We sat down with Stefan Alexander to talk about love, imagination, losing his ability to make music for years, recovering, and showing what a young gay singer can do with determination and all the support in the world.
Jeremy Hinks: So, Stefan, thanks for taking the time. I’m going to jump right in with this point. I enjoyed the music I’ve been given, but since it is still not released, my daughters enjoyed listening to it, but I can’t let them have in their iPods yet. So, the album comes out in March, but plenty of singles with the EP are going around, but let’s start with your “No Doubt” cover. Your version of “Don’t Speak” was really a surprise against the rest of your music. I hope that gets a lot of traffic for you because it is very well done.
SA: Thank you so much for that, I’m glad that you liked it .
JH: But let’s move on to the really fun stuff, The song “Oh My”, that had a lot of sexual innuendo, and even more “gender neutral” points, “there goes my shirt up over my head,” and “there goes my skirt dropping”, there was a lot in there.
SA: Actually that was a cover of “Oops, (oh My)” by Tweet and Missy Elliott, from 2002, and not a lot of people remember it, but it is a really deep favorite of mine from the music video era when I was watching a lot of MTV, VH1, BET, and all the other countdown shows. That song had this very quick moment of fame, then fizzled out. It was the video and song, that felt naughty, and that I should not be watching it as an 11-year old. The production on the original was incredible, and we tried to emulate parts of it, and also to make it my own, and modernize it. I want people to enjoy it, but also go back and listen to the original because its just SOOOOO GOOOD.
JH: That wasn’t labeled as a cover on the channels I got to listen to it from, so, well, I’m going to have to go back and do that, mission accomplished. How about “Cry Again”? That is another one that I enjoyed, I have my ideas of what it means, and I have some questions about it, very nebulous, so, talk about that one.
SA: Well, I’m not sure what my publicist told you about me, and my history.
JH: Well, he told me that you are a vinyl junkie, especially that you collect 78’s, and I do, too, but I have about four thousand pieces of vinyl, but only maybe 10 or so 78’s. An original of “Porgy and Bess” and some fun big band stuff, but, that’s about it.
SA: Oh My God, that’s AWESOME!!! YES I LOVE THE CRACKLING ON THE VINYL. You and I are on the same vibe. I have five thousand 78’s, fewer regular vinyls than the 78’s I’ve gotten over the years. They are only worth a dollar, most of them, but they do go up in price, the rarer ones anyway.
JH: I see them for sale, but at a fortune, when I see ones I’m interested in, they are $60 a print. Let’s get back to your story, we could geek about vinyl for hours on end.
SA: Okay, from 2013 to 2017, I had this chronic pain issue, I couldn’t play any music at all. In 2013, I couldn’t play guitar, then a year later I couldn’t sing because of my voice. So, I couldn’t really make any music, without getting totally wasted. The only way I could record was to drink 2 six packs to get in an hour of singing.
JH: Wow, you’re competing with Keith Richards man, that must have been very difficult.
SA: Yeah, (laugh) but not very sustainable, and not able to take that on the road. So the first EP “Thunderclap” the title track of that album is about that period of my life. Then “Cry Again” was the aftermath, when I finally could sing and play again, and the rush of emotions that I was finally able to experience. Those emotions I had bottled up for so long, with the music I could unleash them again. But there is also the aspect of “toxic masculinity” and how much society teaches men not to express themselves without rage. So how important it is to be a complete human, and express the wide breadth of emotions that we need to feel, or it becomes so much bigger without dealing with it.
JH: Was your sexuality playing into this very much or at all at this time?
SA: No, I had been out since I was 21, I’m 28 now. But being sick is a weird thing when you are dating, and in the gay dating world, it’s even harder. Asking yourself when do I disclose this information, I don’t know if you are a Dan Savage fan, but he said “You can tell ONE thing about yourself, and it will tell you so much about that other person” in how they react to it. So it made things complicated, especially early dating, to not know what to tell people what I was doing with my life. So much of what I was doing was going to doctors, going to therapy, and all of that is not something that is easy for people to understand when that is kind of your life. Of course, as a gay person I am not immune to toxic masculinity, perhaps there is more forgiveness more expected of us to be effeminate. There is less expected of me around that than there is about men in the heterosexual world, but we are all growing up in the same culture, and its hard for men to cry openly, its really unfortunate, not being able to express that side of emotions can be really dangerous.
JH: It sounds like your saving grace was being able to show yourself as vulnerable.
SA: Yeah, during that time, I listened to a lot of podcasts on the subject, and understanding that vulnerability is the highest power that a person can have. To be able to connect with someone at that level, to be the fullest person that they are. Being vulnerable in any situation I think is incredible.
JH: So, “Cry Again” was in the aftermath, the recovery, the home stretch.
SA: TOTALLY. When you are going through the rehab, and getting these abilities back, and your body is able to finally release all of this, then you are able to release all of this emotion as well. Trauma can do a ton of shit, I mean cortisol damages everything in your body, its chronic presence in your body is just sucks everything up.
JH: So in “Photograph”, the best line, “If we met outside the frame”, I mean the concept of that is SO COOL. I took it as, here is the photograph, what’s inside this frame, it’s frozen in that moment, here is what I think it means, it is a captured moment, that could or could not actually be something but you make that photograph mean something. It’s a visual of an idea in that moment, “A picture is worth a thousand wounds.”
SA: Wait did you make that up? I love that…
JH: Nah, I had a roommate from Alabama, he spoke fluent redneck, he would say things like that “A picture is worth a thousand wounds” or “Love is a many splintered thing” he had tons of them. Comedic wisdom he called it. So, anyway I loved that one, “if we met outside of the frame”…
SA: This song was primarily inspired by the whole aspect of dating. I couldn’t play music, so filling my life with something to do, I became a “Chronic Dater”, and I would literally go on three or four first dates a week. I was using all these dating apps, and I met a lot of people, and I came to know that I was, not falling in love with them, but creating these whole years long scenarios, these whole fantasies that would NEVER come true, because I don’t know them. And in most cases I would never meet them, cause they wouldn’t “swipe right” on me, and allowing my imagination to blossom became really destructive, because I was mourning all of these relationships that never were. There is definitely a big aspect, I think, the moment that you come out in life, that’s where you begin your “romantic puberty”. So I was the equivalent of a thirteen year old boy when I was a 21 year old. And being the romantic, it probably killed a lot of the relationships I could have been in, because I was so desperate for what I wanted in this whole imagined fantasy.
JH: A gay psychologist explained to me that anthropomorphically, the LGBTQ community is stunted in its growth, because of the emotional maturity that all these different people are in when they come out. People who are able to come out when they are younger, they are able to go on different paths, easier, maybe less rough in the long run. But, you nailed it that way, calling it “romantic puberty”, that’s a perfect description.
SA: I should say though, I was lucky that I grew up in one of the gayest towns in America, Northampton Massachusetts, and then there is P-Town Massachusetts, the other gayest town in America.
JH: Oh yeah, I remember when I lived in Boston, I went to P-Town, saw guys walking around holding hands, no one cared. When I was in high school, never would have happened. Glad it’s getting to where people can let it happen. So, when did you know?
SA: I was thirteen, and, well, I found gay porn and I realized “HEY I LIKE THIS” (laughing) that was my sexual, sensual awakening. I had the internet, it was 2004, high speed, Google, and I could download the images, and there it was. But even when I was growing up, I had a lesbian mayor in my hometown and my parents were extremely accepting. My parents had been marching in gay pride parades since the ’70s. So I’m riddled with guilt, and I told them that I had watched gay porn, and “MAY” have liked it. And they said, “That’s fine, just let us know what’s going on.” So for me it was very much, societal pressures, and the pressures of my homophobic peers that kept me in the closet. And it fucked with my head, I mean there was Jack on Will and Grace, and I thought, “Well, I’m not like him, so am I really gay?” there were so few role models to look at. I mean my dad had some gay friends, and they were baby boomers, but no one in their twenties that I could relate to.
JH: OK, what is the song “Barricade” about.
SA: That was the next in my story, so we walked right into that one, but so much of my stuff is about the experience of being queer.
JH: See, I like the echo of the voice in the first few measures, and I’m breaking the rules and asking trade secrets in production, but, how did you do that? But then you had a few measures that sounded like the Beatles in there.
SA: I definitely learned so much about harmonies from The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Zombies, and how important it was from bands like Crosby Stills, and Nash, which I learned how to harmonize.
JH: I can see you learned those things, you studied music, ’cause you have them all present in your vocal productions, I mean, it’s not like the old school punk, where they plug in and start singing, yelling, and trying to be heard over the distortion. I mean, I LOVE that stuff, but a totally different style of singing.
SA: Yeah, that works, too. Those guys have some talent, and are STILL making punk music. So, that was what “Barricade” was about, was about being queer, and having this whole community that was there with open arms, and how cool it was to be welcomed into this family, and being a part of something bigger than myself.
JH: So, my daughter wanted to see what you looked like when she heard your music, so I showed her, and she said, “why is he wearing that shirt?” She said, “he can’t be gay, no gay man would be wearing something like that.” It wasn’t a sophisticated 3 piece suit.
SA: Well, my friends defining my style was as they called it “Hong Kong Grandmother”, which I fully accept. Lots of colors, floral patterns and, mod, and a lot of costume jewelry. That’s how I dress out in the world, not just for photo-shoots. But most of that flamboyant dress happened once I recovered from being sick, that was another part of releasing that emotion, and learning to express myself through fashion. And in the political era we are in, wanting to be LOUDER, not wanting to pass as a cis white man that is straight, and go about my life silently, I want to be heard and seen as different. I’m not super effeminate in my speech, but in my dress, I am wearing drop earrings, and doing my nails, but it’s not in my voice, so, people are confused and don’t know how to take it. Riding the subway with super loud clothing. I mean, that’s why I live in New York in the first place, it’s just full of so many interesting people. My neighborhood is mostly Pakistanis and Russians.
JH: So, I guess with all those colors you wear, you probably fit in great with all the Pakistani women, and the colorful robes.
SA: I WISH I COULD DO THAT, I LOVE the colors they wear, I couldn’t pull it off like that, the colors are so vibrant, and the gold threading, even the men are wearing these incredible robes. If only I could pull that off.
JH: So, moving on, your song “Medicine,” that’s a fun funky song. But not sure if you are aware of this, but among certain Native American cultures, the term “making medicine” is what they call it when two people are getting along really well, in love, or just connecting well. So I had images from “Dances with Wolves” in my mind from that line.
SA: I never heard that before, that makes me really happy, I mean the song is all about two people, both on the rebound, and the power of sex to heal, and to finding the sexual part of yourself, can really soothe those wounds of the pain of a breakup.
JH: You seem to be able to hit heavy subjects, with heavy lyrics. Talking about heavy, the song “Skeleton,” I like the fun upbeat sound, but man, dark lyrics. It’s like one of my fave bands, New Order, they have these really fun dance tracks, great to listen to, but the lyrics are really harsh. Example “It’s called LOVE, and it cuts your life!! Like a broken knife.” You did the same with that number.
SA: That one I wrote and released in 2015, when I was sick and had to be completely drunk in the studio. It was mainly inspired by, not really a romantic breakup, but a friendship breakup. One that had sort of drifted, unbeknownst to me. And this woman I had been friends with from middle school, she called me up one day and talking she said, “When I think about who I want to hang out with, and you just don’t come to mind.” It was pretty devastating, and it was about thinking how I could get so close to somebody again, as a friend, a lover, whatever for fear of another type of ending like that. When two people are on such drastically different pages, it is never going to end well.
JH: Wow that’s heavy, I’m going to have to go back to that one again. But, I’m greedy, and get to dig around in people’s musical catalogs. So, I get to hear it before anyone else does, and I get to ask about it, too. So you work in a studio, and I’m sure you meet a lot of great people in there, but, what’s next, a tour, cabaret show on cruise ships?
SA: Yeah, it’s mostly voiceover and commercials, but I have met some great singers and actors. My plans moving forward, it’s hard to tour when you have a day job, and a life to keep up, but the ultimate goal is to tour and play full time, write with other people, and for other people. But for this year, I plan on playing a show in Philly, then Providence, then Boston, I just played a show in my hometown of Northampton, and sold it out, DC, Baltimore, mostly on the east coast, but hopefully worldwide.
JH: Good luck with that. So, I ask everyone this at the end of each interview. What would your message be to the young kid, the one who is in the closet, afraid to come out, in a vulnerable state?
SA: I guess I would say, If they are in a vulnerable position, if they could get kicked out of the house, it’s an extremely difficult decision, whether to live as you really are, or have a roof over your head. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live that way. I know living in the closet is so uncomfortable, but I guess what I would say, on a more encouraging note, whenever you come out, wherever you come out, and however you come out, there are people that you will be able to connect with, that will understand your experience, that will be able to love you for exactly who you are, for every facet of who you are, and that is the thing you have to remember when you are in those dark closeted times, knowing there is a future where you will be surrounded by people who appreciate you and love you.
JH: Well, I will tie it up with that, thanks Stefan.
** Soundcloud (https://soundcloud.com/stefanalxndr/cry-again/s-xImsd)