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Alex the Astronaut on Her New Album: “I Wanted to Paint the Landscape of One Person’s Life”

The acclaimed singer-songwriter talks to Rolling Stone about her ambitious second album, ‘How to Grow a Sunflower Underwater’

Alex the Astronaut

Jamie Heath

“Is this growing up?” Alex the Astronaut asks repeatedly at the very beginning of her new album, How to Grow a Sunflower Underwater. It’s a fair question: the singer, otherwise known as Alex Lynn, has gone through a lot of changes since we last heard from her on her acclaimed 2020 debut, The Theory of Absolutely Nothing

Between the two releases, Alex revealed during a stand-up set that she had been diagnosed with autism. “Telling people you’re autistic when you’re 25 is a very similar experience to telling people that you’re gay,” she said to a packed room. “Some people are very empathetic and warm and great about it… and then some people, despite having very little knowledge, are not shy at all about sharing their own opinions about it.”

When Rolling Stone Australia speaks to the singer, she’s just one week out from performing at Splendour in the Grass (“My favourite thing in the world”), and finally having the positive language to describe how she’s feeling at such an event has changed her approach to it. “I just thought I was maybe scared or stressed about something that I couldn’t work out,” Alex recalls about going to the festival before her autism diagnosis. “But I know so much about autism now that it helps so much. Before I’d be like, ‘I’ve got to go and sit down’, and would just think that was embarrassing.”

Now she knows how to test how she’s feeling in the moment. “I’m lucky to have a lot of support,” she says. “Every four hours I just have to go back and sit in the green room for a minute. Or I have like 10,000 pairs of earplugs (laughs). They’re all different types and change how much sound reduction there is. So I manage festivals pretty well, and I think it’s because I enjoy music so much that it balances it out.”

After talking to Alex for only several minutes, her care for music becomes clear. The lyrics on her debut album were widely praised, but on How to Grow a Sunflower Underwater the songwriter is sharper – she performs like a more earnest Florist or a less caustic Jeffrey Lewis – and it’s two of modern indie rock’s best lyricists that Alex took inspiration from while writing the album. 

“I bought a record player during our first lockdown and the Gang of Youths and Phoebe Bridgers albums (Alex explicitly discusses her jealousy of the latter’s ability on the track “Airport”) were the ones I liked and bought,” she explains. “I already knew how amazing Gang of Youths are of course, but I got properly obsessed with how incredible their songwriting and production is. I grew up with Limewire and digital downloads and I didn’t really listen to albums, so I finally got to admire what they did.”

Immersing herself in these two artists became an enriching experience. “I just admired the bigness of their sound. That’s why there’s orchestral stuff on my album. We got a string player from Los Angeles to play all the different string parts. It was cool to work out what it was about their music that I actually liked. I was like, ‘ok, there’s the bigness, there’s the epic lyrics, the builds, and stuff like that’. After a while, I got the vocabulary to describe what they were doing and then was able to put it into action.”

It’s why her second album is marked by clear progress in her musicianship. “On the first album, I just recorded a bunch of songs. I didn’t know enough about the art side of things like I do now,” Alex concedes. “So I liked this second album because playing a more active role made me enjoy all the different parts that I didn’t know about before, like the production and artwork.”

At the end of that sentence, Alex catches herself. “I’m listed as a co-producer but I’d probably call myself a sub-producer,” she insists with a self-deprecating laugh. “I can record myself and put effects on it but compared to Sam (Cromack), I’m just not patient enough to do it. He definitely was the album’s producer. I suggested sounds or new ideas which I’d not done much of before though. I’d worked with them (Ball Park Music) before which gave me the confidence to know that I could do it this time.” 

Working with the Ball Park Music boys was a ‘pinch me’ moment for Alex, the type that makes one realise this music malarkey might be working out after all. “I remember listening to ‘It’s Nice To Be Alive’ with my sister at school and really liking them, so it’s all a bit surreal,” she says. “I’ve realised after a while that it’s so amazing that I just get to sit in a room with these people. I have the same managers as them, everything. They’re such amazing musicians.” 

