Bursting onto the music scene less than a year ago, Alex the Astronaut is creating serious waves, with her honest and uplifting sound, and infectious smile, making her one of the most innovative and exciting new artists around. Discovering her hometown with fresh eyes after returning from university in America, Alex’s music is a refreshing reflection on the Australian life she’s missed; with songs like ‘What Sydney Looks Like in June’ and ‘See You Soon’ telling poignant tales of rediscovery and curiosity.
With two EP’s under her belt, and an upcoming tour in April with Stella Donnelly, Backyard Opera sat down and had a chat with Alex in our very own studio to talk about her musical motivations and what’s in store for the intrepid intergalactic explorer of our hearts.
BYO: Firstly, why the name Alex the Astronaut?
ALEX: I did a degree in physics for my undergrad, so I was interested in astrophysics. I was away in America exploring, and so that exploration aspect of my personality, combined with the alliteration, I thought why not?
BYO: Who or what inspired you to start creating music?
ALEX: I don’t know! I was always interested in music, growing up listening on the radio or whatever. Then I got to start downloading my own music – I didn’t ever really buy CD’s, I think I was a bit late for that. So yeah, I was always obsessed with it. I wasn’t above average in any way in primary school or high school at music. I was interested in it, I played clarinet when I was really young. I eventually got a guitar, just because my friend got one! I was like ‘oh he’s got one so I’ll get one’ and then I got obsessed and he didn’t. And then it started there. I got a chord book and I would sit down for hours and learn all the chords and songs. Then at 16 – maybe it was a bit before that – I was writing songs but the songs were really shit, they were just like a bit average … bit of a learning curve.
It didn’t really start with one thing, it was a range. It was obsessive, some sort of innate obsession with music that I can’t really explain.
BYO: Were you self-taught on the guitar?
ALEX: Nah I got some lessons at school when I was 11, and I finished them when I was 15.
BYO: Did you think you’d be where you are at now at this point in your life? Did you have other goals and plans?
ALEX: Well I just finished my degree last year and I knew I wanted to do something, but I wasn’t really sure. I was interested in science, I always wanted to do medicine but then I realised that I hate blood, so I don’t think that was going to work out. But I was interested in science and maths so I finished that degree.
I was lucky too. Because I really wanted to start doing music before I was finished my degree; I wanted to start releasing music. And from there I kind of knew that it was something that I really wanted to do after I finished my degree.
But had music not been successful I would probably still be studying, would have gone back and got my PhD or something.
I’m so stoked that I don’t have to do that right now.
BYO: Do you think having that background in science would also allow you to think about things differently and approach music differently?
ALEX: It was a good learning experience. I don’t think anyone really needs it, but it was good for me to go over to America and experience a different kind of culture and stuff like that. I played soccer so I got to travel around lots of different places with my team. It was good to study with really good professors, and get a base level knowledge of something else other than music. It gives you the opportunity to think a bit more.
BYO: What was it like studying in America?
ALEX: I went to Long Island University, it was a small university; I went there for soccer on a scholarship. It was either there or Sydney Uni, and I like to have a bit of change of scene, so I was there for three years.
It was very much like the movies. It’s really fun to live with all of your friends exploring this new found adulthood – actually you’re still children really. You learn together and it really is like a big party. It’s a really warm environment.
BYO: What’s your main inspiration/motivation when writing music?
ALEX: It just happens. I think some people might have ideas as to why they write music, or an explanation, but I don’t think anyone can really say. You have an instinct to do it. Music comes from nothing, its not really an explainable force. It’s a weird thing, you come up with the music, the lyrics.
I really think that all musicians have some weird instinct that is unexplainable. We shouldn’t try to explain it, because that’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to put it into words, it just happens. It’s a really cool, unexplainable feelings. It feels good not to explain it, and just do it.
BYO: Do you collaborate with others when writing and creating, or is it a solo process?
ALEX: I can’t! I don’t know why. I want to do it in the future, but I have to do it alone so I can focus on whatever I’m writing on. Need to do it on my own. I respect people who can do it as a team, I think it would be a really fun experience.
BYO: Your song ‘Not Worth Hiding’ is a poignant and cheerful ode to queerness, did you want to tell us a bit about this song?
ALEX: I had a really hard time in school coming out, I didn’t really understand what was going on and why I was different from my friends. Going through that makes you see how powerful it is to be kind, and to try and do things for other people that make their lives better. I found it really hard talking about coming out. My instinct is to either joke about things or avoid them. And this for me was such a harrowing experience, it can be really terrifying for kids in high school, to feel that they don’t belong. I didn’t really want to write the song. I was scared to, and I didn’t understand why. Well I did, I thought that people would be mean to me. And I didn’t think that, for a long time, that I’d be ready to write it. I didn’t want it to bring back those feelings and fears that I had when I was 16 and 17, because I didn’t know what my life would look like. And that’s what its like for a lot of kids in high school.
I tried to at first write the song to people who didn’t understand it, as a letter to the people that were judging, just to try and bring them in. It wasn’t about politics, I wrote it well before there was any speak of the plebiscite, it was just a weird coincidence but probably a good one for some people.
I tried to write this song for people who didn’t understand; and how I structure songs is I try to make them really poignant and make everything clear and make sure all the lyrics are very lined up. So I tried to talk to these strangers that weren’t understanding, and I kept frustrating myself, because it didn’t make sense to me. But they weren’t the people I was trying to talk to, I wanted to talk to the kids that were having the hard time. You can talk to someone that doesn’t understand something to death, and they still won’t hear it. They don’t want to listen. And that’s fine. The thing is with ‘Not Worth Hiding’, it was better for me to tell the story to the kids, or whoever is having a hard time, because I could show them ‘this is what I experienced, and it does get better. And what you are having right now is a hard time, and that is okay. You’ve just gotta keep going’. What I was expecting was people would be really judgemental of that. But they weren’t they were like ‘cool, that’s what happens, and that’s how hard that is for some people, and I understand’.
So yeah, that was an interesting song. I’ve never had a hard time writing a song. I had never felt that worried or hesitant.
BYO: Has there been any specific negative reactions to the song?
ALEX: The odd comment. I didn’t get any hateful messages though, like some other people do. I was pretty lucky.
BYO: What have been some of the best things that being Alex the Astronaut has allowed you to experience?
ALEX: There’s been heaps of stuff! I got to play with Neil and Liam Finn for a couple of their shows, and that was an amazing experience. There’s been heaps, I’ve had some really fun shows that I’ll never forget.
I played the Metro with Montaigne, and I don’t know why but that just stuck in my head. It was such an energetic crowd and they were having so much fun and I was too. It was the first time I played ‘Not Worth Hiding’ and I stopped playing, stepped off the mic and we got 3 minutes of applause and I didn’t know what to do. I cried on stage. It was really cool.
I’ve just been the luckiest, its been an amazing 9 months. When we got 20 on the hottest 100, that was so cool.
I am going to interview an astronaut! That’s a cool thing. It’s during Stella and I’s tour. One of the days on the tour I’m going to wake up early and Skype an astronaut! It’s going to be really cool, I’m so excited! He’s a volcanologist, and he’s been to space heaps, and I’m asking him about Mars and all these cool things.
BYO: What prompted you to do a joint tour with Stella Donnelly?
ALEX: We both really like each other, we both think the other is good. I think she’s awesome, she’s so much fun to hang out with. We’ve done a bunch of festivals together, and it was just an idea that one of our managers mentioned last year. She’s an awesome girl, and we’re both similar in the way we perform, we both like to have a lot of fun on stage, but both still have a serious side.
We get along really well and it seemed like a fun thing to do! We’re both doing an hour each, but there will be a few cross over spots.
BYO: Will there be a full album in the works?
ALEX: Eventually yes. I’m not sure if that will be the next release, but yes.
BYO: Is there a goal you’re working towards with music? Or is a career in astrophysics / soccer where you see yourself?
ALEX: I don’t want to pursue physics studying anymore, I’m not sure. At the moment, if I were to do anything with studying I’d want to do Law. But I don’t think I want to do that at the moment, music is my main career, is my career, and I’ll follow it. I can’t stop doing it, I’ve tried to stop; I mean I studied, I did all the things I was supposed to, and I still want to do music, so I think in whatever context, I will be doing music for the rest of my life.
You can catch Alex the Astronaut on her Australian tour with Stella Donnelly, starting in Byron Bay on April 12. For more information about the tour, and to buy tickets, head to http://alextheastronaut.com/tours