Interview: Alexandra Savior on her upcoming debut album.
Alexandra Savior first popped up on musical tastemakers’ radars earlier this year with 'Risk’ - a track the 21-year-old Portland native co-wrote with Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner (that soundtracked 'True Detective' Season 2) - and continued to pique the interest of critics and fans alike, with the reveal that not only had Savior and Turner written an entire album together, but also that Savior contributed to The Last Shadow Puppets' new album cut, 'Miracle Aligner' (which was originally intended for herself).
New songs 'Shades' and 'M.T.M.E.' followed, both pairing Savior’s butter-wouldn’t-melt vocals with sassy vengeful one-liners and musical eye-rolls. Clearly, this is one who cannot be tamed.
As Savior continues to little by little uncloak herself to the world, Coup De Main was lucky enough to secure the pleasure of her company one rather sweltering hot Summer afternoon in Los Angeles recently, to discuss her upcoming debut album, as well as the goofiness of lip-syncing, and important life lessons she's learnt...
[Wallflower Dress in Green Wallpaper by Samantha Pleet. On My Way Amongst The Stars Headpiece by Heart Of Gold Designs. Shoes, Alexandra’s own.]
CDM: What's your very first earliest musical memory?
ALEXANDRA SAVIOR: It’d probably be my Mom listening to cleaning mixtapes that she made when I was young, they were all, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alanis Morissette...
CDM: Around what age was that?
ALEXANDRA: Probably around four or five. She would always play the same exact-- it was a tape, a physical tape that she’d made, and she would play it from front to back every single time she cleaned the house which was every Friday - all songs that I would listen to.
CDM: So she introduced you to music?
ALEXANDRA: No! My Mom has horrible taste in music, but my Dad collects records, so he was into a lot more eclectic and unique music.
CDM: At what point did you progress from merely enjoying music to thinking more about the creation and writing of music?
ALEXANDRA: Probably when I was 14, I had just developed when I was 11 or 12 into listening to my own music, and then when I was 14 I started a writing-class and we did a poetry section, and I was also in musical theatre, so I think they just kind of clicked together.
CDM: How does your songwriting process work?
ALEXANDRA: It’s different when I’m writing on my own, usually it starts in the car. Sometimes if I’m working on a melody, I’m in the car and I have my tape-recorder or my phone, and I just sing melodies, make up lyrics, or when I’m cooking - just all the time, I’m recording things. Or sometimes I’ll properly sit down with a guitar. With the record that’s coming out, I would take those ideas to Alex [Turner] and then we would work them into what they are now, all together.
CDM: At what age did you write your very first song ever?
ALEXANDRA: When I was 14 I wrote a song called ‘Hazy Dazey The Lazy Daisy’ or something, I think it’s a rip-off probably of something else, probably by The Beatles. <laughs> I wrote it with my ukulele that my Dad gave me. When I was young I played piano, but I quit everything, and then my brother would teach me guitar here and there because my brother played guitar and wrote songs, so I think a lot of it comes from him.
CDM: Older or younger brother?
ALEXANDRA: He’s older, he’s actually seven years older than me. My parents had him when they were 17 - he was in high school and super cool, I looked up to him a lot.
[Papillon Combs by Heart Of Gold Designs.]
CDM: Lyrically, what's your favourite song that you’ve written thus far?
ALEXANDRA: Lyrically, I would say 'Audeline' is my favourite song overall, because I wrote most of it by myself and it was the first one that I felt I had full ownership over, so I enjoy that one lyrically because I feel more emotionally attached to it.
CDM: Is that a song that you’ve recorded for the album?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, it’s Track Seven.
CDM: Having co-written your lyrics with Alex, do you feel like you’re slipping into the persona of 'Alexandra Savior’ when singing these songs? Or do all the words feel extremely personal to you?
