Becoming and Unbecoming With Alex Walton
// Image courtesy of Kef Zheng
Despite being the only one on stage, 23-year-old Alex Walton put on an eye-catching set supporting Ezra Furman at The Rockwell in Somerville on October 3. When I approached her at her merch table after the show, she enthusiastically agreed to an interview. In the days that followed, Alex provided me with a rough cut of her upcoming record I Want You To Kill Me (previously referred to as Hyperconfessional and Overwhelmingly Sincere), which is slated to be released on November 25. We talked for over an hour, surrounded by the media stacks in the Record Hospital lounge, about storytelling, role models, pop music, and transness.
You can find the lead single for I Want You To Kill Me, “Alex Walton by Alex Walton From The Album Alex Walton,” on Bandcamp.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Ray Whitney: You changed which song was the title track [on the upcoming record]. Why?
Alex Walton: I do still think it [“Hyperconfessional and Overwhelmingly Sincere”] is funny. I think it works for the song, but I thought it was too ... cute, y’know? In a cheesy way. It’s funny with the album cover with it saying that, but on its own I don’t know if it really works, so I decided to call it I Want You To Kill Me. And I wrote a song after I decided I was changing the title to fit it, and I think it sums it up pretty well. It’s more direct. It’s ultimately saying the same thing.
You said you keep adding to it. What does a record being “finished” mean to you?
When I stop myself from adding more.
What makes you do that?
I don’t really know. It just happens. I wrote and recorded most of another song for it today. I just can’t stop, this thing’s gonna end up being two hours long or something. When I sent it to you, I listened to it in full for the first time in a bit, and I realized it needed some fucking comic relief, some amount of whimsy. Not fully in, like saccharine, but I wrote a song today that I think is good for it. It’s called “Sort Of Girlfriend.” And this is, as always, based on a true story. About my sort-of girlfriend.
Do you ever write stories that aren’t true?
I used to. There’s nothing I’ve written that doesn’t have me in it in some way, of course, but I’ve found over this last year that I have completely lost any ability for metaphor, storytelling, or anything other than relaying events in my life. It’s intoxicating. You can’t stop doing it once you start doing it. That’s the road I’m on right now. And I’m hoping that when this record’s finished, I won’t have to do that anymore, and I could do songs about gnomes or trashing hotel rooms and stuff like that. But I need to keep doing it for now. I would love to write fake things.
What’s your favorite song that you’ve written, ever?
There’s probably a few, I don’t know if I could pick one. I think it’s just the high off of it being a couple days since I recorded it, but I think “This Song Is Meant To Hurt You” [on the upcoming record] might be the best song I’ve ever written. It’s interesting because I think two of the best songs I’ve ever written didn’t really reveal themselves until they were played live and rearranged live. “I Need the Angel” and “Shame Music” both, the way that when I had my band together when we played them live ... those were just elemental and kind of perfect. But I don’t think the album versions that I did on my own really showcased that. I think “Jenny Hero Cop’s Lament” is just a great pop song. Mechanically, it’s perfect, and I always really loved playing that one live. And that’s one of the only ones I’ve ever written that still had emotional truths in it, but it is just kinda complete nonsense. And that was really refreshing for me, to just make shit up.
Do you have a favorite song to perform?
My favorite song to perform right now is — just because it’s very cathartic — is “Ten Thousand Friends For My Best Song” [on the upcoming record]. I get to build up, I get to scream and roll on the floor. I always love playing “Shame Music,” no matter which form it takes. The live band’s my favorite, but for the backing tracks in these shows I’ve been doing, I got to basically completely re-record the song, and it was awesome. It felt so good. And it sounds so much better than the one on the record. But that one’s always very good to play, as a reminder to myself. Because it always changes meaning to myself every time I play it. Time passes.
Do you have any specific goals for your career that you’re looking out for?
I have an ethos. There’s this thing in popular music, pop music — I use “pop music” very generally — where the music that has affected me the most has been stuff that is very simple musically. Adhering to the pop form, being this sort of transcendent thing, is a vessel, and it’s putting subjectivity into this vessel and it becomes universalized through that vessel. And through that we become one with each other. There’s people that have been long dead and I can listen to them and we’re one together because our pains and experiences are shared, not because we have had the same things happen to us, but because through the form of pop music, they are universalized and we are universalized together. And that is what I try to do.
