Alex the Astronaut Discusses Her Soaring Debut Album, ‘The Theory of Absolutely Nothing’

When I asked Alex Lynn—the Sydney, Australia singer-songwriter better known as Alex the Astronaut—if the stories she sketches in her songs are about herself, people she knows, or people she creates, she seemed to know the question was coming.

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“I think everything I write is a bit of a mix of those three things,” she tells American Songwriter in an interview featured below. “Some songs are, in one, a mix of all those—I make up someone and I take someone that’s real and I put myself in the mix somewhere. I can’t really explain it.”

But Alex actually can explain it: “There’s a difference between someone saying something statistically,” she continues, “like with ‘I Like to Dance,’ for instance, when you hear statistics on domestic violence and you look at what’s happening in the world, I think our brains take in story in a much different way when it feels like you are talking to a friend. That’s a method of how I try to write these stories: explaining them as if you’re explaining them to a friend.”

The song in question sees Alex unspooling a searing and specific tale of domestic violence (though it’s not actually about her). Like much of the fare on Alex’s debut album, The Theory of Absolutely Everything, “I Like to Dance” is driven by a narrative impulse but grounded in visceral details.

“I was writing the songs in my early 20’s and I think they reflect that period in your life that a lot of people go through when they finish university and they go into a career and everything changes and you start to learn a lot more,” says Alex of the album, which shows her exploring love, loss, friendship, and loneliness over 10 soaring indie folk numbers. “You learn different things than you did in school,” she continues. “The reason I called it The Theory of Absolutely Nothing was because I realized I know absolutely nothing when I thought I knew everything.”

We recently caught up with Alex by phone about the songwriters she most admires, her experience collaborating with producer Jonathan Quarmby and Ball Park Music’s Sam Cromack and Dan Hanson, and her embrace of DIY quarantine music videos. Check out the full interview and watch her new “Caught in the Middle” video below.

American Songwriter: When did you start playing music initially?

Alex Lynn: I lived in London for three years when I was little, so I started playing guitar when I was there when I was nine or 10. Before that I played in music class, and I always really liked music but I think that was the first time I actually started learning songs. I started writing songs a little bit when I was 12 or 13, and I moved back to Australia when I was 13.

Did you share any of that music with anyone, or was it just for yourself?

Oh, no! No, no, no. I’ve looked at some of the songs I wrote then and they were really, really bad. I was just learning. I think I did a class in school where we had to write a song, and I wrote songs for other people to sing but I never sang them. I started singing in front of other people when I was about 15, maybe. It took me a little bit of time to get the confidence.

Had you been singing to yourself before then?

Yeah—as soon as I started playing guitar, I was obsessed. I think it took me like six months to learn how to sing and play guitar, but once I started doing that I was very annoying to live with.

So when did you start performing?

I’d say when I was about 16 or 17. I started playing at school assemblies, and then I’d do songwriting nights. My parents would drive me to go play at a Sunday songwriting thing.

I read that you went to college in New York. When was that? And were you writing or performing at all during that time, or were you focused on school?

That was from 2014 to 2017 on Long Island. It was all a mix. I was sending out emails and trying to get gigs and trying to get blogs to write about my songs and do interviews and stuff, and I was trying to play in folk bars in Manhattan. I got a few big gigs at The Bitter End and Pianos and some really cool historical music venues. That was good for me, but it was hard because I was there [in New York] playing soccer. We had a pretty strict coach who didn’t let me play many shows. Then I did some recording when I was coming home for breaks to Australia.

Were you already Alex the Astronaut at that time or were you going under your own name?

I was going under my own name and then I had my soundcloud name as “alextheastronaut” to send songs to my producers and they were like, “Why don’t you just use that as your name?” Then it stuck! It was just an alliteration.

Who are some of your favorite songwriters? Have any of them been particularly influential in terms of your own songwriting?

Anyone that writes music listens to a lot of music, and growing up my favorite was Paul Kelly. He’s like the Australian Bob Dylan. Then when I got to America I started listening to Bob Dylan and I did a big project on him and he really changed how I told stories and how I wrote. And Courtney Barnett—she was a female icon that I had. She was a role model for me [as] a songwriter. I could sing songs that were stories and that were a folky. She influenced me a lot.

