There’s a tune in Alexander 23’s mini-but-growing catalog that marks a special moment for the burgeoning bedroom pop star — an especially giddy and bright spot that bookmarked an attitude and song style that was juuuuust right for the Chicago-born songwriter.
It’s called “When I Die,” penned about about exactly what the title says. And Alexander 23, for one, loves the contradiction of it all.
“Can you put it on at a pre-game with your friends? Yes. Could you also listen to it by yourself in a pitch dark room and really get into it? Yes,” he explains of his songwriting process to Vanyaland. “And if it can check those two boxes, I’m super happy.”
Ahead of his new October 25 EP I’m Sorry I Love You — and in tangent with the release of his new video for “See You Later,” which dropped today — Vanyaland chatted with Alexander 23 about his breakout year with Interscope, his endless genre fluidity, and the art of making a perfectly poignant pop song. Read on for the entire Q&A and new vid.
Victoria Wasylak: You started playing guitar when you were a kid, and you’ve been playing music for most of your life, but when did this era as Alexander 23 officially begin for you?
Alexander 23: So, the conception of it was about almost exactly a year ago. I was in LA; I moved to LA to do some songwriting production for other people and I had been doing that for about six months here, and it wasn’t giving me the fulfillment that I thought it would and kind of needed from music. And so I one day kind of like — well, it sounds so cliché, but woke up, and I was like, “Okay, here’s the day I stop doing that, and I spend every day writing songs for me and making videos for me until I figure out a way to make that into some kind of a career.”
Right, that’s really incredible that you had an epiphany because for a lot of people it’s a slow awakening. But, I guess it wasn’t quite like that.
Yeah, I mean it was definitely brewing for a while. It was something I always knew that I wanted to do at some point, but just one day I was like, “Well you know, what am I really waiting for here?” No one’s going to ever knock on my door and say “Today’s the day, go do your thing.” I was like, “I’m the only one that’s going to make this happen for myself.” I’m happy that I had the realization because it’s been much more fulfilling and creatively where I want to be.
And when you were opening for Alec Benjamin [on tour], you didn’t really have any music out at the time. How did you make that work? Because that’s pretty difficult when you don’t have a presence online yet.
Totally. It was definitely a challenge and it was weird. My first song came out right before tour, but because it was so new, a lot of the fans hadn’t even had a chance to find that or check that out. It was a cool challenge to figure out ways to orient the songs live — to give people almost a chance to really quickly learn the song and then start enjoying it. A lot of the times I would start the song with just me and the guitar, almost teaching people like, “This is how it goes” and then bring in a track and be like, “Okay now this is the actual song.” But it was cool. I mean, the truth is, that only works if the fans are receptive to liking new music and giving something a chance. I’m just grateful that his fans are so open to becoming a fan of me as well.
So, this pretty much started a year ago, and that’s an extraordinarily quick pace for a new artist or a project. How did you get involved with Interscope?
Initially I was, I wouldn’t say anti-label, but it wasn’t the top of my priorities. I wanted to kind of do things my way and just see where it took me. But, someone sent my music to someone at Interscope, and they just loved it. And we met, and they totally got the vision from such an early-on point and were so supportive of me developing this in my brain and them just kind of being the amplifier. And so, the relationship has been super healthy. Just everyone kind of believing, I mean I’m just grateful they believe in my style and what I want.
What do you think it is about your music or your brand or your personality that made you able to set up this “fast track” for you, for your career?
I think it’s two things, I’ll answer that in couple of ways. I think the same way sometimes you hear people… and I’ve said it before in interviews too… but you hear people say, “You know, well I wrote the song in an hour.” It’s like, “Well yeah, maybe like from start to finish of actually sitting down to write the song it took you an hour and that’s great.” But it’s like, you’re going to have to go out and experience that thing for such a long time to even be able to be in a place to write that, and you have to practice writing songs for years to get the skill down where you could even get that feeling into words in an hour. So it’s been incredibly fast, but at the same time, I’ve been playing in bands since I was eight or nine.
