Earlier this year, Toronto-based musician, Alex Southey released his third studio album And The Country Stirred. In so doing he has once more proven to be an astute songwriter who weaves stories of the human experience we can all relate to. More recently, Southey was at it again revealing to the world his new EP titled My Nights On The Island which evokes memories of a break-up from his past. There is nothing it seems that can slow down this prolific songwriter as he overwhelms our senses with six new tracks that play out like a cinematic soundtrack.
While many might peg Southey as a folk singer-songwriter, he has muscled his way out of his comfort zone in recent years, exploring new sonic territory with atmospheric synths, noise and other arrangements that has successfully redefined who is as a musician. His influences are also easily heard as he yields occasionally to the likes Pink Floyd, Oasis and maybe even Radiohead. Somehow this all helps to create a perfect escape for the listener. Moreover, there is no escaping Southey’s strong emotive voice. And as a guitarist, it’s also pleasing to hear how Southey uses it as an extension of himself.
I recently caught Alex Southey in-between running an open mic and doing press for his new EP. Here is some of what we talked about.
Alex, the first thing I’d like to ask you is about Toronto’s music community. How supportive are musicians of each other’s work and secondly, what role do local venues play in fostering that support?
Musicians are sometimes supportive… sometimes pretty cold. Myself included. Those two types are also obviously found working the local venues. Honestly, the reason I started my open mic is because a space I liked and felt totally comfortable didn’t exist. That’s not a slight to pre-existing open mics, it’s more my personal issue.
With that said, obviously Toronto’s got enough scattered open mics that you can form a group or meet like-minded people who help grow you, and you help grow them. One day it’ll feel like you’ve got no one on your side and the next day you’re like: I know half of Toronto! This is one big family!
You bring to your new EP some of the little outtakes or snippets of sounds and intros of And The Country Stirred. For instance I read how Pink Floyd inspired the little crowd intro in your song As Close As You’ll Ever Be. How fun is a process like that? And what does it bring to the song?
Yeah the snippets you reference are a huge aspect of what I like about music – or albums and studio recordings specifically. Atmosphere is such a big, big deal when it comes to listening experience. That includes little outside sounds, or breaths, or creaks of instruments. Whatever. The cool thing is… And the Country Stirred feels like i’m playing at home – or at least that’s how it feels to me. My Nights On the Island, however, is somewhere else. I don’t think of my home or even Toronto really.
“As Close As You’ll Ever Be” is a great example I mean the background to that idea goes in lots of directions. In a way, it’s an actual tribute to pink floyd, who use a soccer (football – ha) chant to bookend their song “Fearless”. In a different way, it serves as a kind of companion sound to the song’s subject – newfound fame and power via that fame, even if it’s all on social media.
It also – I think – adds a sense of distance. There’s this massive crowd. You can’t pick out any single voice. It’s just a din.
Still on the subject of As Come As You’ll Be. It feels like the most emotive track on the new EP. What’s the story behind it?
The story behind it is putting myself in the position of a music influencer, and speaking that way. There’s a king of smugness to what i’m saying, and this borderline blind belief “I” have power over “you”.
“I’m the hit in your head / i’m all on your bedspread / but that’s as close as you’ll ever be”. This is as literal as I can make it. You have two options reading this – in my head: This is about someone obsessed with a band (“head”), so obsessed they have a bedspread with their image on it. Alternatively, this person is so obsessed that in a more sexual way they might have a one night stand so they’re “on the bed spread” but that’s as close as they’ll ever really be. They won’t know that person.
Elsewhere the array of soundscapes on your new EP My Nights On The Island are pretty epic. Tell me a little bit about your outwardly sonic cinematic approach here?
It’s simple really. Atmosphere can make or break a song – or album. These days it seems tougher and tougher to get people to sit and listen to something all the way through. I’m not throwing in stuff just for greater listenership, i’m just well aware I need to create some musical version of a neon banner pop up that shines in the listener’s eyes. You just gotta change the banner’s colours.
