For Aluna Francis, lead singer of AlunaGeorge, the British electronic duo’s recent crossover success is of epic — even religious — proportions. “It feels like Moses has parted a river and I’m standing on one side of it, like, ‘No way!’ ” says the 28-year-old, sitting cross-legged and barefoot in a warehouse studio on the east side of Los Angeles. “I’m worried that the water is going to fall back over me and I’m going to drown. It’s weird.”
“Weird” is a word that Francis frequently taps to describe her world — perhaps fitting for someone who in 2015 had a 2-year-old DJ Snake remix of her band’s 4-year-old song “You Know You Like It” become her breakout single and one of the most unlikely hits of the year (peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100). The track’s late-bloomer success is framing Francis and her producer-bandmate George Reid, 28, for bigger pop stardom in the new year. But she insists that they have a lot of work to do.
“No, I don’t think we’ve crossed over — we have to bring a lot more music,” says Francis while fiddling with a hair clip. “We’re not trying to be a one-hit wonder. We’re not here to disappear.”
Francis reveals to Billboard that she and Reid (who’s retreating to more of a behind-the-scenes role) are putting the finishing touches on an untitled sophomore album due this spring. The LP includes production from EDM stars Flume and Zhu, whose previous collaboration with Francis, “Automatic,” is still hovering at No. 27 on the Jan. 16 Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart. There are also guest vocals from, among others, rising dancehall star Popcaan, who’s featured on lead single “I’m in Control,” which will be released Jan. 22.
Interscope, the group’s label home, is betting on AlunaGeorge to be the next Disclosure, an obvious comparison prompted by Francis’ star turn on the British garage revivalists’ 2013 single “White Noise.” And in many ways, the success of Disclosure and other EDM-pop stars one would find on the same Spotify playlist (Diplo, Skrillex, Zhu, Flume) creates a context where AlunaGeorge’s crossover makes sense. So it’s no surprise the aforementioned names all have recruited Francis to sing on their tracks. “When we first came out, we didn’t fit into a genre,” she says. “But I guess we do now. I turned to George recently, like, ‘Dude, we can still do what we want to do, because other people like it now!’ ”
Francis’ outsider sensibilities trace back to her childhood in rural Hertfordshire, England. The daughter of an Indian yoga teacher and a Jamaican photographer, she describes her alienated early years as the only person of color at her school with her favorite word: “I never understood why I felt so… weird. When I moved to London I realized, ‘Oh, I’m not weird — I’m just black and an artist!’ ”
About eight years ago, Francis flunked out of art school and settled full-time in London to make music, squatting in an abandoned building. She cycled through a series of bands and low-paying jobs, including a stint as a foot masseuse — reflexologist, which she liked because “it didn’t make me feel dead inside,” she says. “People always went away feeling better.”
During the waning days of MySpace, Francis linked up with Reid, who was then making beats in his bedroom, and things finally clicked. The idea was to pair spacey, off-kilter electro production with traditional pop song structure to create futuristic R&B, like a modern-day Aaliyah and Timbaland. Early critical success came after the duo signed to Tri Angle, the British indie best known for avant-garde electronic producers How to Dress Well and Clams Casino. Shortly after “White Noise” broke in the United Kingdom, AlunaGeorge released its debut album, Body Music, on Island in 2013 and snared two top 40 U.K. hits with the original “You Know You Like It” and “Attracting Flies.” But the act didn’t find U.S. chart success until the producer of “Turn Down for What” came calling.
“They’ve got their own sound, and they’re in no rush to duplicate whatever else is out there,” DJ Snake says of AlunaGeorge. “I instantly fell in love with [Francis’] style and delivery.”
It’s easy to see why he was so impressed: Francis has the lithe 5-foot-11 frame and high-set cheekbones of a runway model (she was a guest at several high-profile London and Paris fashion shows in 2015), while her voice and stage presence are filled with London street swagger and the blunt confidence of a budding diva. “I’m brutally honest — to my detriment sometimes,” says Francis with a shrug. On “White Noise,” she sings about striking back at a hurtful lover; the battle-of-the-sexes new single “I’m in Control” demands intellectual prowess from prospective suitors. “You have to challenge [men]: It’s like, ‘Beat me at chess’ — that’s sexy to me,” says the currently single Francis. As a woman, “being in control, being the boss, doesn’t always have to be, ‘What a bitch. She’s so angry.’ ”
AlunaGeorge’s new album will have less of an emphasis on the electronic sounds that anchored Body Music. “I wanted to bring back more live instrumentation,” says Reid over the phone. “You can get lost in a world in a synths.” The direction is apparent in the swooning Philadelphia soul-infused ballad “Mediator,” or “In My Head,” a burbling, minimalist dancefloor burner with what Reid calls “50 Cent strings.” “The first record was a good blue-print,” he says, “but I wanted to move on a little bit.”
After having a 4-year-old song become ubiquitous, Francis is excited to unveil the band’s evolution. “2016 is two years too late!” she says of the album’s release, which will come just days before AlunaGeorge performs at Coachella. “I’ve been ready for so long to get new music out. These are songs you need to hear when you feel like crap and have to get yourself together. I hope some of them can become anthems to people’s daily lives.”
Still, she seems slightly skeptical that music that started out so left-field could ever wind up firmly in the mainstream. “We had this unplaceable sound — glitchy beats with pop songs over them,” says Francis. “They’re just weird. What do you do with that?”
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of Billboard.