In 2018, Canadian singer and songwriter and producer Alex Henry Foster released his debut solo album, but no one would have known. There was no promotion and no interviews. He even released it around the same time as Muse’s Simulation Theory and other, big rock releases so his own work would be drowned out.
Syncopated thoughts and melodic noise flood through Windows In The Sky, out May 1. An atmospheric release of grief, mental struggles, escape, and revival, sonically swelled tracks like “Summertime Blues” and “The Hunter (By the Seaside Window)” are drenched in the artist’s abstract, visceral senses.
To complement Foster’s Windows In The Sky vision, he recently released a short film around “The Hunter (By the Seaside Window),” written and directed by longtime collaborator, French filmmaker Jessie Nottola (Tinariwen, Tiken Jah Fakoly, Arthur H), who was given carte blanche creatively, and filmed throughout a week, somewhere 200km north of Montreal.
“I wanted to experience the bewilderment of losing control on the narrative of my own work and wanted to explore the freedom that comes with pure creative abandonment,” says Foster of the piece.
Foster spoke to American Songwriter about working around the current COVID-19 pandemic, exiling to Tangier, coming to terms with Windows In The Sky, coping with mental illness, and creating beautiful noise.
American Songwriter: The coronavirus has brought everything to a halt, including the music industry. How has it impacted you? Are you finding yourself writing more during this “down time”?
Alex Henry Foster: It’s quite a terrible ordeal we all have to go through right now. My heart is with the people who don’t have any health insurance or any economical, social, or emotional support. I have friends in all spheres of life and contrary to Madonna who’s preaching the equilibrium of the present situation while bathing in roses, real people are currently fighting for survival on every level. So let’s just say that I’m not part of those disconnected artists preaching the “we are in it together” kumbaya-BS-rhetoric from their luxurious sanitized bunker. This makes me sick, actually.
I own an independent record label that includes a multi-media and a merchandising department, so I am more focused on making sure we can provide for our staff and their families. They’re all longtime friends and collaborators. For me, it all goes back to those very humane and communal values on which I have been building ever since I started playing in punk bands covering Fugazi, The Velvet Underground, and so many others as a teenager. People are the foundation, so they’ve been my main focus and preoccupation.
It’s also a time for me to put my priorities in check, to count my blessings, and to be grateful for what I have. But even more, it’s important for me to acknowledge what I have that I can share with my friends and those who generously offer me the privilege to connect with them through words and music—and most of the time way beyond music. So instead of looking at how bad of a timing it is for me to release an album in those tempestuous circumstances and all the could-be-wasted effort so many people have invested in it, I remind myself that I wrote that album in the same type of emotional despair and managed to see the morning light after years of personal bleakness.
That’s what I can share, or at least offer, as a perspective as we face the profound insecurity of the unknown. I have never been interested in the commercialization of art. Again, for me, it’s about people and communion.
AS: Windows In The Sky was previously released in Canada in 2018. It’s only been two years, but now that’s it’s being re-released, how do these tracks resonate with you today? Have they taken on new meaning for you?
AHF: At the time, since Windows In The Sky is such a personal album, I didn’t have enough courage to fully assume its nature publicly. I wasn’t even interested in the idea of releasing the album. It took me quite some time to be at peace with that perspective, and to be honest, releasing the album only in Canada was a bit like cheating the whole process, in a way, especially since I had agreed to put it out without any promo, no singles, no momentum—no strategy!
It was important for me to release it, but it was a way to say “ok, it’s out, let’s forget about it all.” I even picked the week where Muse, Imagine Dragons and a few other superstars had releases to make sure mine would go unnoticed. So I felt safe, in a way. I wouldn’t have to talk about this album whatsoever. That only possibility freaked me out uncontrollably. Until I could hide no more.
I was in the highlands of Virginia, where I now live after spending two years in Tangier, the day the album was released. When I started receiving text messages that were interview inquiries due to the fact that Windows In The Sky was No. 1 on the Apple Store and that it looked like the sales would lead to a Top 5 SoundScan chart, I thought it was a joke—until it wasn’t and I had to do interviews. I didn’t understand. How could a totally non-commercial record about grief and despair generate that kind of reaction? I was completely overwhelmed. And when it reached #3 on the charts in its first week, I stopped answering the phone or taking my emails. I totally shut down. The album stayed on the top 40 for several weeks, but I systematically refused to do anything about it.
It may be strange for people to read this, as it should have been a wonderful thing, a moment of celebration. And it was. But not for me. I totally crashed inside and didn’t want to have anything to do with it no more. I was living those troubling emotions that gave birth to the album once more, in a way, and I didn’t want that. The reason I’m sharing this right now is to give you a bit of a perspective on how I came to terms with it, through messages from people who had listened to the album.
Since I was nowhere to be found, people were sending me messages about the album, sharing their own grief and mourning process. I read them all and answered them all. I realized it was way beyond myself and my insecurities. It was deeper than my own fear of being exposed as the mentally fragile person that I am. And that was the beginning of the healing process for me. Shortly after followed concert and tour inquiries, which were another emotional setback. I slowly decided to step into a diffused and tamed light. Everything I was terrified of came my way, revealing over time a little more of my profound anxieties. So it’s been one step at the time for me. I was physically ill every step of the way until I decided to go on a 27-concert tour this past February and March. That was the real test for me. Would those songs lose their intimate essence? Would I be able to connect with the people in the crowd? Would I be able to transcend my dreadful panic, or would I keep the audience captive of my disarray?
Once I let go and allowed the songs to emancipate from my personal anguish, I’ve been able to witness and grasp what those songs had become, for the people but also for me, and realized that I didn’t have to hide or pretend. It was ok to be scared. It was alright to be doubtful. I owe that to the affection of the people who have welcomed me as I was every night and who offered me the blessing to live those songs freely, to dwell into the moment regardless of how I could feel. It was a wonderful way to free myself from so many of the things I was captive of, things that had always served as an excuse for self-preservation. It’s a journey, just as the album is. And I’m still in the middle of it and I appreciate it now. At least, I allow myself to appreciate it.
AS: How did the album come together?
AHF: It all started when I exiled myself to Tangier. I was an emotional mess at the time, but a highly functional one. I kept denying the fact that I was totally burned out and probably dealing with severe depression. I just kept denying it all by jumping from a project to another. Once in Tangier, just how lost I was hit me, and it hit me pretty hard. And from an initial trip that was meant to last four weeks with a goal of writing the next Your Favorite Enemies album, it became two years of an emotional detox. I ended up writing a whole lot, for myself. Without any ambition to do anything with it. It’s when the rest of the YFE (Foster’s band, Your Favorite Enemies) guys came to visit me in Tangier, about 18 months after I had initially arrived there, that the idea of turning those texts into an album was first mentioned. We talked. We talked a lot. We played music for the first time in years, just for the sake of playing music. Ben, YFE’s bassist and my creative accomplice, invited me to consider recording some of my ideas and lyrics, for me to express those intimate feelings and to make peace with them. And since I didn’t envision doing anything with those recordings, it took place pretty organically.
AS: When did you first start writing and working on Windows In The Sky?
AHF: The timeline is a bit blurry for me, as I wasn’t working on anything, so to speak. The lyrics, except for the song “The Hunter (By the Seaside Window),” which I wrote in Virginia, have been written during my stay in Tangier. I had the words and some fragments of music, sounds, and vibes I already had recorded in Tangier, where I had established a decent home recording studio. But it’s only once we got back to our church-turned-professional-studio located an hour away from Montreal that I can say it became precise for me. I stopped playing with words in order to deny what I was actually doing. It was early May 2018.
AS: Dissect your songwriting process around specific Windows In The Sky tracks or the album as a whole.
AHF: Since every song is pretty much the organic result of either a session with Ben or a collective one with the guys from YFE who have tagged along, everything started with the first track and ended the moment I decided that it was it. This is quite a paradox in the sense that every song reflects raw and honest emotions that were very painful for me to even acknowledge. But writing the songs came naturally, not without suffering, but with complete abandonment to every single one of those moments. From a sound, a word, a discussion, a silence, it was about the spark, the let go and the decision to keep it as it was once I would say the moment had been honest and therefore needed to be free from the ever-growing temptation to keep reworking them and thus hiding their true nature. Most of the vocals were one-takes [with a] few corrections here and there.
Music needed to be real and free. I give a whole lot of credit to Ben, who engineered the project and had to keep me from my constant attempts at destroying it all. A lot of credit also goes out to the guys who have supported me musically. They not only had to follow the instruction of keeping it about the moment and not about the parts but also had to forget and learn, once more, everything in terms of writing and recording music. I was conducting them into some musical explorative fluidity based on an improvisational stream.
It wasn’t easy because they are tremendous musicians. But I wasn’t looking for virtuosity, nor was I looking for a perfect interpretation of my “vision.” I was looking for let go, for freedom. I knew the execution of the parts wouldn’t be an issue for them and that’s why I wanted everyone to go in the opposite direction. I picked instruments depending on the vibe and didn’t bother if it meant playing the same note on a Moog for 30 minutes. That’s part of what I learned in underground musical gatherings in Tangier, where music is about the spirit, not about what chords make sense or what the rhythm section should be. And that’s the spirit I kept, from one song leading to another, one moment at the time.
AS: “The Hunter” is magnificent. Tell me more about the song, the short film and how all of it came about.
AHF: The album version of the song has been edited from a 30-minute instrumental jam we did in our church-studio, something very organic. I remember, since I would always share the images to the sounds I could hear before we’d start playing anything, talking about my life in the mountains, about the peace that I had found living in such luxuriant nature, [and] a place I compared to all the moments I had staring at the sea while writing in Tangier. We let go, only relying on the essence of the moment. It’s sonically saturated and uplifting at the same time. It was as real as the sea and the winds in the trees.
I kind of forgot about the song for a while. But since I always insist on everything to be recorded, all the time, I found the session for “The Hunter” while looking for another song. The moment we had shared while playing it came back to me. The very singular sensations I had when we simply allowed ourselves to play without any rules. I cut the last 20 minutes of the song as I felt it became about personal parts and hooks, about the performance rather than what was collectively lived at that moment, but kept the rest of the sessions as it was originally recorded.
And somehow, one of the short stories that I had written when I first moved to Virginia, seemed like the perfect text to illustrate the image I had shared with the band before we recorded. It was about the native mysticism that defines the nature of hunting, some kind of an essay on modern life, and about the paradoxes of taking another life to survive, about giving away our existence for someone else to live.
I told Ben, who was with me at my home in Virginia, to record the vocal track, with just enough gear to pretend it was a professional attempt at recording. I wanted to see if my instinct was right about the song. And from what was only supposed to be a ghost track recorded to fix EQ and mic location, the lyrical narrative for “The Hunter” was born. I simply said “That’s exactly it. Perfect, thank you!” to Ben’s great dismay. I immediately asked my collaborator Momoka who happened to be there for another project to translate a section of my essay in Japanese and to record it. Aligned with what we initially lived dwelling into the song’s spirit, I gave her an image of the emotion it represented for me. Momoka did one take and that was perfect for me. It was organic, real and lived.
As for the video, the idea of doing a short film for “The Hunter“ came as I was on the set of another video project with my close friend and talented French movie producer Jessie Nottola. He told me he was obsessed with the song and couldn’t stop thinking about giving it a visual incarnation. Since I hadn’t talked about any of the song’s meaning at the time, Jessie kept asking me questions. And since I didn’t want to pollute his perspective of the song with mine, I told him I would agree to make a video under a few conditions; I didn’t want to be in the video and it needed to be his own vision, not mine. In other words, he had carte blanche. Inspired by the likes of David Lynch, Jessie came to Canada, up north from Montreal, to film it, and he was so invested in the project that he ended up playing one of the three characters in it.
AS: Some Background: When did you first start writing, performing … and making beautiful noise?
AHF: I was very young, actually. I grew up in a financially-challenged and violent environment. My parents used music and literature not only to preserve me from what it meant to be really poor but also to feed my imagination beyond the walls of my family’s miserable economic reality of a life. I would record myself on old tape cassettes to start. I later became obsessed with doing music myself after discovering the likes of The Cure, Skinny Puppy, Sonic Youth, Fugazi, and early Nick Cave.
I spent my teenage years skipping school to attend concerts in Montreal and to play in all sorts of garage bands. But it’s only when I met Sef, a guitarist with whom I would start YFE, at a community center I was working at while attending university in social work, that it became more serious, more engaging. It would become a full-time commitment from both of us after we formed a band to play in one of the most ghettoized and left-to-rot neighborhood of the city. When I saw the people from different cultures, gang members, and religions get all together for a moment that transcended everything that usually stands between them – between us – it stuck with me. Ever since, it has always been about that communion for me.
AS: Are you planning on working with Your Favorite Enemies again, or are you just focusing on the solo work at the moment?
AHF: For now, it’s about my solo project. It took me so long to dwell into it and I believe that the other YFE members would be mad if I decided to go back to YFE now, especially after how much they had to suffer because of the everlasting existential tantrum this project caused.
AS: How have you evolved as an artist, and as a writer, since starting with Your Favorite Enemies through now with Windows In The Sky?
AHF: I don’t have to use the band as an alibi to stay safe from the words I write, nor do I have to hide in a collective concept to assume who I am as a person. It’s more distinctive in the sense that I stand by everything now. It might sound strange, but I don’t dissociate myself from what I give life to anymore. This has been a very important step for me to take. It’s no longer about writing about what I pretend I know or what I figured it should be like or feel like. It was somehow so important for me to look for an absolute, for truth, for what’s immutable, just so I wouldn’t have to feel anything anymore.
Now, it’s about standing in the light, even when it’s to express the bleakest of all emotions. It’s honest and therefore those words evolve as I do, and I evolve when they do. It’s about the freedom to fail, the beauty of paradoxes, confusion and mistakes, the emancipative notion of pure abandonment. The rest doesn’t interest me at all.