Introducing: Alexandra James
Where can we find you right now and what are you up to?
I’m currently based in Brooklyn and - with any luck - you can find me playing some solo and full band shows coming up soon at my favorite indie venues like Pete’s Candy Store, Arlene’s Grocery, and Rockwood Music Hall. The past year and a half, AKA quarantine, was a very transformative time for me and brought on a huge transition in my approach to my music. When the lockdown went into effect, I took a 4-month break from music, just completely stopped. I was going through a huge amount of pain, sadness and confusion, so I just stepped away. At around the 5-month mark, I began to pull myself out and just started writing music again. What flowed out was very pure and honest songwriting, it was music that was very folk and country-influenced. I’ve never really focused on writing these genres, but they were the only genres of music my parents agreed upon, so that’s basically all I listened to growing up. Something just clicked inside and the idea of moving forward as a folk/acoustic artist seemed like the most obvious and affirming move I’d made in years. Fast forward many months, and more and more of this music continues to pour out. Now, I’m working on a few single releases and an EP. This folk project is called “Bitter Then Better” and I can’t wait to share the music and move forward in this new musical identity.
What is the process you follow when writing your songs?
I usually start with a concept or idea that manifests into a short phrase or a couplet. I’ll write that down in my notebook if I’m home or in my notes app if I’m out. If I hear a melody in my head for those words, I’ll make a quick voice memo. If you saw the number of notes and voice memos I have on my phone… yikes haha. Later on, I’ll revisit those ideas and the ones I connect with the most turn into songs. Every once in a blue moon I’ll have a stroke of inspiration, sit down with my guitar or keyboard and a whole song will just spill out - but that doesn’t happen often. Most of my tunes are a labor of love, time, and patience.
What are your influences?
I’m hugely influenced by Amy Winehouse, she is my supreme goddess. Her songwriting was and still is earth-shattering to me. Her honesty and vulnerability are so monumentally inspiring to me. The way she tells stories, letting them unravel in such beautiful and/or clever ways. How she honors true emotions - even the ugly ones we don’t always like to acknowledge. Just so insanely real. I’ll never get over it. My other inspirations include a lot of other strong, bold, and honest women; Shania Twain, Nina Simone, Dolly Parton, Joni Mitchell, and Linda Ronstadt.
What instruments are used to produce your music?
I mainly write on guitar these days, but sometimes I write on keys as well. I love live instrumentation, so I’ll use as many live elements in my music as possible. The single I’m working on and hoping to release soon, “Garden Rose'', has an acoustic and electric guitar, keys/synths, glockenspiel, shaker, tingsha bells, Moog synth bass, programmed drums, and many-layered vocals - all of which I recorded myself in my home studio. Even though I’m going for a more stripped-back sonic production moving forward, I had so much fun layering all of these fun, live elements over the programmed synths and drums on “Garden Rose”. For my folk EP project, “Bitter Then Better”, I’ve been exploring a band sound of layered acoustic and electric guitars, acoustic bass or P bass, and live drums and percussion. A huge and important part of my sound is lush, strong background harmonies. Vocal harmony has always been a huge passion of mine, and whatever genre I lean into, that sound will always be there for me.
Who is responsible for your visuals?
I have a background in photography and take a lot of self-portraits. A lot of my social media visual content I do on my own, but I love collaborating with other photographers and visual artists. I’m actually collaborating with an incredible painter I went to high school with for the cover of “Bitter Then Better”. Her name is Zienna Brunsted Stewart and I could not be more excited to work with her. She does these amazingly soft and feminine realism paintings and it is an absolute dream to be painted by her for my EP cover.
What do you consider to be the most significant event that has happened so far in your career?
To be honest, I don’t look back on my career thus far and see one event that sticks out as being the most significant. Going to school for music - I have a Bachelors of Music from New England Conservatory in jazz voice and a Masters from NYU in songwriting and composition - was a very important part of my musical journey. As someone who struggled in college and didn’t think they’d finish undergrad; I’m proud of those degrees. The experiences I had and especially the people I met while earning those degrees had a huge impact on who I am today as an artist. I faced a lot of challenges in undergrad, I was never really strong with music theory and never felt like I really flourished in the stricter “conservatory” environment. Learning how to accept my musical shortcomings and focus on my strengths - my voice, my words, my perspective - brought on a whole new and confident stage of my artistry. Another huge marker of significance for me was when I was able to pay my rent and support myself completely by being a full-time musician. Being able to quit my soul-sucking bartending job and be able to pay all of my bills and live a comfortable life through songwriting, performing, and teaching was huge for me. The life of a blue-collar musician may not be incredibly glamorous sometimes, but I find so much strength and joy in it. I’m able to live a life that’s independent, free, and a lot of fun.
Do you remember any strange or funny incident that happened to you?