ALEXANDRA: Sometimes when I’m playing shows, it’s like I have to slip into-- yeah, the persona, but it’s almost like living in a shadow of somebody else’s talent because you don’t really get to take full credit, so I feel like it makes me less proud of the music. But I think I enjoy it more. I mean, parts of it belong to me and parts of it belong to him, and that’s kinda just how it is. Sometimes I’ll sing a lyric and I’ll kinda roll my eyes like, 'Oh, Al wrote that one,' or 'I hate that part!' or whatever, but it kind of makes it fun that way because it builds this sort of vengeful character when I’m performing.
CDM: Was it quite collaborative, that songwriting process between you both?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah it was. It was pretty collaborative, I think that he’s got-- going into it, we both were like, 'Well, what are we going to do?' He’s much more organised and he keeps everything very tight and controlled in his writing and life, and I’m much more fluid, and sort of all over the place, so it was definitely a co-process. The production process, I’d say I was pretty clueless with, because I was like, ‘Whoah!’ Once James [Ford] came in, it wasn’t songwriting anymore, it was building a musical aesthetic of nuance.
CDM: The idea of dissatisfaction comes through strongly in the lyrics of your songs - do you think we, as humans, are conditioned to be dissatisfied by everything?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah! You always wanna be where you’re not - you could be in Heaven and you’d wanna be back on Earth. I think that we just live in a constant state of limbo, like purgatory, where we just wanna get to the next place. I think that comes out a lot in my writing, it’s sort of just a big eye-roll to everything that is actually a blessing in my life.
CDM: What does true happiness look like for you?
ALEXANDRA: In my mind, it would be being able to just paint, and have a garden and have a couple babies or something, but I think if I was there I’d probably wish that I was a popstar! So... <laughs>
CDM: What do you think is the strongest human emotion?
ALEXANDRA: Jealousy, because I think that it becomes-- like, you are completely... it takes over your entire body. It’s the worst feeling. Or possibly grief, I guess - grief and jealousy. Probably more grief, but I haven’t had much grief, so I’m lucky in that.
CDM: You’re so involved creatively in things other than just your music - like painting your own album cover! When did you actually paint the album cover in the time-line of Alexandra Savior?
ALEXANDRA: It was after I finished the record I think, I painted it in May, so it’s been almost a year. We finished the record in June 2015, so almost a year after, but the whole inside of the record cover, the inlay/booklet is all photos and paintings that I have worked on over the past year.
CDM: Did you create the 'Shades' single cover as well?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, that one I actually-- Columbia asked me to send it in like two days before, so I just took a marker and did it real quick.
CDM: How do your other creative processes like painting, your involvement in music videos, how does that all compare to songwriting for you?
ALEXANDRA: I find it a lot less pressure, because it’s not as of an organised kind of process. You don’t have to think about the structure of a painting as much as you do have to think about the structure of a song. It usually just starts out in my notebook, every morning I try to write in there and usually the pen goes into some sort of idea, and then if I have some time I’ll turn it into a painting. For music videos, just if somebody gives me a video camera, I figure something out I guess and then go a little bit nuts on the computer trying to make it look trippy!
CDM: Do you think you’ll do videos for a lot of the songs on the album?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, I’m working a video right now for a song called ‘Music To My Ears’ ['M.T.M.E.’] and it’s due tomorrow, so I’ll be working on it tonight.
CDM: You’ve said that the ‘Shades’ music video is "a statement showing how you shouldn’t do everything the way everyone else does it." How do you think “everyone else does it,” and why did you consider it important to take a stand against that?
ALEXANDRA: I think that there is a structure in the music industry that has been followed for years, since the 80s or so. Usually when it’s a female artist, it’s all about lip-syncing in front of the camera, which is fine, but it was sort of just a parody on how silly it is to take things like that so seriously. I think that the idea of lip-syncing is a pretty goofy thing.
CDM: Was there a particular reason that you chose to release the last song you wrote for the album, 'Shades', as the first official song for people to hear from you?
