London-based Welsh singer Alekxandr recently made his North American debut in Toronto, performing at The Drake Underground on July 25 for the School Night concert series and on August 3 at Bar Cathedral, opening for local artist Holly Clausius. Read about his Bar Cathedral show here!
The morning after his performance at Bar Cathedral, I had the pleasure of speaking with Alekxandr to get more insight into his performance and his aspirations for the future. On a Zoom call, Alex sits with a cup of coffee and gushes over Lana Del Rey as we discuss what music we have been listening to lately. He admires how she’s maintained a distinct sound and style throughout her career. Alekxandr has been making music for a few years now and has worked with a number of creatives to achieve his own sound and look. I asked him about where he finds inspiration and his goals for the future.
Eunice: You use your music to channel emotions and reflect on your experiences. I read in an article that, in the beginning, you actually struggled with structure and getting down to actually producing music… I’m interested in knowing more about this early period, especially since I’m sure there are a lot of people who relate to struggling with structure and getting their emotions out in a cohesive way.
Alekxandr: I’ve always loved pop music but I was not conscious of how it worked… Like, my first release “s a l t c r y s t a l s”… It’s certainly not a tight pop song but, I suppose, that’s what my exploring sounds like because I was just trying to figure it out. And then I tried to learn more about what made these great catchy pop songs work. I’m super interested in the Max Martin side of things, like what are the mathematics of it. Not that I want to rigidly stick to that, but it’s great to know the rules to break them because I do think some of the most amazing music doesn’t pander to that at all, or it does odd things.
He goes on to tell me that he really started writing music when he was living with his friend Fionn, a musician, who was incredibly helpful and encouraging. Fionn helped Alex get his songs into a “digestible format” so listeners could take it in more easily.
E: Are they still a really strong source of support for you even at this point in your career?
A: Fionn and I, now that we don’t live together, are both quite anti-phone kind of people. We don’t keep in touch a lot, but when we see each other it’s great. He’s off doing a show now as a dancer… One of my best friends, Lydia, put me in touch with her boyfriend [Liam], who was always in bands in New Zealand. We made some of my first singles together, and we performed live together. And he’s incredible. Now he’s gone off to become a painter. I always check in with him, with songs and progress because sometimes he knows what I like more than I do! And he’s like, “Well, this doesn’t really sound like you. Do you really like this?” And I’m like, “No, I hate it!” Having that sounding board and someone to bounce things back and forward to is so so helpful. I really value that.
E: I love hearing about the community behind certain artists! Reinforcing how important it is to be around other creatives, getting other perspectives so you’re not [just] in your little box.
A: It’s so dependent on the people around you. The producer you’re working with, but also having people with good tastes that will be honest with you. That’s the biggest thing, having people that will be honest in a constructive way.
E: What are some things you’ve learned from your early influences, whether that be family or other music artists?
A: We didn’t have that many CDs but, I guess, Madonna. [The] Immaculate Collection was my first big pop influence in the house. I was obsessed with In Bed With Madonna, that film that followed her around on tour.
Alex mentions that when he’s trying to conjure up ambition and drive, he tries to summon the energy of 1985 Madonna, who appears to be hard and bulletproof. Beyoncé, as well. He strives towards strengthening one’s self-belief and determination.
E: When you’re performing your songs, are there any dominant emotions that usually come out? Like, are the feelings just as strong as when you wrote them?
A: It’s definitely more fun to play the hard pop songs because it’s more showy. The beat forces more of a reaction. But doing the sad, slower ones… Obviously, I’m past from making those and I was driven to make them at the time, trying to work out something that was going on in my life. So, I think, ideally, by doing it, it kind of takes me back into those feelings… And it felt right to do, actually, in a setting like last night, where people are sat down and maybe if I did this church show. Like, that feels right.
Alex indicates that delving deeper into the conventions of pop music had made him especially excited about his upcoming material since he’s able to write about pure, sad emotions without compromising pop’s fun, upbeat spirit.
A: The emotion and the difficult place it comes from is there but it sounds the opposite… The Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides Now” I feel like that encompasses everything I want to achieve in the future. Because I feel like life is always like that–it’s good and it’s bad, like yin and yang. I feel like you can’t [always] have a zingy, poppy happy song. It’s too much. I like the push and pull.
Before concluding his set with a new song called “Heartbreak on Antidepressants”, Alex told the audience that he wanted to create a pop song made from misery. “The theme is what it is, but the sound is medicated and popified and, you know, glittery,” he says. He’s “halfway up the mountain” to completing an album.
E: I wanted to go into your visuals because I thought they were really intriguing… How do you come up with your visuals and how integral is it to your overall creative process?
A: I see what the colours are for the song. I know how it looks because it literally came from my life, so I know how it felt. So, [with the music video for] “Sunflower”, missing someone in my bedroom and wanting to send this energy, I know it felt like a torrent of different emotional weathers inside… What if I’m at home, in my room, but inside the room it’s thunder and lightning, because that’s how it feels. How would that look visually? How do we do that with no money? It’s quite easy to come up with the ideas and then executing them is the tricky bit.
Alex explains that he found the director of photography for his “Sunflower” music video, Oscar Partridge, through a friend. Partridge has worked on big films but this security meant he was down to help Alex for free. Director Jane Moriarty, who is also a theatre director, helped round up a group of drama students to help with the production. Alex says he’s been very lucky to find people who are so eager to support an arts project like his music video. He also explains that the cover of his single, “Fireflies in Brooklyn”, was painted by a friend, Jamie, who’s an illustrator. Alex specifically wanted a painting because a photograph would not be able to capture the dreamy colours and softness of the song and its emotions.
E: Is there something that you always take away from your experiences being in different corners of the world?
A: I love the perspective shift. Like, literally going up in the air and being above the city and leaving it. I don’t know what it does but there’s something so good in being able to leave, so you can then come back with a fresher perspective. I think it just renews my energy, to go somewhere else and do something different. Like, being here has been, just, so lovely. I’ve found people so receptive and so open to create and do a show… I did write this song about coming to Canada last year, and then “Fireflies in Brooklyn” that was just, like, a gorgeous experience that happened there that I wanted to capture. And when I was eighteen I went to Ukraine to do a play… I was in between Ukraine and Russia, and that time was massively inspiring. Kind of why I ended up spelling my name in that kind of Russian way. I was very inspired by that trip and the culture in that part of the world. So, yeah, I think probably your reception is just a bit more open when you’re able to just wander and, like, look around, rather than just trying to get here and do this and go to work and do that.