Interview with Alex Winston
Last night, Alex Winston played her first Irish gig in The Sugar Club. She plays a type of 60’s Motown tinged pop and has been compared to Lykke Li and Feist. Her song ‘Choice Notes’ is currently being used by two companies in their advertising campaigns. I caught up with a very smiley, chatty, Alex just before soundcheck.
This is third gig on your tour and you’ve already played in a library in Lancaster and are now about to play in an old cinema theatre. How are the gigs going and what’s the strangest place you’ve ever played?
‘It’s been going really well, I think the library had to be the strangest. When you think of playing in a library, well, for my personally, I think of being in High School in Battle of The Bands and four of your friends out there clapping and the lights are on and they’re like ‘Hurry Up! Be Quiet!’ but this was really fun. It was an awesome sound system and everyone came out from the town. It was a great time. We were drinking whiskey in a library, which seemed very unnatural (laughs). It was definitely the most interesting place I’ve played this far.’
You’ve quite an extensive live band, which is unusual at the moment, a lot of solo artists are choosing to go on the road with a stripped back set up. Why did you choose to use a full band?
‘It’s a very expensive way to tour which I’m slowly realizing but the reason behind it is, I write everything but I write so many parts on top of parts that I want this kind of ‘Wall of Sound’, that’s what I’m always aiming for in my recordings and I want it to come off as sounding big, live. They are my band and they do contribute and I want it to feel like a band more just a solo artist. I bring around two of my best friends who are my back up singers and I want it to be more of an experience than just me with my acoustic guitar.
I can do that too and I do that sometimes but for shows like this, when I’m introducing my self to people in a place I’ve never been, I want it to be as big as I can.’
You’re going to get more energy from a full band too?
‘Definitely! We love playing together. We actually just added someone, we added and eighth person who’s playing bass now. The other guy, Nick, is a bit more free to play mandolin and synth and all the different things that are on the recording. It’s important for me, when possible to sound like the records.
I’ve got a lot of comments that ‘Choice Notes’ when I play it live is so much different but that was a very early recording. I did that on my computer so it’s not going to sound like that. But with the new record, I’m trying to make everything a bit more cohesive and bigger sounding and I want to translate that live.’
You grew up in Detroit and trained in Opera. Where did that come from?
‘My Mom had a friend who taught Opera, a school friend from a long time ago and it was kinda like ‘She wants to take singing lessons, she does this, why don’t we throw her in there’, which I it was really great to learn, it wasn’t necessarily my favourite kind of music. I think it’s beautiful but I wouldn’t go home and listen to it. It taught me a lot about vocal health and that sort of thing.’
A lot of singers tend to forget about that, when you’re out there every night performing for a couple of hours.
‘I’m starting to feel it now. It’s like three days in but with promo and we had two days to rehearse before we left so it was like eight hour practice days, it can really wear on you but I’m glad I learned some of the tricks. I think opera does influence me, but subconsciously. The way I sing, I don’t intend to sound like an opera singer but the positioning and the way that I learned the warm ups and that sort is thing is ingrained in the way I perform, a little bit.’
You grew up in Detroit, the home of Motown, The White Stripes, Eminem. How much of an influence did the city have on you?
‘It’s something I’ve always been really proud of. It was really hard for me to move from Detroit and I prolonged it for as long as I could but at a certain point I was having trouble finding producers that were interested in what I was doing, instead of trying to change me. I think it was really hard to leave Detroit because it has such a rich musical history. I’ve been to the Motown museum eight times, I brought my boyfriend back to Detroit with me recently and we went there. I used to record behind Ron Aston’s house, of The Stooges. Little stories like that, I’m really proud of being from there and Motown directly with just the back up singers and the layers of vocals.’
How did you get recording with The Knocks?
‘It’s a boring story! It was actually through a mutual friend who grew up in Detroit with me and said ‘You need to come to New York and see if you can make it work there’. He knew Ben from The Knocks from college and we met. I went back to Detroit but I decided that day that I was moving to New York and we started dialogue. ‘Choice Notes’ was one of those songs that I sent him right away that I had recorded on my computer. We build a relationship, long distance but then when I moved we just started working everyday.’
You said there were people who were trying to change you. Was it just producers who didn’t understand?
