Genre has always been a confusing thing for the music industry to figure out. Between juggernaut acts who jump between genres — like Shania Twain or Lady Gaga — and all of the innovations in streaming technology, it has become increasingly harder to listen to a song and confidently declare the genre it fits into. In Nashville, especially, this reality is starting to set in. This is evidenced by ingenious, young artists who draw on both the city’s bursting indie scene — spearheaded by the likes of Jack White, Soccer Mommy, Liza Anne and more — and old Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry past. One such artist who is walking this line is 24-year-old Alexander Wren, who dropped a new single — “The Earth is Flat” — on September 18.
An introspective, low-key song, “The Earth is Flat” is a great encapsulation of the marriage between all of the sounds and styles inhabiting Music City, USA. Between country vocal runs on the chorus and a sparse, Phoebe Bridgers-esque arrangement, Wren showcases his ability to draw from multiple sources of influence without actually sounding like any of them. Instead, “The Earth is Flat” puts forward a songwriter whose commitment to his craft and passion for organic musicianship far exceeds anything else.
Last week, American Songwriter spoke with Wren via email. Still based out of Nashville, the story of how this song came to be also serves as a prime example of the way the industry is beginning to operate in the legendary music mecca. Penned in a co-writing session and tried out on audiences at the Bluebird Cafe and Belmont University, “The Earth is Flat” is truly a product of the next generation of Nashville’s ambiguous “country indie” scene… and it certainly leaves one in anticipation of whatever’s next to come.
This is the first single from your forthcoming album. How does this song fit into the record’s overall theme?
You know, this will be my debut record, which I’m very excited about; I’m viewing it as an opportunity for a proper introduction to my artistry and songwriting. Many creatives get caught up in the conceptualization of the record, which I would love to dive into at some point. But, these past six years in Nashville, I’ve been mostly focusing on writing the best individual songs that I can as opposed to dreaming up a singular project with an overarching theme. So, if we’re likening records to fine art, this first record of mine might look more like a mosaic than a realist painting. Each song will have its own sentiment, sound and unique personality — many of them will explore different themes.
But, what all of these works will have in common is from where and when they were born — in Nashville, young 20s, etc. All of them are songs that I have written during what would have been my four-year college degree. Out of those 400 songs or so, these are what I consider to be the best thus far. They are also all songs that have just seemed to stick with me throughout the years — struck the most magic, made the most sense instinctively.
Currently, I’m toying around with names for the project. What I’m learning through that process is that all of the songs also have an ecclesiastical thread between them, which makes me think that they were even born from more of a “coming of age” spot than I might have originally thought — songs about love and infatuation, songs about not being able to make the rent, songs about losing my religion and songs about meaninglessness; it’s all in there.
What inspired you to write “The Earth Is Flat?”
So, this song is actually a rare occasion in which there is no real-life story hidden behind the curtain. And though that kind of bums me out in a way because I didn’t live this specific story, I actually think that it serves as a very important reminder to me as a songwriter. After writing day after day for months at a time, I start to think everything that I’m writing is garbage. Like all of us, I have a folder on my computer where all of these songs go, “The Folder of Shame.” This song actually ended up there after this write. I didn’t think much of the song. It was only when Lauren Weintraub — the co-writer on this song — started getting a great live response that I gave the song a second listen and a second chance.
Anyway, when you’re in the thick of doing anything, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in the little things and be discouraged. But, this song reminds me that good and inspired writing can result from discipline. It’s always easier for me to say, “I’m not feeling it today,” and wait until tomorrow to write the record — but that tomorrow rarely ever comes. That realization has forced me to discipline myself, dedicate myself to the craft, and accept the fact that if I want to put anything out, I can’t be afraid to dive into the process and get my hands a little dirty. I’m also starting to come to terms with the fact of nothing ever being perfect. The more and more I write, the more and more I’m beginning to understand the only rule of songwriting is decisiveness — your capacity to trust your intuition.
Talk us through the writing process for this song in particular, as well as the recording process for the song — do you have any “best practices” that keep you motivated?
Ever since moving to Nashville and becoming a steward of the craft, writing for me has always looked like a regiment. I treat it like a job. Wake up. Make your tea. Take your walk. And then sit down at the piano to write. This song was no exception. Lauren and I got together early that morning for our first co-write; we chit-chatted for an hour or so and then we wrote.
