Sultry R&B songbird Alesia Lani believes deeply in manifestation, as in the visualization and expressing of abstraction into reality. She also practices the fine art of proceeding onward as unbothered as humanly possible.
"I try to set goals and stay open," she said back in 2017. "I'm a Libra, y'know? I just go with the flow."
I first met Missouri-born and Austin-bred Alesia Buchanan at Cafe Java, a coffee-and-eggs spot corner-situated in a nondescript North Austin strip mall. She possessed glowing red tightly curled hair, with an unceasingly warm, high-wattage grin. Her soulful, effortless manner matched the earthy, sugar-dusted voice heard on Resilient, her then-just-released second sonically heterogeneous full-length.
The document, still her most recent, reflected a maturing woman charting her passage with stark honesty. Like Mary J. Blige or Jazmine Sullivan, she invited listeners into her universe, no matter rain or sunshine. Even her radiant smile requires bulb maintenance from time to time, and she'd like her fans to see it.
"It's the whole point of fans learning about you and watching you grow," Buchanan says today in hindsight of the album's diary approach. "It took me a long time because I was battling with myself. I wanted to give fans the real me, the things I go through.
"'Like "Fold' is really about an ex trying to get back in tune with me. 'You Changed' is really about alcoholism. I know other people can relate to temptation, relationship problems, and good stuff too. It's not all bad."
Fortunately, her husband Marcel Buchanan, an artist himself, maintains the necessary fortitude.
"You have to be mentally tough," he says. "I know that she might pull from an argument, and then that's something that might be out there. But it's honest. It's real."
In our initial meeting, Buchanan brought with her a good friend for safety and emotional support. The companion bordered hilariously on spilling, eager to fortify her confidant on responses slight on firm conviction. The vocalist held her own, at once shy yet accommodating and generous in her young life's discoveries. She needed no hand-holding, nor did she present any of the forced opaqueness plaguing artists.
Her mother, Marlena Hendrickson, says young Alesia, the "singer," was born in elementary school. After recuperating from a pedestrian accident, her daughter wanted to participate in a talent show. The Missouri native recalls the number being Mary J. Blige's 1998 single, the – a-hem – suggestive "Seven Days."
The performer that day remembers her choice as an equally interesting selection, Blige's "Your Child." The lyrics include: "How could you deny your own flesh and blood/ Your own child/ What kind of man are you?" Imagine a sentiment generally reserved for adults hammered home by a 10-year-old. This originates primarily out of Hendrickson's love of hip-hop and R&B. The singing, though, Buchanan "didn't get that from me, because I was very shy."
Young Alesia talked about singing for a living when she was in junior high. Ever the doting mother, Hendrickson suggested she finish school, get that degree. In the course, she took a job at Pappadeaux because of its old-school R&B playlist. She met and married Marcel, and they became parents.
She first sang on her husband's songs. By 2017, performing under rapper alias PeaCe, he then delivered on one of hers, with a compelling feature on "Alright," off Resilient. At that point, the album's creator verged on something revealed in vague terms.
Short the efforts of her resourceful manager Reno Dudley and keyboardist Jonathan "Jon Keyz" Deas, she's had no machine behind her. Not that she's in a hurry. She's gotten this far in just five years.
"She's a late bloomer," offers Deas.
That's impeded neither SXSW showcases, nor a recent residency at Rainey Street staple Geraldine's Austin. This fall Buchanan plays internationally for the first time, as part of the sixth season of Project ATX6. Her placement among six up-and-coming local artists will take her to Toronto's Indie Week Festival in November, and to the Great Escape Festival in Brighton, England, next spring.
Just in time, her captivating live show – led initially by Deas, who now directs Gary Clark Jr.'s band – has matured into a distinct, signature sound, continued under the guidance of drummer Chris Gadson. Both Deas and Gadson credit Buchanan's leap forward to her pliability and faith. Small ego deaths, her most exceptional quality, come naturally.
"She's still trusting, still open to suggestion or critique – even if that means we call an audible," says Gadson.
One such improvisation occurred during a recent studio session at the Recording Conservatory of Austin. Buchanan's co-conspirators huddled up in a small studio room wondering which track the allergy-suffering singer could lay vocals. Dudley is insistent a new single appears ahead of her ACL Fest date.
The talent's razor-sharp 8-year-old daughter, Lani, huffs at her mother, accusing her parent of failing to understand the definition of celebrity. After a brief, humorous back and forth, Lani explains to her mother about homework passes. Later, she runs around the complex, exploring, being mischievous. How is she processing all of this, the scope of it?
"She already says, 'Mommy's famous,'" laughs Alesia. "She said that. I was like, 'No, not yet.'"
Not yet, because right at this moment, there's an unfinished track, requiring dozens of takes, from lyrics and choruses to ad libs, all to be recorded by an extremely patient engineer. Assisted and coached by her team, Buchanan continually searches for the right tones, the right words, the right carriage.
"I'm always looking for more, setting goals for more," reflects Buchanan. "I'm always asking, 'Y'know, what more can we do?' Like, 'That was cute, that was great, but let's do something bigger.'"
For the sixth time, export nonprofit Project ATX6 will fly six Austin musicians abroad to represent the city at festivals in Canada and Europe. Buchanan, who'd only became aware of the endeavor upon hearing of her nomination, will be the nonprofit's first true-blue contemporary R&B participant. To think, this will be the singer's first tour of any kind.
"I feel honored to be [Austin's R&B export]," she affirms. "I get a lot of love from Germany and England. A lot of my listeners are out there. I just want to give them everything I've got, and hopefully, it'll be reciprocated."
Alesia Lani plays ACL Fest on Friday, Oct. 4, on the T-Mobile stage, 1:15pm. She'll be featured on KUTX: The Breaks Friday, Oct. 11, 2pm, at the Bonus Tracks Stage.
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