ALEXANDRA: I don’t really have any say in that, it just kind of happened - which I thought was interesting, because it wasn’t really one of the ones that I think people were favouring when we finished the record. I think the live show helped it evolve into something, and the label just decided to put it out.
CDM: I’ve only gotten to hear a few songs from the album so far, but I’m obsessed with 'Girlie' - that’s my favourite currently. You sing, “She's always looking for a wilder ride." What, in your opinion, are experiences worth seeking out in life?
ALEXANDRA: Thank you! That was a good twist! I think, seeing as much nature as you can and becoming close with people, and seeing people for what they truly are I suppose.
CDM: Zach Dawes from Mini Mansions played on your album, right?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah! He actually wrote the bass-line for 'Girlie'. Zach would come by because we wrote the whole record at Alex’s house, and Zach and Alex are really good friends, and now Zach plays in The Last Shadow Puppets - we actually recorded my record before they recorded the record they’re touring now, so it was a couple of years ago, must be like two or three years now. He’d just came by and kind of dilly-dally when Alex wanted something with a little more flare.
CDM: You finished the album, masters and all, over a year ago - is it strange to have the songs only starting to trickle out into the world now?
ALEXANDRA: It is sorta weird because it’s such old news to me, but I was only 19 when we finished the record, I think I was just about to turn 20 and I wasn’t at the maturity-level, I wasn’t ready to take on the responsibility of the judgement I don’t think. I was pretty insecure about what people would think of me and I got really obsessed with creating a posed persona, and now I’ve sorta accepted it all as it doesn’t have to be 'me', and I’ve calculated a way to keep all of that out. So it’s nice to release it because it was such a ball of worry for me for so long, of just people thinking that I was a stupid popstar or something. I’m not sure what it stemmed from, but I think the more I was detached from the actual work, I felt like I just really didn’t give a fuck about what people thought anymore. So it’s nice to release it.
CDM: A lot of young musicians find it hard to write with professional songwriters for the first time, but I guess it must be even harder when you’re writing with the likes of Alex Turner and everyone is just, 'Alex Turner!!!'
ALEXANDRA: I didn’t really even understand what that even-- what he meant. I just read a few things like his short stories and I heard the 'Submarine' [soundtrack] stuff. I wasn’t really aware of how heavy of a weight that would put on the record, and on my name. Now, I’m so grateful for him, but I’m also just like, 'Alright, alright!' <laughs>
CDM: It’s sorta interesting, because Mini Mansions just went through a similar thing with Alex singing on a song on their latest album--
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, and now Zach’s playing bass.
CDM: Everyone was just like, 'Alex Turner! Alex Turner!! Alex Turner!!!'
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, which is good, because I’m lucky that he brought so much attention and he built such a great creative thing for us, but everybody wants to talk about it - I’m just like a child wanting my parents to stop taking care of me or something.
CDM: I read that you met Miles Kane at a party and he introduced you to Alex?
ALEXANDRA: No, I don’t know how that got--
CDM: It’s in your interview with Noisey.
ALEXANDRA: No offence to Noisey, but that’s not what I said at all. I actually just met Miles at a party and then I suggested working with-- Miles and I were both drunk, and just like, ‘Yeah we should together!’ Then I suggested working with Miles or Al and then my label contacted Alex - they didn’t have anything to do with each other, Miles didn’t introduce me to Alex, I don’t think we even talked about Alex, it was totally different. I think he just sparked this idea in my head-- because we started talking about the 'Nancy & Lee' [Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s] record when I was with Miles, and then I think it sparked this idea of an Elvis character in my mind.
CDM: And then you met Alex after the label had introduced you to each other?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, Alex and I met up at a coffee-shop.
[Vintage Floppy Suede Hat by Heart Of Gold Designs. Dress, bag, and shoes, Alexandra’s own.]
CDM: ‘Miracle Aligner’ is the only song you’ve written with Alex that instead is on The Last Shadow Puppets’ new album. How were you involved with that song?
