While I am not one for legacy ascription or general navel gazing of the sort, something has become quite apparent to me - Andy Shauf’s The Party holds a far more immense influence over indie music in the modern day than the 2016 Year End lists might have suggested (or foreseen). It was my “Best Record of 2016,” for what it’s worth (if for no other reason, because it features Timber Timbre’s Olivier Fairfield on drums). For those who are familiar, you may or may not be familiar with the near universal praise and reverence I’m referencing. Whether it’s Nathaniel Rateliff (surprisingly) mentioning the record in passing while discussing influences for his latest release or The Paper Kites’ Samuel Rasmussen writing an all out love letter to the record on Music Feeds, The Party has as strong a half-life as any other record released in the 2010s. Granted, those are only two examples from relatively “high profile” indie acts, but the influence permeates even further within the budding artist realm as well. The Party’s legacy has no doubt sustained more than any might have guessed, sometimes in imitation, and others - as in the case for Alexander Wren’s Assorted Love Songs EP - in a more spirited sense. Wren’s Assorted Love Songs would probably serve as a strong “LIYL” candidate for The Party, but Wren’s record stands on its own as well. Not even a half decade into living in Nashville, Wren has crafted incredibly offertory and wholly unique to what most produce here in town, similar in scope to Shauf’s Party. Now, I understand we’re inching perilously close to the aforementioned legacy ascription once more, this time for Wren and Assorted Love Songs, so we’ll refrain from creeping any closer to doing things as such. Instead, we’ll close with this - Wren and his music stand on a unique platform, especially in a city like Nashville - where many fear Nashville may have subverted its own subversion of country with seemingly ubiquitous Americana. Wren is a welcomed entity of inversion in Nashville, whose standing very well could resemble that of Shauf’s, without even trying.
Now/It’s met with Alexander Wren at Crema, on the outskirts of Downtown Nashville.
Alexander - How long have you been in Nashville?
N/I - I grew up in Nashville, so I’ve been in and around town for ostensibly my whole life. How about yourself?
Alexander - I’ve been in town for about four years. Just a little over four years.
N/I - And where’d you move here from?
Alexander - I moved here from Indiana. Fort Wayne, Indiana. “Fort Fun.”
N/I - There’s an NBA G-League team based out of there - the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, I believe.
Alexander - Yes. Sadly dude.
N/I - That’s my reference point [for Fort Wayne, Indiana].
Alexander - That is like the worst team name ever.
N/I - Are Mad Ants a thing in Fort Wayne? Outside of the general existence of ants anywhere?
Alexander - I have no clue. Seriously. Our baseball team is named The Tincaps. So we have the Mad Ants - which is definitely in the running for one of the worst names of all time - and then the Tincaps is pretty up there too.
N/I - Who knows, maybe at some point in the earlier history of baseball, players wore tincaps or helmets? Not really a big baseball guy, to be honest. Definitely a bigger basketball guy.
Alexander - I never got into basketball, man.
N/I - That’s fair. Growing up in Nashville, I was never really into country music, if anything, I kind of resented it. I know Indiana is a basketball hotbed, or at least in a somewhat cliche sense.
Alexander - Really? I never knew that.
N/I - Indiana and Kentucky would “fight” for that right. Both are hotbeds of basketball. Obviously, that wasn’t the case for you.
Alexander - No, my guy. That’s funny, because I never talk about sports with anybody here, but me and this friend I met with today, we talked about baseball. So this is funny that we’re circling back around now on basketball.
N/I - So when you were growing up, were you just into music? Were you from a musical family?
Alexander - Sort of. My brother moved here about fifteen-ish years ago. So he’s been here for a hot second. He originally moved here to do the artist thing, did that for a year, and found out he didn’t really like it.
N/I - Was that due to the nature of the city? Because fifteen years ago would have been much different than it is now.
Alexander - I don’t really know all the details. He did end up on the business side, but he is musical. My mom was also musical.
N/I - So those two were the influence to a certain degree. Did you grow up playing piano? There’s a lot of piano on that record.
