Jess Gleeson*

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How Alex The Astronaut Found Her Confidence

After two EPs, widespread acclaim, and praise from iconic names, Alex the Astronaut has utilised her newfound confidence for her debut album.

There’s a good chance that you can probably remember the first time you heard Alex the Astronaut. For most people, it was by way of her single “Already Home”, which quickly found popularity thanks to triple j Unearthed. Others might have first had their lives enriched by her music thanks to the poignant “Not Worth Hiding”, while more still might have managed to catch one of her exceptional live shows along the way.

However fans first found themselves flocking to the music of Alex Lynn, they can definitely remember feeling  of discovering an artist whose world-class songwriting managed to tap into their psyche, relating so intimately that it felt as if the song was written about them specifically.

Such is the magic of Alex the Astronaut, who first rose to prominence while over in New York, studying maths and physics at Long Island University while on a soccer scholarship. By the time she had returned home, a fervent fanbase had already accrued, meaning that her return to the local live stage was met with the kind of reception usually reserved for veterans of the music industry.

The next few years saw Alex working hard on her craft, with her two EPs in 2017 preceding the release of single such as “Waste of Time”, “Happy Song”, and “I Like to Dance”. Earlier this year though, Alex announced that after plenty of waiting, fans would get to hear her highly-anticipated debut album, The Theory of Absolutely Nothing in August.

“Releasing my first album feels like I’m graduating from junior musician to proper musician,” Alex said at the time. “I have so many mind maps and brainstorming pages in my writing book where I was trying to work out what I wanted it all to look like.”

“I feel really proud of all of these ten songs, it feels like I’ve put a little bit of myself and the world I see in all of them. I’ve spent hundreds of hours thinking about writing them and I’m pretty nervous to share it all with everyone,” she added.

Working with the likes of Sam Cromack and Daniel Hanson of Brisbane indie-rock band Ball Park Music, and English producer Jonathan Quarmby, the ten-track release is not only the next logical step in an already-storied career, but a highlight that most musicians would dream of making.

To celebrate the release of The Theory of Absolutely Nothing, Alex spoke to Rolling Stone to discuss the release of her debut album, writing music that universally relates to the listener, and above all, finding her confidence as a musician.

Let’s ask the obvious question first, how have you been coping with the events of the last few months?
It’s been so strange. Half of me has been struggling a lot with being on my own, and being in isolation and everything, and the other half of me is actually pretty happy with it. So I don’t really know, it’s more of a day-to-day thing. Obviously it’s all very stressful in the music industry and all industries, but yeah, I’ve been quite productive, which is good.

I’ve been learning the drums, which is fun. I’ve learnt how to cook, which is also a good skill to know. I started renovating our garden, which has been a fun little iso task. We actually are renting, so probably shouldn’t say that in an interview, but who cares? We added to the value of the property, in my opinion. We’re doing them a favour!

I think it’s been really hard not playing shows, and it’s been really hard watching the world go through this pandemic with lots of people suffering. But I think there’s been a lot of growth as well, and I think it’s a really important time with the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a strange mix for everyone.

It definitely is a strange time for everyone, and as you said, the music industry. You also had a lot of tour dates both here and abroad cancelled as well. Was there any thought of pushing the album back at all, or was it actually set to arrive earlier at first?
No, this was always going to be the release date. It’s strange for me because it’s been a long time coming. I think I recorded the first song [“Happy Song”] maybe two years ago? Then it was probably all done within nine months of that song.

I actually wrote these songs a bit of a while ago, so it’s funny for me, because it’s a bit like putting them out and everyone else is experiencing them for the first time, and I’m kind of going back in time to when I did write the songs, and just re-experiencing them in that way.

You said you recorded the first song a few years ago, but at what point did you really sort of knuckle down and make the decision to start working on a debut album?
I think after my second EP, which I’ve forgotten the name of right now. [Some mutual thinking occurs before we both recall it’s called See You Soon.] Whenever that one came out, we were sort of sitting around in a meeting afterwards and I said, “I think I’m ready to write an album”, because funnily enough, I’ve never really actually listened to albums before, I guess, getting properly into the music industry.

Growing up, I listened to albums in the back of my parents’ car. That was probably the first time I listened to a full album, but my way of listening was by singles downloaded onto my parents’ iPod. Eventually I think I had a PSP [PlayStation Portable] and I downloaded songs onto that, but it would never be full albums. So I didn’t really know how to make one, because I hadn’t lived in that learning thing. I think with writing songs, I learnt a lot by actually listening to music, but I never learnt that skill.

So I started listening to albums maybe at the end of college, maybe four years ago or something? Then I think it took me a little while to get the confidence up to where I could say, “Okay, maybe I could try this.” And yeah, this is the [result of that] trial.

When you eventually began to record the album, was there anything in particular you set out to do differently than with your previous EPs? I I know you worked with Sam [Cromack] and Daniel [Hanson] of Ball Park Music, but did that sort of collaboration find itself extending to the rest of the record?
I think it was more of the writing process. The first song that we recorded was “Happy Song”, and we didn’t really know it was going to be an album at that time. I think I’d started thinking about it, but I hadn’t written any of the other songs – they were maybe just in little bits in my songwriting book. But there wasn’t a full concept in my head about what I wanted it to look like.

When it did kind of start to take form, it was looking at what songs I wanted to write on this album, and with Sam and Dan, and Jonathan – I recorded four of the songs on this album with Jonathan Quarmby of RAK Studios – I guess in the production sense, it was about how to keep a consistent production bed throughout the album, or at least tie it together in some way or another.

Some of the songs are really different, I think the strings kind of tie the production together in the whole album, there’s usually that element. But then there’s some songs like “I Think You’re Great” which is more Blink-182-referenced guitar, bass, drum, and vocals. I don’t think I thought about that part of the album as much as I did the individual songs and what I thought of as the colours I wanted to show.

Well as you said, if you grow up mainly listening to singles, you aren’t going to be focusing on the whole package, are you?
Yeah, well I was thinking of it as a whole album, but I was thinking of it like, “Okay, if we’re going from heartbreak in ‘Happy Song’, what is the next thing you want to cover? And if there’s ten songs, and if you want to tell ten stories on that album, what are you going to do with that airtime? What’s the most important thing that you want to write about?” That was a lot of the thinking that went on.

Despite not quite knowing what you wanted to say, was there any specific feeling or message you hoped the record to have overall? From my listening, the record seems to have this feeling of triumph throughout it, but I’m not sure if that’s something you were aiming for?
I think that I use writing as a way to understand the world around me. It’s strange, because on one hand it’s for the listener and what I think they will be experiencing, and then personally, it’s going through stories and topics and trying to understand them on a deeper level for myself, or trying to process something.

So I think the hopeful or triumphant part is – and I feel it goes through most of the writing of my music – that sometimes I write a really sad song at first, and then I’m like, “Okay, how do we make this complete? How do we make this feel like you could sing it a million times and you would really think it’s true?” You know when you’re thinking about something and you’re really cranky or you’re really upset, and then you get to a point where you look back on it and say, “Okay, that makes a lot more sense to me”? It’s not that what happens – if [the subject was] a bad thing – is now a good thing, but you look back on it and you’re more hopeful or more triumphant as a result of that.

That’s where I try to go with the writing, to make sure that it is a complete story, but I don’t think I did that intentionally. I mean, I called it The Theory of Absolutely Nothing because I wanted to get across the idea that I knew very little when previously I thought I knew everything.

You noted that releasing your first album feels like you’re “graduating from junior musician to proper musician”. It’s obviously something that anyone seeks in their career, but does this album make you feel like you’ve “made it” as a musician?
I don’t know about “made it”, because I think it was more that I felt more confident. Before, I would go into the recording studio or I would go into interviews, or go onto the stage, and I would feel like everyone else knew more than me.

I still feel that there’s so much that I have to learn, and that there’s lots and lots and lots of people who know way more things than me, but I think I went from thinking that the stuff I knew maybe wasn’t that important, and now I had a bit more confidence in that knowledge, and confidence in writing, and confidence in the studio and saying, “I think that guitar maybe shouldn’t be in this section.” So maybe confidence is what happened. And I was like, “Well, who does know everything?” I may as well just say what I think, and if I’m wrong, that’s okay.

You’ve also spoken about a sense of nervousness with sharing the record with the world. Where does that come from? Is it the idea of exposing yourself, living up to expectations, or a combination of both?
I think it’s a combination of both, that makes sense to me. It’s strange, because with my first couple of songs – like “Already Home”, and when that was released and played properly on radio – I wasn’t doing anything intentionally, I was just writing songs in my room. So when you get a bit of a pat on the back for it, you’re like, “Okay, well I guess I have to do that again.”

“I may as well just say what I think, and if I’m wrong, that’s okay.”

The first time, you weren’t even thinking about what you were doing, but the second time it’s like, “Okay, well I did it this way last time, maybe I should do it that way again?” That makes you a bit blocked, I guess? With the confidence thing, I started to go back to how I was writing before – back when I was in school and before “Already Home” came out – and trying to feel out what I actually know about writing songs, and what I think is important to portray and weave in the details in different songs.

A lot of artists do struggle with the idea of trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice, but listening to the album, it almost feels effortless. Obviously it wouldn’t have been effortless behind the scenes, and I’m guessing it would’ve been a rather difficult process along the way.
It was difficult, I think I was lucky in that I had really good people around me who had confidence in me. So every time I shared something I felt really supported. I think that was a big part of it.

