Catch up with singer-songwriter Alexa Wilding and watch the video for "Wolves" off her Wolves EP, available now.
What first got you interested in songwriting and in music?
Alexa Wilding: Music has always been a big part of my life. I was a ballet dancer as a little girl, I did it professionally, so music was such a part of my life; when you dance, music really tells you what to do and you live and move within it. When I stopped dancing as a teenager, I felt really lost without music as my buddy [laughs]. A boyfriend of my mom's at the time - I grew up in Greenwich Village around a bunch of art-y types - he left a guitar at our house as well as a bunch of great mix-tapes which were really my introduction to good music: great stuff like Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks, Kate Bush, and all kinds of great stuff. I just really needed a new outlet and I taught myself how to play on a guitar and I really started copying and learning how to play the songs I loved and then, slowly, I would change the lyrics to my own stories and I would have these weird mash-ups [laughs]. I'd always written and I loved poetry, so it just all came together and, by the end of high school, that was very much my identity and that was that, really. It just became my new thing.
Do you remember the first song you learned on guitar?
Yes, I do! The first song I learned on guitar was a pretty somber song for a teenage girl [laughs]. I actually learned Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" and I look back at it now and I was singing this depressing song in my little soprano voice [laughs], but that was the first song, very easy. After that, I learned a not so easy one... I actually taught myself some Joni Mitchell, lots of old stuff. The first song I wrote was a very embarrassing medley that I think started off like a folk song and then I think I worked in some "Greensleeves" or something - like super embarrassing, like Medieval rhyme [laughs] - and it was about breaking up with my first boyfriend, so pretty run-of-the-mill early songwriting baloney.
Which musicians have you been influenced by?
Oh, so many. I love music so much and I really have listened to so, so much over the years. I have to say, I really get stuck in especially '70s female songwriters; Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Laura Nyro, Sandy Denny, Linda Ronstadt - even though she doesn't really write a lot of her songs - Emmylou Harris. Then, of course, some more contemporary: Kate Bush, Tori Amos was a huge influence, Kim Deal, Kelley Deal; people that I really grew up with. In terms of people playing now, mostly my friends. I love Au Revoir Simone, I've toured with them, they're good friends of mine. Marissa Nadler is really inspiring to me. Joanna Newsom. My husband makes fun of me, it's very female-centric listening in our house [laughs].
How would you describe your own sound to someone who had never heard your music before?
I always blunder this, like at a party when someone's like, 'oh, what does your music sound like?' I'm always like, 'ah, uh huh' [laughs]. I would say, my stuff stems from a pretty classic female singer-songwriter tradition with a little bit of '90s Lilith Fair mixed in with some freak folk, that's sort of how I've come to describe it now. It's decidedly uncool, that's the other thing I always say. I'm really not interested in moving along with what's trendy. Speaking of Au Revoir Simone, I went on tour with them and I'd just brought an acoustic guitar and it was a really frightening tour because they're fantastic and they do what they do really well, but I had made a decision early on, I'm not gonna use a drum machine, I'm not gonna go the synthesizer route that everyone is doing, just because I don't do it well [laughs]. It just wouldn't work. So, I have really stuck to what I want to do. Especially on this new record, there were a lot of really uncool influences because I was listening to a lot of light rock when my son was in the hospital and stuff on the radio and I just feel like you should write depending on whatever is going in and out of your head, as opposed to following trends. It's done me well to stick with my own weird mash-up, as opposed to going the more trendy routes and, unfortunately, it's definitely harder, because sometimes people prefer a certain type of sound but, in the end, I think it's best to just do what you want to do.
Could you tell us more about your Wolves EP?
It's definitely a big jump. My first two records were very folk based; it was me and a guitar or me and a Wurlitzer with some pretty simple additional instrumentation and I love those records, they were really intimate affairs; they were like opening a diary. With this record, I wanted to make something that everyone could enjoy. One of the things that I think would happen with my other records was, they were such intimate affairs that I don't think I was very generous in terms of opening the songs up. Sometimes, something as simple as having a drummer can help people, they start tapping their foot and it's like a key into the song where it's, 'oh, I'm tapping my foot, now I'm in the song,' where some of my other records, because they were so static with complicated acoustic guitar, I think it was sometimes difficult to get entry in. Like someone like Joanna Newsom, she writes very complicated stuff and you really have to make an effort - which I find thrilling - to enter her world.
I wrote this record when my son was going through cancer treatment - and he's well now which is so great - and it was a very unlikely place to be working on a record [laughs]. I would write when he was sleeping and, as I said before, we were listening to the radio - which was on all the time - and we were listening to what I like to call the 'diner station' - you know when you go to diners and it's just really uncool light rock [laughs] and stuff that we all grew up with? - and I think it just all seeped into my head and I started writing these songs and because there was no end goal for the record - I didn't know what the future held for me or my family - I just spent a lot of time working on choruses, working on bridges, things that I really never did before. Before, I would just write the song however I wanted and that was it. This time, I said, 'let me take a stab at some more traditional songwriting,' and I had so much fun doing it and it provided such an outlet for me that my little boy and I would just sing along to some of these choruses and it really reminded me that music has the power to bring people together. Even though the stories that I'm singing are very personal, it might still be hard to figure out what I'm singing about, but I wanted the music to be a little more open and have an open door; whereas before it was like a little gate that you could peek through, with ivy and flowers [laughs], this time it was just a nice open door.
There's actually some fun songs on it, "Road Song" is a really fun song. The shows I've been playing, it's the first time people have been dancing and it's been blowing my mind because I'm used to singing depressing folk songs [laughs]. So people can expect some songs that you can sing along to that are about love and loss and coming back to life again.
What were your inspirations behind your single and the video for "Wolves"?
"Wolves" was a fun one. When I wrote the record I really needed to escape the present and so I was thinking back to all the things that happened in my life before I became a mother and settled down with a family. "Wolves" is about a relationship I had had that just never took off; one of those relationships where it totally should have happened and we totally should have been together, but each party just could not step up and claim the desire to have something happen. A big theme in the hospital is this idea of doing as the wolves do, rising up and finding the inner she-wolf in me so I could best take care of my family, like a warrior. I was thinking back to times in my life when I couldn't summon that sort of wolf power or that wolverine spirit; times in my life where I couldn't stand up for myself, I couldn't claim either my desire or my anger or my feelings. Wolves encompass the whole theme of the record, so it's just a story of a man and a woman who just can not "do as the wolves do". It's like, you say I can come any day, but where's my invitation? [Laughs]
I was thinking a lot about the games that men and women play and when I told my friend, Jenna Gribbon - she's a painter and wanted to do a video - she said, 'I want to direct it!' and I said okay. She also picked up on the sort of role-play between men and women in that song and so she said, 'what about a chess game?' and I said, 'it's so funny you'd say that because I'd always imagined a chess game between a man and a woman for that video!'. Jenna's a real surrealist painter and I love all that stuff and she loves the imagery of black and white in that song and it immediately made her think of the black and white pieces in a chess game. We just rolled with it and we decided to make this surrealist Alice In Wonderland dinner party in the Underworld video and it was so much fun! Usually for music videos there's a budget, you've gotta pay everybody, it's this big production, and Jenna and I really wanted to do something 'do it yourself'. So we just invited everyone we knew to a party, we said wear black and white, and she didn't even tell me what I was going to do and Jenna, in the end, had me performing all these physical feats [laughs]. I dropped off a bar, I had to crawl on the floor, and it was really fun.
I feel like it really encompassed the message of the record of going into the unknown, doing things you never thought you could do, and what I really like about the video is that there's no beauty shots. In a strange way it's a feminist video, because I'm not done up to look sexy or ethereal: I'm actually quite confused in it. At the chess game, I'm playing chess with a naked man which is a total spin off a famous photograph of a naked woman playing chess with Marcel Duchamp, so we were really proud of ourselves for being really smart with that [laughs]. I'm really into the video, I think it's a poetic expression of going into the unknown and exploring different worlds.
Is there a track off this record you'd call your favorite?
Yeah, I have so many that they mean so much to me, just because of the circumstances in which they were written, but I think "Stars" and "Durga". "Durga" because I just remember the day we recorded it and we recorded the bones of the record live in one day between my son's chemo cycles. It was kind of amazing; I just showed up, Tom brought the best musicians we knew, and we just banged it out, staring at each other. "Durga" is the only track in which we actually kept my scratch vocals because the energy in the room was so magical so, in terms of the performance, that's my favorite.
But, my favorite song would have to be "Stars" because I remember writing the chorus to it and it was a real turning point for me in my strange adventure with my son. I remember, he was sleeping and I was staring out the window in the hospital room overlooking the East River and it was so dark except for all the lights and I remember thinking about, 'oh my goodness, how did this happen to us?' and the idea of being dealt bad cards and then I started thinking about, people say, 'oh, it's all in the stars'. I remember thinking, 'wow, I never saw this coming'. Then, I remember looking up and actually seeing some stars - which is pretty rare for New York City - and I started thinking, 'okay, if these are my stars, if these are my cards,' - and this is going to sound really corny - 'I just have to follow them and see where they take us; they're my stars, I can't pretend they're not here'. That was a really powerful moment for me and the line is 'sometimes the sky throws a handful of stars in your way and they say come on, come on, follow me'. It's really one of the most profound moments of my life, just saying, 'okay'.
I say to people now, they say, 'what can you share with us after going through such a horrible experience?' and you've gotta own your horrible experiences as much as you own your wonderful experiences, because they're yours and you have to be curious and wonder at the horrors, just as you are curious and wonder at the really incredible things. I somehow was able to turn my attitude around and - I really believe - as a result, things worked out because of that. That's what I take away from it and I think the record is about times in my life when I didn't have that wonder, where I just looked at things that weren't going right and was just really pissed off about them [laughs]. Big learning experience. "Stars" definitely, definitely I think my favorite. It's been the one live that I tear up everytime we play it! [Laughs] Total cornball.
What do you hope your listeners are able to take away from your music?
I definitely feel like I'm in a different place now as a songwriter, I'm writing with two people in mind: myself and others. What I hope is, I hope people take away this wolf spirit from it and I hope people think of times in their own life, memories, relationships that didn't happen, times they couldn't stand up, and I hope they get some of that out of my songs and learn to have a sense of humor and peace in those memories. It's impossible to divorce the story of where the album was written from the record and - obviously, everyone's not going to know about it but, if they read about me they will - and I guess I just hope that they can take some sort of chance out of it and just say, even in the worst of times, we have a right, as people, to access our own minds and come to peace with ourselves and our past in order to face whatever the present has in front of us.
Of course I'm a mother and that's something that's been maybe a little controversial for some people, 'what was she doing writing a record when her son was undergoing cancer treatment?'. I definitely have felt that from some mothers and what I say to that is, what I learned is the greatest lesson, not only as a mother, but as anybody, when you need to be there for someone else, you need to take care of yourself first so you can best be there for them; whether it's a child or a family member, someone you're in a relationship with, that's a big lesson I learned. I really could have gone down a really dark hole [laughs] and instead I said, 'no. I am going to take care of myself, because life is short,' and in doing so, I was able to care for my son, and my son at home, too, who was very confused - they're twins.
That's what I hope people take away from it, like, 'oh, this record was written during kind of a crazy time and what can I do during my crazy time, what outlets do I have?'. And, just a reminder that we have a right to our inner selves and we should access our inner selves, especially during times of crisis, because there's a lot of magic and strength to be found there.