Alexander - I grew up playing the guitar. We tried doing piano lessons, but it didn’t work for me.
N/I - The same thing happened to me.
Alexander - You did that too?
N/I - I did. I didn’t necessarily commit to it all that much, but since I have bigger hands and I remember my piano teacher - really nice guy - he would push to keep me into it and modify the lesson schedule around my preferences because my hands were big enough to make him think I could have been molded into a serviceable jazz pianist. Obviously, I’m not a jazz pianist. But that stays with the idea that when a child begins playing music, piano is the best instrument to learn on, because it’s both percussive and melodic. But that never was the case for you?
Alexander - Totally. It’s funny, because I will say I play the piano, but I wouldn’t consider myself a piano player. I write almost nine times out of ten on the piano. So it’s funny that in my later years, I’m coming back around [to piano].
N/I - Absolutely. Maybe after all those years of playing guitar, the piano seems a little different and your brain is approaching things from a different way.
Alexander - I also feel that with piano, there is this strange, but cool, linear way about it. To where you can see everything that you’re doing. Especially writing. I feel like I can visualize “This is where I’m going, and then this is where I’m going,” and it all makes sense. It’s all laid out. Whereas guitar, it’s a little bit more obscure. The theory behind it.
N/I - It’s a little more obstructed, maybe? Because piano is also percussive, that might impact that scenario, as well.
Alexander - Potentially.
N/I - When did you start truly writing what would become Alex Wren songs on piano?
Alexander - I would say that when I truly started to become serious about songwriting, it was four years ago, when I moved to town. When I was in high school, my brother was interning for an indie label in Donelson, strangely enough.
N/I - What label?
Alexander - It’s called Embassy Music. Our good friend Darwin, Darwin Moody. He started it, and it mostly works with A&R type stuff. Discovering talent when it’s at its first stage. So anyways, we would commute to Nashville every month - and I guess this was eight years ago, which is bonkers to think about. But that was when I started…. I wouldn’t say I was serious about the craft, but that was when I was first introduced to there being a “craft” if that makes any sense. I’ve been writing songs for quite a while, but I wasn’t fully familiar with “craft” until eightish years ago, and even at that, I wasn’t really serious about that up until about four years ago.
N/I - So how would you qualify songwriting as a “craft” versus just being a hobby? Is it taking actual consideration into what it is you’re saying? Or that you’re not sitting down and saying you’re writing a song about being mad?
Alexander - I think there are so many opposing points of view that I think it’s hard to qualify.
N/I - I understand completely. I don’t mean to trip you up on semantics of craft.
Alexander - Not at all. I personally subscribe to the thought that the more you invest, the more you get. So I write every day. There was a point that I was trying to get a song a day with that approach. Now, I’m not as [intense] when it comes to writing. I tend to still write every day. It’s funny because we’re releasing this project, but we’re already on the [next] record. So for that record, since its in the thought and conception point, there have been a little over a hundred songs written for the record. My friend that I met up with this morning will literally write twelve songs, but not only will those be the songs on the record, but those will also be written in the studio while they’re recording. Which is sweet, because people still really love his music.
N/I - Is he a career songwriter?
Alexander - He’s a career artist. That’s not to say that he isn’t a songwriter, which he very much is. In fact, he’s a badass songwriter.
N/I - Sure.
Alexander - It’s just different. What I do is more traditional - songwriting in the traditional form. To whereas his might be more of the abstract.
N/I - It sounds like some form of abstraction crossed with stream of consciousness, especially if he’s writing while the recording is going on. That’s kind of nuts.
Alexander - Right? There’s a lot on the line there. But it’s funny, because that’s what he thinks is the really fun part.
N/I - Being in a pressure cooker of sorts?
Alexander - I don’t know. I think that’s the funny thing - there are people who do it both ways, and both can be equally as successful. That’s kind of what I do.
N/I - In the spirit of the songs on the EP - it sounds like things would be more on the ruminative side of things, as opposed to a back against the wall approach. I would imagine that might produce a snappier song, or maybe a little more harried in nature….
