Interview: Alex Winston
No doubt until the release of “Velvet Elvis”, Alex Winston was a faceless entity to many readers. Launching with the kind of backward pop last seen fuelling the good ship Björk, and covering the kind of topics Lana Del Rey’s PR can only dream about, the song was a far cry away from Winston’s previous single and TK Maxx anthem “Choice Notes”. With a ghostly cool to boot, we were all bowled over.
It soon emerged the reason for her sudden transformation was birthright. Alex Winston is far better than twee ditties dedicated to an inspired, but equally simple pop melody. She can twiddle the world on her little finger and spit out glitter, feathers and talent at the same time. On her new album King Con she very nearly does, straying from dislocated calypso pop to near riot in the same half an hour. That’s right – “Velvet Elvis” is only the tip of the iceberg, with “Sister Wife” and “Fire Ant” confirming the singer’s outstanding ability. Hers is a sound that will, by all rights, document every Friday night from now until the end of time.
Spurned into action by her undying motivation and backed by new label V2, Winston spoke to DrunkenWerewolf’s Tiffany Daniels before her glorious gig at Thekla Social, Bristol, to discuss being influenced by Louie Thoreux and refusing to lose sight of who she really is.
As a child you trained as an opera singer. How did you get into the music you play now?
My Dad bought me a guitar [when I was younger] because he’s a musician and likes guitars, so I was always going to guitar shows with him. When I started playing guitar I wanted to know how to sing too. My Mom kind didn’t know where to put me; I think she was sick of me singing in the house! So she was like wait, you know what, I grew up with this lady who teaches opera. That’s how I fell into it; it wasn’t like, “Oh I love Puccini so much I want to become an opera singer”!
I ended up [singing opera] for a really long time. I think it’s beautiful but it doesn’t really inspire me [apart from] vocally somewhere I draw from it. The vocal helps – that aspect of it.
Have you ever perform in a band?
Yeah, but at the end of high school I started focusing on [my own] music a lot more than anything else.
When people know I’m from Detroit they think I’m from the inner city which is just so far from the truth – I grew up in a very middle classed area. At my school no one played music, everyone went to college; it was very “you do this, you go here” and I didn’t fit in at all. So I started going out downtown and meeting musicians that were my age. One group of my friends were in a band called The Sad Peaches who were signed to Island. They were the first band I knew that was coming over here [to the UK] and playing shows, and I thought they were really cool. I would play in different bands of theirs and mess around.
I needed to move at a certain point, because although it was a great time, every time I tried to work on my own stuff [and] bring it to producers, they always wanted to fucking change me. Always. Detroit has a lot of really cool musicians and a great history, but over there [at the moment] it’s either garage rock or rap and I felt like it wasn’t seeing me for who I was. At that point I had to move to New York.
How influential would you say the New York scene has been to your music?
I don’t know, it’s weird. I feel way more connected to the Detroit scene because it’s so much smaller. You only go to local shows [there] – it’s all about going to see your friends play so there’s a real sense of community.
I [originally] went on a trip to New York to visit some friends. I was really at the end of my rope with Detroit; I felt really creatively stifled. Then I met these two producers The Knocks who I ended up doing a lot of my early songs with. They were the first people who didn’t try to change me, and were supportive. I wasn’t used to that at all, so it was really great! I just decided to pick up and move [to New York] two months later.
I don’t know [how influential it’s been] though. I have a lot of friends who are in the music business – they’re producers or writers, or that kind of thing, but there’s just so much in New York. Everything’s so accessible; there are live shows from national acts everywhere. I don’t feel that sense of community in the New York scene. There are a bunch of little circles. I’ve made friends; I have a US band now, and I’m developing a group of musicians, but I definitely feel more of that family vibe in Detroit.
How important is it to you that you write your own songs?
After people telling me that I wasn’t good at writing, it was like fuck you! Now I’m a bit overly stubborn; I don’t like people to interfere. I think you have to be [like that] otherwise you’re not going to be doing something you want to do.
Has there been a lot of pressure to collaborate with other artists? You’re a female pop star, and stereotypically it’s assumed pop stars haven’t written their own material.
That scares the shit out of me! The idea of being a pop star… I like pop music, but I don’t care about anything that goes along with it. The fame, celebrity status, pop star – all that shit is stuff that makes me want to throw up!
