If you take the subway or have a TV, you’ve likely seen Andy Allo. Her face shows up frequently on train ads, and her Wells Fargo commercial had such a refreshing take on an upstart musician’s journey that the viral video was featured on Entertainment Weekly. Allo is a singer-songwriter and guitarist, a model, and an actress. But perhaps her most rarefied accomplishment so far is as a protege of Prince: Allo joined The Purple One’s New Power Generation in 2011 and he executive-produced her 2012 solo album, Superconductor,which contained elements of his musical DNA — from the ambitious horn arrangements to the overall sensual mood and soulful, funky sound.
Now, with her recently-released five-song EP, Hello, the Cameroon-born singer is reintroducing herself with rock-influenced songs full of radio-friendly pop hooks — such as the buoyant single “Tongue Tied” which feels tailored to Allo’s airy vocals, and tinged with just the right amount of grit. Allo, like her songs, oozes with joy and resilience. She takes on the challenge of an independent artist but doesn’t sacrifice the fun.
In a conversation with Soundcheck, Allo reflects on her formative years in Cameroon and later, in California, her wish-list of collaborators (Springsteen! Pharrell!), and, of course, her ever expanding sonic palette. She also demonstrates her infectious laugh and trickster humor — she once fooled an entire Billboard film crew to sing a made up “Cameroonian” song.
Imade Nibokun: Your new record has sounds that feel familiar, like home.
Andy Allo: I grew up listening to a lot of music growing up in Cameroon. African artists, and, from my mom’s side, American culture. I listened to every single artist you can think of. I loved pop and rock music. It’s just been so much fun exploring that and challenging myself to create some new music.
IN: What was it like growing up in Cameroon? Can you explain a comment you made about fishing every day and having a fish song? Sometimes you never know when people have stories from Africa, like I rode on a pink elephant every day for school…
AA: Me and some lions, we were just kicking it! [laughs] Didn’t everybody have that? Yeah, I rode a zebra to school, it was nothing. Called my zebra Jim. [laughs]
IN: Can I get a behind the scenes of what it was like in Cameroon for the first 13 years of your life?
AA: The biggest thing growing up is community. Family is of the utmost importance. You’re really taught to appreciate culture and respect your elders! And really take care of your family first and foremost. My family is very musical. My mom plays piano and my dad writes poetry and sings. So I was surrounded by music and art since I was a baby.
IN: You moved to Sacramento when you were 13, how was that transition?
AA: Culturally it was interesting because of even little things, like how the date is written, or how certain words were pronounced. I had my African accent. I learned the American accent when I moved here because I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be like everybody else and feel like I belonged.
IN: What was the racial dynamic of your Sacramento neighborhood?
AA: It was pretty diverse, it was Latino, African-American, and white.
IN: What culture did you want to be a part of?
AA: It’s interesting being mixed, I didn’t really know where I belong. I wasn’t black enough to be African-American and I wasn’t white enough.
IN: When was that?
AA: That was like, 2000, 2001.
IN: That was a tough time. You had to wear expensive brand names back then. The white kids were supposed to dress in Abercrombie & Fitch and the black kids were supposed to wear FUBU, Enyce…
AA: And Apple Bottoms! [laughs]
IN: So you lost your African accent by doing what?
AA: I would watch Seinfeld; I was watching Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Going to school every day and being surrounded by [an American accent], I don’t think it was a conscious thing, I was just surrounded by it all the time and I ended up assimilating in the culture and imitating what I heard.
IN: Did you connect with a group of kids?
AA: I did make friends. It was interesting because they’re fascinated by where you’re from, it’s someplace different. But I was also fascinated about American culture and wanted to know more about it.
IN: Did your childhood travels teach you the skills of being able to move between different worlds?
AA: It was a great skill to be able to move like water and to be able to flow into different things. I was able to flow into different areas of the industry. Secondly, since I was a kid I’ve loved entertaining. It was natural. Being on stage, being in front of people is like a second home. A family friend recently told me when I was 7 I said that I was going to be a rock star and perform in front of thousands of people. I always knew this is what I wanted to do. I loved singing, I love acting, I love dancing. Any medium that allows me to connect with people, it comes naturally to me and I love it.
IN: What did you learn from working with Prince that you could not learn anywhere else?
AA: He’s so incredibly talented and creative. Being around someone that is so knowledgeable and being under his mentorship, I learned about artistic integrity and staying true to myself and taking the time to know “What do I want to sound like? What do I want to be?” I learned it’s okay to experiment and try things. And that’s what I feel I’ve done with Hello. It was bootcamp. [laughs] It was a challenge. It honed me as an artist to take my craft seriously.
IN: So you go from this huge big band sound to singing pop and rock about staying at home and watching TV shows. What caused that transition?
AA: Because that’s what I do! [laughs] To me, that’s what my life is like. All the songs I write are very personal. The songs that are on the EP are my experiences. I feel like I re-connected with my inner child. I feel like a kid. I’m very kid-like, doing pranks and doing jokes. It’s always been apart of my personality — and now I want to share that with people.