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Alanna Royale bares soul on ‘Trouble Is’

Samantha Hearn

Trouble Is, the latest release from Nashville-based singer-songwriter Alanna Royale, had something of a difficult birth.

“I cannot stress to you enough [that] the process of writing this record, recording it, and then getting it out has [taken] so long,” she says.

Some of the material dates back to 2016 but the process of recording the songs began at the end of 2019. She traveled to producer Kelly Finnigan’s (Monophonics) studio and spent a week tracking before deciding to scrap the results.

The combination of players didn’t feel right and required her to open up her circle of collaborators. She returned to the studio in early 2020, more confident in the performances and players. Then COVID hit and the plans Royale had for a major tour and for finishing the record were placed on hold.

At least temporarily.

Determined to finish the LP, she drove from Nashville to San Francisco and returned to work. “I went through the whole pandemic finishing this record in pieces, tracking one last little vocal here, tracking strings across the room from people who were all double masked and trying not touch each other,” she notes.

But that proved to be just one complication in getting the record out into the world.

By 2022, the music industry was in a different place than it had been in 2019. Key players from labels had moved on. Others, with slightly different tastes and approaches, had replaced them and there was also the nagging uncertainty about how to release and support material at a time when people were still recovering from the overall shock of COVID.

Despite the long road to the record’s release, Royale says she never doubted that it would see the light of day. “Everything was so hard,” she says, “but at the base of all this turmoil I knew I had a collection of songs that were really good. I knew it was my best, most-developed, most mature work. I knew that I had turned a corner as an artist. And, no matter what, these songs were going to see the light of day.”

She credits Finnigan as a significant supporter during the making of the record. She’d been a deep fan of his band Monophonics. She’d opened for that band and reached out to Finnigan via social media to see if he’d be interested in a collaboration. He told her that he’d be happy to work with her.

“In the beginning of our relationship, Kelly was one of my idols,” she says. “He’s gone from being someone I really put on a pedestal to being a mentor to being like family. Having this person I believe is so talented show up for me every day and be, like, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this thing,’ validated me and propped me up to believe in myself to just go for it.” She adds, “I said, ‘I just want to make a record that feels like me,’ and Kelly said, ‘So just do that.’”

That record is one that has classic soul and R&B influences as well as pop sensibilities while leaning into darker areas on the lyrical front. In addition to touching on addiction and a general sense of discomfort from recent times, there are themes of trauma and recovery.

“I wanted to make a song that you can play in a roller rink in summer and everyone can sing along and have fun and I also wanted to write a song about having [a] hallucinatory psychotic breakdown,” Royale says. “[Kelly said], ‘Dope, let’s do it.’”

The album convincingly finds the balance between those two points. Royale adds that the titular track was integral to finding the tone for the LP. “I don’t recall exactly when the phrase ‘Trouble is’ became the theme of the record,” she notes. There were a series of songs that seemed unconnected thematically but represented various elements of her life. Then, during a jam session with two other musicians, she began singing the lyrics to what would become “Trouble Is.”

“Once I started singing ‘Trouble is’ and started thinking about what it’s like to tell someone a story and use that phrase and have two separate ideas connected by the phrase ‘Trouble is,’ it just bowled me over,” she offers. “In that song, I say a lot of things that, when I hear it back now, I kind of go through a quick panic of shame and embarrassment because I said some things in that song that aren’t really necessarily parallel to my public persona but they’re very much who I am and I just needed to get it out. Sometimes I really hate myself and I’m full of self-loathing. Sometimes I can’t move on from something because it hurts so bad. Sometimes I wish that I was literally anyone else in the world. Other times, [I think], ‘I just want to be myself.’ How can you feel that way simultaneously?”

She adds, “But when I started singing that, all the other songs made sense. The journey is really about me getting a lot of things off of my chest about how I grew.”

There was one final addition to the record, a last-minute track that came just as Royale should have been packing up to return to Nashville. Her oldest brother called her to say that he was going to be a father. It would be the first child born to one of her siblings and the news came at a moment when there were a series of deaths in the family and during which her mother was battling cancer.

“I was such a dark time for me,” she says. “It felt like it was just never going to end.” But her brother’s news lifted her spirits. “It gave me something to look forward to, to be excited about and feel joy about.” That led to “Waiting, Waiting, Waiting (For Sully)” the record’s final track, dedicated to her nephew.

“The record ultimately ends on a high note,” Royale says. “There’s a newer generation coming in. There’s new people coming into your life. It doesn’t have to be dark all the time. You can do the hard work. You can survive the trauma, you can survive the blows. Then you can feel that love at the end of it all. That gives you that feeling [that] it’s all worth it.”

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.