Not Better, Understood: a Conversation With Alexander 23 [Q&A]

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Photo: Stefan Kohli

Alexander 23 does not want to make you feel better; he wants to make you feel understood. This fall, the genuinely kind, spunky, and brutally honest artist is going on his first headline tour, "Oh No, Not a Tour!," following a year where the touring industry came to a grinding halt.  

The tour is in support of Alexander 23's most recent EP,  Oh No! Not Again, which saw him transforming the distinct and intimate moments so many of us individually hold into universally-shared sentimental reflections. With the juxtaposing chaos and breakout success of the past year, Alexander 23 is set to bring all the vulnerability, sweet intentions, and eccentric energy his music exudes with him on tour, and thankfully, we had the chance to catch up with him before he hits the road.

Ones To Watch: How are you today? How are you feeling?

Alexander 23: I'm honestly great, cannot complain. I feel good, I worked out this morning, got a little bit of sleep last night, made a smoothie, got my coffee, got some work to do today, so I'm good.  

Let's talk about "Oh No! Not a Tour." I'm so excited, I'll be in New York at Webster Hall. Tell me about all the varying emotions - the hopes, anticipations, anxieties - that go along with embarking on a headline tour?

Yeah, well first of all, thanks in advance for coming. I appreciate that. I'm really looking forward to that because I lived in New York for a few years and Webster Hall was always a statement place to play, so that'll be good. But yeah! I'm just so incredibly grateful that I'm able to do this. I think a lot of kids and artists these days kind of started on a laptop and there's nothing wrong with that, it's just kind of the way that the industry and the tech has progressed... but for me, it all started with playing shows, and it's always something that's been incredibly important to me as far as career stuff but also personal fulfillment. I'm very excited to get back on the road. I like, require it as a person, and it's been hard to not play shows for the last, you know, year and a half. I'm also lucky to get to travel around with some of my best friends in the world who drum for me or tour manage or do this and that. So, it'll be fun, I'm excited.

Talk to me about showing vulnerability on stage. Your music encapsulates a variety of perspectives and topics, including the vicious cycle of relationships, mental health, and more. Because you have so many shows, do you detach yourself or do you fully embrace the story of the song you're singing every night on stage... because it has to be draining at some points?

Yeah, I think it's a balance. It's definitely draining, but the draining part isn't really the shows for me. It's kind of all the other shit, you know. It's the driving and traveling, and you're going to get sick on the road, it's just going to happen. You're hugging too many people and driving too many hours and existing in too many places not to. So that's kind of the stuff that wears on me, but once you step on stage it kind of goes away. And then once I'm on stage, for me at least, it's kind of a balance. I certainly want to live among the emotions of the song and be as honest as I can in my performance but… another part of it I really enjoy is that I rehearse a lot. Like, the show I think is really good. It's not an accident, and it's not because I'm better than anyone. It's because I want it to be so good so badly. I put so much time into making it good. Once I'm doing the show for actual people in the audience who paid real money to be there and travel from different places to come, I want it to be as good as it can be. So, yeah I'll put the time in before so once I'm performing I can focus not only on the emotion of the song, but the emotion of the audience and connecting with people in real time.

There's often a moment on stage between songs when an artist will break for a little monologue to discuss the song at hand. Is that planned or more spur of the moment?

Obviously, I've thought about these songs a lot. I have talking points that I kind of have, just like in my pocket, in case I just, like, freeze up. But, for me, I love any opportunity to break the wall between the stage and the audience. I think a lot of people are afraid of something going wrong, but I think there's nothing better than something going wrong, because I think then, everyone - me, my band, and the audience - everyone kind of lets their guard down. It's like a really harsh reminder of the humanity of the situation. I try and not, I rehearse a lot, but I go for notes on stage that I'm not... I just like having fun within the practice confines and stuff. I think that extends to banter as well, you know. If I see someone in the crowd that reminds me of a story, I'm going to tell the story, even if I fuck it up and it sounds stupid, like, I want to have fun with it. I think as an audience member, in concerts that I've been to, that's something that I've valued. You know, I want the artist to feel at home in the venue.

Can you walk us through your songwriting process? Do you consciously think about the live performance, and the reception from the audience, as you're creating?

No, I definitely don't. For me, songwriting has to be as selfish as possible. It's the only way that I know how to do it, and it's the only way I've found success doing it. I've really found that the more specific I am in my songwriting, the more general I end up being. So yeah, some people have an easier time writing a more narrative-based song and for me that's always been a challenge. I can't just buy into a story that I haven't experienced. It's a lot harder for me, but I feel like I have gotten pretty good talking about my life, in excruciating detail. Also, for me, the songwriting process is just super cathartic, it's something I've kind of grown to kind of depend on emotionally. It's how I internalize how I feel about myself and the world around me, I guess.

You're very involved in the production of your music, especially your latest EP,  Oh No, Not Again!. How involved are you in the production of your live set?