I remember having that hook in the back of my mind forever, “The earth is flat.” I kept thinking over a scenario in which a so-called “lover” would have an easier time convincing you that the earth is flat than convincing you that they still love you. I didn’t really have any clue as to if it would work out though. I also remember having that, “It don’t take an Einstein,” line. I thought it would be a colorful yet conversational reference.
Anyway, after that three-ish hour session, we had the bones of the song. We booked maybe two or three more sessions to revise and bring the song to its full potential. I will say, it is super weird for me to think about that song being co-written. I’ll be the first to tell you that I haven’t been the biggest fan of co-writing. Don’t tell anyone I said that in Nashville! But, for some reason, that day, Lauren and I were just synched up and the inspiration was just coming out of both of us. Honestly, it was probably one of my only cathartic co-writing experiences. There have been only a few others. I’m not at all saying that I look down on co-writing — my favorite song of all time was co-written (“I’ll Be Seeing You,” written by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal; the most well-known version of the song was recorded by Billie Holiday, but I think the Rosemary Clooney version is by far the best). But, like I said, historically I’ve felt much more comfortable and creative riding solo. This to say, I’m really glad there are a handful of co-writes that prove my skepticism wrong.
How did you record “The Earth is Flat?”
The recording process was really fast. Producer Micah Tawlks, drummer Dan Burns and I tracked the bones of the song live in Micah’s basement studio. Whatever else we needed, we just layered. I will say, the one thing that really threw me off was Micah’s idea of a tenor saxophone. Here I was thinking we’d add some pedal steel and synth, but there he was talking about a saxophone. All the time I was thinking: hairspray, leather pants, etc. But he assured me that he is “rendering saxophone cool again,” not in the trendy, time-stamped way the instrument can often be used. After we laid it down, I saw what he meant. Very Paul Simon, very classic. It helped that we tracked it in a unique way where the bell of the saxophone was stuffed with a towel or t-shirt or something like that, causing the sound to escape, breathy and tactile, through the holes of the finger pads.
How has the pandemic affected your music — both how you approach it and what it means to you?
I could write a book. This is probably the thing that I would most want people to take away. I used to see music as a competition, a means of this fetishized success. But since COVID hit and being quarantined for six-ish months now, I’ve started to realize that much of the chase that we creatives participate in — social media, online numbers, networking, etc. — is mostly meaningless in the grand scheme of things. When you really start to think about it, many of these sorts of things seem to hold little to no eternal value, at least in my personal opinion. This perspective switch has freed me up in many ways to start viewing the act of writing songs, recording records and playing shows (whenever that’s a thing again), as the true areas where we as creatives can really help others, enrich our own lives and ultimately find a meaning outside of this frenetic American pursuit we’ve been handed. So how do I approach it now? With much less of a tight grip. I try to write a little less and live a little more.
Who do you consider to be your biggest influences (musical genres and individual artists) — both overall and for this particular song — and why they’ve influenced you?
Strictly songwriting influences would probably be Randy Newman and Tin Pan Alley greats like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain. And many ’50s to ’80s country/western writers; there are too many to remember, but Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, T. Graham Brown are some top of mind.
As far as genre, I am originally from the Midwest, so I think my biggest influences, whether I like it or not, all have one thing in common: angst. I’m talking about Elliott Smith, Damien Rice, Jeff Buckley, Billie Holiday, etc. I did grow up with older parents, so Ray Charles, Hank Williams Sr. and old blues guys like Fats Domino were practically played on loop. Eric Clapton’s Unplugged record, however, was literally played on loop. So, that’s kinda the canvas that was given to me. That stuff’s in my blood. However, as the music matures, I’m starting to stumble upon new things and I naturally want to try it all. Currently, I’m spinning anything that spans from Ryuichi Sakamoto to Nine Inch Nails.
As far as this song is concerned, I don’t think I was really drawing from any one influence in particular. Lauren and I are both very large fans of Lori McKenna and Sean McConnell, with their timeless style of being able to turn things on their head and say any old thing in an entirely new way. So, whenever we write, I think we’re always secretly trying to channel some of that energy.
Listen to “The Earth is Flat” by Alexander Wren below: