These Are Her Choice Notes: Interview with Alex Winston

Alex Winston may be the most promising pop chanteuse to emerge in 2011.

Since first garnering attention in early 2010 with buzz track “Animal Baby,” the Detroit native has distinguished herself from her contemporaries by releasing a series of well-curated covers, including songs by artists as diverse as Mumford & Sons, The Rolling Stones, and Teddybears.

Her original material, though, is even better — sometimes chipper, sometimes heartbreaking, but always unfailingly likable — and her resonance hasn’t gone unnoticed. Single “Choice Notes” is now featured prominently in a European car commercial, and Alex has been featured in outlets like Interview, Spin, and Pitchfork.

With the help of her frequent collaborators, super-hot producers The Knocks, as well as rising star Charlie Hugall (who produced Florence + the Machine‘s stunning cover of “You Got the Love”), Alex is quickly joining the ranks of Marina and Ellie as one of pop’s most distinctive and innovative voices.

She also recently signed a deal through the new publishing imprint Beyond Gold, a co-venture between the reliably amazing Neon Gold Records and Warner/Chappell Music — which should guarantee that her talents receive international attention.

I caught up with Alex to discuss her unique sound, label politics, and the real story behind polygamy anthem “Sister Wife.” Read on to find out more!

You’ve just signed with Island Records in the UK — congratulations on that! What was that process like?

Thank you! It’s actually the worst process in the world — I’ll tell you that much. There’s a lot of courting involved by different labels, but half of it didn’t seem sincere to me. I felt like a lot of it was, “Oh, well, this label’s meeting with her — I’m going to meet with her,” you know? It’s hard to sign a contract and work with someone you met once — someone that took you out to dinner when you’ve been working on a project for so long. So I was putting it off for awhile and meeting with different people and feeling unsure — and then when I was in London, I met some of the guys at Island, and it just felt really right. Like, I wasn’t apprehensive at all. I liked the people, and that’s such a huge part of it for me. And their roster is incredible — some of their artists like PJ Harvey and Mumford & Sons are people that I think are really credible artists, who have managed to do what they want but still be successful, and Island knows how to work acts like that. So it’s the ideal label for me.

In the same way that Lady Gaga mostly works with RedOne or Ellie Goulding mostly works with Starsmith, your primary collaborators thus far have been The Knocks. How did you get hooked up with them?

They’re the reason I moved to New York — it was to work with them. One of my best friends from Detroit moved out here four or five years ago — I think he went to school with them and he said if I came to New York for one week, he would find me people to work with, and I’d want to move here — and that’s exactly what happened. So I came to visit and met Ben [“B-Roc” Ruttner] and [James] “Mr. JPatt” [Patterson], and it was just kind of an instant connection. I liked them because they didn’t try to change what I was doing at all, which was something that kept happening. I would meet with people, and we seemed to get along really well, but as time went on it became, “Oh, we have this song we wrote for you, you should sing this,” and I just wasn’t interested in that. So it was really refreshing to meet them. Now, we have a very open relationship about music and we love writing together, so it’s been really effortless. They add something really cool to my songs without taking away anything that I’m trying to achieve.

That makes sense. I’ve read a couple people compare your vocal style to that of Kate Bush, and just earlier you mentioned PJ Harvey. Who would you describe as your influences?

It’s funny, because I didn’t grow up listening to Kate Bush. It was more in the past two years that I got into her. At first, I was like, “God, her voice is kind of annoying,” but now I love her. I think she’s amazing. But it wasn’t instantaneous. I’ve always had this high, somewhat nasal, high-pitched voice, and when I was involved in projects back in Detroit everyone tried to change that, to change how I sang, telling me, “You need to sing like this person and that person,” and I would wind up sounding like some average session singer that you hear singing in the background of a radio commercial for the local grocery store. I just didn’t think it was cool or unique. When I reverted back to the way I felt comfortable singing, that was when the Kate Bush comparisons came. I think it’s because I write a song by writing most of the music first and going all the way with it, writing the guitar parts, the piano part and all the instrumentation, and then I sing over it. I write a melody after that point, so it’s like, if it’s kind of high, that’s too fucking bad, you know? [laughs]

I don’t want to ask you to give too much away if you want to maintain an element of mystery about it, but can you tell me the story behind the song “Sister Wife”?

Everyone says it’s about polygamy, which it kind of is — jokingly — but it’s really not. It’s about having to share something you love, about having to compromise for something that you love — whether it’s a relationship or there’s someone who isn’t being faithful to you — and I got the idea to call it “Sister Wife,” because I think there’s a weird fascination with that stuff in the U.S., not so much in Europe. When most of the people who asked me what a “sister wife” was, they had no idea it was about polygamy — that it was a polygamist term — but they have shows like Big Love and actual reality shows about polygamy, and I just think, “Yeah, these women are sacrificing so much to do what they do.” I for one would be so fucking jealous — I absolutely could not do that! So it’s about being stubborn and not being willing to share and give that part of you up. That’s what “Sister Wife” is about.

Personally, my favorite track on the EP is “Don’t Care About Anything.” What was it like to put that track together?

It pretty much is what it is — for a few weeks I didn’t care about anything! [laughs] That’s definitely the most personal song from my mini-album, and probably the most real and honest song, because I was just feeling down. Things weren’t going the way I planned — and sometimes when you live in a big city like New York, it’s really easy not to leave your apartment, and even with so much around you — you can just disappear for a bit. And that’s the only song I wrote just sitting there with an acoustic guitar. It wasn’t a whole production, it wasn’t sitting for hours on GarageBand — it just came really naturally, and I think the lyrics are the most truthful that I have on the EP.

Your first single, “Choice Notes,” has been licensed for use in a European car commercial. From an artistic standpoint, was that something you were excited about, or did it give you pause?

I was actually thrilled by it, because it’s just a good opportunity. I don’t live in Europe, and I hope people go to my MySpace and check it out, but it’s just a really nice way to be available for people. I think when that song went up, the next day there were, like, 100,000 plays on YouTube. It depends on what the commercial is — obviously, if I felt strongly about something they were branding or marketing, I wouldn’t do it — but in this case it’s helped me out a great deal.

You’ve got an album in the works — what can we expect to hear from that? Is it all with The Knocks or are there other producers, too?

I’ve been playing in Europe and the UK for the past week, but I’ve also been working on the new album. I’m working with The Knocks and I’m also working with this producer named Charlie Hugall, who is wonderful. We have this weird family thing developing. It’s like Motown without Berry Gordy Jr. cracking a whip. We all work together and our thing is very incestuous. My manager Rene manages The Knocks, he manages Charlie, he manages my backing band in London, and we’re all a family. Charlie recorded “Don’t Care About Anything,” actually. He’s done all the mixing for all my music, and he’s great. I think with these guys it will be great, because we know each other so well.

The EP has been released to overwhelmingly positive reception. How have you felt about the response to it?

I’m very happy about it. It’s always nerve-wracking, because it’s a part of putting yourself out there, and I’m actually a very private person. It’s scary to say, “This is me, this is what I wrote, it’s for you to have, and you can do what you want with it” — so I’m really happy that people have embraced it.

Alex Winston’s Sister Wife EP was released on February 7. (iTunes)

Transcription courtesy of RJ Kozain.

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