CONTENT WARNING: Domestic Violence.
A week ago, a friend of mine asked who I thought the face of Australian music was. Overwhelmed with options, I had to give myself a few hours to process. At its core, Australian music is loyal, grounded, and honest. It boasts infinite bounds of creativity and talent, yet doesn’t forget where it came from. A few hours and glasses of red later, I had my answer and was pretty set on it. “Barnesy xoxo but for real, Alex the Astronaut,” I texted.
Little did I know that days later, I’d be sitting down with the songwriter herself.
Alex is a storyteller, one who just happens to tell her tales through punchy acoustic melodies. Whether it’s her sparkling folk-pop stylings, her earthy vocals, or her vivid lyrics, there’s a comforting honesty that shines through every one of her tracks. Her music feels like seeing your closest friend after weeks apart, laying in the springtime sun, and coming home after a long day, all rolled into one. It’s what makes her songs so easy to fall in love with. Her debut album, The Theory of Absolutely Nothing, is a gallery of everything great about the songwriter.
A collection of short stories that manage to capture some of our darkest times, the record confirmed everything racing through my mind that night. Alex is able to paint dark moments with a sensitivity that most artists can only dream of, ensuring that each tale is cared for and no one is left out. She has enough heart to inspire anyone to pick up a guitar and tell their story, to reach for the stars even when it seems impossible. She is an astronaut, after all.
HAPPY: How was recording Live At Enmore?
ALEX: Yeah, it was really good!
HAPPY: What song did you end up playing?
ALEX: I played Caught In The Middle which is the middle song off my new album.
HAPPY: There you go, could you tell us a little bit about it?
ALEX: It’s like a panoramic view of the party and there’s lots of different characters who, some of them I stole them from other songs that I’ve written and some of them are real people. There’s one verse about my parents; when I was little, they used to have parties really late at night [laughs] and apparently when I was four, I went upstairs, turned the music off, went back downstairs and went to bed [laughs]. Yeah, they used to dance on the table and that table’s right over my room, so it’d be so loud and my sister and I were like, “go to bed!”
HAPPY: [Laughs] I wish I had that much sass when I was four.
ALEX: Yeah, I’m proud of myself! But yeah, then there’s the little different bits. Like, one verse was about Sam Cromack, who produced lots of the songs on the album. I think a couple of songs in, he told me that his wife was pregnant and, because I was travelling and we were making the album in bits, by the time we finished recording, he had the baby!
ALEX: Yeah, little Enid was born. So yeah, that was insane. I think we were in the studio maybe a couple of weeks before Enid was born, so he was telling us about what he felt like leading into being a dad and everything. I wanted to write him in because it was just like, he was in the middle of having a child! Something so significant in his life is happening. But yeah, [the song’s] just about when you go to a party and you haven’t seen people in a long time. Yeah, and you have those little conversations.
HAPPY: Nice little catch-ups. Well the whole album’s about telling other people’s stories, isn’t it?
HAPPY: Could you tell us a little bit about why you chose to go down that route?
ALEX: I don’t know, I think that’s just how I write. I knew I wanted it to be 10 songs, so I went through and made a big mindmap of more than 10 ideas. The 10 ideas that I got to in the end, they were the ones that I felt like got all the light and dark because I really wanted it to feel like the experiences that people have. All the juxtaposed things and I think that I wanted it to mimic life; really happy things happen and then very sad things happen. Then they’re all mixed together and yeah… I don’t know.
HAPPY: Life’s just a big old mess [laughs].
ALEX: [Laughs] A big mess, yeah! I think maybe that’s what it was about. It was about everything being a mess and that’s why I called it The Theory of Absolutely Nothing because it’s just like; we know nothing and I think I was coming out of feeling like I knew everything. I was in a very small bubble, I was living in the dorms in my college in America, then I moved back to Australia and I was very suddenly a professional musician and had no training. I mean, I’ve been writing my whole life and that was helpful, but I’d only played on a stage a couple of times and suddenly I was playing proper shows. I was definitely experiencing a lot of things that I knew very little about and I think that was happening personally as well. It was kind of that period that I think most people go through where they finish uni and suddenly it’s like; oh, there’s a whole world out there!
