well, we can give that a try.’”
So I DID. And I don’t know. There’s something about it that is totally different when you are writing with a beat in mind or some kind of rhythm. The words, they flow…it’s totally different than just writing things down on paper without music in mind.
stated: So now when you write you are writing with a melody in your head, or does the melody develop as you are writing?
ALLEY: I have to write to music now, but it’s not even my music. I’ll find one song and I’ll put that song on repeat for like two weeks. Sometimes I’ll just hear a rhythm in there, or a mood, or a melody that’s just very inspiring.
stated: Can you tell me some of the people you listen to?
ALLEY: Oh man, I listen to *everything*. I guess for writing I like a lot of Robert Wyatt, because it’s so free-form…he’s so…have you ever heard him?! You NEED to check him out. Check out Schleep, then Rock Bottom. Both are amazing. They’re two of his best records, I think. He sings like his voice is a trumpet. None of his songs on the record sound the same. They’re all completely different, but they blend so well because the mood is so strong.
He’s making some of his best music now. He was in Soft Machine. He was the drummer, but then he got in some accident where he fell off a roof and he was paralyzed from the waist down.
stated: Oh no!
ALLEY: But then he started singing, you know? He sang a little bit in Soft Machine, but then it became the focus of what he is doing. And it’s incredible.
stated: Is there a story behind why you chose the name of your band School of Seven Bells?
ALLEY: You know, I feel like the way that things happen—even just like picking up and moving to New York—has always been an inspired decision. And it’s really hard to tell you why I did it, but I remember I was watching a documentary on these South American shop lifting rings. They were assuming these people had trained at the place called School of Seven Bells…if it existed, but when they were talking about it I was like, that is SOOOO wild. Because it’s such a colorful name, and it’s something that sounds like a fairy tale. And nobody knows if it ever existed. And it just seems really, really amazing to me and hearing the word—visualizing the word—I just KNEW it was going to be my band.
stated: That’s really interesting because the band name does match the sound so cleanly. Obviously, the lyrics are like poetry, and the sound of your voice and the way the melodies are structured and layered it makes sense that you would pick a mystical sounding name. Had you and Benjamin already started playing together when you selected the name? Had a sound already developed before that name?
ALLEY: No, we hadn’t even met!
ALLEY: This was right before the tour that I met Benjamin on, and I had this name. I was still in On! Air! Library! at the time and he was with The Secret Machines. It was my last tour with the band and I had the new name in my head. I was writing a lot of lyrics at the time and I didn’t know what I was going to do with them. I knew that they were going to go into songs, but I hadn’t formed another band yet. I knew that those were School of Seven Bells songs though. I just had the whole idea for it immediately.
stated: And so you guys met and formed a band, and what I understand about your creative process is that lyrics come first, then you match the sound to the lyrics. You do all the writing now?
ALLEY: Lyrics, yes—and vocal melodies. For some of the music, Benjamin does the whole thing, and he produces.
stated: Regarding your voice, when you started singing, were you self conscious? Did you believe it when people started saying that it sounded beautiful?
ALLEY: I didn’t really grow up in the kind of house where music could be a career that could be good for you. You know what I mean? It didn’t ever occur to me to do it for a living. I had NO idea how it sounded. You know, I didn’t ever think about it. I didn’t think about wether it was good or bad, it was just a way to get lyrics out. It’s just really hard for me to hear it. It’s hard for me to hear what it sounds like, without MY idea of what it sounds like. It’s still wild to me, it’s hard for me to accept it, to know that it’s good. It’s just that I don’t think about it.
stated: It’s probably best not to, and I’m *making* you think about it.
stated: Oh wow. Well, no…you don’t.
ALLEY: But that’s what I’m saying! I always see it through a different lens when I’m singing. I have no idea. I just see someone else there. Maybe Grace Jones. I don’t know. Hahaha. I go through all those different pictures in my head, so yeah, it’s really hard for me to hear it. If that makes any sense at all.
ALLEY: Oh yeah, we’ve been friends for years. Actually, since I moved to New York. It’s weird because in NY all the bands used to go out to the same spots before they were successful or anything like that. We all went to the same places. Because they were the places that played what we like. Yeah, I’ve know Interpol forever.
stated: Would you guys check out DJ music or live bands in the city?
ALLEY: Both. But what I’m talking about mainly is there were a lot of great DJ nights in the early 2000’s in NY. Really, really great scene. Did you ever go to Spa on Wednesdays? They were just friends that were DJ’s.
stated: Congratulations on the success of the tour and thanks so much for making the time to speak with us. We are big fans of you and Benjamin.
ALLEY: No man, this was cool. Thank you!