Tommy Alexander is Empowered by Persistence When it Comes to Making ‘Waves’

Tommy Alexander | Waves | (independent)
Four out of five stars

It’s one thing to make music. It’s quite another to help others who seek the opportunity to do the same. So credit Tommy Alexander with a generosity of spirit that exceeds the usual quota, not only as a proficient singer/songwriter, but also as a agent at the helm of his own booking agency, Pilot Light Booking, one which gives other promising artists access to venues throughout the Northwest.

“I’ve been writing and playing guitar for about ten years pretty consistently,” Alexander reflects. “I got really into it around 24 years old. Trying to write a song every day or every couple of days. I started the booking agency about two years ago. Initially I was throwing shows when I lived back in Vermont…Putting bills together, producing shows at venues and at a small DIY space that I ran. When I moved to Portland and got into the community, I started booking shows for my friend Taylor Kingman. [It] really opened my eyes to the joy of booking someone else, and the joy of booking someone else who is years ahead of where you are — as far as the work they’ve put in and the ground they have laid. After that my booking really started to grow. It’s such a trip to look back the last two years and see that Pilot Light has grown from me booking six other groups to almost hang 40 artists and four agents.”

Nevertheless, this year, Covid took its toll, affecting his agency in the same way it’s put a crimp on the music business as a whole. “When the pandemic hit, I was booking a 150 person capacity venues that did about twenty shows a month, and I was booking seven tours,” Alexander recalls. ‘With the venue and the tours, I had about 200 shows on the books that were all cancelled. Since March, I’ve probably booked about ten shows. Going from booking about 100 shows a month down to ten  in seven months is for sure drastic — but we’ve kind of just rolled with the punches. I don’t have to look very far to see someone in a worse situation than I am.”

Indeed, it’s rare to find an individual who is able to empathy, ability, skill, and savvy in such equal proportions. Described as “A phenomenal talent” by none other than the legendary Michael McDonald, Alexander has carved out an impressive career under his own aegis as well, thanks to a series of albums and EPs released over the past eight years. Waves, his latest offering, is his most accomplished effort to date, a series of songs that betray a decided alt-country attitude and a vintage sound that brings to mind Johnny Cash, Billy Joe Shaver, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, and other venerable singer/songwriters that possess a fully focused personal perspective.

“When I was young, I listened to a lot of hip hop, reggae, and a ton of Michael Jackson,” he recalls. “I loved melody. I think without knowing it I was drawn to music that was melody driven. Bob Marley, 2pac, Cake, Sublime, Peter Tosh, Israel Vibration — all of these were super important to me. As I got older, I discovered Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, and got super into the ‘classic rock’ thing.”

 
It’s telling that the first song on the album, “Troubled Mind,” begins with the line, “I been sittin’ alone with a troubled mind, thinkin’ bout better times,” and yet, the lyric was written pre-pandemic. Two songs in, the rough-hewn, down-home drawl of “End Of The World” also seems to have predicted our present predicament.

Call him prescient as well as proficient.

“The records I’ve made up to this point have all definitely been lyrically driven and emotionally charged,” Alexander asserts. “The last two albums I made, Old News and Baby You’re Blue, were recorded with my dear friend Mike Coykendall at his house. Those were more a collaboration between Mike and myself, with friends of mine all piecing songs together and then making albums out of them. Whereas on my third record, Waves, seven out of the nine songs were recorded at the OK Theatre with Bart Budwig and my band. The band and I recorded the songs live over three days. It was super easy and fun. We’d been playing and touring most of the tunes for the last year, so we were able to sink into them and just have fun.”

Still, the encroaching shadows that loomed as the pandemic approached appear to resonate across the album overall. “At the last minute, I decided to call the album Waves because both as a sentiment and title it really resonated with me at this time in my life,” Alexander reflects. “It was right before the pandemic hit. We recorded in December, and the first singles were scheduled to come out in March. The first single was ‘Troubled Mind,’ which came out the same week the pandemic kind of took form. It was eerily fitting.”  

Alexander admits that he’s a solitary soul when it comes to time to compose and conceive his material. “ I tend to write when I’m alone, as do most songwriters I’ve talked to,” he says. “I have a little field recorder that I use, and if I can come up with a chord progression I’ll just start singing. If it feels good, I’ll continue to take passes on the recorder in the same vibe. I’ll freestyle until I feel like I have something worth listening back to. Then I’ll write down the first version of the song while knowing that if I don’t like the lyrics as I start singing them off the paper, I can just freestyle those parts again. I continue that process. Record. Edit. Record. Edit, until the song feels good to sing from start to end.”

Along with his multiple abilities, it’s evident that Alexander also clings to a philosophical perspective, and indeed, certain tracks on the new album reflect that insightful attitude. That’s especially true of the world-weary and more sobering selections such as “Stone Fox,””Whatever You Say,” “I Blame Myself” and “Live and Die” in particular.

“I’ve always been drawn to the ideas of thoughtfulness and skepticism, while attempting to stay open to other folks’ opinions and their realities,” he suggests. “I try to acknowledge that it is their truth and respect it as such. It’s a challenge everyday not to judge people that I disagree with. I constantly have to remind myself that everyone fucks up and just being willing to admit it, grow, forgive, and move on is what life is about. No one and nothing is perfect. Lyrically and thematically I tend to leave things up to interpretation. I like to make art that’s inclusive and won’t shut anyone out.” 

Despite the uncertainty that still lies ahead, Alexander insists that he’s trying to keep his sense of balance while not allowing trouble and turbulence to throw him off course,

“As cliched as it sounds, these days I’ve been trying to take it all in stride,” he muses. “I’ve been writing a lot and trying to conceptualize what my future may look like. There is definitely an advantage in not knowing what is coming next and being okay with that. My dream is to tour in Europe, so hopefully the world will get to a place sooner than later where that’s possible. Until then, I’ll just keep making things and trying to ride this out as best I can.”

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