Alexander - Totally. I think I’m starting to learn to have a little bit of that in me - the ninety percent woodshed working every day type thing. But I want to bring in that ten percent that’s more rough around the edges…. As weird as this sounds, I think we as people are drawn to the unknown. Just the weird unknown stuff… So I think when you over analyze things and tie everything up in a bow, the life can almost be sucked out of it.
N/I - That’s something - as someone who writes regularly - I always think back to the time in high school when we would read some literary work, like Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, and my junior year English teacher would hammer home this idea of “celebrate the subtle,” which was meant to say “read between the lines” but in more of a fun aphorism. The point was to cut it down, cut it down, cut it down until you know why this whole story was written on a granular level. But to a certain extent, I don’t know if Edith Wharton was necessarily writing in service of whatever theme or “thing” is being extrapolated from it. Sometimes I think of the same scenario when it comes to songwriting and songwriters in general - like Sufjan Stevens - who are considered to have such depth and breadth to their songs - which I agree with to a certain extent - but at another point, I think he might have just wanted to write a song about Jacksonville or any other Sufjan song.
Alexander - Right. You could choose from any weird slew of Sufjan songs to argue in service of either or.
N/I - Or to maybe keep things more closely oriented to your world, Andy Shauf. The Party.
Alexander - Yes! The Party. Great record.
N/I - Absolutely. That was my favorite record that came out that year. I remember I saw him at The Basement.
Alexander - No way. You saw that show?
N/I - That was one where I pleaded with their publicist to give a review for coverage because it was already sold out, and how else was I going to get in? It was truly the best show I saw that year. But to the original point, somebody asked [Shauf] whether or not The Party actually happened. I don’t know if it was the most astute question, but I guess it did warrant some form of asking.
Alexander - That is definitely an interesting record, for sure. As far as cohesion and making sense throughout the entire record, it works.
N/I - Absolutely. I figure to a certain extent, that was probably the aim with it. Circling back to your music - when you were writing these songs, were they all written in the same time or period of your life? Were they spread out?
Alexander - Not really. We started with “Emily” and “Strangers Again” which are the last two songs on the EP. We started recording those in the summer of last year…. Actually, maybe the spring of last year. Then I ended up releasing those as singles earlier on this year. So those had been done and written for a second. But “Lotto” and “Don’t You Go Falling,” were written fall of last year, and we started recording spring of this year. So [the songs] were a little spread out, but the theme was still….
N/I - Understood enough to where….
Alexander - It made sense. It just seemed cohesive.
N/I - When you write songs, do you hesitate in making them offertory in terms of your emotional perspective or purview on a moment? Do you try to hide to what extent you feel on a particular subject?
Alexander - [Laughs] I can tell you’re a writer.
N/I - Why is that?
Alexander - I can tell you’re a writer with your vocabulary [laughs].
N/I - That is something I’ve been guilty of; the colorful language.
Alexander - That’s badass, dude.
N/I - Well I suppose it’s a point of pride, but at the same time, sometimes I can get carried away with it…. Anyway - in writing love songs and things of that nature, is there ever a hesitation that the way someone or something is painted can be misconstrued? Or is it more of a “When it’s out, it’s out there type of scenario?”
Alexander - I think it’s one of those things where it’s up to the category you subscribe to. It’s funny…. Especially since recording the first two songs, but also since recording the last two, I feel like as a writer, you always learn. You’re always kind of examining your thought process. I would say, again, ninety percent of the time, I’ve failed if people don’t understand what I’m going for. But at the same time, there’s that ten percent of stream of consciousness, unknown quality that I think people and even I, myself are really curious about, and drawn to. I think the songs on this record that’s going to follow the EP, is definitely the same. I’m always going to be pretty straightforward, but it’s definitely different in the sense that it’s a little less on the nose, but with some holes, in the best way. I feel like the EP songs were super innocent, pure songs. Every word is fairly literal, and everything is to be taken pretty face value, with a couple exceptions. But everything is pretty bare, if you stripped it down, as far as the writing is concerned.
N/I - What would those exceptions be? Obviously, we don’t have to go into tit-for-tat detail….
Alexander - I’m trying to think…. Both “Emily” and “Strangers” are super literal. Both of those songs were snapshots of my writing at that time. It was super on the nose, and everything was contingent upon this one idea. “Lotto” was kind of an interesting song. That was the first song that opened me up to more - not necessarily abstract language - but language that wasn’t necessarily expected in a song.
N/I - From a generalized standpoint, it’s far more metaphorical.
Alexander - I guess it was my first time…. The language in that song…. “Lotto.” I never would have thought to use that word, or “limousine” or “Move to Paris.” These weird little things that I wouldn’t have done back before them.
N/I - “Lotto” and “limousine” specifically, and to a lesser extent, “Paris,” those are all nouns whose connotations are a little more - for some reason the word “skeevy” comes to mind - but then the nature of the song couldn’t be further from that notion. It’s almost like you’re using antithetical language to set a certain tone for the song.
Alexander - I agree. That was definitely one of the thoughts behind that song. It’s definitely a trick. The narrator is not necessarily the trustworthy narrator. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just all sweetness, if that makes sense. The other tune, I thought it was interesting, because there were a couple more….. Image based writing. That one was interesting, because it wasn’t necessarily portraying the person speaking as the nicest of people. Those were the exceptions to the process.
N/I - It’s fitting in the sense that they’re - of the four - packaged into different times.
Alexander - Totally. It’s funny, because we just waited way too long to release this.
N/I - So how long did you wait? Because I remember you first reached out to me a while ago.
Alexander - A long while ago. That was probably when we were first starting. Maybe even a little after we were first starting. That’s another thing I’m starting to learn, not to say I was wrong in reaching out, but to do so so early. I think that has helped, being on top of things, but there’s only so much you can do until you have the masters. There’s only so much you can plan.
N/I - Truly. There are a lot of indeterminate aspects of releasing music or just creative material in general. You know that when you put out a song or in this case, an EP, there’s going to be x-amount of people who will listen to it no questions asked.
Alexander - Totally.
N/I - Then there’s a second level that would be people such as myself, where you reach out, they listen and then they like it. After that, there’s the third tier, which is the people who are associated with the people from the second level - if they’re big flag bearers for the project, then things continue to progress to the point that, like you said, it’s totally out of your hands. Then that can lead to truly outstanding outcomes, or nothing at all.
Alexander - Totally.
N/I - In that regard, has that been and experiential learning curve of any sort? Or are you someone who has always managed to taper expectations?
Alexander - I think this has been a huge learning curve. I released a project in Fall of 2016, and that was the total opposite. There was a little lead time, but for the most part, we were like “Hey, this is the first thing, so we’ll throw it up and see what happens.” This was definitely the opposite end, to where the was more plotting and scheming and stuff like that.
N/I - More planning.
Alexander - Yes. I definitely feel like this next time around, I’ll be glad I went through this, because I think the next project will see me able to not waste as much time. That’s what this project has taught me.
N/I - And is that because you have a lot of the songs written?
Alexander - The songs aren’t completely finished - there are about seven songs that are ready - and I’d like it to remain pretty short and sweet. I want it to be eight or nine songs.
N/I - The proverbial minimum which would qualify it as an album.
Alexander - That’s the thing - I tend to like things that aren’t quite as much, but digestible, and in a way, someone’s best. Instead of putting out fifteen songs and saying five of the songs are the good ones.
N/I - More Andy Shauf’s The Party.
Alexander - Truly. All the songs are great.
N/I - I think it’s only ten songs. It’s relatively short album, as opposed to a Radiohead album where they put out twenty songs, and maybe one songs gets picked up for whatever platform…. I think that’s a strong approach.
Alexander - I think that’s what’s been so liberating about this project. I’m starting to learn that you can only do so much. I think another big thing I learned from this project is that it’s not necessary for every song to be groundbreaking. I’m starting to learn that it needs to have an element of truth and timelessness to it, and maybe a little bit of magic to it, too. Something that makes sense. I think those are the big takeaways. I’m starting to become a little less meticulous about that ten percent I’ve been talking about this whole time when it comes to the creative process.