Alex Day: 'My Lyrics Have A Realism Which Is A Bit Too Vulnerable'

artist: alex day date: 05/11/2010 category: interviews
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Alex Day: 'My Lyrics Have A Realism Which Is A Bit Too Vulnerable'
There's always been a soft spot in my heart for Pokmon, and that's likely never going to change. This might seem like a weird way to start an interview, but I promise you that it's going somewhere. Like many people, I sometimes browse YouTube when I'm looking for songs from albums that I haven't bought yet. One thing that instantly caught my eye was a little video, now available through UG.TV, called: "Pokemon, What Happened To You?" It's the sort of thing that leaps out from the front page to grab you by the nostalgia. It was also the sort of video to make me a fan almost instantly, but that's not what made me choose to do this interview. It was the little video that came at the end. Supposedly, a "YouTube Upload Festival" was coming, and I had no idea about it. Alex Day is one of the artists chosen for this event. He is a musician and a comedian from England, a fan of shows like Lost, and always seems to have a cheerful disposition. I asked him over the contact page on his website for an interview, and he answered me personally. That, as far as I'm concerned, said it all. There's a lot that can be said about the fabled YouTube musician, especially one as popular as Alex Day. Reaching an audience with videos before live performances is not generally how it's done, and comedy music is not always as far reaching and most people would like. With this in mind, I went into this interview with a fairly defined main question in mind. I wanted to know how Alex had managed to create such a popularity through the newly modern conventions of internet broadcast. So we can jump right in from here. Enjoy. Tom: What first inspired you to begin making your music? Alex: I've always approached music as a great tool for communication. I latch on to songs which have identifiable lyrics; I always used to be scrawling out lines that spoke to me on to my bedroom walls in Sharpie (nightmare when we moved house). So I wanted to write songs that I myself would have appreciated hearing when I was growing up and needed lyrics on my wall; songs that make other people feel like they aren't isolated just because they have doubts about themselves, or they're heartbroken for the first time... or because they think the Pokmon games have become a bit shit. (I'd argue that the Pokmon song is still about lost love, though. In a way.) Is losing something a recurring theme in your work? Some songs, like 'An Awful Lot Of Running' could be interpreted in many ways. I tend to write less about losing something and more about waiting for something. I figure the 'we're so happy' love song only captures a moment in a relationship, a moment that's not reflective of the relationship as a whole. To make things work, you do have to be patient, enjoy the small things and admit that it'll only be alright if you work at it. That idea is a lot easier to relate to, at least for me, than having this idealistic fantasy about Hollywood romance playing out in your ears. People spend a lot more time waiting and worrying and working stuff out than they do in a blissful haze of love and joy. I'm not a glass half empty kind of guy, but I'm just saying 'there's a glass with water in half of it. Tell it like it is.'

"I've always approached music as a great tool for communication."