How would you best describe the way My Nights On The Island fits into your discography? It seems like your most ambitious record yet.
It’s by far my most ambitious record. Well, in a way. And the Country Stirred might be my most “complete” record, plus it’s a whole album. It’s 12 songs that fit together like family. On the other hand, My Nights On the Island is like 6 totally different ingredients coming together to make a kind of diverse tapestry. Of course, there’s a thematic and sound-based thru-line, which is something i’ll almost always do, but it’s not as cohesive as …And the Country Stirred and that’s okay.
I understand the new songs on the EP have been around for a while, maybe a year or more? That said, you stopped short of making My Night On The island a full length album. I’m wondering what factors came into play in this decision?
It’s all just feeling it out. I didn’t want to make it an album just because I “decided” it would be an album. If there aren’t enough songs that sit together comfortably. I didn’t want to add songs just to add songs. Each album should be the cream of the crop I “grew” in the past. The reason some of the songs were around so long is because they didn’t have enough complimentary ones to put something together.
Alex, tell me how the title track is quite different to anything you’ve previously done before?
Title track really stemmed from watching too much Hip-Hop Evolution. So many simple beats. It solved my problem of not having drums. Also, it was writing this song that made me initially thing that whatever this project is would not actually be released. When it was just drum and bass, it sounded so unlike me. The song went through many iterations and I considered leaving it off the EP, despite it being the inspiration for the thing itself… It was the song where I put my least “Alex Southey” ideas, but by releasing these songs, now these are all part of my idea/sound… It’s a way to – as soon as possible – dispel any expectations of me as a singer songwriter, where people assume i’ll be Rufus Wainright. Sure I wanna be home. I also wanna be Ol Dirty Bastard. You know?
One of the songs at the moment I keep coming back to is Mellotron and Juliet. Could you elaborate a little about how it came to life as a song?
This is another example of something outside of my normal ‘zone’. For a long time I called it “Gospel for Corporate”. For a long while after I called it “Marvin Gaye for Dorks”. Then “Mellotron and Juliet” came to me and I couldn’t let that song title go. It’s… baby making music as smooth as I can make. It’s also got real world sounds. The intro is meant to sound like music at a party in the background, while you go to another more private room or outside, light up a joint, and enjoy. If you turn up the sound you can hear all of this. The lyrics are simple and suggestive: “I just want to, ‘cause i’m in love.” What “want to” refers to can be left up to interpretation – but then again I did say it’s meant to be baby-making music. Enjoy!
I really enjoy your guitar playing and how your style continues to evolve in between records. Is that a fair comment? If so, it must be thrill to continually reinvent yourself.
I think it’s fantastic it appears like I’ve evolved. I’d say I have devolved as a guitar player since I was a teen. Back then I wasn’t a metal shredder but I could handle Jimmy Page solos, all that kind of stuff. Then when I got more into songwriting, my real dexterity left me. I guess I just put more of a premium on a written song rather than a well written solo or something. Songwriting is like the structure of a house, and its make-up. A guitar solo is like what colour do we want the front door to be? I’d rather work on the whole thing, not an accessory.
I’ll bet people really want to just unwind and listen to some good music. How’s it going navigating and playing shows during a pandemic in Toronto?
I’m playing very few shows so people actually want to come each time, but yes you nailed it. Every time I speak to people at a show or at the open mic they seem thrilled they can actually get out and live their lives.
Finally, where do we find you at the moment? I can only imagine you have some new material up your sleeves too?
Of course!!!!!!!!! What kind of musician (let alone songwriter) would I be if I didn’t? At this moment – and throughout fall – I’m working with a very talented bassist and very talented drummer to fill out this batch of new songs i’ve been working on. It won’t be another folk record, and it won’t be whatever tf this EP is. Dreamy poppy alternative folkie stuff? Who knows. I just enjoyed making it and I hope people enjoy listening to it.