I love writing music, I’m always drawn to melodies first, and I think… I mean I’m writing a Western EP right now, so I do want to branch out after I’ve [promoted] this first album, but I think people assume that other people write [my material]. I just hope that over time they realise that’s never, ever been the case! I even record most of my tracks on GarageBand and we end up using the instrument recordings.
King Con has some unusual topics – what influences your lyrics?
There are a couple of old songs that I was pissed I had to put on the album, just because I don’t want to feed [my fans] old songs, but that was a label decision. The rest of the songs we wrote and recorded in a really short amount of time; I had two months to write and record everything. Two of my band mates came to New York, and my producer Charlie Hugall who lives in London, came over. I’d go home and write the songs, and then the next day we’d record them, so it was a very quick process.
The whole time I was reading and watching a lot of documentaries about con artists and weird America, you know? I really like Louis Theroux and I watched a lot of his stuff, and I’m always interested in other people like that. There are a couple of personal songs on the record but most of it has been influenced by people who do things differently from me.
I’ve always been fascinated by power and religion, and what it does to people, how it effects people, so there’s a lot of that on the record – people fucking you over for a quick buck. I had a friend when I was younger tell me I was going to hell because I’m Jewish! So after that I became obsessed with learning about religion and why people trust it so much. That’s where I picked up those topics.
I also like to find things that seem totally un-relatable and try to relate them back to myself and every day things. I’m not a polygamist, I’m not a Mormon, but I know what it’s like to have to share something you love and to battle with jealously. So “Sister Wife” is a metaphor for every day shit and everyone thinks it’s so weird, but it’s not! We have to go through that too.
You mentioned you were signed to Island for a while – what’s your new label V2 like?
It didn’t really work out with Island! I’m still on Universal but it’s a more indie label, more grassroots which I’m cool with. I think, like I was telling you, I didn’t end up being the pop star [Island] wanted me to be. I think they thought I was going to write an entire album of “Choice Notes”, but I wrote that song two years ago when I still lived in Detroit, and a lot has happened and changed in my life [since then]. I want to keep growing and developing, but they didn’t get that record. Then V2 picked it up and liked it, and I’m really happy.
You hear these stories from a lot of artists; you never know… A lot of them have been through three labels before they found the right fit.
You mentioned “Choice Notes”, which is best known over here for being on a TK Maxx advert…
[Laughs] Yeah you know that one! The twinkly foam-pop one…
Does it annoy you then, that people only associate you with that song?
I understand why they do, I just think it was such a different time in my life and I want them to get to know me better.
That’s why I like to play live; I think also the live shows are a lot different than the record. They’re more ballsy! I think everyone thinks I’m this cute little thing, which I understand from that song, but yeah I would like to move on!
You’re established in the UK. What’s it like in the US?
We haven’t done anything in the US! I’ve been here so much. I think it’s my twelfth time in [England in] the last year so we put everything on hold over [in the States]. It’s actually really nice because it will be a fresh start. My album comes out over there and I’m playing my first show in a year. Then I’m doing a bunch of touring.
I think people have seen me on websites and blogs or whatever, but I’ve been pretty absent. It’ll be good though!
Will you do anything differently over there?
I think when I started here everyone was pushing the very bubblegum, twinkly pop that they heard on “Choice Notes”. Some of the meatier songs and album tracks might be released first [in America].
My favourite song on the record – just because it’s the newest song and I always gravitate to the newest song for some reason – is “Guts”. It’s the most personal song too. It’s kind of about my experience with record label stuff and having to fit in this box that you know you don’t really fit into. I really like to play that one and I hope it’s going to be my next single. But maybe it’ll be on an indigestion commercial [laughs]!
You played SXSW in 2011, so would it be fair to say you’ve tested out the American festival scene?
Yeah, I played SXSW and a few New York shows and a mini tour of the East coast, but then everything started happening over here so we dropped it.
I think the hardest thing for me has been the waiting period. I wrote this record a year ago and a lot’s changed! If we were doing it my way I would have had an EP or a second record out by now, so I think that’s been a bit detrimental to my career. Once you get rolling, even just for creative reasons, you have to keep going!