ALEXANDRA: We wrote that song for my record but I didn’t really feel connected to it, I think it was kind of more of Alex’s idea because it was sort of a spark that he brought. And it’s obviously about a coke dealer - it’s a lifestyle that I didn’t relate to myself, so against a lot of other people’s opinions, I didn’t put it on my record and it actually turned out to be a lot better for the song, because I think they bring a light to it with their own personas. I think their version is a lot better.
CDM: You’ve been performing songs from the album at shows for a little while now, and it seems like fans are familiar with some of the non-released material already. Has it been important for you to be introducing audiences to your album this way live before it’s released? Or do you prefer to lead with the studio-version of a song as a first impression?
ALEXANDRA: No, I think it’s more important to have it be live. Otherwise the character would have gotten lost and I don’t think that-- if I hadn’t started playing these live shows and we put out the music, I would have gotten lost in other people’s opinions, so it was nice to have these last six months to build up what I actually felt about the music, because when I wrote the music it was a lot more vulnerable and now I don’t feel as vulnerable to it, which is how the character kind of built itself I think. Live music is extremely important, it’s really helped to be able to do these shows. People feel like they discovered it first, so it’s nice to build it up for them.
HOW I FEEL ABOUT MY DEBUT ALBUM…
CDM: Is there a song that you haven’t been playing live yet, that you’re excited for people to hear?
ALEXANDRA: There’s a song called ’Til You're Mine’ that we haven’t been playing and we’re gonna try to incorporate that once we can get longer sets. At the moment we usually have half-an-hour to 40 minutes, so yeah, 'Til You're Mine’ it’s called!
CDM: Are you going to continue playing live with Papa as your touring-band?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah! I hope to keep them. I hope to keep them on for a good amount of time, I love Darren [Weiss] and yeah, they’re really good guys. I wanna give them their own thing as much as possible, but whenever they want to play with me, obviously I would love to play with them!
CDM: Back in 2013 when you still went by your 'real' name, Alexandra McDermott, you were championed early on by the likes of Courtney Love, who apparently used to phone and e-mail you advice about the music industry? Was having tips from people like her helpful in the beginnings of your career?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah she actually introduced me to Stevie Nicks - I knew Fleetwood Mac but I only ever had their records before Stevie Nicks came, because it was from my Dad’s record collection, he gave me some. So she helped introduce me to things, but I don’t like to be told what to do, and I would rather find my own path and I think everybody’s experience is different, so whenever someone tries to give me advice that I don’t really know, I just like--
CDM: I’m the same. Super stubborn.
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, stubborn! <laughs>
CDM: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt about the music industry?
ALEXANDRA: The most important thing about the music industry I’ve learnt is that it’s total bullshit, and that the thing you should focus on the most is just the art. It’s nice to be in a position where you have people who will take care of the things that you don’t want to worry about, because then you can kind of just hone in on your own brain. The most important thing is to nurture your own art.
CDM: Have you been working with your current manager long?
ALEXANDRA: No, we actually signed on with each other in February or March. I was working without a manager for a long time, and I think that’s why it took so long to get the record out!
CDM: It’s tough to talk to record labels.
ALEXANDRA: Yeah. You just can’t really do it all on your own, especially when you’re 20. I think my Mom was pretty sick of it and helping me out, but he’s really cool, and he’s been really helpful in sticking up for me and stuff. <laughs>
CDM: When did you decide to make the switch from McDermott to Savior?
ALEXANDRA: Somewhere along the line of making the record. I think everybody just kind of assumed that I would change my name, so I came up with all these crazy personas like Ophelia Fable, and more ridiculous names. Then one day, Alex was just like, "Why are you doing this? Why don’t you just go by your middle name? It’s so cool to just be like, <imitates Turner’s Sheffield accent> 'Savior is my middle name.'" Or whatever he said.
