Alex The Astronaut’s Integrated Inspirations
"I guess it's the macro into the micro, you're looking from a bird's eye view, to get to these really nitty gritty, tiny little subjects"
Sophomore albums often have the reputation of being hard, the “difficult second album syndrome”, assumedly the result of artists hitting a certain level of success on their first album and attempting to bottle lightning a second time, heading into the studio with no real new life experiences, and thus no new ideas.
This is not the case for Alexandra Lynn AKA Alex the Astronaut, who after a string of well received singles and EPs released her acclaimed debut album The Theory of Absolutely Nothing, back in August 2020. Now back with her awesome follow-up record (avoiding any signs of said syndrome) How To Grow A Sunflower Underwater, Alex has undergone both huge life experiences, including an autism diagnosis, as well as the everyday, mundane, relatable moments of life familiar to us all, inspiring her inspiring and relatable new record of upbeat, big indie pop anthems with a folksy twist.
Out on July 22, How To Grow A Sunflower Underwater comes just in time for Alex and her band’s set at Splendour in the Grass before they jet off on a national tour hitting every capital city in Australia during August and September. We were lucky enough to jump on the line with Alex to find out all about it!
I want to chat all about the new album but I have to start off asking about the title - How to Grow a Sunflower Underwater - and I believe this was inspired by some snorkelling during lockdown, do you want to dig into that a bit?
I didn’t name the album until the end, yeah. Once we had the ten songs all recorded, I just kept getting on the plan and writing, like, stream of consciousness like “okay, we’ve got three words, how do we sum it up” and it felt kind of like homework tasks that you get from your English teacher, I just kind of had no idea what to call it. I kept having like “Keep Swimming”, and then that was too close to Dory from Finding Nemo, so yeah, eventually I got like “okay, I definitely want it to be something to do with hope. And something to do with struggle, or swimming, and so it just kind of kept moving. And then I had like, in my head, The Theory of Absolutely Nothing has like a “da-dada-dada-dada-da”, How to Grow a Sunflower Underwater, it’s not exactly the same syllables, but I thought like “oh, it would be cool if it kind of kept a little bit of a science element to it” but had something completely different. I think once I got to the sunflower idea - I don’t like the idea of flowers in songs, so I kept kind of resisting going towards the sunflower idea. But eventually I was like “oh, if I can put the sunflower underwater, that kind of expresses exactly what I wanted” and it fits all the songs. And then it was like “ok, Sunflower Underwater, what’s that?” and then I was like “ok, like a ‘how to’ guide”, you know, how you grow seeds or something. And then it all kind of fell together, but it was a lot of like, very bad titles. It kept being swimming, it kept being Keep Swimming, and I was like “that’s not it!”. And then I finally got there.
I’m sure you probably wouldn’t want to, but I’d love to see all those work in progress title ideas!
I’ve got them, I’ve got them scanned! I can’t remember what they all were, but yeah, it was Keep Swimming that kept... yeah.
So why do you think you don’t like the idea of flowers in songs? Just like cheesy, cliche, played out whatever?
Yeah, I think it was too cliched and it kind of doesn’t hit emotionally, but I think everyone knows that sunflowers are hopeful or happy and so it was kind of like “oh, that makes sense”. And also growing, I think that fits. And so yeah I was like “how do you grow a person under water” but that’s sounds a bit fucked *laughs*
I can almost like picture from your animated music videos, some people growing underwater, anyways *laughs*. So you’ve used the word emotional which I think is super appropriate for your music, and something that I love from an outsider's perspective is that it appears everything from the mundane to the profound can inspire emotional music from you - why do you think certain things are inspirational and others are not?
I think when there's really a human connection element to it, that's where I've noticed, like, if you’re looking at why does something hit you emotionally. Like, I don’t know, if you wrote a song about someone who likes to dance, but also they’re going through this very scary, abusive relationship. The liking to dance can be applied to everyone, and it kind of adds this emotional connection between people, whereas if you just said “I’m going through this terrible relationship”, you might not have experienced it so it might not be able to tie you back to that experience. Same with Growing Up, like you kind of have to try and figure out things that hit for me, that make sense to me, like “when's my parket ticket ending?”, that’s the line where I was like “ah, I feel like everyone knows what I mean”, like, you’ve just got a parking fine again, and I wanted to tie in the “already home parking fine” line as well. Yeah, I feel like for me, like the things that inspire me is always something that connects you to other people, like, you know, going to meet someone at the airport or like, figuring out that you have to grow up or figuring out stuff about yourself, trying to tie it back to things that could apply to anyone. I guess it's the macro into the micro, you're looking from a bird's eye view, to get to these really nitty gritty, tiny little subjects. So yeah, I think that's maybe why.
