Perhaps one of the most recognizable (and accidentally triggered) voices in America, Amazon’s Alexa sounds like an A.I. With its broken phrasing, eerie calm, and uncanny approximation of gentle consumerism, Alexa can be heard in households from sea to shining sea, ordering toilet paper, agreeing to play the new Maroon 5, and laughing at inappropriate times.
Given how tech-forward Amazon’s business model has become, moving from the world’s largest book retailer to one of the world’s great purveyors of labor abuses, it would be fair to assume that Alexa isn’t a real person. Many probably believe it is an ethereal, amorphous digital specter that haunts every house with an Alexa unit by responding to people on TV that happen to utter its name. But, according to Brad Stone, author of the upcoming Amazon Unbound, Alexa’s voice is performed by a flesh and blood voice-over artist.
In an excerpt from the book posted on Wired today, Stone names Nina Rolle, a Colorado-based voiceover artist, as the woman behind billions of purchases and, aforementioned, horrific, unsettling laughs. Of course, neither Rolle nor Amazon confirmed Stone’s reporting, but they haven’t denied it either.
Stone’s research, which he based on speaking to members of the Boulder, Colorado voice-over community, lays out the process of selecting Alexa in the excerpt. He writes:
Believing that the selection of the right voice for Alexa was critical, [then-Amazon exec Greg] Hart and colleagues spent months reviewing the recordings of various candidates that GM Voices produced for the project, and presented the top picks to Bezos. The Amazon team ranked the best ones, asked for additional samples, and finally made a choice. Bezos signed off on it. Characteristically secretive, Amazon has never revealed the name of the voice artist behind Alexa. I learned her identity after canvasing the professional voice-over community: Boulder, Colorado–based voice actress and singer Nina Rolle. Her professional website contains links to old radio ads for products such as Mott’s Apple Juice and the Volkswagen Passat—and the warm timbre of Alexa’s voice is unmistakable. Rolle said she wasn’t allowed to talk to me when I reached her on the phone in February 2021. When I asked Amazon to speak with her, they declined.
Writing for the Verge, James Vincent makes a compelling case for Rolle’s, uh, role in Alexa. Vincent offers two performances by Rolle that sound pretty close to the world-famous personal shopper A.I.:
Listen to the videos below: the first an advertisement for Cherry Creek North, “Denver’s premier outdoor retail destination,” and the second an introduction to Hapyn, a social app that seems to now be defunct (its Play Store entry was last updated in 2017). You can absolutely hear Alexa’s reassuring tones in Rolle’s voice. Or, to be more precise, you can absolutely hear where Alexa’s reassuring tones come from when listening to Rolle.
If Rolle does turn out to be Alexa, it will be the long-awaited sequel to the time voiceover artist Susan Bennett came forward as the voice of Siri in 2013. The money better be worth it (which it probably is) because recording these digital assistants sounds awful. Bennett didn’t seem to mind, though—mainly because it doesn’t seem like she knew she was being recorded for Siri.
“There are some people that just can read hour upon hour upon hour, and it’s not a problem,” Bennett told CNN. “For me, I get extremely bored. So I just take breaks. That’s one of the reasons why Siri might sometimes sound like she has a bit of an attitude. Those sounds might have been recorded the last 15 minutes of those four hours.”