maandag 29 augustus 2016

Interview with Shane Alexander (2016)

Interview by Wout de Natris
© WoNo Magazine 2016

U.S. singer-songwriter Shane Alexander is no stranger to these pages. From somewhere in the second half of the previous decade his albums and live shows featured first in the Magazine and then on this blog. In fact he was one of the first artists to be interviewed by us. With his new album 'Bliss' out this summer, we reached out again and found Shane willing to spend time with us and announcing the first dates of his NL fall tour.

Bliss is the title of your new album. There also is a concept behind it all. Can you explain more about it?

The title came about midway through the making of the record. I’d recently dealt with the near-death of my mother, many close friends battling depression, and other close friends’ brutal marital strife. I started thinking that finding bliss is what it’s all about, finding the beauty of life AS IT’S HAPPENING.  The simple act of gratitude and stopping to acknowledge the sweet moments is too often forgotten. I’m a firm believer that the more you find in your life to be grateful about, the more you can cultivate a life of unshakable happiness.  Also, as an artist reaching many people all over the world, I felt I had a moral obligation to put something positive out there. 

There is some obvious symbolism in the cover art. What does it stand for? 
The cover art came to me later. I was listening to mixes and trying to visualize an image to compliment the music. I wanted something simple and sort of iconic. The image of a face that radiated warmth and peace came to mind. I reached out to Alan Forbes, an amazing and well-respected rock poster artist from the Bay Area.  He was so kind to take on my weird request and drew the sketch you see - it’s just as I’d pictured.  If you look at the image while listening to the record, the face kind of reflects the various moods of the songs.
The Hague, April 2014
From a distance I have the impression that the concept is very close to you. In how far does the private Shane Alexander get mixed in with the artist Shane Alexander on Bliss? 
My private life and my musical life are pretty closely tied together, but the ideas for songs aren’t always autobiographical. I like to leave it to the listener to decide which songs are actually personal and which aren’t.  I’m a spiritual person - I’ve been a Buddhist now for over 15 years. I think my fans that have stuck with me pick up on the fact that I’m a little damaged, but always trying to make the most of this precious life.  Most of my heroes from Neil Young to Bowie to Lennon all had bumpy childhoods and inner-struggles going on, but did their best to turn the ‘poison into medicine’ so to speak.  I hope and pray that my music comforts those who need it most.  Music is my life’s mission - that and being a great dad, of course. 

Your songs on Bliss sound so smooth, as if they somehow always have been there. The details betray hard work. When do you know or feel that a song is ready for release? Can you give an example that really explains where hard work led to a breakthrough in a song? 
It’s funny you said that.  A good friend and fellow producer in LA said the same thing when he heard the mixes, months ago - that they sounded like they’d ‘always been there’. I’m always trying to make something that’s both modern and classic.  Bliss is the first record I’ve self-produced, so I had the ability to truly trust my instincts like never before. I tracked “Evergreen” last - it’s very simple, only a guitar and two vocals, and immediately I thought it'd be fun to put on as track #1.  I’d demoed the song a few times, but the vibe wasn’t right, but after all the other songs were nearly mixed, I saw what that the record was still lacking and recorded the song in just minutes! 

How many songs or ideas fall by the wayside? What is a typical reason to discontinue working on a song or idea and do you ever return to old ideas? 
I always have a record or two up my sleeve.  There weren’t a lot that I’d set aside for this record that I didn’t end up using - maybe 4-5 this time.  On one I recall, I just didn’t think the drum part was right, and there were 2-3 I thought I’d stash for an upcoming acoustic record.  The main thing is the songs have to work together as a group. I feel like some of my best songs haven’t ever made it onto records simply because they stuck out too much from the energy of the rest.  I do sometimes come back to songs or ideas and re-work them.  But often I’m just excited about whatever is newest.
The Hague, April 2014
You work regularly with other artists, e.g.  as producer. Can you talk a little about your motives and what you get out of personally? 
Yes, in recent years I’ve started to produce some other acts.  This spring I produced Shelby Figueroa’s EP entitled Highwire and it came out beautifully - and actually hit NUMBER ONE on the Amazon singer/songwriter chart, which was very rewarding.  I love producing.  I especially love working with artists that I believe in.  I think it’s a big privilege to be asked to help crystallize an artist’s sound and vision.  Most artists fight with self-doubt and I love helping young talents find their strength.  I never really had a mentor in my career, so I had to learn everything the hard way. 

You are allowed to plug one artist of the above mentioned. Who is it and what makes him/her special in your opinion? 
Well, while I’m talking about Shelby!  I’d know her for some years, having been a judge of a songwriter competition she was in.  Her voice is just shockingly good, but also her songs have depth and reflect a woman’s perspective in a very cool and original way.  I recorded all of her parts on the record absolutely live - because I knew she was up to the challenge, and I knew it would make the record sound timeless.  So much modern music that kids hear is tuned and copied and pasted to death. As a producer, I’m not going down that road. 

