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Interview with Alex Southey

Updated: Dec 29, 2022



If you’re ever near Dundas Square on a Tuesday evening, you can see the flickering flame of Alex Southey’s open mic night drawing in emerging artists and music lovers from the cold city streets. At least that’s how I imagine it - imagery conjured by the cover of his recent EP, My Nights On the Island. It displays two people standing near a bonfire, lighting up an empty shore at night. It’s a fitting image given that it was released during the 2021 portion of the pandemic, a time when people were isolated and an unseen darkness loomed over our islands of separation. Being Alex’s third release, it demonstrates his adept guitar finger picking styles and somber vocals, but also flexes other techniques, including the use of synthesized string sections, mellotron sounds, ambient recordings, and droning bass tones. Songs like “As Close As You’ll Ever Be” are a perfect example of this, combining his folk songwriting signature with ominous field recordings, lo-fi key textures, and chasms of reverberated lead guitar. I get Flaming Lips vibes from the latter half of “My Nights On the Island / Rich In Experience '' which is equal parts downtempo mantra and emotional sci-fi sunrise.


Our dialogue with Alex Southey began out of a simple thing - a follow. As Smol began to wade into the Toronto music Instagram pool, we followed Alex, initiating a conversation about his efforts in the scene. Soon after we decided to follow up with an interview to dive deeper into the songwriter’s life and outline his approach to music, serving as a preface to his upcoming show at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern on March 1, 2022.


Alex Southey is an independent folk songwriter from Toronto who performs consummate acoustic sets and dabbles in psychedelic-rock and pop. Alex’s 2020 Day Like It’s Night tour, between Montreal and Toronto, donated all ticket sales to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).


24JAN22


Speed round questions!


Smol: Coffee or tea?


Alex: Coffee.


Smol: What do you take in your coffee?


Alex: Nothing, pretty much ever. Maybe some oat milk, but 90% of the time nothing. I like drip, I’m not a one-shot espresso guy, I like the habit of having it for a while.


Smol: Favourite season?


Alex: I’ve started liking all of them, but I guess I’d say fall. I guess when I think about it, I go to - that’s when school starts. Not because I like academics, but the socializing aspect. And in Ontario we get really strong falls and we get beautiful orange colours and that sort of thing. And I like the cold too, I don’t like being too hot.


Smol: Favourite movie?


Alex: I don’t have one, but if I had to pick one I’d say The Social Network.


Smol: Favourite restaurant?


Alex: Definitely don’t have one. I’m not good about that at all. I’ll say Wilbur; I like Mexican food. I like a vegan place called Bar Vegandale in Parkdale.


Smol: What was your favourite childhood toy?


Alex: What came to mind is, apparently I had a stuffed monkey and my parents thought it was funny because I named it Steve. I didn’t name it, like, Stevey or Monkey, it had an adult man’s name [laughs].



Smol: When did you start playing music? Which instruments did you learn?


Alex: I started playing - for myself I started playing, I guess, around 12. And around that time I was forced to learn how to play recorder in class, so maybe I would count that. So it was guitar and recorder I guess. I don’t know how to play that anymore, I know how to play “Hot Crossed Buns”. I don’t know why they make you learn that. It’s really kind of settler shit isn’t it? Now that I think of it. Who’s into that? Like, cursive and the recorder [laughs].


On guitar, it was mostly self taught. Maybe I got three paid lessons but it was for classical guitar and I realized quickly that's not really what I wanted with guitar. Then it became self taught with tabs, Ultimate Guitar and that sort of thing.


Smol: What was the first song you tried to learn on your own?


Alex: I remember trying to work out, by ear, the beginning to “The Canadian Dream” by Sam Roberts. It opens with a - I realize now - he hits one note and there’s delay on it so it goes dun-dun-dun [he imitates a delay effect]. I didn’t know that, so I would kind of play it five times but softer. So I guess that was the first example. I remember I learned most of my suspended chords from Noel Gallagher. All of those songs are suspended chords.


Smol: How long have you lived in Toronto?


Alex: From when I was six until I was 18, then 24 ‘til now. A lot of time. Probably close to 16 years now that I think about it.


Smol: You grew up in B.C. right?


Alex: Yeah, that’s where I was born and I grew up outside of Vancouver, closer where you catch the ferry to go to Vancouver Island. Then, when I went back, I went to UBC for University. I spent a lot of time out on a peninsula right up against the Georgia Straight which is the body of water that separates Vancouver Island and Vancouver.


Smol: Do you go back every now and then?


Alex: Everyone, except my Nana, are based in Toronto or other parts of Canada, or other parts of the world. So, I have no reason, except to visit her, to go out there. It’s a great place to visit though.


Smol: How has living in Toronto changed you as a person and as an artist?


Alex: Changed me as a person - I feel like I got most of my personality traits from the East Coast (Toronto) and not from Vancouver, despite wearing a toque [he adjusts his wool toque]. In terms of music, I played for like six months in my room, seriously songwriting, but I didn’t really begin my career until I moved here, so I would say it didn’t really influence me at all. As a person - I think I definitely have a Torontonian sense of, umm… I walk quickly and I want to get somewhere quickly and I think people walking slowly really pisses me off [laughs].


Smol: Do you have a favourite venue in Toronto?


Alex: I love the Danforth, maybe that’s an obvious answer. On the other end of things, The Painted Lady is a cool spot, it’s just like a hallway that’s also a burlesque club, which is interesting. I should also say where I host my open mic, but it’s not really a venue, it’s at The Imperial Tavern. But yeah, the Danforth, I just love it.


Smol: Do you have any memorable stories from going to shows there?


Alex: I can think of two things. I saw a great show, it was the first show I ever went to alone. I saw Courtney Barnett at Danforth which was great. Also, I caught an actual glimpse of Father John Misty before I saw him at Massey Hall and I was like, “Oh! He’s a tall guy!”, [laughs] but that’s it though, no actual story.


Smol: What are some of your favourite local bands?


Alex: There’s a band I like called Wax Limbs. I know some of the people in that band and they’re really good. Another good band is called Hobby. I played a show with them and they’re great. And, an artist named Dan Monkman, he plays in Zoongide’ewin, and also started putting out stuff as part of another group.


Smol: What quality is admirable about those artists?


Alex: I feel like they’re actually making the music that they want to make. Whether it happens to work or not, it’s clear that it’s more about what they want to do and hopefully the audience likes it. I guess I admire the creative bravery. They haven’t sanded the edges off to make it go down easier.


Smol: Tell us about your songwriting process. What inspires you?


Alex: [Laughs] that’s a good question. It’s a lot more abstract than I could say. Well, the process definitely just starts with chords on guitar. Pretty much always. I need to find something that interests me. And at the same time, in my notes app, I have a lot of titles and lyric lines that I write down, even if they’re just one-offs. I’ll start pairing ideas, like, “This would be a cool title for this sound or vibe that this chord progression is giving off.” The best way I can answer it simply is that it’s all led by vibe and interest for me.


Like if I lose interest in finishing it and start working on it just to finish it, it’s probably not good enough. Sometimes you need to work to finish a song, but there’s a difference between knowing that you’ve created really fertile ground to grow upon, versus, you’re not even really sure you’ve created fertile ground, maybe it’s half garbage, and I don’t want to do that. I want to like all of it. I want to like the verse, the chorus, the bridge, so I’m continued to be inspired every time I come back to those chord progressions.


Smol: For song ideas and titles, how do they come to you?


Alex: Sometimes it’s simple. It's almost like the song comes from three different points. One point is finding something that interests me in the chord progressions on guitar. Another part is the different themes that I think about, in general. And then thinking, “Would that theme make an interesting song theme? Can I use it in a way that gets the point across that isn’t too ham-fisted, or too preachy, or too abstract?” So yeah, it’s chords, theme, and then it’s kind of like the lyrics are over here [he uses his hands as visual aids] and it's all about how they mesh. It doesn’t need to be perfect thirds, but they need to create something better than the parts alone. Where the ideas come from - I don’t know. It’s like there was nothing, and then there was something [laughs].