Yeah, nice, and I can’t help but wonder if this has always been the case with your songwriting, or has it evolved as you’ve evolved as an artist?
I think it always has. I've always been interested in like, difficult kinds of subjects, I don't know, that's been the thing. Big, big emotions have been my thing that I like to write about and how do you get big topics to feel like someone's friend is telling you. Because I think I always found that so funny, like that people completely understand something when it's a friend or a family member, they're all over it, it doesn't take a special type of person, it just takes a special kind of connection. So I felt like why we can do that and a way of doing that is through music, when people listen, they start to understand something a little bit better. But you have to be able to bring that connection to them, bring it to their level and meet them where they are kind of thing. And so yeah, that's always been my interest. And I think with this album, it's kind of like, there's a lot of big, big topics. I mean, it was hard for me because they're so personal to me, but I really wanted to be able to meet everyone where they were and trying to show that we all have these struggles.But hopefully we can come out the other end still hopeful. I think that with the backdrop of the pandemic now, which the album was about stuff that happened before the pandemic, so I feel like having the pandemic, it’s like we're all in this state of “how do we keep hopeful after all of this, and with all of this is going on”? I guess it just keeps happening, I don’t know, I just keep writing like that. . I think it's just how my brain works or something *laughs*
And I think it goes back to a quote about you hoping to inspire listeners to open up and reexamine how they connect with others, which I think is a very beautiful and admirable thing. As an autistic person myself, when you said that about, you know, as soon as something is directly related to friends and family people get it but otherwise… yeah, I don’t know, that resonated with me.
That’s a perfect example of like, people can see the humanity in their family members when they have some sort of disability, if that's what you want to call it. But when it's someone else, it gets reduced and sometimes those elements get taken out of the human connection. And I think, if we can manage to kind of bring that in and be a bit more - it's not empathetic, because I think humans are naturally empathetic creatures. It's just, I guess how it's taught. I don't think that we're taught emotional subjects with emotionality in them. I don't think we grow up being taught - we know what autism is but we don’t know what it means. Like we're taught about racism when we grew up in school, but we're not taught the emotionality of it in classes. And I think the education system feeds that, I guess, ambivalence to other people’s situation, and I think that that’s something we could do better at.
I want to say Amen, I’m not a religious person but yeah, agreed, and keep spreading that message! So it’s been two years since The Theory of Absolutely Nothing and I’m curious, what are some things you’ve learned since putting out that first record?
When I learned to write music, I didn't know much about music theory or production, I never had an interest in production. So I'd always like, finish writing a song, click record on my computer, start recording and be like, “Oh, it's done”. And it will be the worst recording of all time but that’s what I wanted to achieve, that I finished the song. And so when I started recording music, for it to be released, it was just such a big learning curve. So I think through the first album, I was definitely on training wheels and I still am but with the production stuff, yeah, I guess one thing that people may not know is like, when you get into a recording studio, there's nothing there. You've got a song with some lyrics and a guitar, but the drums, the, the strings, or the piano, everything's a choice at that point that you have to make. And so when someone says to you, “do you like this piano sound?”. Even though you’ve had no experience with it in your life, you've got no instincts with it, you just say “yeah, sure… sounds good!”. And so it's taken I think till this album for me to be like “no - that sounds not good! *laughs* “And this is why I don’t think that was the right one”. I feel like I am so lucky, because I had the situation with Sam and Dan, for the first album where they were so wanting me to answer “I don’t like that”, because I’d just be like “yeah, yeah, that’s really good” and then all of a sudden, at one point I’m like “I don’t know if I really, really liked that bit…”. So they were trying to foster that in me of being confident in myself. And so I think, musically in this album, I would go in and when something would be played and I’m like “No, that’s not a fit”, and as fake music big brothers, Sam and Dean and Dan, were like, “this is what we want from Alex, we want Alex to have a vision for what she wants it to look like” and make choices on it. So yeah, I was lucky they’ve taught me so much in that role. And I had a lot more time because I was in lockdown writing most of the songs. So yeah, I kind of pieced it all together and I don’t really know where I used what, but definitely the production stuff from first album to the second album was a development.
That’s funny cos I literally have a note under my question about this that just says “strings and piano - extra luscious” *laughs*
Yeah, cos I love strings, and I feel like that was the one thing going into the album, I was like “these are big topics, and everyone loves violins - let’s get some orchestra stuff”. So I worked on one song with Miro Mackie - he’s actually from New Zealand but he lives in L.A., and we did a song over zoom. He works with this guy Dan and he plays violin, so in the end Dan played violin over the whole album. So it was really cool because they were in L.A., Sam and my band and me and Dean and Dan would throughout the day record a song and send it off to Miro and other Dan. And because of the timezone overnight, in the morning, we would get sent back an orchestra over the top of it. So it's kind of like a little treat to get every morning of like, we'd work on this thing and we'd come out the other end being like “oh, yeah, this is, I think, what we want”, and then we'd send a few notes to Miro and Dan and then we get back these huge, massive orchestra bits like South London and Airport and Growing up, where it just like made the songs what they were.