And I say that only because I don’t want people to feel discouraged if they sit down and write a song and five hours later don’t have anything. I’ve had a million different iterations of myself musically that didn’t get time to [go to] Interscope and didn’t and didn’t have this, “fast-track lifestyle.” But the other way I’ll answer that question is, and what I think people are latching onto and why it’s working this time is just because… I think I just try and be as brutally honest from detail to detail as possible. I think that’s what people are appreciating, at least through the standard section that I’ve seen so far and the messages I’ve gotten.
You had said that every line of “Dirty AF1s” is exactly true. How many other songs are like that for you? That are line for line true?
I mean, almost every single one. I’d say the only things that aren’t like exactly true, if something seems better than something else and it’s kind of a lateral truth. And it’s like, this isn’t the exact truth but it’s almost the exact same emotion, then it might as well be true. Every once in a while something like that slips in. But, I’m not out in the future on writing songs about stories I make up my head or other people’s situations. It just felt super right to me to at least start this off with just brutal truth and honesty.
You said when you wrote, “When I Die,” that was the first time when you felt like “this is exactly what I want to sound like.” What was it specifically about that song that made you come to that realization?
That’s a good question honestly, but I think it’s a few things. I liked that it discussed a super heavy topic in a way that is kind of palatable, and a little bit easier to digest. That’s something that I really try and do, is I want to talk about the important things, but I’m not so serious, and I don’t want to come off as someone who’s telling you about the issues. I liked that it’s kind of a playful song, but it talks about mortality in a serious way at the same time. And also, just musically and production-wise, it’s going to have some interesting chords — not just a four bar phrase not that there’s anything wrong with that, [there’s] a million songs like that. But… there’s a little bit more going on harmony-wise. I liked that as well, because when I wrote it and finished it, I didn’t have any idea what to do with it. I just was like, “Oh well this feels like me, but I don’t even know who I am yet.” It kind of sat around for a little bit.
It’s interesting to hear you say that, about how it’s discussing something heavy, but it’s a light-sounding song. I think people really underestimate the difficulty of writing a good pop song. Even if it sounds like a “typical” pop song or the lyrics aren’t super complicated, that doesn’t make it “easy” to write a song like that.
I could not agree more with that. I think that is so incredibly true, and it’s such a misconception. People hear songs on the radio, and they’re like, “Oh, this is so simple they’re just repeating it, they’re doing the same thing over again; easy chords.” Yeah, okay, well then you go write a hit song if it’s so easy.
And I heard you talk about how you don’t really call yourself a bedroom pop artist or you don’t use that term a lot, even though it’s kind of what your music is, because you feel like people put a ceiling on how big that kind of music can get. Why do you think that is?
I don’t really know why people do that. I think just the connotation around bedroom pop is super DIY and super, I don’t even know. I feel like I’m trying to just find another way of saying there’s a ceiling. But, it’s just the way people talk about it, it’s like, “Oh, this is almost for fun, this isn’t super serious, this wouldn’t be played at the stadium.” And so, not in a cocky way, but I just don’t relate to that. I want to put my music in a stadium and I want tens of millions of people to hear it and connect with it.
People assume when it’s bedroom pop or bedroom indie or whatever, that it’s being played in someone’s basement and that’s as far as it’s going to go. It’s a very DIY and that’s it. Right?
Billie Eilish’s whole album was made in Finneas’ bedroom, is that bedroom pop? It’s the biggest album in the world. I just don’t want to limit myself genre-wise or audience-wise or otherwise. Because I think people now more than ever are so incredibly genre-fluid in what they listen to and what their taste is.
Talking about your EP, did you still do all the production yourself? Because I think up until this point you’d been doing all your own production, but did that continue on with the EP?
Yeah, all of this produced just by me.
Which is probably a nice feeling because I feel like when you sign to a major label there’s pressure to bring in other people. Or when you’re with Interscope, you could get pretty much any producer in the world to come out, right? But you’re still the one at the steering wheel.