I like to tinker. It’s great to feel that flare-up and get that dopamine rush. But, I don’t know, it’s weird. Sometimes you need to see the idea through, and sometimes you’re like, “Yeah, there’s something there,” and you’ll record it as a voice memo and go get groceries or something and see what spins, but I’ll still keep focusing on this other stuff.


Smol: Some of your songs sound like they have ambient field recordings in them. Am I right?


Alex: Yeah, I do that a lot. I put field recordings in a lot of my music. It’s definitely not something that I thought I would do, but when I look back, yeah I use them on almost every album or release in some way. There are sounds of water, or shores, and plane sounds in the background. Some of it I pulled from licensed places for atmosphere and some of it I created myself. There’s a song on the latest release called “Mellotron and Juliette” and right before the song begins you can hear the sound of an inhale, which I did because I was smoking weed, but it’s fun to do your own field recordings. It adds texture.


Smol: Did you use a real mellotron on that recording?


Alex: No, I was just using the keyboard that plugs into my fucking laptop. I had bought a plug-in, from a well reviewed company, that was a mellotron. So no, I wasn’t using an actual mellotron. But I love it. Even the basic sound they gave you in Garageband, they gave you like six sounds and you could mix it in different ways. I don’t know, it suited my music because it sounds artificial already. I was like, “How do I get these strings to sound more realistic to match the real acoustic sounds I have?” So I just went the other way with it. If it’s going to sound artificial then why not do artificial artfully, which is kind of how mellotron does it, instead of it just sounding bad by using bad strings, that kind of thing. Sometimes it sounds sci-fi, sometimes it sounds almost Halloween-ish, sometimes it sounds soft. In general, it’s a more diverse instrument than it appears.


Smol: You’ve released an album every year since 2019. That’s impressive. How do you keep up that pace?


Alex: I think people are more impressed by it for reasons that aren’t true, not that it isn’t nice. It does take work ethic, I won’t sell myself short, but people imagine that making an album now is still what it was like in the 70’s. They imagine a couple of guys going into a room and banging their heads against the wall, and whatever, and that still happens sometimes, but for me I realized I can make what I consider a decent enough expression of my musical ideas via manipulating Garageband. And, at first I was only interested in making acoustic-based music and I feel like the minimum for quality that people will accept is a lot lower for acoustic music, or for folk. People think, “Oh, if it sounds lo-fi that’s part and parcel with folk anyway.” Especially because of artists like Bon Iver, and artists like that. So I didn’t feel too much fear about making something that sounded decent enough that wouldn’t ruin my ideas. With that said, I was desperate to make better quality - I felt like my songs were better quality than the production on them because I had learned more as a songwriter than I had as a mixer or producer. Plus you’re limited by your laptop and your room. The first three albums I made were done in my room and it’s not sound treated or anything like that.


I think if there’s anything that people should be impressed about, it's forcing myself to write that much. Trying to keep going even though I was getting nothing back and just knowing that it should pay off once I’ve written enough, that’s almost un-ignorable. That’s my advice, you can’t be ignorable. Not that I’m in any position to give advice. Keep hammering, that’s it. The great thing about songwriting and the super-low barrier for entry for a musician now, it begins and ends with you. You have total power, which is a double-edged sword because you have to rely on yourself for everything. You get creative control, but you have to have the execution part of it too.


Smol: You’re right, many artists have to do almost everything themselves these days. What have you learned from wearing those different ‘hats’?


Alex: If you have the money, you need to get PR. You need to, if you care about making a career out of music. If you’re just making it for the pure expression of art, you don’t need to, but what I’ve learned most is all business stuff, not music stuff. Working with the PR people, working with the bookers, knowing the way to introduce yourself and, like, networking and stuff. Artists don’t like that side of things, and I get that, but guess what? The really successful ones ARE good at it [laughs]. So you gotta remember that.


