Column 164: Alessi goodbye; Richard Thompson tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 5:47 pm March 13, 2008

A few more notes about Alessi before I turn you loose on the column… In addition to talking about music, we spent a lot of time discussing her favorite restaurants. Among them, Taqueria La Esmeralda on 32nd and Q. “I get the chicken quesadilla, a large cup of horchata soup, and maybe some guacamole.” Then there’s Bangkok Cuisine at 19th and Farnam. “I order the Tom Kah soup (spice level 5) with tofu, and as main, the Pad Thai (spice level 8).” She also mentioned Dixie Quicks, Nettie’s, Jams and the Dundee Dell (where she orders the fried pickles). She said Indian restaurants are to London what Mexican restaurants are to Omaha — they’re everwhere.

We talked about her many physical mishaps. Alessi considers herself clumsy and points to the time she tumbled down the stairs leading to the main floor at Slowdown. “I sprained my ankle and it swelled up and had I show the next night and had to play on crutches.” No word of any pending litigation. Then there’s the time her tongue became swollen for no apparent reason. “I couldn’t stop breathing. I’d been with Jake (Bellows) and Mike (Mogis) came in and didn’t know what to do and called an ambulance and we went to hospital and Jake was there quite a long time.” She said the doctors think her muscles had contracted, but didn’t know why. She talked about doing a show — and now a split single — with Thunder Power!!! “I think they’re quite fantastic, they’re really funny people, and all a bit clumsy so that really works.”

In short, Alessi is lovable. In a remarkably short time, she managed to work her way into the hearts of just about every person involved with the local indie music scene. Everyone knows Alessi. Everyone loves Alessi. And what’s not to love? I have no doubt that she’s going to be a great big star. I just hope that after she makes it big in the U.K., that she remembers all of the people she met in this patch of dirt in the middle of the U.S. She is, afterall, only 17, and Omaha may only have been just another summer crush.

Column 164: British Bird’s Other Nest
Alessi makes Omaha her second home.

This is the story of a girl named Alessi, a stranger from a strange land called London cast away in a distant world called Omaha to be embraced by natives carrying guitars and glockenspiel. She quickly learned the language, thanks to tribe leader Mike Mogis. And now, after spending only a few months here eating Tom Kha soup and quesadillas, shopping at the temple of Target and hanging out with fried-chicken eating musicians, she’s gone. Back to London. Leaving behind her extended family to pursue a career fueled by global music powerhouse EMI Records, fondly remembering time spent with new friends that she won’t see again for a long, long time.

Alessi Laurent-Marke is a 17-year-old singer songwriter. When I saw her on stage at The Waiting Room and was told her age, I didn’t believe it. From my vantage point propped against the bar in the back of the room, Alessi (who is, in fact, named after the famous line of kitchenware products) looked and sounded much older, playing songs that seemed too world weary for her 17 years. Her voice had a shy, warm, breathy tone, saturated in an odd accent that reminded me of Bjork. Standing stone still in a long, hippie dress, her thick bangs stopping just before her eyes, I thought that she could be Britain’s answer to Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, but without Chan’s hang-ups. Alessi was too young to have hang-ups yet.

A few days later, she sat across from me in the front booth at The Waiting Room on a Sunday afternoon. The place was empty except for owner Jim Johnson toting around a ladder, and bartender Matt Bowen working a crossword on his Nintendo DS. The folks from Tilly and the Wall were busy loading out equipment from the previous night’s show, and as they noticed Alessi, they came over and hugged her, asking when she was going back.

“The combination of humility and talent make my knees buckle,” she said, draped in an electric-green wool overcoat. “People here are oh so gentle. I’m not saying that London isn’t welcoming, it just moves a helluva lot faster.”

Alessi only began singing a couple years ago, when she was 15. Living in a neighborhood halfway between Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush, she was as an outsider in school. “I felt I had to change a bit to make friends, which made me sad,” she said. “I stopped trying at age 15.”

After completing her compulsory exams, Alessi’s parents allowed her to quit school, but on the condition that it only be for a year. After being encouraged to find her voice by musician Johnathan Rice, she started playing shows, including a residency at the 12 Bar Club on Denmark St. She recorded a few songs with friends and placed them on a Myspace page. “Mostly Americans wrote me messages asking when I was going to come over,” she said. “It was quite astounding that people showed interest.”

Then in December 2006, Alessi played a show at a Soho club. In the audience were reps from Heavenly Records, a subsidiary of EMI whose roster includes Ed Harcourt, Cherry Ghost and Magic Numbers. Also in the crowd was the head of EMI. He liked the music and showed interest in signing Alessi. It took awhile, but eventually she signed on the day before her 17th birthday. “I was really cautious,” she said. “I feel like you have to compromise quite a bit, but in order to really share your ideas and songs, you need a vehicle, and this will come in handy.”

The folks at EMI asked if there were any producers that she wanted to work with. “All my favorite most recent music had something to do with Mike Mogis,” she said, specifically referencing Rilo Kiley’s The Execution of All Things. “I remember listening to it and thinking ‘This is modern music. This is magic.”

She showed up at Mogis’ ARC Studios in early September, living in the adjacent guesthouse and immediately bonding with the Mogis family. Before long, she also became friends with studio engineer Ian Aeillo and the cast of characters in the Saddle Creek world. “Jake (Bellows) turned up one day with a bucket of chicken and I liked him immediately.”

Bellows and Maria Taylor are among the guests who contributed to Notes from The Treehouse, which will be released on Zooey EMI (Alessi’s own label) in Europe in July. She still doesn’t know who will release it stateside. That’ll be decided after she returns to London.

Some of her fondest memories of Omaha are based on food — the Mexican and Thai restaurants (There are no Mexican restaurants in London), and shopping at “the temple of Target” with her mom (“Every Target smells like popcorn, and that can’t be a bad thing.”). But mostly she’ll miss her friends. “Sometimes I get tearful about it because I didn’t really have friends in school,” she said. “I hate to leave everybody here. They have such good hearts.”

But she’ll be back. She wants to tour the U.S., and even asked Bellows and Dan McCarthy to come along. And maybe someday, she might even live in our little creative universe.

“I’d really like to move here,” Alessi said. “The dream is to buy a very small little house and anyone could stay there when I’m not in town. I would sleep better if I knew there was a little nest for me in Omaha.”

* * *

Tonight at The Scottish Rite Hall, Richard Thompson. No idea who — of if anyone — is opening this 8 p.m. show. Tickets are $25. I haven’t seen Thompson in 14 years, not since he played at Liberty Hall in Lawrence around 1994. That was a terrific show; this one will be, too.

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