31 Aug ALEX WHILER TRIUMPHS AS INDIE ARTIST + STORYTELLER IN FORTHCOMING EP, LOOK ME IN THE EYE
I’m drawn to storytellers. There’s mystery in someone who’s capable of spinning vivid emotional tales and moxie in someone who’s daring enough to share real experiences. And, when a storyteller who’s well-versed at weaving both *also* happens to be an indie artist in bloom, I’m ALL IN.
Alex Whiler’s forthcoming debut EP, Look Me In The Eye, will greet your ears as gently as a comforting friend and as wild as a raging tide. Each track—4 are out now, the other 2 will arrive later this fall—tells a separate, soul-quenching story that feels at once current and ageless. From the heart-melting piano in “Queen Anne’s Lace” to the soothing sound of waves heard in “Wash”, Alex’s attention to detail abounds. A singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and classically trained opera singer, Alex has tapped into all of her talents and bared several truths to bring us something palpable. Warning: her music *might* unearth feelings you formerly thought were buried deep enough to never breathe air again. Be brave. (Listen while you read + add these engaging tracks to all your indie unwind, phoenix rising, and self-love playlists.)
Here are some of my most-loved lyrics from this unforgettable EP:
“You knead me like dough,
but you don’t need me at all.”
—Mortar & Pestle
“Please don’t let me be
swept away by the changing sea
And, oh, ye little faith
with the shifting shadows on your face.”
All I want feels so far way,
Is it behind or ahead?
—Queen Anne’s Lace
“I’m walking into the fire,
stay awake, don’t get tired.
I’ve been here before,
but this time I’m going to settle the score.”
—Into the Fire
In this interview, you’ll learn: all about the six, beautifully immersive tracks on Alex’s forthcoming EP, Look Me in the Eye (including their STORIES!); where these songs were recorded and what the vibes were like in-studio; which musicians and engineers helped Alex bring this authentic album into being (and why she’s grateful for each of them); a little bit about her current songwriting process and how she envisions it evolving; why Alex embraces artistic imperfection; what songs have felt like vitamins to her lately*; how she manages to maintain her realness on social media; and what’s next for her and her music.
*BONUS: Once you’ve devoured the Q+A, vibe our exclusive playlist, MMM: Alex Whiler, which includes the four recently-released singles off her upcoming EP plus her current faves. While it can’t fix the world’s problems, it can provide you a safe space to exhale and experience an elevated array of emotions.
The conversation from our interview is chronicled below in a pure Q + A format.
Q + A:
You recently made the move from San Francisco to Portland. How will it feel to release Look Me in the Eye from your new locale?
Alex: Yes! My family (husband and 2½ year old) just moved a few weeks ago. It was not planned, but this dream opportunity came to us quite magically so we went for it! We absolutely love it here, but it’s been a mind-shift to release a new single and EP in a different space. I did not expect that—it’s taken a lot more discipline to get myself back to “marketing mode”. But I’ve already “met” some other artists in Portland through social media and that’s been really encouraging.
The Look Me in the Eye EP presents listeners with six beautifully immersive tracks. Can you tell us a little bit about each? Please also feel free to share any related stories/experiences/trials/triumphs with them.
Alex: Man, these songs feel like such good friends to me at this point. I wrote them all in 2016 and 2017 and produced them in 2019 and 2020, so it’s been amazing to spend that much time getting to know them and understand them—they’ve evolved so much. They’ve also evolved me a lot through the process.
They all came from a crazy time in my life. In 2016 my husband and I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail that goes from Canada to Mexico (the one in Wild). It ended up not going so well for me…I had a terrible time. Three weeks in, we were halfway through Washington, and I just started to lose it. I was in so much physical pain. I had like twelve blisters on my feet at ALL times, it was freezing and wet, and my joints were not going to last. All of it turned to emotional and spiritual pain that I just couldn’t get a hold on. I had been a Christian for most of my life and expected god (as I understood it) to save me from the suffering and at least be there to give me peace, and that never came…it was devastating for me. I knew I had to quit. So I went home, took some time to recuperate and heal, and Brendan kept hiking. That was what was best for both of us, even though it was strange and difficult to be apart for the next 3 months.
This narrative winds through each of the songs. I had never written before (not for lack of trying!), but this whole thing was such a life upheaval and intensely emotional experience that the songs just came pouring out of me—it was the biggest silver lining. Fun fact: they were all written on ukulele because that was the only instrument I had with me at the time, haha, even though in my head I could hear so much more of the instrumentation and how I wanted them to sound eventually.
“Golden Hour” is one of the first songs I wrote, actually right after visiting Brendan in Portland a few weeks after I left the trail. It was such a beautiful time together. We had missed each other so much, but also felt so confident that this was right and good for each of us. And that put this deep appreciation and longing with uncertainty and a little danger into the song. That’s how I was feeling, like YOU BETTER NOT DIE DOING THIS, constantly so nervous for him but also so proud of us and excited for the process and how it was inevitably going to help us grow—even though it felt like an absolute mess going through it.