HAPPY: Yeah, can relate to that [laughs].
ALEX: [Laughs] Yeah! It’s a bit of a shock.
HAPPY: This album was a long time coming, wasn’t it?
ALEX: Yeah, very long time.
HAPPY: Do you think that gave you more time to refine the songs or did the album just come out when it felt natural?
ALEX: I didn’t really know how to write albums, that was a lot of it. I wrote individual songs about what was going on in my life or day. Like, I wasn’t thinking I would be a musician and this is what was going to happen. I didn’t listen to albums growing up either. I think I got a little bit more education when I got into music and when I started listening to full albums and I was like; oh okay, this is how you capture the feeling or the colours. I guess the albums that I want to listen to the whole way through, they’ve got a lot of light and dark and a lot of contrast and movement. So that’s kind of what I started to try and do.
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HAPPY: You’ve said that the album is based around stories from others. Were there any songs that you connected with on a personal level?
ALEX: The stories aren’t all from other people. Like two of them aren’t, eight of them are. So yeah, the ones that aren’t… I think they were just things that I felt like I had an emotional understanding of the experience and could tell the stories. I did lots of research, that was kind of why I felt I was okay to write it.
HAPPY: Which ones were those for you?
ALEX: I Like to Dance and Lost. Yeah, I Like To Dance… um, a judge came up to me at a party and just said, “I want you to write a song.”
HAPPY: A judge? Wow.
ALEX: Yeah! And it wasn’t like a command [laughs]. He was like, “I’ve had this case and it was just heartbreaking. This woman came up to me and was telling me how great her boyfriend was, there was a case against him, and she’s trying to explain how great this guy was. Then in the middle of the sentence, said; I just wish he’d stop hitting me.”
HAPPY: Oh my God.
ALEX: He’s just like, “I can’t get it out of my head, it’s just stuck. I see these cases every day but I think it’s just something you need to write about, that line.” He set me up with these domestic violence liaison officers, Kylie and Simone, and they sat down with me and answered so many of my questions. We just chatted for like three hours and they were so great. They had worked in domestic violence for 20 years, both of them, and it’s so traumatic the things that they’ve seen. But such strong women and so hardworking, so emotionally invested in this woman’s well being. They helped me with the little finer details and making sure that I got all of that right because I really wanted to make sure that if any survivor heard the song, that the details that they have experienced, that they could hear it. And then as well, I wanted to make sure that people who hadn’t experienced it could sit down with the person or felt like they were sitting next to the person and could be their friend.
HAPPY: Yeah, of course. Did you get a chance to speak to any survivors and hear their stories?
ALEX: I have friends that have experienced abuse, but not directly about the song. I’ve spoken to people since about the song and as a musician, it’s such a funny little job that you don’t really understand. It’s really nice to be able to do something for other people. Yeah, I got a message from a woman that said she’d heard the song on the radio and that she was in a relationship with a really great man, that he was really sweet and smart and great and everything, but she related to lots of the things and she was like, “I’ve decided today that I’m going to leave.” I was like, oh my God. I’m not trained in domestic violence counselling or those things but I think that I just referred to the resource 1800 Respect when writing the song. It’s just really incredible to know that you could make someone feel heard or make them feel understood.
HAPPY: Which is so important.
ALEX: Yeah, absolutely.
HAPPY: Like you said, music is such a powerful thing. What role do you feel that music plays in the current situation that we’re all in?
ALEX: I don’t know. I think music is underestimated with how much impact it has on people’s day to day lives. I think most people don’t even realise how much music they listen to and for someone like me, I’m obviously obsessed, so it impacts my situation right now. Like, not even as a musician, listening to music is something that I’m doing constantly now. But yeah, I think music is a mirror to our feelings and that thing of being seen and heard is one of the most, if not the most important thing that people need to feel. Everyone, when they’re having a bad day, turns on a sad song. Everyone goes to parties and has that couple of songs that they love to hear when they come on. It has a massive impact on people’s well being but it’s more than that. I think it’s like some sort of strange magic that really changes the world. I don’t think there’s many things other than art that can do what music can, it communicates things with such depth. And yeah, getting to that deep level where people feel seen and heard, you can do it through talking to friends and stuff like that but music cuts deeper. And at the moment, we need to cut deep as we can because there’s a lot of shit going on [laughs].
