22 October 2019 (released)
24 October 2019
After listening to his new record, Sun Songs, it seems to me that Art Alexakis still has the same unmatched ability to write an uplifting and enjoyable track about dark and intimate subject matter. Covering stones others would not dare and often courageously laying himself bare, he manages to avoid being self-indulgent and instead provides an emotive and evocative feeling of shared catharsis with the listener.
We caught up before his sound check at the London show in Islington, to discuss cats, Kiss and, of course, his new album Sun Songs.
How’s the tour going so far?
It’s my first time touring solo and the first time I’ve been to the UK since 2013 so its exciting to be here and it’s exciting to play new songs. Its exciting to play the Everclear songs cause there’s a lot of fans here. Actually we are going to do the 20th anniversary tour of Songs from an American Movie and that was our biggest selling record in the UK, so we are going to make sure we bring it over here.
How are you finding it playing with session musicians compared to Everclear?
Well I’ve never had session musicians. When I play solo I just play by myself. And on the record, that’s all me – I play all the instruments. Just a voice and a guitar so it’s a lot more exposed to what I’ve been used to.
How did you approach the writing process for the new album?
I just started writing songs. I write songs when I feel like I need to write songs, I don’t sit down and try to write songs. I just didn’t want to do another Everclear, I didn’t want to do another big rock record, it wasn’t really in my soul at the time and I thought it would be a good time to do this thing I’d been thinking about for years and record my own record.
I’d record everything acoustic first and then see if it sounded like it needed more instrumentation. And if it did, I figured out how to do it myself, drums, bass, keyboards, background vocals whatever I’d do it myself and it took about a year. I told my label I was doing it and they were like, ‘we’ll give you some money’ and we were like ‘ok’, and I said it’ll probably not have singles on it, but The Hot Water Test, the first single, is getting radio play in the US.
So what was the thinking behind the title Sun Songs?
Funny that you should ask. I wanted to do an album that was acoustic, very intimate, my voice out front – which I’ve always been a little afraid to do, like most singers I’m not really in love with my voice – and I wanted to do something from the west coast point of view. I mean like Springsteen and Petty and singer songwriters from other places but from a rock n roll point of view, the west coast. Cause I grew up there. So originally the working title of our 6th record was ‘Under the Western Stars’, this is back in er 2005, that was the working title and I changed it to ‘Welcome to the Drama Club’. And I thought for this record I might call it Western Stars and then I found our that Bruce Springsteen called his record Western Stars, so I was like ‘ok I won’t do that’ but I think Sun Songs fits it even better, cause it’s about growing up in the California sun and its not like what most people from other places think it is, its not all sunshine and happiness, there’s a lot of blood and danger out in the sunshine. You can lose your way in the sunshine.
Do you have a favourite track on the album?
To be honest with you, my favourite song, at the moment, is the single. I didn’t listen to it for a while after recording and playing it now I like the hooky melody and I like the swagger to it.
Did you find some of the songs came more easily than others?
Which ones came the easiest?
The song Arizona Star for my daughter came easy and California Blood, writing the lyrics to White People Scare Me.
Some songs came harder than other, just because they needed more finessing. The songs which weren’t coming from my life were, Sing Away. That took some work to get right, from my perspective…
So the track Sing Away isn’t from your perspective?
No, I know, people always think cause I’m singing it from the first person that its autobiographical. I mean sometimes they are, of course The Hot Water Test is about MS, that’s autobiographical, as is Arizona Star, Sunshine Lovesong is about my wife… but as a parent I have just been broken hearted when I hear that kids get cyber-bullied and commit suicide and it just breaks my heart. As a parent I just can’t imagine anything worse. The character in the song is way more compassionate than I would be. My daughter was kinda bullied at the school she goes to and that was when she was 6 and she’s almost 12 now – and the girls that did it are her two best friends. When I was kid, boys would always get into fights and then they’d be best friends.
So I wrote that song from the parent’s perspective, I’ve never lost a child and I hope I never do, but I have lost people close to me and my mother and my sister have both lost sons, so I think I have an inkling of what it is like. My favourite writers can write autobiographical stuff from their life or just stories or stuff that’s current, that’s more political or social-political and if you can blur the lines enough so that people can’t tell which is autobiographical and which isn’t, then you’re doing your job.
You can get the emotion across and if you are good enough at the craft you can make it feel real. And it’s still truth even if it’s not autobiographical, if it’s true to you and it connects with people and it’s relevant, well then it’s true.
Out of curiosity, the lyric “Orange is turning blue”, what does this mean?
Ok, it’s a couple of things. It oddly a darkly funny song, I’m kinda talking it and then come in and sing the choruses. So Orange County used to be very Conservative, so it’s red. And blue is Democrat, and it’s slowly but surely turning blue. So it’s that and it’s also like if you stare at the sun for a while you’ll start off seeing orange, but then you’ll start seeing blue and other colours, before you go blind. So it’s kinda that as well. It’s a play on words, that’s for sure but it’s a political jab, a good natured jab.
Can you tell me where the title came from for The Hot Water Test?
Yeah, well back in the early back of the twentieth century, doctors and physicians understood that there was a thing called multiple sclerosis and they thought ALS and even Parkinson’s fell under MS at the time. They knew what it was but the didn’t know how to diagnosis, but they knew that people who had it were very sensitive to heat, so they put them into scolding hot water for a long time, until they started showing symptoms, or they died. A lot of times when you have a disease like this you feel like you’re in a hot water test.
How did you feel writing and recording The Hot Water Test in particular and how did this compare to previous songs you’d written?
It was very emotional. That song and Sing Away were very emotional. Cause even though Sing Away wasn’t autobiographical, that feeling is 100% legit real and I would cry when I was trying to sing in the studio. It’s a hard song to sing and it’s still hard to get the words out.
It really comes across in the recordings and adds something amazing, I feel. This leads me on, you have a few songs in your back catalogue that are really deep and powerful, are there songs that you just sometimes don’t feel like singing?
Like I just don’t wanna sing that fucking song? Yeah! Sunflowers was one of those songs and there’s a song called Why I Don’t Believe in God – you know I just don’t want to sing that song. It reminds me of my mum. My mum passed about twelve years ago and I just don’t want to sing it.
I’m sorry to hear that. What advice would you give to anyone experiencing similar events to those you write about in the aforementioned songs and how have you dealt with / continue to deal with these on a day to day basis?
Talking about it, writing about, singing about it, takes the elephant out of the room. It turns the light on. It takes the sinister shadows out of a situation and you’re just putting the bright light of reality on it. And that’s helpful to me. Talking to people, finding a good therapist has been wonderful. I mean everyone has mental health issues whether they choose to deal with it or not. I do everything in power not to be alone, to be a good partner, a good Dad and be as healthy as I can, Decaf tea with coconut milk, eating vegan.
Yeah, It’s a protocol for MS and I feel great. I’ve been doing it for four months now and it’s great.
Following on from speaking about playing songs for cathartic release, in my teens you were one of the only male role models expressing themselves emotionally. What kind of advice would you give to guys growing up now about being comfortable expressing themselves?
I think it’s important to be able to express yourself, it’s really hard when you’re younger. You know, it’s not a thing that comes naturally, it depends if you have parents in your life that talk about things. We have a daughter who we talk to about everything and I want it to be a safe place she can come to about anything.
Having people in your life that feel safe to talk about things with is key, it’s about trust and once you’ve got those scary things out they don’t seem so scary when you talk about them. It not embarrassing or shameful, your feelings, your thoughts. You know it’s hard being a teenager and I wouldn’t do it again for all the money in the world.