‘Yeah and I get that. I was still developing what I even wanted to do. I had been in different bands, playing different types of music but for the most part other people were writing the material and I think I needed to figure out what I was good at. Showing them demos but maybe it was at the stage where they couldn’t see the full picture but I knew inside. I just needed someone to believe in me and The Knocks definitely got it.’
‘To be honest, their career is starting to develop as artists and they’ve been gone a lot so I’ve started working with another producer who is kinda part of the family anyway, we all have the same manager, his name’s Charlie Hugo and he’s from London. He did most of the record but he’s known me from the start as well.
With The Knocks, we started this really kind of lo-fi production sound because of a lot of it, to answer your question about how we go in there and work, I do a lot of it on Garageband. I’ll make a demo but then we’ll end up using a lot of those tracks so important them there and kind of build it in the studio while keeping some of those shittier sounding tracks. They’ll give me suggestions but they’ll let me be the boss, which I like. But Charlie has brought me to a bigger sound.
This is really the first time I’ve had the opportunity to go into a studio that’s paid for by the label so its awesome and have an array of instruments and have so many incredible live sounds that I’m able to mess around with. The Knocks gave me my start and helped me develop the songs and it’s now, they and Charlie, together, are helping with the newer tracks.’
Signing to a label is a very difficult and very stressful process for any artist and it can be hard to know who you can trust. How did you find all the negotiations?
‘I hated that process. You’re supposed to know if you want to have a working relationship with someone after going to lunch with someone? To me, it was very scary because I had been doing it for so long on my own, not to the level of a successful major label artist but I’ve always been in control of my project. It was really hard because when there’s buzz everyone wants to be interested even if they’re not interested. It’s like ‘If this label is interested then I’m going to go to the show and waste your time with a meeting’.
Island was the first label that I instantly fell in love with them and I really respect their roster of artists. They let me do whatever I want, they don’t bother me about anything. They like me idea for the album cover, they let me record my songs, it’s not very hands on with them, which I appreciate. At first I was thinking, I don’t know, I’m not getting much feedback but they’ll write like ‘we love it, we’re just letting you do what you want’, which is awesome.’
So it the album finished now ?
‘Yeah, It’s coming out in January, knowing me I’ll probably write a few more songs that I’ll want to put on the album. I thought I would be out earlier so I rushed to get it done, which was a cool process. I’ve never written under that amount of concentrated schedule. You need to write everyday and get it done. I think we did a really good job of .. it sounds like I want it to sound and I wrote about things I wanted to but over the next few months I think there are more songs that will develop.’
What track surprised you from the album?
‘It’s called ‘Velvet Elvis’, I was in Detroit and I was in a vintage store and I’ve always wanted one of those velvet Elvis paintings. I recently had watched a documentary about objectum-sexuals, people who fall in love with inanimate objects. It’s a real thing ! So I this idea of making this story about a girl in the fifties falling in love with her velvet Elvis painting and people not understanding what the fcuk she’s doing! (laughing) The album has a lot of weird stories, it’s not a very personal album. I like to write about other people and their interesting lives. That’s an interesting one, that’s probably the single actually.’
So that’s probably why there are groups of people on the internet trying to decipher what you are talking about on ‘Sister Wife’ ? Why would you want to tell them ? That’s half the fun about it!
‘Maybe I shouldn’t say. All I’ll say is that I’m not personally a polygamist!’
To finish off I have some quirky questions for you? If you could make a supergroup of all your musical heros, who would be in it?
‘It would be Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Keith Richards, Dolly Parton, George Clinton and me. I don’t know what I’d be playing, they’d all be showing me up. I’d probably be just clapping in the background.’
If you found a genie’s lamp but it only had one wish left, what would you wish for?
‘I’d wish that people bought my fcuking album! Please buy my album! (laughs)’
What was the last album you blagged from the record company for free?
‘PJ Harvey’s album, they gave to me, I didn’t have to, they were like ‘We know you love her take it!’ It’s really great, I like it a lot. I got a brand new record player and I christened it with that album.’
Alex’s ‘Sister Wife E.P’ is available from iTunes now. Her album will be out in January 2012.
Listen to ‘Choice Notes’ here:
Here’s the video for Locomotive: