Alexa Woodward had only just started to make headway in her law career when she decided that maybe there was something else she wanted to do. Having always loved the banjo, something inside her was saying to follow the dream. This summer sees the release of the 27 year olds’ album Speck, which is already drawing comparisons with Joanna Newsome and Jean Ritchie. The daughter of a documentary maker has already won over critics, most notably as a semi-finalist in New York’s largest songwriting competition — Jezebel Music’s Williamsburg Live Songwriter Competition. zap! bang! jumped at the chance of asking Woodward all about the importance of following your dreams.
Your music has been described as a mixture of southern roots and New York living, so whereabout are you actually from?
I was born in Alabama, and grew up in Virginia and South Carolina. My dad is a film maker and my mom is a social worker. they divorced when I was two, and I spent my weekends visiting my dad in Washington D.C., where he funded his films by working at the Children’s museum making blue screen videos (the kind used by weather channels… the museum had a set up where kids could see themselves flying through outer space, or wandering through Egyptian pyramids). He lived in an apartment building that looked like a top hat, and we spent hours drawing on a dry erase board in the apartment. He labelled everything when I was learning to read… I remember walking into the apartment to find every surface covered with labels “chair”, “toaster oven”, “toilet paper”…
Both of my parents remarried and my mom and step dad moved around a lot. By the time I reached 18 I was ready to get out of the south. I took a year off of college and went to New Zealand and India, and returned to study in Boston. It was in Boston that I really began playing music.
What made you decide to pursue a career in music?
There was a pub in Somerville, Massachusetts called the Burren where I began playing at the weekly open mic night while I was in college. People responded positively to the music and some local musicians helped me record a lo-fi album for free and encouraged me to begin playing shows.
I began writing music as a personal, spiritual exercise. I put the psalms to music and used music as prayer. In that sense, even after leaving my Christian background, I have retained a sense of music’s sacredness. I started playing in churches, and after a few years, made the leap to bars.
Who are your greatest influences?
My first influences were actually Christian bands. I grew up surrounded by praise and worship groups, and dabbled in that dangerous world a bit. It’s embarrassing, but that’s just part of the story. I liked a group called Water Deep… they had a very organic, Iron and Wine-like album with poetic references to the Psalms and I thought it was beautiful. I still like parts of it.
I left the church during the gay marriage battles in Massachusetts. I found the exclusivity repulsive and decided to do my own thing spiritually. During that time I discovered Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and (at that time) up and coming indie folk artists including Jolie Holland, Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, and Iron and Wine. It was a rich time for music, because I was discovering legendary and lesser known artists for the first time and their influence combined with my own theological turmoil made for interesting writing. My current influences are New York’s ridiculous hipster folk scene, the perils of driving across America in a VW bus that is terminally ill, the Annie Street Arts Collective in Austin, TX, and a number of artists who I consider peers. One of my favourite independent bands these days is a group called Some Say Leland. I also love gypsy jazz.
I left the church during the gay marriage battles in Massachusetts. I found the exclusivity repulsive and decided to do my own thing spiritually.
Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire?
If organisations count, I admire the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). They are doing some of the most inspiring legal work in the U.S. They worked on some of the Guantanamo bay cases, and recently won a huge settlement with Shell for its role in the death of a Nigerian human rights activist. Those attorneys work crazy hours and put their heart into the law in a way that most lawyers will never experience. They have a cynicism and a commitment to justice that I find admirable.
Why the move from law into music?
Law and music co-exist. I went to law school because I believed in the importance of legal advocacy for poor or under-represented people. I liked the idea of getting inside a system in order to subvert its failures, and to use the law in radical ways to gain ground for people who generally suffer because of a systemic failure to understand their needs. Music has always been an exploration of stories: those that come out of the process of making music, and those that can only be told adequately with music. Both law and music revolve around a narrative: stories of people and their conflicts and hopes. I haven’t turned my back entirely on law, but I have decided that it’s probably better for me to explore music now while youthful energy is on my side. I can’t imagine touring like this in my fifties. You can’t imagine the floors I’ve slept on.
What attracted you to the banjo?
My dad has an impulsive nature and while filming a documentary on a river boat in Tennessee, he struck up a conversation with a blue grass banjo player and asked him about learning to play it. He immediately offered to sell the banjo to my dad. He had owned it for years and had inherited it from his father, but had just bought an expensive new one and was looking to make some money to offset costs. Charmed by the instrument’s story, my dad bought it on the spot. Unfortunately, he never learned to play it and it spent the next twenty odd years under a bed in his house. It entered my world when I was twenty four, visiting home from college during a holiday. At that point I was already writing songs on the guitar and discovered the banjo hidden in the guest room. I managed to convince my dad that it would live a better life with me, and took it back to the northeast and started playing it in Boston.
What kind of journey has it been to get your album Speck released?
It’s been a fun journey. I recorded the album with 18 oh Three Recordings in Austin Texas. Bruce Chandler produced it, and as a former member of a Christian hair band, he had a certain cynical innocence I really appreciated. All of the musicians on the album are remarkably talented, and it was truly a privilege to hear their contributions to these songs. The recording process took two weeks and was heaps of fun, especially when we got everyone in the studio to sing on the last song, Plants, where we had the McMercy Pirate Orphan Choir work its magic.
Can you tell us a bit about the thinking behind Speck?
Speck is a compilation of songs that explore narratives. Some of these narratives are mine, and some belong to others, but the common theme of the album is the human story in varied forms. I enjoy focusing on details that leave an impression: old men on trains in New York wearing Russian military garb, the dove that moved onto our fire escape before we left the city, Leo Tolstoy learning to ride a bike at the age of 70. I like seeing the big picture through minutia.
Is there a track on the album which you feel defines who you are?
No, but my favourite song is “Mary”. It’s a true story.
What is your proudest moment to date?
Last year I played a secret show in the Medina River in the Texas Hill Country. Around 50 people walked down the river at dusk and we stood there until it got dark. Everyone was naked, and I played and people sang along with each song. They knew the words and the songs floated up into the trees and became a strange organism. Layers of harmonies went up into the night air. I felt like I was in exactly the right place, and I was perfectly happy. Feeling perfectly happy is something unusual for me, and I was proud of the feeling.
Who would you compare yourself to?
I am proud to be compared to many of the artists who have influenced me… Gillian Welch, Jolie Holland, Joanna Newsom, and Iron and Wine. I agree with these comparisons but feel that I have a lot of room to grow before my music reaches the calibre of some of these artists.
How do you feel about the Rufus Wainwright comparisons?
Extremely flattered and a little confused. I love Rufus, but other than the occasional swanky drone and having a ton of gay friends, I’m not sure what we have in common. He certainly has influenced my musical taste. I love the way his albums are produced and feel that he has a profound ability to turn a song into an experience. I like the combination of poetry and seediness in his music and would like to explore that more in my own song writing.
I would like to be doing exactly what I’m doing now but with a more reliable car, more money and cleaner bathrooms.
If you could write a song for any other artist, who would that artist be?
How do you reproduce your music live?
I like to be faithful to the recording wherever possible. I play with a full band when I can, and think it’s important to have good chemistry with fellow musicians. I only play with friends, and people can usually sense that we’re having a good time. We also wear wolf hats.
The crowds love us! They’re being carried away on stretchers!
Where would you like to be this time next year?
I would like to be doing exactly what I’m doing now but with (1) a more reliable car, (2) more money, (3) cleaner bathrooms.
Lastly, you can choose artistic integrity or commercial success, which would it be?
Some of the most talented musicians I know have given up on music careers because they are not financially feasible. The starving artist is a romantic notion and an unpleasant reality, and I think any honest musician will say that she wants enough commercial success to provide for life’s basic needs.
I recently invented a ‘break out’ folk duo called Pickadilly with fellow songwriter Ted Hadji. As Pickadilly, we’re Don and Angie Hope and we produce terrible folk music for audiences with terrible taste. It’s very lucrative and will hopefully be funding my real tours. Of course, everyone wants to have artistic integrity. Sometimes blatant commercialism is the most artistic thing to do.
Alexa Woodward’s Speck is out now. For more details visit her official website.