Your songs have such a strong narrative quality to them. Are these stories about yourself, people you know, people you imagine? What compels you to start composing one of these stories in the first place?

I don’t know if it was a chicken or an egg thing. I listened to songs and was drawn to songs that were stories, and that’s what I’m interested in writing about. I think everything I write is a bit of a mix of those three things. Some songs are, in one, a mix of all those—I make up someone and I take someone that’s real and I put myself in the mix somewhere. I can’t really explain it. 

There’s a difference between someone saying something statistically, like with “I Like to Dance,” for instance, when you hear statistics on domestic violence and you look at what’s happening in the world, I think our brains take in story in a much different way when it feels like you are talking to a friend. That’s a method of how I try to write these stories: explaining them as if you’re explaining them to a friend.

When did you record the songs on The Theory of Absolutely Nothing?

It was all 2018. I recorded at RAK Studios in London and then I recorded in Brisbane, Australia. We did a mix of both, so it’s pretty much split between the two.

Who are some of the folks who helped you put this album together?

Sam Cromack and Dan Hanson from Ball Park Music produced and played on half the record, and then me and my friend Nora produced “I Like to Dance,” and then at RAK Studios me and Jonathan Quarmby produced four other songs. I think Jonathan had some songwriting credits.

Do you see any major themes or throughlines across the songs?

Yeah, I was writing the songs in my early 20’s and I think they reflect that period in your life that a lot of people go through when they finish university and they go into a career and everything changes and you start to learn a lot more. You learn different things than you did in school. The reason I called it The Theory of Absolutely Nothing was because I realized I know absolutely nothing when I thought I knew everything, which is like Stephen Hawking’s theory of everything.

Was the tracklisting important to you, given that you think in terms of these stories and narratives?

Definitely. I talked about it with Sam and Dan a lot. We did have an intro, which was not included in the end. I think it was a bit too weird. So in the end “Happy Song” [became] the start because it was the first song I wrote and I think I was trying to look at the macro story of me experiencing things and writing things and how the different themes could come in.

Obviously “Caught in the Middle” is in the middle of the album, which I thought was funny. That’s why I did that. “San Francisco” is a song that I have an interesting relationship with—I’ve changed my mind on a lot of the themes in that song, but I wanted to end the album on a note of ‘We know nothing and everything is completely unpredictable and mostly chaos, but there is a lot of beauty in the world.’ 

“Christmas in July” and “Banksia” being next to each other is like experiencing great love and then experiencing great loss, and then “I Think You’re Great” is friendship. “I Didn’t Know” is learning. “I Like to Dance” is obviously a big story song and that’s not about me. That was a completely separate one but I think that fits in there after “Split the Sky,” because “Split the Sky” was my big, big learning song, so to put that story after it was a perspective on what other people experience in this world. 

“Lost” is another story song. [The album] is flowing through what I’m experiencing in these big heart break moments or self-discovery moments and then me observing the outside thing that other people are going through. It’s the thing we were talking about at the start—me watching people and me being in it, and then [incorporating] people that I’ve made up.

I wanted to ask about your experience putting out music videos during this strange time.

It’s been really fun. Everyone in music is shifting the way they’re doing things, and the music video part of [Alex the Astronaut] has always been very separate from me. I’ve gotten a treatment and they’ve been like, “How about this?” and I say, “Yep, that looks cool.” Whereas now everyone has to be so much more creative. There can only be a few people involved with the actual videos. I came up with the concept for the “Christmas in July” video, which I’d never done before. It almost felt like school where you do a group project with your friends and you get to be put in a group with the people that you really like. I’ve never felt much about videos, but now it’s something that I really enjoy. That’s been a cool quarantine discovery.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about what this album means to you or what you’re looking forward to next?

I’m just really looking forward to sharing the album with the world. I think it’s really amazing that even though I can’t be in America and you guys can’t be in Australia, we’re still all talking and we’re still all hearing each other’s music and stories. I think that’s a really beautiful thing.

The Theory of Absolutely Nothing is out Aug. 21 via Nettwerk. You can pre-order it here.

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