“Queen Anne’s Lace” is a bit of an outlier because I wrote it from someone else’s perspective, not my own originally. One day I was curious about where the flower got its name and was led to Queen Anne of Britain’s story and was just astounded by what she went through. She didn’t want to be queen, no one believed in her ability to lead, and she had 17 miscarriages or stillborn babies. (And the ONE child that did make it past 2 years old died when he was only 9.) Like, holy sh!t, I just FELT for this woman!
I myself was feeling really desperate to have a baby and start our family and felt like it was either never going to happen or should have already happened. I felt really stuck in that—only a fraction of what I imagine Queen Anne must have felt. And then there was the constant need to prove her worth as a monarch and as a person when people just didn’t believe in her, and the emotional toll that must have taken, too. It just put me in this creative place and turned into one of my favorite songs to write and play, because there’s so much depth and humanity in her story. I felt connected to her and her struggles and really wanted to give people (including myself) a chance to embrace the darker shades of our emotions and experience.
“Wash” and “Mortar & Pestle” are both expressing different parts of how it looked and felt for me to lose my Christian faith during this season. They’re incredibly dear to me and also intimidating to share because they contain some of my most vulnerable thoughts and feelings. “Wash” leans more on how it felt to go through deconstructing my relationship with god…it was incredibly disorienting. I was overwhelmed as things that had always made so much sense to me were starting to not make sense at all anymore. And “Mortar & Pestle” is more of a one-sided conversation with god. It’s heartbreaking, honest, freeing. I’m a sucker for a piano ballad oozing with emotional weight and things you could never say to someone’s face.
“Resolve” is a solo piano piece that I wrote and tried to put words to but it just felt like it spoke best without lyrics in the end. I’m no pianist, so it felt risky putting this on my EP but I’m really proud of it and looooooove playing it. From an emotional standpoint, it kind of continues the angst and questions in “Wash” and “Mortar & Pestle” and answers them with contentment and resolution. That’s how it felt over time for me to wrestle with leaving Christianity and all it entailed (community/family, existential peace and superiority, rituals, rhythm of life as I knew it) to come to a place of acceptance of who I am without those things, to embrace my body and my Self in love and creativity. It’s ongoing, but feels like such a healthy and beautiful resolve that I’m committed to exploring now.
Finally, “Into the Fire” ends the EP. This song went through a lot of changes, and I’m so happy with where it ended up! I wrote it right before going back on the trail to hike for ten days in the Sierras. It became clear the longer I was off the trail that I wasn’t okay with how things ended. I felt so defeated, like such a failure. I’m fine with quitting since it was the right thing for me in this context, but I wanted to go back and prove to myself that I could end this thing on my own terms—with confidence and dignity. The song starts out really foreboding and dark because going back into the place and mindset of the trail felt unsafe, but I wanted the song and the EP to end on positivity and fighting for what’s good and right for YOU—and that’s the reason for the change from minor to major in the last chorus. This was my fire and it felt so good to write music that supported my need to take it back and make it meaningful.
Listening to Look Me in the Eye from head to tail leaves me with a sense of healing. Can you address the EP’s title and the work as a whole?
Alex: Ah that makes me so happy to hear, thanks for telling me that! This EP has been an immense means of healing for me. It’s coincided with having a kid/becoming a mom, moving a few times, lots of therapy, and some really necessary and painful growth. Mostly, the songs were me learning about and acknowledging wounds I didn’t know needed healing, and that mindset of seeing and accepting yourself is always healing. These songs were the beginning of that journey for me.
Look Me in the Eye comes from the bridge of “Into the Fire” :
You never look me in the eye
Always feels like I gotta fly
But now, but now, this time
I’m gonna fight
I’m talking to the feeling of defeat and failure I experienced on the trail and demanding that I give myself more depth and more grace to see past that. I think of when you just can’t make eye contact with someone who has hurt you or you feel misunderstood by, but you know you’ll never get anywhere until you actually look them in the eye and demand better for yourself. This season of writing and reconciling was that for me—truly looking my own Self in the eye and demanding that from others, too. After believing I wasn’t worth that effort and connection for so long, it feels good to be in a place where I know I do deserve that. To be seen and accepted for who I am. So yes, SO HEALING. Thanks for honoring that and really listening.
Where were these songs recorded + what were the vibes like in studio?
Alex: All the main parts were recorded at Decibelle Recording in San Francisco. We finished a few weeks before the pandemic hit, so I’m grateful we got it all in! The studio is incredible, so cozy and warm (well actually it was very cold, haha, but the vibes were warm!), twinkle lights and all. We recorded the rhythm guitar, bass guitar, and drums all together with scratch vocals, so that was really fun and made for a really cohesive sound to start with. It also gave me the itch to do full band performances, but alas, COVID hit. Then I did the vocals and piano parts afterwards over a few sessions. It was a really cool first recording experience!
Introduce us to your team + tell us why you love them.
Alex: Agh, I love these people. They have all made this experience so authentic and beautiful. On “Wash”, “Mortar & Pestle”, and “Resolve” I was the only player, and “Into the Fire”, “Golden Hour”, and “Queen Anne’s Lace” I had the honor of having the following amazing musicians play:
Sean Emmett Thompson (@seanemmettthompson ) played guitar. He’s an amazing musician and such an authentic, sweet person and made the whole process really collaborative and deep. He just came out with his first EP as well, please check him out!
Kevin Figueroa (@nowandformerly) was on the drums and the words that come to mind for Kevin are “f*ckin’ delightful.” He was so much fun to work with and fulfilled all my “former emo-kid-wannabe rocker” desires for the drums. He also has beautiful music out for you to check out!
Cody Hamilton (@codyhamiltonaudio) played bass guitar and runs Decibelle and was amazing to work with! He brought a lot of chill creativity to the process and just has a really unique and intuitive ear. And the best laugh.
Tyler Hafer (@trh_audio) was my co-producer and engineer for the entirety of the album. I brought him VERY bare demos and a lot of big ideas and he’s really made these songs come to life! He’s a wonderfully creative guy and working with him has been really empowering for me as an artist and even producer.
Brendan O’Connor is my main teammate (and life partner) and has put incalculable effort into my music coming to fruition, through photography, graphic design, critical listening, and lotsssss of pep talks. I couldn’t have done this without his support <3
What can you reveal about your songwriting process?
Alex: My process is really organic and unstructured. It usually starts with an intense emotion, and out of that will come maybe a melody or a lyric, oftentimes both simultaneously. I record that just on my phone and then let it sit. I ruminate on it until it starts to grow into other parts or lyrics and then it takes on more structure as a song. Then I’ll sit down at the piano and figure out the chords underneath it, and see where it goes from there. I’m going to start learning more production myself, so I think that will change my process a lot, which I’m excited about! Stay tuned.
How do you empower yourself to be vulnerable while recording? Do you do anything special to prepare?
Alex: Ha, it is such a vulnerable thing! I definitely warm up, and sing a few of my favorite songs in the car to get me in that space of confidence. I feel like the most significant way I can honor my songs is to sing them imperfectly, so you’ll hear a lot of varying tones and breathiness mixed into my sound. As a classically trained opera singer I still have to fight my impulse to sing “perfectly” and focus more on singing authentically. I found it SO empowering just being the only person in the studio and getting to sing how I wanted to.
What are your favorite things to do when you are not making music?
Alex: Well, I spend most of my non-music related time with my favorite 2½ year old—going for walks, talking about excavators and dinosaurs, etc., and managing tantrums, haha. I’m deep diving into gardening since moving to Portland. I’ve always wanted a yard/garden so I am loving that. I do yoga every morning and love to ride my bike as well. Admittedly, one of my favorite parts of every day is invading whatever chocolate source we have in the house 😊.
Which songs have felt like vitamins lately?*
Alex: Oh I LOVE this question! Hayley Williams’ new album Petals for Armor—especially “Why We Ever”; Olivia Reid’s “Take in the View”; S. Carey’s latest album Hundred Acres—especially “True North”, and Denai Moore’s “Turn Off the Radio”.
*You can hear these songs + more of Alex’s current faves on our exclusive playlist: MMM: Alex Whiler.
Your Instagram account is both intimate + inspirational. Between your photos and videos, fans gain a candid glimpse into your life. How do you manage to maintain your realness as an indie artist on social media?
Alex: Wow that is such a compliment, thank you! That’s what I’m going for. To be honest, navigating Instagram has been such a mindf*ck for me since starting to promote my music, haha. When I get too lost in the weeds of perception management and branding and trying to figure out what “works,” I really have to take a step back for my mental health and just get some distance. I feel like that keeps me real and keeps the space healthy for me—along with following like-minded people, who I find really genuine and inspiring. I really gain a lot of empowerment and inspiration from artists/accounts like: @trace; @mamathreebirds; @elahhale; @natclo (from Joseph); @lizaanne; @glennondoyle; and @atwildwoman.
What’s next for you + your music?
Alex: I’m SO excited to release this EP and focus on getting settled into a rhythm of playing more (live shows? Videos? covers?) and really diving into learning more production so I can start recording my next album. I’m really proud and excited about the songs I’ve written in the past year and can’t wait to share the process through Patreon. With COVID and protests and everything happening in our lives right now, I really want to explore how I can use my music to help move people (physically, emotionally, mentally) and just want to contribute to the greater good that’s coming.
Connect with Alex Whiler:
Listen to Alex’s music:
iTunes: + Apple Music: https://music.apple.com/us/artist/alex-whiler/1508710366
Listen to Alex’s music + what Alex Whiler Listens to (our exclusive Spotify playlist):
MMM: Alex Whiler