At the end of last year, we had the pleasure of premiering Alex Dezen’s “New York to Paradise” in anticipation of his upcoming album release. Now, with the album just around the corner (February 3rd, people!), we’ve got a more in-depth look at life – and history – with Alex.
When did music become important to you?
That’s a good question. I think it’s come in waves. It was extremely important to me when I was a young kid growing up in a rough home. My sister and I forged an incredibly strong bond over music. It was our refuge from the loud voices on the other side of the wall. In the years that followed, music was the thing that quite literally defined me. Who I was and the way I engaged with the world, both in the way I saw it and allowed the world to see me, was defined by the music I listened to. It then became pragmatically important when I started playing in bands, especially when The Damnwells started touring and making records. Then from about 2007/2008 to about 2011, music was utterly unimportant to me. I was in graduate school getting my masters degree, and was myopically focused on my studies. I kind of abandoned music in those years. To be honest, I felt slighted by the music industry (we had gotten dropped by one label, then kind of mistreated by another), and had wrongly lumped the music I was making with the pain of what I perceived as a professional failure.
In the years after graduate school, I started writing songs for other people. At that time, music had become a vocation, a job. I was writing songs seven days a week, sometimes twice a day, in collaborations with other songwriters and artists. Ironically, that was when music was the least important. That kind of music-making is like putting together a puzzle, which can be fun and challenging, but is more about the labor than the image that emerges when all the pieces are finally in place. After doing that for a few years, I started writing for myself again. That was when music became the most important to me. The flood gates opened, and they haven’t stopped since.
How do you keep yourself inspired to continually create music?
I kind think inspiration is bullshit. I think it’s certainly important, especially in the early stages of artistic development, but only accounts for maybe 2%-5% of the work. Inspiration can be an incredibly powerful motivator, but discipline is what gets the work done. Then there are other factors, like time and energy and access. More often than not in life, all of these things will align EXCEPT inspiration. Then what do you do? Not work? Making music, sculpture, painting, dancing–any of the arts–requires discipline more than anything else. Chasing the muse around is a young person’s game. Learning how to cultivate inspiration and direct it is how you keep making art once the casual sex and Budweisers have lost their charm.
You’ve said before that writing is your life. Is there anything in particular you find attractive about songwriting?
Very little. It’s extremely hard, and you can often spend days writing a song only to toss it a week later. What’s attractive about songwriting is very simple: when you write a song that people like, it makes you feel good. It is art, for sure, but it’s a very “low” art, meaning it’s very easy to learn and replicate, and its standard of quality is extremely varied. What I do find inextricably beautiful about songwriting is the ease with which it can reward someone. If you can learn a few chords, you can write a song, and to create something out of nothing is to reach the absolute height of the human experience.
II comes out on February 3rd, and you already have work done for your third album. Showing any signs of slowing down?
I don’t think so. At this point I’ve learned how to be disciplined and get the work done. I also feel like I’m chasing something. I don’t know what it is exactly, but each song, each album, feels like I’m getting a little closer to whatever that thing is.
How supportive are your friends and family in your pursuit of music?
Very. My sister is extremely supportive. My mother is incredibly supportive, too. It’s taken her years to understand the ebb and flow of the financial and emotional side of being a songwriter/guy in a band. And who can blame a mother for being concerned about the emotional and financial well-being of her son? But she’s always been a huge supporter from day one. My long-time girlfriend, Amber, is incredibly supportive as well. In fact, she sang all over this new record and will be joining me on the road to support it, literally! All my friends are musicians or songwriters or artists in some capacity, so we’re all very supportive of one another. Probably a little competitive, too, which I don’t really enjoy. I feel extremely fortunate to have so much support. I try to always remember that. Taking people seriously, no matter what they do, is to grant people the dignity of owning their own life. It’s a very powerful act of kindness, and we are much too stingy with that particular kind of love.
In “New York To Paradise” you tell an incredible story. In another interview, you mentioned you wanted the chorus to be challenging to listen to. Could you walk us through how you made that happen?
Thank you. I appreciate you taking the time to listen so intently! I write pop music. Plain and simple. It may not be modern pop music, but it still abides by the principals of concise, simple songwriting. I didn’t want the music of “New York to Paradise” to follow those rules. The older I get, the less interested I am in making pop music that is anything more than a speck in the rearview mirror of today’s pop music standards.
With “New York to Paradise,” I wanted something that, musically, represented the tangled hope and anguish I was feeling about my mother after the death of my stepfather and biological father. She’s the only parent I have left, and in the wake of those two monumental deaths in my life, I felt that I needed to look my own mother’s mortality square in the face. Denial of death, not recognizing its inevitable power over us, keeps everything nice and neat. It keeps us from running out into the street, screaming and wailing, and we just can’t have that in our society. But to do that, to only allow emotions to color between the lines, keeps us apart from one another, and, more importantly, apart from ourselves. I didn’t want this song, about this particular subject, to have to stay in the lines. It needed to, in some way, break down some of those barriers. That can be hard to listen to.
What is the earliest record you can remember listening to, and who introduced it to you?
It was probably something stupid like Appetite for Destruction, which I listened to simply because everyone else did, and I didn’t need anything else separating me any further from the rest of the 8-year-olds. The records I remember really loving were the records my mother loved, like Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline,” and I probably only ever really liked it because it reminded me of my mother. I remember listening to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack on headphones and wishing I had a girlfriend I felt as strongly about as the Bee Gees did when they wrote “More Than a Woman.” That song was about the closest a little kid from a broken home was going to get to understanding the romantic power of love.
Do you have any dream collaborations with other artists, producers, or anyone?
No. Not really. I really love the people I get to play and collaborate with.
Super heroes, or super villains?
Well, super heroes like Batman seem to posses that good, almost even, amount of hero and villain. So can I just pick tragic super heroes?
Anything else you’d like to let our readers know?
I love birds.
Alex Dezen II is out February 3rd. It is available for preorder now.