Wednesday, 20 July 2011

INTERVIEW: Alejandra O'Leary On Melody, Michigan & Her Musical Muse

A few months ago I wrote about new material from Michigan singer-songwriter Alejandra O'Leary, with the promise of more to come. Since then, spring has expired (and June, apparently) and in has swept this sweaty summer.

All of which means it's time to catch up with the (currently Chicago-based) songstress, to find out what we can expect (and when) from her next outing, 'Broken Mirror Baby', slated for a September 3rd release.

Rather than blather on in characteristically verbose fashion, I fired off some (uncharacteristically) succinct questions to Alejandra, thus offering you the news right from the source. Here's what she had to say:

Heavier ~ Than ~ Air: How did you get started in music? What first inspired you to pick up an instrument?

Alejandra O'Leary: Ever since I was a very young kid, age five or so, with a ridiculous pageboy haircut, in corduroy dresses and polka dot tights, I’ve always heard music in my head... all the time. I was overcome by music at a young age – I was always playing something or pretending to play something. I used to run around the room with an “air trumpet” when my dad would play his classical records. He played them loud.

When I was a young kid, melodies got stuck in my head easily. I still don’t like to write songs down. I have a fantastic memory for melodies and for very little else in life.

I think I always approached music with an anarchic attitude. I like music for both its harmonious and disruptive potential. The anarchy has served me well in rock n’ roll, but I do have to rein it in when putting a song together. That does require some discipline.

H-T-A: Which artists would you say have been crucial in forming your sound?

AO: The Beatles are the #1 influence on (perhaps) my entire life. My dad had their albums and immediately I was transfixed with the album art and haunting songs on 'Revolver'. I think that instead of getting involved in the usual teenage stuff and drama, I immersed myself in the drama of the Beatles’ music and story. Their music became my teenage drama. I taught myself to play guitar out of a Beatles songbook. The Beatles are the underlying secret to everything I do. If I weren’t a musician, I would be a Beatles scholar, some kind of professional fan. Their music to me is the richest, most emotional, most fantastic trip. 

Other artists I feel I have “internalized” to a comparable degree include Otis Redding, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Ronettes, Wilco, Liz Phair, Lucinda Williams, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Strokes, and ABBA. I also really love anything produced by Phil Spector or composed by Burt Bacharach/Hal David, or George Gershwin or Cole Porter. I don’t know if all of them have been crucial in forming my sound, but they have all made some contribution to the way I think about music, songwriting, and music production.

H-T-A: If you could take only one record with you to a desert island, which would it be and why?

AO: The Beatles’ 'White Album' because: 1) it contains shards of everything the Beatles ever were musically, and 2) because it has the best album art and design ever, and 3) because the music scared the shit out of me until I turned 16. I couldn’t even LOOK at it without shivering all over. The George songs are particularly terrifying – 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps', 'Long Long Long', 'Piggies' – are you kidding me?! For a ten year old, that’s heavy shit.

H-T-A: How would you describe your musical style?

AO: All I have ever wanted to do is to write and perform heartfelt, original, and lasting pop music. I hope that my wish is also a description my style. I like melodies, I like hooks, I like noise, I like texture. I hope that, when you hear one of my songs, it’s not just the melodies and the words that will stick with you, but the complete musical world I create with my producer and my band. I want you to get lost in my songs in a way that makes you feel found.

H-T-A: What role has your where you live played in developing your music? Does any one place stand out in your mind as particularly influential?

AO: I think that growing up in Maine, a cold and dark place for much the year, drove me into inner worlds and ultimately to the solace of the guitar. Time moves slowly in Maine and solitude feels right and sweet sometimes. So I wrote all my first songs in Maine when I was a teenager.

New York City and Michigan are both good places to try out new things with songwriting and sounds. In New York, I was able to gig all the time and try out new things in front of an audience almost as soon as I had written in. In Michigan, I’ve found a peaceful place to dream up new arrangements and musical ideas. Which doesn’t mean I sit at home all the time. I have enjoyed travelling all over the state to play with my band. 

One of the underrated aspects of being a musician is getting to know corners of the earth you wouldn’t know otherwise. Some of the nicest people and most interesting venues I’ve known have been in out-of-the-way corners of the Mitten.

H-T-A: You play both as a solo singer-songwriter and with a full band live. Do your prefer either one and how do you vary your approach to each setting?

AO: It’s important to me to do both. The songs should work equally well both ways. Just like, as a person, you have a dressed-up, polished, kick-ass self, you also have an inner life, something often hidden that you show people in a different context. I kind of think of the rock n’ roll and the acoustic shows as being analogous to the two selves that we all have.

H-T-A: What have been the highlights of your musical career so far?

AO: The highlights have all been so different from one another! Releasing my first CD ('Nothing Out Loud', 2009) at the Parkside Lounge in NYC and playing the whole album in front of a pumped-up crowd was one highlight. 

Another highlight was recording the double guitar solo on “Horses” on the new album ('Broken Mirror Baby', release date Sept 3, 2011). It just worked so perfectly, like something out of a dream. Finally, writing the song '@ the Club' for this new album was an exciting moment for me - a private highlight.

MP3: Alejandra O'Leary - Broken Mirror Baby

H-T-A: Describe your outlook on life in one sentence...

AO: I think that rock n’ roll, and music in general, is about savoring the moment and taking each day as a gift to be enjoyed. That’s my outlook.

H-T-A: Craziest moment as a musician?

AO: It’s all crazy! Nothing about this career is not crazy. I write songs and then I travel miles and miles to record them and play them for friendly strangers. What about that scenario is not crazy?

Thanks to Alejandra for her time and a glimpse into the mental workings of the modern day musician. Look for the new album in September and keep your eyes positioned on her newly launched site for updates and new material prior to that.

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