Well, from that it's fairly easy to work out that you're fairly direct and straight talking, but surely it's difficult to be like that in a purely musical context? I don't find it difficult, but that's because it's what I'm used to. It's how I look at life. My lyrics have a realism to them which is probably a bit too vulnerable - like listening to someone sing their diary to you, or something. There's a song on my first album, Parrot Stories, called 'Holding On' and it's about waiting to be with someone; there's this line, "I'll never be your Leo", and people are always asking what it means. It's because the girl who inspired that song loved this book called Stargirl, in which a guy called Leo falls in love with the main character (named Stargirl). One of my friends asked me why I even bother writing songs, lacing my feelings up in metaphor and ambiguity, when I'm just gonna throw in a line as personal as that; my response was that it's because ultimately I don't write songs to hide my feelings, I do it to showcase them. Has anybody ever realised where they fit into one of your songs and reacted to it? I always tell people if I've written a song about them. It's nice, isn't it, to know someone wrote a song about you? And I've never done one that's completely horrible or hateful or anything like that, so it's not ever been an awkward thing. I'm quite upfront about my feelings, so it's never been a case of me sending them a song and them saying 'oh wow, I had no idea you felt that way'. I'm of the opinion that the cause of at least 80% of our problems comes from miscommunication, and honesty is the best way to fight that. If I can shift the focus a little towards the media in general; other than interviews like this, how are you getting your music out there when the market is becoming increasingly purchase deficient? I find people are incredibly receptive as long as you make the effort to treat them like people, not just customers. It helps that I'm not famous enough for people to bother torrenting my CDs. That's half of what free downloading is, just the convenience of having it there. I'd argue it's not the market that's becoming purchase deficient, it's specifically the popular music market. People feel more inclined to give money to me than to hand it to some faceless corporation because they know I'll be personally receiving and benefiting from a huge share of that money, and that I'll value it in a way that isn't just looking at zeroes on a cheque. They want to support me, not the A&R guy. So the way I get my music out there is just by trying to make fantastic content for my audience, all the time. I make all my videos myself for anybody to watch for free, and I do that regardless of whether or not I have a new CD out. I just enjoy communicating with people and entertaining others, and people value that. If they can see that you're making the effort, they'll meet you halfway. Is it because of this that you were invited to join the Upload tour? There is a lot of music to be found on YouTube, so you must be quite honoured by it. I guess so - the organisers saw potential in my abilities and provided a way to give me more exposure while also benefiting from it themselves, so everyone wins. And I get to go on tour with some great friends of mine, so it should be really good fun. I think a lot of people are interested in the idea of 'YouTube taking to the stage' - MySpace is usually heralded as THE place online to find new musical talent, while YouTube continues relentlessly pouring out fantastic artists that just get overlooked. I'm looking forward to seeing that perception change. DFTBA Records, my label, was set up exclusively to support YouTube talent, and they're consistently putting out fantastic stuff. So would you consider yourself one of the biggest names on YouTube by this point? I don't know, I always find it a bit weird to think about it like that. People call me an 'internet celebrity' and I just don't like that term, it elevates me to a status I haven't earned and at the same time belittles me a bit, like I'm the biggest fish in a drainpipe. I guess a lot of people who use YouTube do know who I am - I get recognised in the street and that's always nice - but I'll never feel satisfied with the title of 'big name on YouTube'. It's like having x thousand friends on MySpace or so many followers on Twitter; ultimately, if you weren't there, people would just find something else to watch.

"To make things work, you do have to be patient, enjoy the small things and admit that it'll only be alright if you work at it."

What about when you're on the internet yourself? Do you find yourself drawn to internet celebrities, or do you wander away from YouTube altogether just to get away from somewhere that you undoubtedly spend a lot of time? I try to minimise the amount of time I spend online in general. When I'm on YouTube it's to upload a video or read comments and YouTube messages people have left for me. The temptation to sit watching things for hours is huge so I'm only subscribed to a handful of people. I know people make a lot of entertaining things, but if I went looking for everything on the internet that could entertain me, I'd never get anything done! That said, if I'm round a friend's place and they're showing me something on YouTube, it's not like going into the office on a Saturday and saying 'gah, I don't wanna be at work when I'm out of hours!' - it's just a website and of course it's fun. What is it that you're planning to bring to the Upload festival that nobody else is likely to have? I'll openly admit that I'm not the most talented singer on the tour, but I definitely put everything into creating an experience. I want the crowd to get involved. Not in a cabaret 'come on stage and tell us about yourself' way that embarrasses people, but with call-and-response, clapping, just having a great time. Performances are best when the enthusiasm of the performer and the audience feed off each other, and I think I pull that off. Do you find difficulty in creating a unique stage performance when you're so used to being behind a camera instead of in front of an audience? You can conceptualise stage presence to your heart's content, but really the only way to develop is to perform live. You just can't recreate that experience elsewhere. So in that sense, I'm no different to any other performer. That said, it is impossible to visualise a stadium full of people - that being the amount of views I get - and then just me, in the middle, singing a little song. What an odd life. What do you think you would have ended up doing if you weren't doing this? I can't even begin to consider that, really. This isn't a career path I fell into, or a job offer I got, or anything like that; I've always wanted to create things, I've been doing so my whole life, so considering any other option would be the same as considering what life would be like if I wasn't me. Like you're asking, 'what do you think you would have ended up doing if you were somebody else and not you?' Which could be anything. Flying an airplane? I don't know. I guess, to answer your question realistically; in terms of a job, I'd just be in a shop somewhere doing something boring. But I'd still be doing this, whenever I could. Even if nobody cared. I've always been this. It's all I've ever loved to do. Alex's newest work, 117% complete, is now available through iTunes, or through his label website here, if you're after a button too. If you'd just like to check out more, he has videos and chord tabs on his personal website. Thanks for reading. Interview by Tom Colohue Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2010
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