From a personal point of view, one of my favourite things about your work is how you’ve got this unique way of songwriting in that it speaks to so many people at the same time, while still being very personal to yourself. How this songwriting has evolved for you over the years and, are there any songwriters you specifically look up to?
Obviously Paul Kelly was the biggest that I’ve taken songwriting information from growing up. I think he’s someone who’s really good at making the personal feel universal. That songwriting concept is something I use every day. I’m writing songs at the moment, and every time I write a line, it’s like there’s two parts to it: Do I understand what I’m saying and does it make sense to me? And does it make sense to [the listener] if they’re listening to the song?

It’s always got to have those two parts, and you can write a song sometimes that’s just for you, but it usually doesn’t make sense to everyone else. It’s almost like you’re writing two songs in one song, and it’s such a game because there’s no way of perfecting it, and there’s no formula you can use to get it absolutely right. You just have to use your emotions and your feelings and your empathy or whatever, and sometimes you have to use those skills you learned in year 11 English like, “Does this sentence structure make sense?”

I listened to an interesting thing the other day, I think it was from Greg Daniels, the director, who was doing a podcast, and he said “The more specific you get about your personal story, the more universal it becomes.” And I thought that was so interesting, like, the more vulnerable you are about your own personal story – even if you think it’s so specific that no one would be able to relate to it – people are so capable of empathy that it brings them to the table the more vulnerable you are. And that made so much sense to me, because I think that’s why I include a lot of details in my writing.

On “I Like to Dance”, there’s so many details in that song because details are what bring people’s empathy to the table and makes them really able to site with that person and understand what they’re going through in a different way than if they heard the general story. I don’t really know how that works, I’m sure there’s some kind of psychological aspect to it, or maybe evolutionary aspect, but yeah, that’s another thing I use.

One thing I felt was quite intriguing was the inclusion of the final song, “Outro”. It’s strange to see an artist address fans directly on an album, so what were your thoughts behind including that?
Well I had an intro, but it wasn’t very good, so we didn’t end up including it [laughs]. The “Outro”, I don’t know, Dan and Sam and I were in the studio on the last day, and we just kind of played around and put microphones on and put different effects on my voice. I think I had heard someone else’s intro and outro on their album, I don’t know who it was, maybe Billie Eilish or something? I just thought that’s really funny and cool, and I just wanted to talk to the audience.

We had worked so hard and so long on the album, and there were lots of songs that we had re-recorded and stuff, and we had spent so much time together – Sam had had a baby in the time that we recorded the album – and it felt like we’d been so much together, and I wanted to do something to tie it off. Then we went and got all-day breakfast at the café – that was another way we tied it off.

You’ve obviously been pretty in-demand over the last few years, playing huge shows, and receiving praise from folks like Elton John. You’re obviously quite a humble person, so are these things you still look back on with a bit of shock? Or have these milestones become easier to deal with?
I don’t know, it’s very weird. A lot of it feels surreal, because I don’t think I have fully understood what’s happened in the last few years. Sometimes I think I do, then I get an Instagram memory or a something memory where, I don’t know, Elton John talked about my song on radio, or I met Paul Kelly, and just those funny things that have happened that don’t feel like they’re part of my life.

It’s really strange, especially for me, because I went from studying in America to coming back to Australia and playing shows – proper shows – in Australia to people that knew all the words to my songs. It’s not like I went through a step-by-step increase of things getting more heard, or whatever the word is, it was a real snap change.

“I don’t think I have fully understood what’s happened in the last few years.”

It was funny because I was in America doing class and I would have to say to like, my maths teacher, “Hey, I have to go to a meeting in New York today with a music lawyer, is it okay if I miss class?” And they’d be like, “Alex is a bit kooky! I think she might be lying.” Some of them were just like, “Okay, you can just tell us if you want to go drinking with your friends, you don’t have to make up some elaborate story.” That was really weird for me.

My dream, ever since I was really little, was to have been on triple j Unearthed – since I was like 14. So to be played on high rotation in Australia on triple j while I was in another country was so strange, and then to come back and play massive festivals. I played the triple j One Night Stand in 2018 and that was to 25,000 people. That was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had, like there’s all these things that’ll take me until I’m almost 50 to look back on and say, “Oh yeah, that was something that happened.”

The praise part of it, I don’t know, it’s strange to say – and it feels really cliché – but it really only matters what the people that you know in your life say about you. That’s something that I’ve really come to find. I really love that people love my music, and I love that people say nice things about my writing and my performances, and that feels really humbling and I’m so grateful for that.

But yeah, you kind of come to realise that the close relationships you have in your life, those are the most important things, and those are the most real things. That’s what I’ve got out of all of it, there’s probably about 15 more steps to take, but that’s where I’m at with it now.

Alex the Astronaut’s The Theory of Absolutely Nothing is officially released today.