I’m just imagining you not being able to sleep in anticipation of what they’d send back overnight.
Yeah, that's probably another thing that people don't realise is the deep stress. Because you hear the same song for 10 hours a day, and then you try and go to sleep, and the next day you're going to record another song. And because for me, I was the writer of the songs, I would be like, “Oh my god, everyone's gonna hear my feelings on this topic tomorrow”. And I'd be looking at my book just being like, “maybe it's shit, like, maybe I shouldn't show anyone, maybe I should just fly home. I've had enough. This is too stressful”. And so I feel like when I’d get up in the morning and hear the strings, I'd be like, “Oh, that's quite calming. That's nice.” *laughs*
So play the strings section first thing every day *laughs* Speaking of stressful, I hope this was an appropriate segue, maybe not, but you’ve got a big tour coming up heading all around Australia, what can people expect from these shows?
Well we’re in rehearsals right now for Splendour, which is really exciting. I've tried to pack in as many of the new songs as I can get away with. So I think I've got maybe four or five. And then five from the old EPs and album. I think luckily for the tour I'll be able to play probably five more songs from the old album and new album. So yeah, it's gonna be really fun, it's the first time I've toured with a band. So I'll have some friends on the road, which is always nice and we’re kind of just trying to replicate, I guess the massiveness of all of the songs. And yeah, because I've only toured solo, I just tried to really mix it up and get all those elements onto the stage and I've been making animations for the backgrounds. I've been learning Adobe Animate yesterday, I accidentally didn't save and the computer crashed and lost eight hours of animation. So that was a bit of a pity. But we live and we learn and I'm saving everything very adequately now. So yeah, the visuals are something that I've also had the time to learn a bit more about and that's been really fun. I worked with Julia G on the album for all the artwork, and she was amazing and painted all of it. And we worked on Photoshop together to get those elements before she painted the artwork of me falling so yeah, I'm trying to make sure that those get shown because she did such an amazing job. That was me for three hours some days where we just went back and forth, talking about random stuff and then going on Photoshop and working on the artwork. So for the visuals for the tour and Splendour, the octopus hand is moving and the airport scuba divers are swimming up and down. We’ve got elements from the videos as well where, on the single for the album, I went to Iceland and got a drone and filmed the video myself with my friends touring around Europe, so some of those big sweeping videos of volcanoes and volcanic beaches and ice. And yeah, like the massive volcanic - I'm not sure what that's called, but like springs where they're all like blue and orange and stuff. I went to Copenhagen, Brighton and Spain and for the final part of the video we got the drone operator from Thor, to come down to Clovelly to kind of round it all off with my friends riding our bikes down into the beach and me jumping into the freezing water. So yeah, all the visual elements of like the haircut video and ride my bike video with the drones and all of that, and the cartoon octopus and some growing up footage of me as a kid. We're kind of just trying to put that on the stage and we've got lighting and stuff, so it's gonna be super exciting. And yeah, a few of the shows will have strings so it's been really, really fun. I've had a great time piecing it all together.
And again it’s like you knew my next questions *laughs* I wanted to know if there would be any imagery related to the music videos or if there would be live strings!
Oh, yeah, I've actually got the costumes for the band. I feel like I've become like a one man like, I don't know, production team in my little apartment. I've got hanging up in my bathroom, the band's costumes which me and a couple of friends are painting, so that they have like the same gradient as the background of the album, it’s all really fun.
I can’t wait to see it! So one last question - after all of this, what’s happening for the rest of the year, some time off?!
That will be a good idea. I feel like sitting on a beach somewhere and just like being a seal, I think that’s what I need at some point *laughs* Not now, I’m happy now, I’m really excited about everything but I feel like yeah, I wouldn’t mind being on a beach somewhere at some point.
Hey, come summer after the tour wraps up - I can’t help but think of a beautifully poetic full circle kinda thing here like you go do some snorkeling to chill out *laughs*
Yeah! Album three *laughs*
Amazing. Well, Alex, thanks so much for chatting, that was really fun, and excited for your album to be out and the tour!
Thank you, Will, it’s been really nice..
Alex The Astronaut’s new album How To Grow A Sunflower Underwater is out July 22 via Warner Music Australia