There’s something that Alex shares in common with artists like Bridgers and Gang of Youths’ Dave Le’aupepe: an unflinching commitment to openness in their songwriting. Never one to shy away from heavy subject matter, How to Grow a Sunflower Underwater is largely concerned with Alex’s post-traumatic growth. Does writing so vulnerably ever cause her anxiety?

“It helped this time round that I wasn’t playing live as much,” she says after a long pause. “I didn’t think about people hearing the songs. When I’ve played shows and written before, you can see the people that are hearing them, whereas this time I was just in my room writing alone. I couldn’t get a grasp on who’d hear them properly, which made me feel like I was just writing on my own. I think it’s only now that the album’s coming out that I’m like, ‘oh god, everyone’s going to see inside my head!’ It’s pretty scary.”

It might have been daunting to release, but Alex had a clear reason for making this album. “I wanted to paint the landscape of one person’s life, a little section of it. My point wasn’t to say that I’ve gone through all of this hard stuff, look at poor me. We all go through breakups and losing people – the big things. If you talk to anyone and ask them what they’ve been through in the last couple of years, they’d probably have a similar set of big events that’s happened to them.”

It was Gang of Youths that showed Alex how writing as specifically as possible about your own life could be a positive thing. “I think the more detailed and specific you can get about an experience, people can still relate to it,” she insists. “I think that can be heard in Gang of Youths’ new album with Dave finding out about his dad having a second family – it’s so unbelievably specific, you know? 

“It’s not vague at all, and not many people may have been through that, but you still listen to it and you can still be there. The way I write is a balance between specifics and universality. I’ve been through, say, PTSD, but I’m thinking how I can use the specifics of my experience to both say what I’m going through but also have someone listening going through something similar get something out of it.”

Such specificity can be found in a track like “South London”, which looks back at Alex’s time living in the English capital. “I lived there from 10 until 14. It was really cool, it was super surreal. When my parents told me we were moving there, I cried, I was so devastated. I didn’t want to get on the plane and then I cried on the plane. But then I cried on the plane when we eventually moved back to Australia (laughs). It was just this funny little blip in time.”

When she returned to London after a lengthy absence in 2019, it was an odd experience. “It was like this preserved memory place,” she recalls. “I had grown up there and went back to my street. I feel like a lot of people have done that, going back to their childhood house, and are shocked to discover it’s all still there! You still get surprised that the street sign is the same or the smell of the street is the same.”

Would she ever move back there? “Maybe! I love London, I have lots of friends there from when I was little. And I’ve been lucky enough to tour there. It’s also so fun there because you can travel so quickly to all these cool places. I was there recently with some Australian friends and we gave our English friends our schedule for the next few weeks.

“It was like ‘we’re going to go to Spain for a few days and then Iceland for one day,’ and they were like ‘you’re mental, that’s so much travel for that length of time!’ But we were like ‘this is nothing!’ For now though, she’s focusing on an Australian tour throughout August and September. “After that, we’ll try to get over to Europe and North America next year,” she adds. “There’s no specific dates for that yet though.”

Talk turns to the upcoming Splendour again where she’ll be playing her new songs. “I’m most nervous for it (Splendour) but I’m mostly excited,” she says. “It’s hard to know what to expect because you don’t know if people are going to come as I haven’t had any shows! I’m fine once I get on stage, I become a bit of a showoff. I love performing, but it’s just worrying whether people will come along. That’s the scary part!”

After Splendour ended up turning into a bit of a muddy mess, Alex decided to take to the Byron streets for an impromptu performance; the healthy turnout provided ample proof that a lot of people are always going to show up for an Alex of the Astronaut show, no matter the location. Songwriting as relatable and unguarded as Alex’s will always find its audience.

Alex the Astronaut’s How to Grow a Sunflower Underwater is out now.