CDM: At what age did you decide to leave Portland? Was it consciously in search of a career in music?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah it was, I got really swept up into it when I was really young, when I was 16. I had been writing already, co-writing with people and stuff when I was 17, 16 and 17. So the minute that I graduated high school I just kind of decided that was what I was going to do and my Mom said that she would give me six months where she would help me out, and if it didn’t work out in six months then I would have to move back home or try to get into college. I was planning on going to art-school, I didn’t really think it was going to work out, so I was sort of thinking that I would end up as an artist or art-teacher somehow.
CDM: You’ve been signed to Columbia Records since you were 18, so you’ve been in development for quite a few years. What has that process been like for you?
ALEXANDRA: It’s been very difficult, I signed when I was-- I had been 18 for less than 4 months when I signed, and I didn’t understand what Columbia meant at all, I didn’t know what my sound was, I didn’t know what I wanted, all I knew was that I liked singing and writing songs, and somebody decided it for me, so it was really hard. I don’t think I realised until I was at a party, I was 18 and I went to a party and it was my first party in Los Angeles - I keep to myself, and I don’t really go to social stuff, I didn’t for a long time - and I went to this party and I met these people and they were asking me all these questions like they do in Los Angeles, like, 'What do YOU do?' You know, the classic lines, there’s a whole script, and I didn’t really understand that was seedy so I just answered them and I didn’t mask myself whatsoever. I just told them, 'I’m a singer!' / 'Oh who are you signed with?' / 'Columbia!' And then the next thing I know, everybody at the party is whispering about how there’s a popstar here, and that’s when I was like, 'What? I’m not a popstar! What are they talking about?!’ And from there on, I just became a shut-in - 'How did I get here? Who am I?' It was really difficult, but I’ve made the best of it and I think a lot of people would be really happy to be in that position. I guess, when you don’t really understand what it is you’re getting, it’s like taking a bite of something blindfolded.
CDM: Even though it sucks, I guess it’s kinda good that you got that out early on and now you can just protect yourself hence forth.
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, I learned a lesson. Coming from Oregon, Washington, I had to learn very soon that not all people are good people and not everybody wants to be your friend because they think you’re nice.
CDM: I know that you kind of dabbled with fashion and did a bit of modelling in those early days - looking back, is that something you don’t want to revisit?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah. I did one thing where I played a fashion show and they dressed me up and strapped me in whatever they pleased, and I did it all because I got to sing in front of people, but I learned very early that I didn’t like that when I wanted to wear my Converse and red lipstick, they made me wear big silver stilettos. And from that moment I turned to my Mom and said, "I don’t wanna do this! I quit, I don’t wanna do this, I just wanna be normal!" And it turned out, that’s actually not a part of it, so I got to weed that out pretty early. It’s embarrassing that everybody knows things that you did when you were 16.
CDM: The Internet never forgets! What do you think is the difference between a good song and a great song?
ALEXANDRA: Honesty, I guess.
CDM: Is honesty something that is important to you when you’re writing songs?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah. I don’t like to censor whatever comes out of me - you should say your true experiences, otherwise people are just going to throw them away.
CDM: What do you hope for people to take away from listening to your music?
ALEXANDRA: I suppose, self-empowerment, or vengeance - the joy of vengeance. <laughs>
CDM: And some good eye-rolls?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah! Some nice eye-rolls would be good.
CDM: I know you like Maya Angelou, are there any other authors/books you like reading?
ALEXANDRA: Yes! I love Françoise Sagan and Arundhati Roy, obviously Hemingway, and Vonnegut. I mostly read novels, so I love usually an early 20th century kind of vibe.
CDM: Earlier today, we were talking about how you visited New Zealand last Summer while on holiday with your NZ boyfriend, so when are you gonna come back to play a show for us?
ALEXANDRA: I don’t know, but I’ll actually be in New Zealand in January for the Summer. I won’t be playing a show, but if you wanna come to Nelson, we can eat some berries! <laughs>
Alexandra Savior’s single ‘M.T.M.E.’ is out now - click here to purchase.
Watch the ‘M.T.M.E.’ music video below…