Back in 2012, American Songwriter introduced our readers to a 16-year-old songwriter from Montana: Alaska Reid.
At the time, Reid was attending high school in Los Angeles while forging a music career with nothing but her voice and her guitar. When she returned to Montana to participate in the Big Sky Songwriters Festival in 2012, she made some good connections right away. “I did this festival in Montana and a journalist from American Songwriter hung out with me and one of my bandmates, Zoe,” Reid said. “It got turned into a little feature with American Songwriter — it was so much fun!”
Now, eight years later, Reid is making headlines in American Songwriter again… but this time, it’s focused on a more creative, formidable and magnificent accomplishment: her first solo EP, Big Bunny, which dropped on December 11 via Terrible Records.
In the years since her Big Sky Songwriters Festival days, Reid has been busy making a name for herself. First, she formed the band Alyeska. Then, she cold messaged John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Dinosaur Jr., Alvvays) and got him to produce their debut LP, Crush, in 2017. After that, she did some more writing, some more gigging and some more creative self-exploration. In the end, she decided to go solo and began working on what would eventually become Big Bunny.
She had some help along the way too — in 2018 she began dating hyperpop icon and PC Music label head, A. G. Cook (Charli XCX, SOPHIE, Caroline Polachek). Overseeing many elements of the EP’s production, Big Bunny has the unmistakable handwriting of Cook all over it, making the EP as eclectic and inimitable as it is nuanced and impactful. With further production help from Rodaidh McDonald (The xx, Adele, Vampire Weekend) and others, the EP sees Reid supported by a highly capable team as she brings her visions to life.
Yet, for as accomplished and recognizable as Reid’s producers are, their biggest strength is their ability to create space for Reid to present her artistry. While Cook and McDonald add some sparkle to Big Bunny, it is Reid who mines the bulk of the gold. Between her emotive sense of melody, her tasteful vocal delivery and her transportive and nostalgic lyrical imagery, the stories she tells and the memories she ruminates on feel as palpable as the stories and memories from your own life. In conveying her own small piece of the picture, Reid speaks to the larger human condition as a whole.
In that regard, Reid’s music sorta captures the spirit of classic country music (albeit, without much of the aesthetic). For her part, Reid actually mentioned how much she loves the storytelling element of country when she was interviewed by American Songwriter again last week. Catching up essentially where we left off eight years ago, Reid walked American Songwriter through her journey and how she got to where she is today. Personable and introspective, Reid offered illuminating insight into her own story and how she was able to make an EP as effortlessly cool and beautiful as Big Bunny. Read our conversation below:
So, you spent your early years bouncing between Park County, Montana and Los Angeles — what was that upbringing like? How do you feel it influences your artistry?
I grew up in Montana, but I started going to Los Angeles at some point in my early teens. I slowly started spending more time there. It’s really interesting — it kinda provides me with a dual perspective, which I find really fascinating. I didn’t go to high school in Montana, but I still came back here all of the time and I still have people I’m close with. It feels like my home.
But, I think that it’s really hard to fully write about a place unless you leave it. So, I think it was good that I left so I could think about Montana — I feel the same way about Los Angeles too. Now that I’m back in Montana for a bit, I find myself writing about Los Angeles. I think it’s the space that allows you to reflect.
You began playing shows at dive bars and other less-than-ideal venues when you were still a minor — what was that experience like? How did that contribute to your artistic development?
I think it’s one of the most valuable things, I’m so grateful for it. I didn’t have a normal high school experience, so sometimes I think back on that. I don’t really feel “sad,” but sometimes I feel like I missed out. But, then I remember all the things I was actually doing — playing gigs, meeting musicians, having midnight slots at places like The Viper Room and having to wait out in the street for my time to come, that kind of thing. I wouldn’t trade that for a “normal” high school experience at all — I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
But, I say all of this to stress that starting out at 14… I didn’t do what people usually do in their lives. I was homeschooling and playing out and whatnot. It was really important to me. I think that’s why I’m so comfortable doing my stuff now. It helped me learn how to conquer a lot of situations. If you’ve played dive bars and toured around, you know that people are often nice, but they can also be mean or crazy. Things go wrong. The sound is bad. Your instrument might get screwed up or something. You have to fight through it all, you have to overcome it. I think that really laid the groundwork for a lot of the stuff I’m doing now.