If you have the money, you need to bet on yourself. Betting on yourself, and betting on your art, is going via PR and seeing if it will get the OK from people who are well connected. And the other thing is, while I felt super resentful that I wasn’t getting the attention and the listens that I wanted, what I didn't realize at the time was that certain important people were listening to it. That’s the PR people themselves. They keep track of people who are really trying to promote themselves and do their own shit and, like, keep reaching out via email.


And, so, an example of this, what I’m trying to get at is I ended up using a woman named Julie Booth for PR. Julie works for bands like Alvvays and Said the Whale and big Canadian bands, and I got her attention well before I got any kind of reviews from anything that mattered in Ontario. It was validating from somebody who - obviously you want general people to like your music, but you also want to know that you’re not getting positive notes just from your friends because they’re your friends. A PR person is in it for money and they’re not going to do it if they don’t actually believe that you’re going to make them money. So while I wasn’t receiving many pats on the back, I did receive one really valuable pat on the back.


Smol: How can fans support Canadian artists right now?


Alex: Follows actually help. Something as simple as a follow helps because, again, going back to those important industry people, they look and pay attention to that kind of stuff. If you get one thousand Spotify followers, like, a thousand actual fans who want to buy your music and see your shows, then you’ve already attained a level in your career that is sustainable.


For a few minutes we discuss the enjoyment of discovering new music and the kick of subtlety bragging when an artist you supported, while they were emerging and frequenting the local open mic, gains mainstream success. Alex underlines the importance of follows to an emerging artist stating, “Even if you like them a little, give them a follow.”


Smol: Any other moments in your career that stand out as an accomplishment?


Alex: One moment that stands out was when I was coming home with the box of vinyl copies of the third album that I made. I was finally like, “Alright, I’m betting on myself. I gotta actually get these printed.” Take that step. It’s an investment. I knew it was probably not something I was going to get my money back on, at least quickly, but I still had to do it. That was a really huge moment.


Smol: Which of your songs is your favourite?


Alex: I think, probably, the third song on my first album, it’s called “Tender” and I remember thinking, when I wrote that, “This is good. Even if nobody likes it, I think this is good.” I go back and listen to it and that’s good enough. As a creative person, not just a musician, your taste is actually all you’ve got. Not anything else. You’re actually just an editor for your brain’s vomit ideas. That’s what I pat myself on the back for.


I’ll turn it into a moment; when I decided that I was confident with my editor’s brain, it was a big deal. That happened maybe as recently as putting out this EP. I’m starting to be a little better at mixing and stuff, and hearing it in different parts of the process, and appreciating it.


Smol: I read that you raised money for CAMH with your tour. Can you tell us about that?


Alex: Sure, yeah, that was the only tour I’ve done [laughs]. It was pretty much planned from the beginning that it would be for mental health, and I think over time I just chose CAMH partially due to proximity, and partially because they were one of the only ones who responded when I emailed them with my idea. It was great. A lot of people helped out and contributed, even if they weren’t musicians or even if they didn’t come, some people just donated, period, because they thought it was a good idea. Definitely something I’m proud of. It was my first tour and I’m happy that right out of the gate, I used my music for tangible good. I think we raised like $1,500.


Smol: Tell us about the open mic you run.


Alex: Yeah! It’s Tuesdays at 8PM at the Imperial Pub, which is a block east of Dundas Square. It’s maybe not the nicest area at night, so come with friends! It’s great, very welcoming to people of varying genres and ages and experience. Everybody is welcome.


Smol: What advice would you give someone wanting to try an open mic for the first time?


Alex: The most important thing is just doing it. For sure. Even if it goes terribly. Because once it’s over you might be like, “That was the worst thing ever,” but it’s over and you did it! It’s just experience. Come to our open mic, I try to make an open and inclusive experience for everyone.


Smol: What are your plans for 2022?


Alex: I have two shows planned. One show is at the Horseshoe Tavern on March 1, and another one had to be moved because of lockdown, and will be in May. Also, I’m hoping to release an album this year, or at least record it!





You can listen to, and support Alex Southey on…



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