– Introducing … Alejandra O’Leary
I first heard Alejandra O’Leary’s music when we were both teenagers living in Portland, Maine. Under the moniker “Guitar Girl,” she played a song every week on a friend’s morning show on the community radio station. I was disarmed by her sweet, but strong, vocals and astute strumming. When I found out we went to the same high school I have to admit that I was slightly star struck. Years later, with three self-released albums under her belt and a new full-length Alejandra O’Leary and the Champions of the West coming out in the summer of 2013, O’Leary’s energy and carefully focused pop songs continue to enthrall her listeners. From her new album, she recently released “Beat Ohio,” the first single.
I recently caught up with her over e-mail about the new album, the places and bands from which she draws inspiration, and, as an independent artist putting out her own music, how she balances the business and creative aspects of her work.
Eleanor Whitney: Tell me about your new single and album. What is the story behind its recording?
Alejandra O’Leary: The new song “Beat Ohio” is the first single off our new full-length album, and the original inspiration came from a story a friend was telling me about a man she was dating. He was from Kentucky and was ashamed of it, and always preferred to give the impression he was from the northeast.
I realized I do something similar and assign value to a place based on an idea rather than a reality. The character in the song is pretending he is from New York City when he is really from the Midwest, because I’ve spent a lot of time in both of those places. I think places are really important in the poetic imagination and play a big part for mobile and restless young people in the way they think about themselves.
My band and I recorded the song at ReelSound Audio in Novi, Michigan. The song was a big hit in Michigan because “Beat Ohio” is a big sports chant and almost religious idea there. This song set the tone for the rest of the record and we’ve gone for a spontaneous feel that is close to [a live sound]. The entire atmosphere surrounding the record is a high point in my musical life. It’s all happening so naturally with support from the band and the fans. We’re working really hard, but it feels like play and like we are connecting the musical dots. We made a lot of decisions in the studio that feel really good.
EW: Tell me a bit more about your songwriting process. Do you start with the idea of the story or feeling you want to share, or with a riff or melody?
AO: Honestly, I don’t have a songwriting process at all. I let sudden or sustained inspiration lead me, whether it’s musical or lyrical. Sometimes inspiration comes from an emotion that doesn’t have a musical idea attached to it yet, so I just play and take time with it. I have a lot of faith in the passage of time as the ultimate creative jump starter. I’m always picking up ideas for songs from the way people talk, phrases I overhear or provoke. Real life is very rich, there’s a lot to get me going there.
EW: You’ve been making albums for many years as you moved around from place to place—how does where you live impact the songs you write? And how do you keep building a fan base and community for your music as you move around?
AO: The places I’ve lived have made a significant impact on the songs I write. For example, I think that the record I made when I lived in New York (“Nothing Out Loud”, 2009), is about the crunch, challenge, stimulation and frustration of living there.
I was moving around a lot when I wrote and recorded the songs for “Broken Mirror Baby” (2011), so I think that record has more of a “timeless/placeless” feel to it.
The new record is influenced to a profound degree by the collective experience with my band touring and playing live music in Michigan. Our fans played a big role in driving this record forward and getting us the funds to make it through a successful crowdfunding campaign.
Living and playing in Michigan with this great band for three years has convinced me that nothing can replace the experience of playing music live and building fans and connections face-to-face. The Internet is a great tool, but it can’t replace the live connection.
I think the combination of place and technology can be incredibly powerful for any artist. The “Beat Ohio” release also showed us that our fans in Michigan are the ones who help us build a wider audience by sharing and [promoting] our music in online spaces. That is a connection we will keep alive no matter where the future takes us because our fans and experiences in Michigan are a fundamental part of our music.
EW: You are an independent musician in every sense of the word, so how do you balance the songwriting, recording and performing that is the creative aspects of your practice, with the business and administrative aspects of being a musician?
AO: At some point, you stop forcing yourself to compartmentalize and begin to see yourself as a musician in every aspect of your life. You let everything you do, no matter how boring or administrative or day-jobby it is, be a part of your music in some way. Music is unambiguously my first priority in life after family obligations. I care much more about making music than about doing anything else, so it becomes natural to make time for it.
EW: Are there women musicians, either working now or in the past, who have inspired you?
AO: So many! Ronnie Spector, Patti Smith, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad from ABBA, Karen O. from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. All of these women made music in a way that was both hyper-dedicated and totally natural. And I love their music. I think Liz Phair and Gwen Stefani are also two of the best songwriters of my generation.
EW: In the 1990s, a big deal was made about “women in music.” Do you think things have gotten better for women in the music industry, in that they are taken more seriously?
AO: Honestly, I think women are still novelties in music. Having a “girl singer” is still a thing like having a twelve-string guitar or a drummer taking a nine-minute solo with dry ice everywhere. Also, people always assume that women musicians are going to be singers or frontwomen, instead of part of the band. While there are probably more women in music now than there were in the 1990s, I still think there’s a lot more to achieve, which is exciting.