One of my current jobs is performing for weddings and corporate gigs. That includes bandleading, running live sound, MCing, singing and occasionally lowkey and very unprofessionally DJing (lol). To be blunt, I’ve seen a lot of strange and funny shit on those gigs. From bridezilla meltdowns (or more often, crazy fathers or mothers of the bride or groom) to wedding guests pulling drunken stunts to the lord of the rings AND star wars themed weddings complete with lightsabers, etc. I always prepare myself for pretty much anything to happen at these gigs. I won’t go into too much detail… but once I was changing out of my performance outfit after the event when the bride and co. burst into the bathroom. All I’ll say is: she didn’t quite make it to the toilet. Those crazy complex wedding dresses can be a bitch. I opened the door to my stall hoping to slip out quietly in all the commotion, but I walked out straight into the whole bridal party and the bride’s mother. The bride asked from her stall “Is anyone else in here??!” I just locked eyes with everyone, shook my head slowly, and dipped! I’ve done hundreds of events at this point, so I have more stories, but I’ll leave you with that charming one.
What difficulties have you faced so far in your career? If so, can you elaborate on how you overcame it?
I think the biggest difficulty and setback in my career has been the covid-19 pandemic and the destruction it caused in the music community. I was a couple of months after graduating from NYU when the pandemic hit. I had just turned 25 and I was ready to head out into the world and take off running with my songwriting career, using what I had learned at NYU and the exploring connections I made there. Unfortunately, COVID-19 totally decimated the community that I had built at NYU. Most of my friends and collaborators had to leave NYC and go home to another state or even country/continent, which was devastating to me. Like I said before, the lockdown had a huge effect on my emotional and mental health as well. This resulted in a period of intense writer's block and even made me question my decision to pursue a career in such a difficult and fallible industry. To be honest, I’m still in the process of overcoming all of that. Every day I just try to push forward with creative intention and focus on the love and reverence I have for the music I’m writing.
What do you think will be the future of music in terms of distribution and release in general?
To be honest, I don’t think I know enough and haven’t done thorough research on current distribution law and updates to the MMA (music modernization act) to make an educated and fully informed prediction. In terms of what I hope for in the future… I would love to see streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple music pay their artists and especially songwriters (who I believe are paid a much lower amount than recording artists in streaming revenue) a hell of a lot more than they are currently. An indie jazz artist I follow posted an update in 2020 that she was paid 0.00331 of a cent for the 800,000 Spotify streams she had. That resulted in a total of $241. If she had been paid just a penny for those streams, she would have made $8,000. That absolute bullshit blew my mind. Artists need to be paid a fair, livable wage for their art. Releasing music is a huge amount of work, time, and money. The music industry, especially streaming platforms, needs to make some big changes and provide better support and money for indie artists to release and distribute their music.
What bothers you the most about the music industry?
Honestly, that’s a huge question. There’s quite a bit that bothers me, from misogyny and sexism to ageism to the huge labels and corporations taking advantage of and squeezing out the small/independent musician. I think the thing that bothers me most off the top of my head is the combination of sexism and ageism (in the pop industry especially) that disadvantages female and non-binary artists. When I show up to a gig (usually to bandleader, run sound, MC, and sing) and the venue manager asks “I’d like to speak to whoever’s in charge, where is he?” - situations like that really piss me off. Just the expectation that a man is in charge… I experience this all the time. The lack of representation of women as instrumentalists, sound engineers, and producers also makes me really heated. Especially in my generation, young women just weren’t encouraged to pursue interests and careers in those facets of the industry, usually, the girls were singers and that was about it. In my graduating year at conservatory the three vocalists were female and the rest of the class - all instrumentalists - were male. Yes, there are women in the aforementioned fields. There have been for a while, but that percentage has always been and is still low compared to the percentage of men.
What do you feel sets you apart from other artists?
Honestly, I hear so many other artists in my voice when I sing. I emulate my influences when I sing - everyone does. To say that my voice is incredibly unique and totally different from any other artist out there would just be untrue. I’m proud to hear and celebrate the parts of my voice that were learned from listening to vocalists I admire. I don’t see that as a bad thing. I think the one thing that really sets me apart is my personal story and my journey - the stories I have to tell. I think that as humans, our experience is what makes each of us unique. This translates into music and can manifest as the way we play our instruments, the musical choices we make, the songs we write. The words I have to say and the way that I say them through my music is what sets me apart.
What are your plans for the future?
My next big musical goal is to go for a publishing deal. My dream is to make the majority of my income writing for other artists and become a well-known name in the songwriting world. That will leave me the space to record and produce the music that I truly want to create for my personal art project without feeling the pressure of releasing music that is a big commercial success. I love performing and being an artist, but I equally love songwriting and collaborating with and for other artists. I will continue to release music and pursue a career as an artist, but I want to focus more time than I have in the past writing for and producing other artists.
Tell us about your latest or upcoming release.
Right now I’m working on a series of singles followed by a full EP. This project is the one I’ve mentioned in previous answers - a stand-alone single called “Garden Rose” and then a few more singles and tunes that will be compiled into an EP called “Bitter Then Better”. I wrote almost all of the music on “Bitter then Better” over quarantine. This music helped me process traumas and difficulties I’d experienced years and years ago, and that long-awaited release got me through a lot of darkness. They served as emotional emancipations for me and brought me a lot of comforts. I like to think of them as my quarantine lullabies to myself and some of my friends, who were also going through difficult times. I’m currently working on recording, arranging, and producing this music in my home studio. I can’t wait to put all of this music out into the world and share it with anyone who connects with and relates to it.
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