Alle Norton is trying to explain her interest in 1980s pop music. She was born in 1990, so the decade isn't hers.
“I don't know where that came from,” she says. “Probably my dad.”
When Norton was young, she remembers him listening to Queen and The Bangles. That “musical energy” impacted her heavily. As Cellars, she makes big, synth-driven pop songs that could have fit between Duran Duran and Berlin on a radio set list if they were made 30 years ago. But they weren't, so today Norton enlists friends to fill out her onstage line-up.
Right now, members of the local bands Panthar and Popheart back her. They're working on a cover of “99 Luftballoons.” Yes, it will be sung in German. “It's an undertaking,” she says.
Norton exerts complete control over the Cellars sound. On her latest album, Lovesick, the 24-year-old handles everything, from songwriting to playing and recording every instrument to mastering the collection. She works out of her North Hollywood home, making songs that are sometimes inspired by her love of science-fiction novels, but are more likely influenced by love and relationships. “I've always been obsessed with love,” she says.
While sipping an iced coffee inside a Hollywood Starbucks, long, dark bangs grazing her eyes, Norton talks about the diary that she got for Christmas when she was only five. She wrote in it a few times a year as she grew up. “Every entry was about a guy or about wanting to find somebody to be in love with,” she says.
A couple years ago, the diary was stolen from the trunk of her car while she was visiting San Francisco. “It was devastating,” she says. “My whole life was in that book.”
In a way, Cellars, which Norton started in fall of 2013, has taken the place of the diary. She doesn't write lyrics until she has the music down, but the stories that unfold are deeply personal. “A Little Bit Less,” the album's earworm, deals with the death of a close friend, who was struck by a car in Glendale last year. The song was written for her friend's boyfriend as an expression of Norton's sympathy.
Norton grew up moving from state to state, as her engineer father's job transferred to different cities. By her teenage years, the family had settled in Houston, where Norton would grab her guitar and play “folkie stuff” inside coffee houses.
She moved to Austin after high school and spent two years studying film at University of Texas before deciding that her heart was in music. Ultimately, Norton got a degree in sound engineering from Austin Community College and landed a gig as a house engineer for a now-defunct venue in the music town.
“That's my favorite thing to do,” says Norton of mixing for musicians. “It's like [being] a fifth or sixth member of the band.”
Once in a while, Norton volunteers as a sound engineer at Pehrspace, but she's more focused on writing and performing these days. As she made the shift from working behind the scenes to playing on stage, she noticed the gender biases that exist in these two distinct, but intertwined worlds. In the booth, she was called a “sound hottie” and says that sexual harassment was part of her experience. People would also ask if she knew what she was doing, “as if I wasn't supposed to be back there or something,” Norton stresses. “If I were a dude with a beard or a flannel shirt and the same age, you wouldn't be asking me that question.”
As a performer, Norton says she doesn't get the same level of rudeness. “People are generally pretty supportive of women as musicians,” she says, adding the caveat. “I think sometimes people think that I'm just the singer and I'm just playing synth and there's some guy in the background who is making all the music.”
Perhaps that has affected Norton's approach to music. She's admittedly camera-shy and is still getting used to the fact that her face is on the cover of Lovesick. “I don't want it to be like I'm trying to sell my image,” she says. “I want it to be more about the music and not me.”
Since moving to Los Angeles two years ago, Norton has met a lot of people who are as good at selling themselves as they are at making music. “I wish I could do that,” she says, “but, I felt like, if I did, it wouldn't be me.”
Lovestruck is out Feb. 10 on Records Ad Nauseam.