Meet St. Beauty, the black girl magic duo gracing Issa Rae's "Insecure"
Alex and Isis form the Janelle Monáe-backed group whose songs “Borders” and Holographic Lover” were handpicked for the HBO show’s soundtrack.
The hit HBO show Insecure is beloved as much for its storylines and characters as its weekly eight-song playlists, an incisive curation of soulful, funky records with an emphasis on new artists. Considering Solange and Raphael Saadiq are among the music consultants, it’s a given their selections would be fire. Alex Belle and Isis Valentino, the duo known as St. Beauty, made the cut twice. Their song “Borders” closed out Episode 5, and “Holographic Lover” laced a scene in Episode 6.
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REVOLT spoke with the Atlanta-based artists, who belong to Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland collective, to learn about their beginnings, deriving their name from Stevie Wonder, and…confetti.
How did your music come to be picked for two episodes in Insecure?
Alex: We met Issa several times before, but we actually sent our EP to her team and they really loved our music and they ended up choosing two songs that we had on our EP. We were already familiar with her and she already knew some people at Wondaland, so yeah, we just ended up sending our project and she loved it.
Isis: We didn’t even know where the song would be placed, so as the show kept going I was like, OK where’s the song? And then to see that it came right at the end and it was there for a long time… That was our first experience having a song on TV; it was a good moment. And then this week, still it was surreal, not knowing where the song was gonna be placed and then seeing it in the story. It was really cool, very grateful for that.
Did you feel like the songs really captured what the scenes were trying to convey?
Isis: I definitely think it went really well with that episode. Just going to how Issa and her boyfriend are tryna make things work or how Issa’s trying to make things work with him without telling him the real situation, her realizing that she loves him.
Alex: That’s what embodies the song, love in general, it’s just about the feeling of love. You can’t really explain it but you know how it makes you feel. You know? That’s pretty much what the song is about, is the feeling of love and embracing it.
How did you catch Janelle Monáe’s attention and link up with Wondaland?
Alex: We started performing in a basement at the place we worked at, it was a vintage boutique called Poor Little Rich Girl, and we performed there almost like every month. Isis had a few friends who were in Wondaland already and she invited them out to the show, and gradually more and moe people started to come and then eventually Janelle came… She really loved what we were doing and she wanted us to be a part of Wondaland, and the team.
From meeting as coworkers and finding a connection as writers and musicians, what made you think, Hey, we should take this seriously?
Isis: It was just interesting because my first time performing in front of people was with Alex, and it was just really cool to see the response that people had. It just felt like a magical moment, and I think we both had that moment. We paused and looked at each other like, Wait that’s kinda dope. I feel like this could be special; no one is like us. We should totally do something about this. And we just kept working hard, kept working together and like thank god we are where we are now. It’s just due to the like the hard work we put in and the people around us.
It’s so hard to be a new artist today. What do you think helped you to stand out?
Alex: We have some ride-or-die fans. We’ve been taking a long time to release but people have been really patient with us and really supportive, and I think it’s because of us performing. We performed a lot in the beginning stages of St. Beauty. Being on tour especially is where we gained most of our fans.
Isis: Also I guess our style is different too, so being on social media definitely helped, too. There’s this whole black girl magic thing happening so people could go, Oh wow they look like me and they’re doing something positive. So I think all of those things helped.
How did you come up with the name St. Beauty?
Isis: Before Alex and I got together as St. Beauty, I was very into Stevie Wonder for a whole summer, like I was obsessed. And there was a song called “Bird of Beauty” that I would listen to religiously, and one day I wrote a song called “St. Beauty” that was a slight knockoff of that song. When I sat back and listened to it I was like, wait… (laughs) But we were looking for names and I was like, Hey I wrote this song called “St. Beauty,” l feel like it really encompasses the femininity, but it’s not too feminine, but then it also kind of sounds like our music that we were making. I don’t know, it just fit.
But Alex didn’t like it at first! We had to go to on Twitter and ask people, so once we found out the majority liked St. Beauty, we used it, and I’m glad we did. It means “pure beauty,” and it has great meaning.
How would you describe your sound, if you had to categorize it?
Isis: We came up with “confetti.” It’s really hard to put it in words because each song — not that it sounds really different — but like, we’re really into emotions and telling stories, and we feel like with confetti it’s so many colors and so many life cycles of confetti where it’s like when it first comes out there’s just excitement that could represent upbeat or uptempo songs, or — it’s really hard to explain. I know Alex was at a show one time and somebody said it reminds them —
Alex: Of floating through space underwater… I don’t like to put things to in a box, and that’s the good thing about art; you don’t really have to explain it.
How do you block out external pressures or influences and maintain your individuality?
Alex: I think one of the most important things as artists is to not listen too much to other people’s music because you can start to be influenced by their sound. I think it’s important to listen to older music. Even if you do listen to people of today always have a mixture of older music. For example, I love listening to Nina Simone. I bought some records recently from The Supremes, Fela Kuit, old music, but at the same time I still love listening to Frank Ocean and Solange. Just try not to be too influenced by the music of today.
Isis: That’s another thing that I love about Wondaland — everyone really encourages everyone to be themselves and not be the normal. I think that’s one of the reasons why the people that are on Wondaland are on Wondaland, because we are such individuals that it was kind of like, Oh wow, I’ve never seen this before. That’s what we want to be: something no one’s ever seen before.
How does being from Atlanta influence your sound?
Alex: Atlanta’s always been a really dope hub for music, from Outkast to Monica and TLC. There’s like something in the water. I think of Atlanta as a hub where people can find themselves. They don’t have the pressure of being a certain way. In LA it’s like, you gotta be like this, or even in New York, you gotta have a certain kind of attitude. People here allow you to be who you are and you can find yourself in a different way without the really heavy influences.
Also, our family’s here, our true friends are here, so the experiences that we have or we see our friends have we write about it and it’s real. So I think that’s another thing: It’s just real, there’s no faking it or trying to fit in in any kind of way.
And what do you want people who might be unfamiliar with you to know about St. Beauty?
Alex: We’re two dope, black females from Atlanta who want to make a difference. We’re here to heal and inspire, just give us a chance.
Isis: And when you listen to our music you can trust us with your emotions. Let go. Just let go!