I’m getting extremely subjective with this record, but my hope is that through more specificity, less vagueness, and then that being put through the form of pop music, there is a greater feeling of emotional resolution and people being able to feel seen and understood and not alone. If I was to sum up that entire thing I just said, it’d be making people feel less alone. People like me, people like anything.
How can people best support you and your music?
Buy stuff on Bandcamp. Buy the CDs. Go to the shows. See me roll on the floor. See me flagellate myself. If you can’t, buying stuff on Bandcamp is good. You know, Spotify doesn’t pay anybody shit. Bandcamp takes way more than they should, but it’s still better.
How does being transgender influence your music, and how does making music influence your transness, if at all?
Transness is to my art what imminent collapse is to western civilization — looming, inevitable, often beautiful, whined about by reactionary teenagers online ... it’s an immutable thing. It’s never not going to be there. Because it’s integral to me, only because of the current systems of how society works. If I was trans in a society where none of this mattered, nobody cared, then it wouldn’t matter. I wouldn’t think about it. It is integral to me against my will, basically. Which is not to say I’m not proud of being trans, but this being so integral to me is against my will.
And I think that reflects in the music because I’m writing the music and it’s always going to be there whether it’s an angry song or a happy song. I can ignore it all I want, but it’s still gonna come up. Out of fear of my parents seeing things, I didn’t directly write about being trans for a long time. Until recently, really.
Well, I came out to them earlier this year. Early summer. So, Shame Music and almost all of Our Desire Lacks Knowing Music, they’re not direct. I was trying to avoid talking about transness at all. In Shame Music, I wasn’t fully ready to accept it in general. “Prussian Blue” is the first song I ever wrote that gendered myself female. And I was so terrified. It’s kinda hissy and it’s sped-up, so I was like. “Well, my parents won’t be able to make that out,” not that they necessarily read any of my lyrics anyway. But now that is a weight off my back. In my songs, it’s a lot more open. I’m a lot more open with it now in my songwriting, and sexuality-wise too, I’m more open with it.
It’s important, y’know. It’s part of who I am. It’s not all of who I am, of course, but it’s part of it. I see a lot at my shows, there’s a lot of younger people — younger than me, I’m not old yet — and it’ll be like frat kids trying to kill each other, and then really quiet, scared queer people and trans people who sit or stand in the back. Those are the people I’m trying to reach. And when you express these things more openly, they’re able to find more things in common and feel less alone. I think that’s the most important thing about trying to express transness in music, is that same thing of making people feel less alone.
And the latter half of the question. How has making music enabled you to explore your identity?
When you’re a rock and roll musician, there’s a loosening of boundaries of gender expression on stage, and that gives you an opportunity to try things out. So in early college, I was doing shows in “drag,” and that’s a thing you can do, and it helps you understand things. It’s unlearning of certain aspects of yourself and how you relate to other people, in a different way than just day-to-day interactions. A rock and roll persona on stage, the power you have to assert — there is something very inherently masculine about this. And it’s about learning how to do that in a different way. That can never fully go away, and that’s okay.
With reaching out to particularly younger trans people, are you ready to play the role of role model?
God, I don’t know. I should put a big sticker on this next record that says “Do as I say, not as I do.” My entire ethos is to operate as a cautionary tale. Regardless of the subject matter of my songs, the concept of a young trans person going to a show, and seeing a trans woman up on stage saying these things, singing these things, being very open, being a force ... I think that’s very important. That’s what Ezra [Furman] was for me when I was younger, and still now. She still reminds me of what I’m doing, and what I should be doing. Seeing that somebody else can do it, you know? Not just as a rock and roll musician doing it, but as a person doing it. We resonate more with musicians, I think. When we resonate with them as musicians, we resonate with them as people, and makes you realize that you can do these things too. You can live openly and freely too. It’s a beautiful thing, hope.
Do you feel as if there are any parts or aspects of you that aren’t represented in your music at all? Do you see any sort of divide between Alex Walton the artist and Alex Walton the person?
The progression of my artistic practice has culminated in almost a complete dissolution of that. There are no divides. I mean, I don’t really talk about movies that much in songs ... I like movies. I love making movies. I was previously, and hopefully will be again, an experimental filmmaker, analog filmmaker. I don’t play video games, I don’t watch TV. All I do is write songs and have sex. That’s all I do. I think at this point, everything that happens in my life goes into the music. And this is scary. This is bad. But I think it’s beautiful, too.
Do you have any pipe dreams, any dream collaborators, anybody you’d love to open a show for, anybody you’d love to work with?
I’d love to work with Adam Green. I love Adam Green, I’ve been thinking about him a lot. There’s achievable ones, you know? I’m friends with one of my very favorite songwriters, Graham Smith of Kleenex Girl Wonder. Hopefully we’ll do something together. I’ve been working with Ezra on some stuff. But in terms of pipe dream ones ... I always had this thing where I really wanted to work with Ric Ocasek. I’m not really sure why. I mean, I love The Cars so much. Amazing, perfect band.
I was helping a friend move into his new place in Allston, and we went in the basement and there’s all this stuff here from this guy that went to Berklee in the late ‘70s, and then he started working at Syncro Sound, which was The Cars’ studio, and I think he worked directly under Ric Ocasek. But in this guy’s stuff, there’s all these records. There’s a copy of Buy by the Contortions, all this crazy stuff. And there’s a manila envelope, and in it were two signed pictures of The Cars. All the members had signed them. And my friend and I, we opened this up, we each took one. I went home and I put it up on my wall. I think it was like two days later Ric Ocasek died. So I think that was some sort of spirit object and I killed him. This seems to happen to me a lot. So that one’s gone. Maybe Todd Rundgren. I’d love to work with Todd Rundgren, even though he’s old as shit and has no clue what he’s doing anymore. It’d still be great.
What are your thoughts on really long songs?
I don’t always agree with them. I think they have to deserve it. In different ways, ‘cause it’s okay if a song is kinda the same thing for 20 minutes. Some of the great songs are like that, like “Sister Ray.” It’s not quite the same thing for 20 minutes, but it doesn’t change chordally. The best example of that, I think, is “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” by of Montreal. That is the same fucking chord progression and almost the same thing for 12 minutes. And it deserves it because every single word is so perfect that it makes me so incredibly mad. I don’t know how someone could write a song like that. I can’t stand listening to something like Phish or the Grateful Dead, or jam bands. I feel like they don’t deserve the lengths that they go to. Because I think you have to keep it interesting in some way. But I think long songs are beautiful. If you have a long song that has a lot of parts where it’s basically a bunch of different songs, then it’s not even like one song, you know? Like “Beach Life-in-Death” by Car Seat Headrest. I think that’s 12 minutes also, maybe 13. It’s varied. It will loop back to something. That’s the great thing about having the really long song: It can feel like different songs, but then it’ll come back to something. And it’ll feel fucking great.
What strengths and skills do you think you have that make you a good musician?
God, this is like a job interview. I think one of my strengths is that I am consistently able to make music that I like listening to. And that matters a lot to me because the ability to believe in what you’re doing is very important, and I see a lot of people that don’t have that, and it makes me sad. It creates worse art, I think. Because at the end of the day, I do think what I do is good, and I think I’m very good at it. I think I keep getting better, and I just try not to let myself get to my own head about it, but I think I am able to let myself grow in this way. I don’t limit myself to things anymore. I would limit myself to certain modes of production and ways of doing things, but I just kinda do whatever now, and that’s a newer ability.
And I think I’m pretty good at writing lyrics. I write them a lot. I could show you my Notes app, it’s insane, it’s really fucked up. And I’m just writing constantly. And I think that’s a good habit to be in, because I didn’t used to be like that. And I’m a real team player, and my biggest problem is that I work too hard.
Where does your confidence come from?
I don’t feel like I have control over anything in my life, except for this. I’ve thought it over ideologically so much. I have an ethos, I have a directive — emotionally, sonically, and form-wise. I’ve crystallized these things into something like my manifesto — “The Sound Rocker’s Prayer” — where I can write down very clearly the things I believe and then live by those. It lends itself ultimately to self-confidence, ‘cause I don’t have confidence in myself in anything else, so I gotta have it in something, you know?
Do you think it could extend to other things some day?
I don’t know. I don’t have confidence like that in any kind of other art I’ve ever done. I don’t have confidence like that in interpersonal relationships, that’s for fucking sure. But that’s the thing I know I can do. That’s the thing I know I can do, and I know I can do it well. So my time is spent trying to do it as well as possible. And I hope I don’t come off as an egotistical asshole saying that!
// Ray Whitney ’24 (any/all pronouns) is a staff writer for Record Hospital.