Overlooking your solo career, I am of the impression that you grow by the album. What do you know now, that you did not know in say 2005 or 2010? 
Well, I sure hope that I’m still growing! Making the same record twice doesn’t interest me. Perhaps to my own detriment, I’m always just trying to follow the muse wherever it leads.  I think I’m always trying to capture the spark in a way that resonates with a larger audience without sacrificing my authenticity. Each record I’ve made has reflected my life’s evolution. That’s what real art is about. Now I’m blessed to have built Buddhaland Studios - my own facility to write and record and I look forward to seeing what comes next.  I feel like I’m more comfortable in my own skin, both on and off stage - and that just comes with getting older. 

Were there any specific artists that influenced ‘Bliss’ more than on previous records? 
I’m constantly listening to music.  I travel a lot, plus I live in LA - so I have countless hours in the car.  Artists like Kurt Vile, Joanna Newsom, First Aid Kit, Conor Oberst, Ryan Adams and The War On Drugs get played a lot, but I never stray far from the classics like Pink Floyd, Sabbath, Paul Simon etc.  I definitely don’t ever want to copy anyone’s roadmap, but I’m sure some gets in through osmosis. 

There are several songs on Bliss that are recorded in a band setting. They sound huge somehow. Was this a conscious choice or more inspiration on the go towards an end result? 
Part of that hugeness was just recording in my new studio - songs like “In the High” and “Hold Me Helpless” really capture the sound of my main room - it’s fairly large with a 16’ ceiling, which helped make the drums sounds big.  I wanted the band tunes to rock in an organic way. 

The lyrics of ‘Evergreen’ seem like a declaration of intent to stay just that. Does it work that way for you when inspiration hits? 
That song was written quickly.  Literally I looked outside and saw trees and the word Evergreen popped in my head.  Again, I liked the simple sentiment ‘evergreen you’ll always be if you keep your heart alight’ - I think it’s true.
The Hague, April 2014
In general Bliss touches me emotionally at a far deeper level than ‘Ladera’ did. Was there a difference on your end in the circumstances that you worked on these album (or is it just me)? 
Yes and no.  I think “Skyway Drive-In” is one of my best and most honest - probably the best song on Ladera.  From a songwriting standpoint, I think both records are strong.  I think the difference lies between Billy Mohler’s producing style and mine.  Billy always has lots of cool sounds, which I love, but my style is trying to get closer to something more personal and timeless. 

When you sing “I will die alone” it almost sounds like the punishment the I personage is presented with for all the choices he makes in the lyrics. Who or what inspired the song? 
 That’s a funny one (for lack of a better word!)  “I Will Die Alone” I wrote with Jessie Payo, a badass artist in LA with an exceptional voice and persona.  We wrote the song with her in mind - kind of a Nancy Sinatra thing.  The song was written quite quickly and when it was done I immediately thought that it was going  to be bigger than both of us - It just sounded like an old song.  I wrote the guitar part and the words just started coming out of us both. She recorded it for a record, but it didn’t totally capture the energy I’d heard in my head, so I had to do it my way.  I liked the idea of the character pursuing their own desires to the point of eclipsing all else…  

What does California stand for for you? 
 California is home.  I love the sun.  I was born in San Diego, but moved around a lot as a kid.  In my late teens I dropped out of college in Pennsylvania to move to Hollywood and go to music school.  In “Heart of California” I talk about ‘the first time that I took in the canyon, high on the hillside’ - a very fond memory, and yes, there’s a double meaning somewhere in there.  We had climbed the hill in Runyon Canyon late at night and looked down at all the lights and I knew I was home. 

The beginning of the title song reminds me of the intro to Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lover You Should Have Come Over’. Am I correct? 
 I actually just had to look that up and you’re right! A similar vibe. I loved Jeff’s records.  The “Bliss” intro is a harmonium. Sarah Pigion sings backups with me and also plays harmonium. I’d brought her in to play on the last verse and chorus, but liked the sound so much I decided to make it into an intro as well.  I thought it set the tone of ‘we are getting to the end of our show now’… 

‘Bliss’ is more on resignation than on a state of extreme happiness. Like a lot of songs have loss as a theme. Please explain. 
 I’ll give you that.  Bliss (the song) was written as a conversation between two flawed people. The one is saying ‘yes, everybody’s going through something, but life is truly what you make of it.  Try to find the good or find your idea of Bliss.’ My favorite lines of the record are: ‘I’ve been trying to let you of all the anger and the blame, don’t want to be a victim, won’t be swallowed by no pain.  There ain’t no reasons for the ways that hearts can change, questions won’t get answered till you don’t care anyway - maybe I’ll see you around…’  

It all ends with a spoken word. Do you realise what you have done? 
 Yes, that is Norbert Then - an amazing German sculptor I met after a concert last fall.  He’d explained a sculpture he made that was based on the biblical story of ‘The Prodigal Son’ and I bootlegged him! I had more of him on the song in an earlier version, but ended up keeping only the last line ‘ First of all you must go down, before you realize what you have done’.  I think that’s true.  I realize my shortcomings and mistakes I’ve made, and most importantly, I forgive those that have done me wrong - that in itself is very healing. 

To end on a chance for some promotion: When are you coming over here again and do you have some details for us? 
Oh yes, I’ll be back in my sweet home-away-from-home in late October.  27/10 de Vorstin in  Hilversum, 2/11 Patronal Haarlem, 6/11 ABC Theater Dordrecht, and a few more shows, all will be on!! 

Thanks so much for spreading the word about the new record!

Photo's by Wo.

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