You eventually formed a band, Alyeska, who put out a record in 2017 produced by John Agnello — what happened to that project? Why did you decide to go solo?
The band was great, I learned so much from it. I really started to tour more with the band — sleeping in my parents’ borrowed minivan after shows and stuff. So, the band gave me experiences like that, which taught me a lot. That was really important.
But, the band was me all along. I was writing all of the songs. I had people supporting me who were a big part of it, but the songs were really my songs. I did the album with John Agnello in New York and I was really proud of that. John’s an amazing producer and he taught me a lot too. It’s funny, but I really did meet him and eventually started working with him all because I sent him a cold message on Facebook. I went to visit him with my mom in New York and he was mixing some record — it might’ve been, like, a Kurt Vile record or something — and he was like “Come in, kid!” He did a lot of things to make it work for me so I could record my band with him. So, I’m eternally grateful for him. He’s like an uncle or something, he’s the best.
So, I felt like that album encapsulated everything about Alyeska… but, afterwards I didn’t know how to top it, especially while being in the “indie” scene. At the same time, I was playing in Los Angeles at Burger Records-adjacent shows. The thing about my music is that it’s my lyrics and my voice — none of that was really valued. That’s no fault of the scene I was playing in, necessarily, but I always thought “Oh, I’m so different.” People weren’t hearing what I wanted to say, my voice was drowned out because I’m not a screamer.
So, I was feeling frustrated by that. Additionally, the band was getting really messy, personally, and it got to be too much. I was closing this chapter of my life where I felt like I needed other people behind me. That’s why I initially started the band: I felt like I wasn’t taken seriously as a 15-year-old girl with a guitar on the Sunset Strip. So, I thought “Well, if I have guys behind me, like a band, then people will listen to me.” The band was great, but by the time I ended it, I was ready to go back to being solo. I was ready to emphasize my lyrics and my voice. I was ready to not be afraid of vulnerability, basically.
So, in that regard, would you say that you feel freer now?
Oh yeah, definitely. I think that has to do with a lot of things. First and foremost, it has to do with myself. But, it also has to do with the industry changing. In indie music and guitar music in general, you see a lot more women now than you were when I was first starting. That’s great and that’s how it should be. So, the industry changed a bit in that way.
But, it is also just me not caring, trying not to have such a chip on my shoulder about things. I still feel like I have a lot to prove, but now I feel like I have stuff to prove as an artist, as opposed to as a little girl.
On Big Bunny you have some songs that you wrote in collaborations and other songs that you wrote on your own — what can you tell us about the writing process for this EP?
Up until two years ago, I never wrote with anyone. I wasn’t used to it and I think I was kinda against it. Then, I realized that there are things I want to accomplish in terms of the actual musical elements that I didn’t feel like I could fully do on my own. I was meeting all of these people — like A. G. and Rodaidh, who helped me on “Oblivion” — and I felt like they were special enough to open me up. My writing is very personal, I always write the lyrics by myself. I still need to get comfortable (I’m still not sure I’m fully comfortable doing sessions in that way), but I met all of these people who were just wonderful and I miraculously felt comfortable writing around them. In terms of the collaborative process, that was it.
In terms of how I write by myself, I just write poetry, personally. I don’t really do anything with it but take parts of the poetry and put it into songs. I’ll take snippets out, I’ll add things here and there. I also read a lot. I grew up around writers, so I place a lot of importance on lyrics, narratives and storytelling. I think that’s one of the reasons I cite country music as a big influence on me — there’s such a strong emphasis on the story. That’s what I love. I love listening to songs with a good story. So, I think I tried to have that narrative-based writing.
This EP certainly has strong, narrative-driven elements that seem very personal and autobiographical at times. How much of yourself do you put into these songs? What’s it like to share this vulnerability with the world?
Yeah, that’s actually something I keep thinking about now — it’s kinda stressful that I’m writing about things that hit so close to home. But, I realized that although it’s scary, it’s what I’m drawn to in other people’s music. It’s like looking into another person’s body in a way, it’s very, very personal. That’s what I respond to, so I try to do it myself.