Yeah, I'm super, super involved. For me, I think a lot of people like to draw lines in between different cohorts of the artist experience, but for me, it's kind of all the same thing. The seed is the song, and there's different ways of presenting it. Whether it's through the recorded version, the live version, or an acoustic version... but the seed is the song, and I care so much about the seed that I want it to grow and develop into the best thing it can be in whatever situation that exists, so... I can't imagine not being involved. This tour will be the first tour I've had any help in musical direction, and I'm very grateful to have it now because there's kind of a lot more on my plate in other parts of my life. But yeah, I can't imagine a reality where I'm not extremely involved in the production of the show and not just the records.

So let's go back to the draining part of the tour. Do you have any tips for staying healthy on tour?

Oh, lots of hand sanitizer. Yeah, I mean like, this will be my first tour with my own bus, so that'll definitely, greatly enhance my physical and mental health, which is great. But it's funny you say that, because I feel like for the past six years, I've been touring in different situations and stuff and my friends are always like, "Oh my god, that's so cool, I want to come," and I'm like, '"t is cool, and it is fun, but I promise you don't want to come." The show ends at like 11, you pack up until one, then you drive for four hours, you sleep for three hours, you drive for six more hours and soundcheck... You know, it's not like a glamorous experience. It's fun and it's unbelievable, and it's my favorite thing to do in the world, but it is so far from luxurious.

Yeah, I kind of got off the question but yeah, I think just taking time and knowing when to slow down is a big thing and not feeling bad about it, which is kind of something I have a habit of doing.

If you could join one tour of the past, who and what tour would you join?

One tour of the past? That's an incredible question... but very difficult. There's so many tours that I would like to join. I think it would have been fun to tour with John Mayer in the Continuum days, just because that album was so influential on me as a songwriter and artist. And I like just surrounding myself with people who I think are better at a certain thing than I am, you know, songwriting-wise or production-wise or live performance - wise. Probably just someone who would kick my ass every night and show me how to be better.

What is your favorite thing to do on tour that does not involve music at all? If you have some time off, are you relaxing, going out, playing basketball?  

I'm not a big relaxer, I'm like a big "you got to push past your boundaries to find them," which I think is why I probably get sick on tour a lot. I should listen to my own advice of taking it easy and not feeling bad about it, but I just don't enjoy that. I love playing basketball on the road, just like finding parks and challenging random kids, that's always fun. I'm in such a unique position of being in 25 major cities in a month’s span, you know, I would be remiss not to go to some of the best restaurants around there. So it's always fun to find a good restaurant, you know like, I'm not going to Minneapolis that often, so while I'm there, I may as well go find the best restaurant there and see if it's good.

What was your first concert? What was your favorite concert you've ever been to?

Oh! Well my first concert, I went to NSYNC when I was like five, and I actually fell asleep. I don't remember it very well, my parents told me that this happened, which is no disrespect to NSYNC - incredible band - but I was five and I was tired. It is what it is.

And my favorite concert? That is so hard and there have been so many good shows. I'll give you a few. I saw Tame Impala at Firefly about like five or six years ago and it was just like the first time they got like figures up there, it just transcended humanity and I was like, 'How is this really happening in front of my eyes?' What else? There's an artist named Nao and she's one of my favorite artists and she played in LA a couple years ago and it was probably the best musicianship I've ever seen in my life. She's just the craziest singer of all time and her band is just so locked in and I couldn't believe that it was all being played in front of my eyes. Like usually, you can feel the person behind the instrument but this was so perfect that it was almost not believable. So, those two come to mind for sure, but I've been lucky to see a lot of good shows.

What would you hope fans walk away saying or thinking after an Alexander 23 concert?

I mean, I think the biggest thing, and this is for my music as well, but just to feel understood. By that, I don't even really mean to feel better, you know, I feel like asking someone to feel better when they listen to music is kind of a tremendous ask... I just want them to feel a bit more understood. I've taken the time to really, really think about these emotions in a painstaking and just too much way. I hope that they can pick out a few pieces and apply it to their own thinking and their own lives. So, that's a big one. And then, I mean, another big thing for me is that I want them to feel connected to each other, to the other people in the room. I think that's what makes concerts so special, it almost feels like the last frontier of, like, realness in the music industry. It's the last thing you can't fake. You can't fake real people buying real tickets to go to a real place to see a real show all together. There's too many steps, you can't fake it. And also, I think with technology, I think people are experiencing the same things all the time, but at different times. So, for whatever it is, 500, 1,000, 2,000, or 20,000 people to be all in the same place, experiencing the same thing at the same time, is really special. So, I hope people can really buy into that and relish in that experience a little bit.

Is there anything else you would like to say, pertaining to your music or something on your heart, that you would like to get out there?

Aw man, I got a lot. I can't believe that cereal isn't more available as a dessert option. I'm just calling all restaurants to just consider it... like everyone would like CoCoa Puffs after their meal. Everyone would like it, no one would not like it. You know, everyone wants it. Also, everyone wants mini hot dogs, we want 'em! We don't know why they're not available and we want them so if you own a restaurant and if you're listening [reading] by chance... it could happen.

On a more serious note, if anyone is listening, or reading, and is a fan of me, I'm working extremely hard on new music and I'm really, really, really proud of it and I'm really excited to share once it's a little more done.

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