Totally, I think that speaks to their belief in me, because they’ve told me they’ve made it clear, if I ever want to work with anyone, they are more than happy to reach out. But there’s never any even slight pressure to conform to these “standard” pop songs with having a big producer on or anything like that. At the same time, I have my own goals as a producer, even separate from being an artist. I love producing music for the people that have really exciting stuff coming out that I produce for other people in the near future as well. So it’s kind of a nice way to build up my artist’s repertoire and production reel at the same time.
Gearing up for your new EP, I saw you are talking about it on Twitter and you said, “How lucky are we to have things worth missing?”, and then your new song “See You Later” that came out today is about saying goodbye to someone that you love. Could you talk a little bit about the themes of that song and this album and where your mind was or where your heart was when you were writing these songs?
Definitely. I just personally think that the entire universe and atmosphere that we have built around the concept of missing someone is so incredibly misinformed and backwards. I think that for the most part… you only really miss things that are worth missing. And what that means is they’re special to you, and you love them, and there’s something in that relationship that is worth an intangible amount. I just really want to make people think about that and just think about the bad stuff being good stuff. “When I Die,” talks about dying, but it’s not really about death, it’s more about leaving your mark on the world and having a positive impact on people. I think the most alive thing you could possibly do is die. That’s the defining characteristic. So I think, if I could just make people think about the bad things in a way that leaves them hopeful, then that’s enough for me.
And that’s honestly a very difficult skill because it’s unexpected and it’s not traditional. For example, “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster The People I think is one of the best songs of the past 10 years because it’s a beautiful sounding song. It’s so happy — and it’s about a kid shooting up a school. And I think that takes an incredible amount of talent to make a song that, that is that catchy, that’s that ready for the radio and it’s about something that is so awful.
I just got chills when you said that. I couldn’t agree more.
I remembered that song coming out and thinking “This is special.” As a songwriter, when you go about working on an equation like that — a sad or upsetting topic, but a light song – how do you balance that equation?
I mean, for me that’s what is I think so incredibly nice about having the skillset to be able to produce my own music. Because I get to make the songwriting choices and then I get to always balance them out with the production choices. And I get to decide if I want to take it further into the direction of the actual songwriting or if I want to go completely against it and give it that contrast that I think a lot of my songs have. But I’m just constantly, checking in throughout the process. I mean, not even consciously, but I feel like just through my songwriting production, I’ve gained perspective. Can you put it on at a pregame with your friends? Yes. Could you also listen to it by yourself in a pitch-dark room and really get into it? Yes. And if it can check those two boxes, I’m super happy.
How did you know that you were ready to put out an EP? Because, as we had said, at least as far as you being Alexander 23, this is all still very new. How did you know that the time was right and that you were emotionally and artistically ready to put out an EP with Interscope?
Well, I actually had a lot of thoughts. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, just the way people are putting out music. A lot of it, everyone’s mad that people are turning away from the album. But I think even the concept of an album is arbitrary, that was made up by people. Because you have to package a certain amount of songs a certain way to sell it. It’s not like an album always has the most artistic integrity.
For me, the reason I wanted to do an EP and thought the time was right was honestly because people were asking for it. And I have the songs. and I love them, and if it can mean something to someone else, I’m more than happy to give them to you. I’m not going to hold back music just to hold back music. I made these songs, they’ve meant what they mean to me and now that’s over, and I can give them to someone else and they can take on a new meaning. That’s why I do it. People were asking and it was something I wanted to do. And it just kind of worked out.
Are you nervous?
You know, I’m not nervous. I don’t get nervous really too often. I think that I worked as hard as I can to make everything as good as it can be. Whether that’s on the live side or on the record side, production, songwriting, anything. So when it comes out, it’s like I’ve done everything I can, and now it’s up to everyone else to decide that they like or not. That’s on them. I think other people should be nervous.
ALEXANDER 23 + OMAR APOLLO + SILVER SPHERE :: Tuesday, December 10 at the Paradise Rock Club, 967 Commonwealth Ave. in Boston, MA :: 7 p.m., all ages, $22 in advance and $25 day of show :: Advance tickets :: Event listing