As a boy, Alex Brown Church, front man for the L.A.-based indie rock band, Sea Wolf, wanted to be a writer when he grew up. And while the musician is clearly talented, Church could never quite wrap his brain around composing lengthy novels or screenplays. But when he began to write songs, the contained brevity the style offered intrigued and inspired. Now, Church is set to release his sixth album, Through A Dark Wood, on March 20th to significant anticipation.
“When I started writing songs, it was amazing,” says Church. “I could see it all on one page. I felt like I was able to accomplish loftier goals in bite-sized pieces.”
But just because Church didn’t end up writing screenplays for a living doesn’t mean their structure and nuance don’t still influence his creative output. Church, who went to film school at New York University, says movies, stories and plots play a major role in the songs he writes and the sonic scaffolding he builds to keep them tight and together.
“From the beginning, I’ve thought of songs almost as standalone stories,” he says. “To me they should have a dramatic arc or structure. I learned about that in film school. It definitely influences how I structure a song or even a record.”
Church’s latest album comes after a few tumultuous personal plot twists. As a romantic relationship was coming to an end, Church also decided to ditch a batch of songs he’d recently recorded. He’d had an entire album of material but didn’t like the songs assembled as such, so he scrapped it. But from despair came motivation. Church decided to undergo a new project. He scored a new independent film, Julia Blue. And, upon completion, he felt a sense of creative clarity and direction.
“I had a lot more that I needed to get off my chest,” Church says. “So, I started to write. I was determined to write songs until I had enough to make a new record. I was going to write it in however many months it was going to be and that was that.”
Prior to his newfound motivation, it had been months since Church had picked up a guitar to write. Now, though, he was recording little voice memos of vocals and guitar for songs and band members would visit him to flesh out the work. Church felt rejuvenated.
“It was cathartic for me,” he says. “I was reconnecting with my creative side and my identity as a songwriter. I had taken a break from actual songwriting and when I did pick up a guitar, I had to really be honest about where I was and get real. It put me in a very raw, emotional place. I felt, ‘Oh my god, I needed this!’”
Church produced Through A Dark Wood largely on his own. And fresh from the film scoring experience, he had gained a few new skills. For the movie, he’d composed with strings and he brought that element to Through A Dark Wood (there’s a string quartet on eight of the tracks). He’d gained an affinity for textural elements and he incorporated longer instrumental stretches within his songs. The result is an album that swoops and plunges, splashing with sound.
On the sticky “Forever Nevermore,” Church sings about endings and those moments beforehand when we feel confused, unsure. On the dreamy “Fear of Failure,” he sings of just that. On “I Went Up, I Went Down,” Church describes a scene in which the narrator is aimless and lost, all while lovely music swirls about. But even when making the new record, Church admits that he wasn’t certain the songs would be well received.
“I was worried,” he says. “If I put out a new record, were people going to care anymore? It’s a fickle business. There was a lot at stake and it wasn’t just about having a successful career. It was also about not wanting to let people down in my life. I wanted to be somebody I felt proud of.”
Though the record represents a new and strong progression for Church, it also showcases what makes Sea Wolf exceptional in the first place: optimism.
“The overarching theme of Sea Wolf has been moving from a dark place to a light place,” Church says. “A sense of having hope in the darkest moments. Everybody has these peaks and valleys in their lives. I like having songs that look up from those valleys.”