HAPPY: Were there any particular artists who you were listening to when you were creating the record?
HAPPY: Yes! [laughs].
ALEX: Actually, if you play it alongside one of their songs, [sings I Miss You], whatever that song is, I think the drumbeat is exactly the same and they’re in the same key [laughs].
HAPPY: Oh my god, remix potential!
ALEX: Yeah, if I have time! But yeah, lots of different artists… Actually that’s not true, I always listen to Gang of Youths right now [laughs]. It makes you cry!
HAPPY: Oh my God. I was gonna see them at Groovin’ this year and it got cancelled. I was devastated!
ALEX: Oh no!
HAPPY: Well, you recently went on Playschool actually, which is insane! How was that?
ALEX: Yeah, I did. It was insane. It felt really surreal. I think I hadn’t thought about it much and I saw it on my calendar and we went into the ABC, it’s cool! Like, you go in and they introduce you to all the toys. So you get to meet Little Ted, Big Ted, Jemima, and see the rocket clock and see all of the setting things that I remember from being little, like the windows! I was like a little four year old, I was so excited! There was actually a massive crew and it was filmed like a year or so ago. But yeah, I was scared. I was really nervous because I don’t know, it’s totally different playing in like Groovin The Moo, a crowd of twenty-somethings who have been drinking and they know a few of your songs, compared to playing for kids. Kids are scary.
HAPPY: It’s a live audience?
ALEX: Oh no. But that’s what they say to you, like, pretend you’re playing to kids. But it takes this specific skill set to be able to engage children because they don’t really care what you’re doing.
HAPPY: Yeah, they can be savage can’t they [laughs]?
ALEX: [Laughs] They can be mean! But nah, it was just really cool. I did my scene with Henny Penny… I also don’t feel super comfortable like acting and so I had to do a little bit of acting with Henny Penny and there’s all the cameras around you’re like; oh, I’m definitely not equipped for this. But yeah, it was awesome. It was so much fun. I’ve got my script still.
HAPPY: I can’t even imagine that it’s a real place. It just feels like this fantasyland.
ALEX: Yeah. Well, like lots of places, I don’t know, like some of the things that you see behind the scenes, it’s not as cool. This was as cool [laughs].
HAPPY: So are you back in the studio now, what’s happening for you?
ALEX: Just doing lots of writing, which is really fun. I don’t think I’ve had time, it feels like, to write in ages. So I just like writing at home, doing my demos, and playing drums. Yeah, I’m learning the drums.
HAPPY: Oooh. How’s it going?
ALEX: It’s pretty difficult. It’s funny because my teacher is Dan from Ball Park Music and he’s really encouraging and sometimes in lessons, he’s like, “Alex, you’re just doing so well. I’m so proud of you.” And I’m yeah, I’m proud of me too, I’m good at this! And then I’ll see videos of G Flip or people and I’m like, they’re much better than me [laughs].
HAPPY: I mean, you can’t really watch G Flip when you’re learning.
ALEX: [Laughs] I’m like, “Dan, have you seen these guys? Are you just being nice to me?” But like, it’s fun.
HAPPY: It feels like it’d be the greatest thing to get out heaps of anger to just bash it out on the drums, hey?
ALEX: Oh yeah! I’ve got electric drums as well, so I can turn them up and put songs on. At the moment, I’m playing Shania Twain’s I Feel Like a Woman, which is really fun!
HAPPY: [Laughs] I can imagine! Well, thank you so much for the chat.
ALEX: No worries.
The Theory of Absolutely Nothing is out tomorrow (August 21st). Grab your copy here.