Yet, I find it really hard. Often, it’s draining. But, I realized that it’s really good because once it’s out there… well, it’s like this thing from when I was little. I always used to tell my family about my nightmares because it made them feel less real, or at least less scary. Sometimes I feel the same way about my music. If there’s something that’s hurting me or is personal or weird or whatever, I can put it into a song and it sorta becomes a separate thing. It’s like I took it out of my body and put it into this other thing that isn’t jabbing my brain anymore.
Also, speaking of country music, I love characters. I love writing stories about people in my life or people I encounter. Often, I’ll infuse that with a bit of my own story so it’s like a blend. For one, it’s easier for me to sing something when I’m singing it as someone else or a character. Also, it’s not a full-on critique of someone else or myself, it’s a blend and I think that allows me to do certain things. I do have some songs that are purely, brutally honest about me, but I also have a lot of songs that are slightly fictionalized or imaginative, but then blended with reality. I think that’s the natural thing that storytelling does.
Earlier, you mentioned that you’re still not sure if you’re “fully comfortable doing sessions in that way” — do you think that stems from the vulnerability that comes along with honest songwriting? In a way, do you see that as a validation that you’re on the right track?
Yeah, I think you’re right. When I look back on it, I think that’s definitely why I was uncomfortable or embarrassed. I feel like I always want what I write to mean something to me. Even with people who I’m close with now, I still feel slightly uncomfortable. That’s not because they’re doing something wrong — they’re perfect — it’s just because it’s really revealing of myself when I write these things. Even when it was A. G., Rodaidh and I in the room working on “Oblivion,” I had to tell them these stories that were a big part of my life.
But mostly, once I say something or step back from it or sleep on it, I’m more at peace with it. The deeper it goes into my feelings and my life, the longer it feels embarrassing after the fact, but ultimately each song is like a picture of myself. It’s a picture of me in that time and how I’m feeling. Then, I try to move on. In that way, it is therapeutic. It allows me to air what I need to say.
What has it been like working with A. G. Cook on this project?
It’s been great! Two of the songs — “City Sadness” and “Blood Ice” — I co-produced with my bandmate, Waylon Rector, who goes by the name Jonny Gorgeous. A. G. wasn’t really a part of that necessarily, but if he wasn’t producing a track itself, he was still overseeing everything. I was getting his perspective on everything, which was wonderful. I’ve been very lucky in my life to work with really great producers.
When I met A. G., it was really life-changing because he is a very, very sweet and open person. Before his two albums dropped, I think that people had the idea that he only did a very certain kind of music. But, with the releases of his albums, I think it’s starting to fully reveal the reality of who he is, which is a really intelligent person who is open to everything. Whether it’s music or art or something else, he doesn’t close himself off from anything. I think that’s amazing. I was coming from this period of my life and my music where I was very closed off to any kind of pop music. I didn’t know anything about pop. I only listened to country music, rock music and indie music. I didn’t know anything about pop and I hated it, but that’s because I was ignorant. Even when I met A. G., I think I was very uncertain about his music when I first heard it. I was so closed off.
He’s a really wonderful person and he doesn’t think the way that other people think. I think that’s what allows him to be so creative and prolific. Jumping off from that, when he produces my stuff, he leaves space for me to be me. He’s such a chameleon when it comes to production, he really listeners to the artist. All the albums and collaborations he’s done recently prove that.
What was it like working with Rodaidh McDonald?
I met Rodaidh through my manager. I actually had a snippet of a song that I had been working on with A. G. and I played it for him — this would’ve been right at the beginning of me going solo, I wasn’t even sure what was up or what was down. I remember going to his Laurel Canyon house and listening. He’s a very, very thoughtful person and I could just tell that he was really listening. In life, you meet people and say things to people, but you don’t always listen (and I’m talking about myself here). I feel like when someone really listens, it’s a really powerful thing. That’s how I felt with Rodaidh.
So, we started doing sessions. It had this whole Laurel Canyon vibe and I was really into it. I was definitely being romantic about it, like, “Oh, this is where Joni Mitchell used to hang out” and “I’m spending all this amazing time in cool studios with cool producers.” I was just really excited. Plus, he’s another producer who’s amazing at leaving space for an artist to be themselves. He’s just great.
Watch the music video for “Warm” by Alaska Reid below: