There’s direct eye contact, and then there’s the way Alison Wonderland looks at you — her gaze penetrating so deeply from across the table that it seems as if she might actually be reading your mind.
“I can sense anyone’s energy straightaway,” she says, picking from a plate of food — salmon, boiled eggs, toast — that she has assembled from the side-dish section of the menu at a casually hip coffee shop in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District. “In two seconds, I know what someone is. I’ve always been like that, and I’ve always been right.”
This keen sense of instinct, and her devotion to it, have propelled Wonderland — the 32-year-old Australian electronic producer born Alexandra Sholler — to the top of the worldwide dance music scene. As her profile rose, industry types and other DJs told her to change her sound; not to sing on her tracks; that no one would understand her contemplative point of view. Instead, she trusted her gut, writing music blending digitally rendered beats, intensely personal lyrics and her own singing and cello playing. She’ll openly admit to a flurry of insecurities, but she believes completely in her musical vision.
“You can make a plan for something, but if it doesn’t feel right to her — if the gut feels wrong — she doesn’t want to do it,” says Wonderland’s best friend and manager, Garth Crane, 37.
This conviction has served her well. In 2018, Wonderland became the highest-billed female producer ever at Coachella. (During the performance she sang live, played the cello and brought out Trippie Redd.) She has racked up 144.3 million U.S. streams in her career, according to Nielsen Music, and her two albums, 2015’s Run and last year’s Awake, both hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart. Her upcoming show at Red Rocks in Colorado sold out in five minutes, only days after Wonderland begged her agent to cancel it, fearing no one would come.
“I never feel good enough,” she says. “[As a kid] I was very heavily bullied, to the point where I had to move schools. I wasn’t in the best relationships. I didn’t really fit in. I never felt pretty enough. I was never kissed, or the girl that anyone wanted. I didn’t really have friends. I had my music.”
Starting as a classically trained cellist, through her time as a bassist in punk and indie rock bands, up to her current success as a DJ and producer, Wonderland always saw music less as a job than as a survival mechanism. “The only relationship I can ever keep in my fucking life is music,” she says. “It’s literally the only thing I’m good at.”
Despite her singular accomplishments, Wonderland is palpably vulnerable — a bundle of nerves with purple hair who tears up frequently in conversation and wishes out loud that she were more confident and less depressed. She has a sense of humor about it, telling me how she almost passed out when she met her hero James Murphy, and laughing while showing me a video of her crying at a Lana Del Rey concert. But her willingness to acknowledge her insecurities is also a key to her appeal.
“You could always just tell that every time she played, she connected with people,” says Crane. “I’ve seen it work in Japan, and I’ve seen it work in South America, even when they don’t understand what she’s saying.”
She brings that same raw honesty to Twitter (“Too scared to close my eyes cos I keep having nightmares”), which, she says, has helped her become a more direct lyricist. Still, says Wonderland, “Social media doesn’t help mental health. It’s like, the worst thing ever, because it’s everybody’s highlight reel.” Online and in her music, Wonderland is unflinchingly honest about her own mental health struggles. (“Walked into the bathroom just so I could cry/Wish I knew why,” she sings on “Easy.”) She pulls back the sleeve of her hoodie to reveal a silver watch — the one expensive thing she has bought herself since hitting it big. She wears it in an effort to look at her phone less.
The relentless schedule of a dance artist also weighs on Wonderland. “It’s so intense on the road,” she says. “You’re playing to tens of thousands of people for an hour and everyone’s with you. There’s this kinetic energy I can’t explain. Then I get offstage, and I’m in a fucking room alone, and there’s silence, and none of my loved ones are there. No one is giving me a hug. It’s two extremes, and that is not good for humans. It’s something I feel has almost killed me a few times, for real.” (Wonderland has long been candid about her suicide attempt in the wake of an emotionally abusive relationship.)
But that intensity also drives Wonderland’s prodigious creativity. She only does collaborations in person, with people she vibes with, often after having long conversations about their lives. “Honestly, being a female behind the producing desk kind of brings something out of males,” she says, recalling a session with Chief Keef that kicked off with her hugging him and confessing how nervous she was for them to work together. That session was supposed to last 30 minutes; it turned into five hours.
And therein lies the core of Wonderland’s success: Whether she’s in the studio with a star, playing to tens of thousands of fans, or alone with her pen and struggling to keep it together, she doesn’t know how to give less than everything. “Maybe the best and the worst thing about me,” she says, “is that I can’t hide how I feel.”
Changing the Equation: “I’ve had to work probably three or four times as hard to get legitimacy compared to other artists, and I think my gender had something to do with it.”
This article originally appeared in the March 30 issue of Billboard.