Alexander 23 is just trying to find a way to express himself whole heartedly through his music without compromising his vision of authenticity. The Chicago singer-songwriter believes that songwriters are really just translators who take intangible feelings and put them into a more easily digestible form, and he couldn’t be more accurate with this explanation.
Candidly detailing his yearning for love, experiences with heartbreak, and his current coming of age exploration, he’s started to lay the foundations for an impressive body of work that is incredibly honest and insightful.
Following his introduction through his debut EP ‘I’m Sorry I Love You’ last year, he has had a rapid incline to fame with the success of ‘IDK You Yet’ through TikTok. It’s quickly gained 100 million global streams, and has become one of the years most memorable breakthrough pop songs.
His new single ‘Caught In The Middle’ hears him continuing the vulnerable intimacy that sparked the powerful connection listeners had with his music, and gives people another tender lyrical moment.
I recently sat down with Alexander 23 over Zoom to chat about the lyrical transparency behind ‘Caught In The Middle’, his ideology behind songwriters being translators for feelings, and found out what he’s loved most about watching people’s TikTok’s of ‘IDK You Yet’. Check it out BELOW;
THOMAS BLEACH: Your new single ‘Caught In The Middle’ is a very beautiful and honest reflection on how you can go from knowing everything about someone when in a relationship, to then being left in the dark and only knowing about their past. So how did this song creatively come together?
ALEXANDER 23: I was thinking about my ex-girlfriend and the physical separation we had. We used to text all day, everyday, and I still know her deepest darkest secrets and her family problems, but I don’t know what she had for lunch. The distance is bizarre to juggle. So as cliche as it sounds, as a songwriter, I got this burning in my chest and knew that I needed to write a song about it.
TB: Lyrically this song just hit me heavy in the feels. But there was one lyric in particular that completely had me taken aback; “Sometimes I think about your dog and wonder if she thinks I passed away. I guess a part of me is dead now, so I guess she’s right in a strange way”. What inspired this particular lyric?
A23: I remember writing that lyric in the studio, and I was like people are going to either love or hate this, but I decided to still roll with it anyway. For me the dog was symbolic of their family and their extended friends that you peripherally know, and are used to seeing you, but now they just don’t.
You get so close to someone’s family, friends and pets, and then one day you just don’t talk to them again forever. It’s such a bizarre and striking concept. I also thought a dog was a funny vehicle because you can’t explain anything to them. They really could just think you are dead. And the truth is, when you break up with someone, a part of you dies and goes with that person.
You never date a person, you date a life. That’s something that I think gets glossed over in typical heartbreak or break-up songs, so I wanted to really make a pointed effort to cover that aspect for once.
TB: I recently interviewed Chelsea Cutler and while we were talking about connectivity through music she brought up a tweet that you had posted that said; “songwriters are really just translators. Taking intangible feelings and putting them into a more easily digestible form”. I thought this was such a beautiful and interesting perspective. Can you tell me more about your thoughts on this?
A23: I think there are a lot of ways to communicate emotions in songs, and different people do it in different ways. Sometimes the beat is so convincing and says enough that the words don’t even matter. Like with a lot of Tame Impala songs, I don’t know what the fuck he’s saying, but I totally get it. Sometimes you can just communicate through beauty. If you listen to a Bon Iver song, the lyrics are less important to me, but I just understand through the melody with what he’s trying to get across.
For me, my language is language, and lyrics. It’s honestly the way I feel most comfortable presenting emotions and feelings. I still stand by that tweet because I feel that my job as a songwriter is essentially to be a translator. I feel like Ive made my craft, my career and artistry through pulling these feelings out of the air that are so easy to feel, but difficult to say, and then trying to find the best way to concisely and pointed way to say them.
TB: Is there a lyric that your fans have connected to quite passionately that has surprised you?
A23: I think the least surprising moment was how many people connected to ‘IDK You Yet’. That was such a beautiful thing to see worldwide as they came together and were like “OMG I feel Iike this too, and you said it, so now I can have a place to put those feelings and go back to when I feel this way”. And that was so beautiful.
TB: Has there been a lyric that you nearly didn’t release because you thought it was too vulnerable or literal?
A23: There’s honestly so much in ‘Caught In The Middle’ that was so hyper-specific to my ex situation. Like; “your best friend told my best friend that you moved out of the USA”. If you know me in real life and had any doubts about who I was talking about, when you heard that line you knew exactly who and what I’m talking about. Ironically she has now moved back to LA from London, but that’s a whole other song that we will probably get to on album number three.
TB: ’IDK You Yet’ is a song that has also exploded on TikTok globally. What has been one of your favourite, funniest or weirdest TikTok’s that you’ve seen for the song?
A23: That’s such a great question! I don’t know if I have a favourite one in particular, but the coolest part has been seeing so many people interpret the song in such different ways. There are TikTok’s where people are talking about having never met their birth parents and that’s how they interpret the song. Or then you have people talking about their grandparents passing away when they are young. And then you’ve got people putting it into a romantic context and others confessing that they are missing apart of themselves that they feel like they haven’t met yet because of mental health issues.
It’s so amazing because I get to write the song, and get to know what it means to me, but then I get to see it take on a million other lives through other people. That’s honestly been my favourite thing about TikTok.
TB: Reflecting back on the release of your debut EP ‘I’m Sorry I Love You’ to where you are at now creatively with this new music, what would you say is the biggest thing you’ve learnt about yourself?
A23: The biggest thing I’ve learnt is just to be more confident. It’s such a beautiful feeling in the studio because I feel like I know myself better, I know my writing style better and I know what I like better. I’m more quickly and easily able to identify concepts, melodies and rhythmic ideas that work for me, and that I’m going to like not just in the moment but for years to come.
I genuinely feel better. Going back to the translator comment, I feel like I’m getting better at being able to communicate these feelings into words and melodies.
TB: Creatively this year has been a big year for you with a string of different releases and some tours at the start of the year. But you’ve also collaborated a bit, first with Chelsea Cutler on the song ‘Lucky’, and then you also did an edit of Selena Gomez’s track ‘Rare’. So when you’re doing something quite different and high pressure like the Selena mix, how did you approach it creatively?
A23: Selena’s team were so cool and open with me about the process, that it made it super easy. They were like, “we don’t want this to sound like a remix, we want this to feel like how you would’ve produced it if it was a song for you. Just do your thing, you can’t be wrong”. So once I heard that I was like “here we go” as I know how to make a song for me and I know how to make it sound like an Alexander 23 record.
I was actually on tour with Chelsea at the time driving across America in a van, so I took out my laptop and started to plot away at ideas, and then a couple of hours later it was just done.
I had obviously heard the song before and loved it, but what striked me particularly was how emotional it was and how opposite it was sonically. I think some of the best songs are super sad lyrically but the track is happy, and it’s a format that works well. But what I wanted to do was flip it and be a little bit more aligned with the emotions going into it.
TB: Earlier this year you were in Australia for the first ever time opening for Blackbear on his sold out tour. What was the biggest misconception you had about Australia prior to travelling here?
A23: I didn’t see a single Kangaroo! But look, that was probably my fault as I was just in the cities, But I didn’t see a single Kangaroo and I didn’t see that much Vegemite either. So maybe I was just in the wrong places *laughs*. But I was so stoked at how kind and nice everyone was!
TB: 2020 has been a very strange and hard year for everyone, but it’s also been inspiring for others. In isolation you have started to learn how to DJ. So Is there anything else random or surprising that isolation has prompted you to do or try?
A23: I’ve been trying to learn how to sew and embroid. I’ve been slowly plotting away at trying to figure that whole thing out. But I honestly just love learning new skills! I’m always trying something new!
I’ve also recently got into tennis too actually! I never really played tennis in my life until two months ago, and now I cant stop. It’s so fun! I’ll just kinda get obsessed with something for a little bit and then burn myself out and move onto the next thing. But yeah, at the moment it’s djing, tennis and sewing!
‘Caught In The Middle’ is out now!