It’s so powerful when you hear lyrics that speak directly to your soul. When an artist finds the words you didn’t know you needed to hear, or even more importantly, the ones you’ve been struggling to say, it can feel especially cathartic. Alexander 23’s debut album ‘Aftershock’ is a collection of eleven songs that does that over and over again. From the opening moments of ‘Hate Me If It Helps’, to the intimate closing of ‘RIP You And Me’, he takes the listener on a vulnerable journey of heartbreak, grief, and understanding.
Alexander 23 was recently in Australia opening for AJR on their massive run of dates, and for their sold out Brisbane show I sat down with him backstage to discuss the record that might just be my album of the year. I wanted to dive a little deeper into ‘Aftershock’ and explore the incredible lyricism that drives this album. So we went track by track and explored the themes, and heavy emotions that captivate your soul while listening. Check out the full chat BELOW;
TB: The album opens with ‘Hate Me If It Helps’, and the lyric – “Do you wonder if I’m with someone new now?. If her clothes are in the drawer you used to take up in my room” perfectly sets the tone for the record, with this introspective outlook on a break-up. That lyric stands out, because it deflects some of the internal questions you are having on them about your place in their world. When you think of that song and that mindset – what are some of the questions you were asking yourself about your place in their world during that time?
A23: An incredible question! I think I will zoom out a little bit first by saying that to me the song is about the duality of two things; of wanting someone to find closure even if that means them hating you. And then simultaneously admitting to yourself that the idea of them hating you really hurts. To answer your question more-so, to me, it was this macho instinct to not care of what space is void because I left is being taken up in her world. But then simultaneously really caring to an embarrassing degree.
TB: I guess that’s one of the biggest things about break-ups. It’s so easy to get stuck in your head and think the other person has moved on, where they’re probably hurting just as much and dealing with it in the best way they know how.
A23: Totally! If you zoom out even further on breakups, something that has always been so hard for me, especially if you still care for the person, is that you want them to feel better and you used to be the person that would do that, and now it’s completely flipped to you’re the person who caused the pain, and you can’t help.
TB: ‘Somebody’s Nobody’ then captures the internal feelings of being alone again with “You used to stay at my place, now you just stay on my mind”. Can you tell me what that lyrical epiphany was when you wrote it, because I feel like as a listener when you hear it you are like – yes! It’s very literal but reassuring.
A23: For me it’s pretty literal. I used to have you physically here, and now I have all the same emotions but I don’t physically have you here with me. It’s a very strange thing to reconcile and move past. It’s jarring and strange.
TB: One of the lyrics that hits the hardest on the record is; “I guess the hardest part of getting old. Is that some people that you love don’t”. How did that studio session feel when you wrote it with Amy and Dan?
A23: It was definitely an emotional one. I feel really comfortable writing about things that are really personal, in the way that they have only affected me as one person. But it was the first time I was writing about something that extended so far outside of me. A lot of this album is about grief, but this grief is not only just my own, in-fact it was mostly other people’s, so it was a very cautious song to write. I remember finishing it and having two thoughts, and they were; 1) I think this song is incredible, and 2) I don’t think I ever want to put this song out. I didn’t want to be the guy that put this song out. It was too heavy, and not necessarily my grief to talk about. But through sending the song to family and talking to other people I gained the perspective I needed to put it out.
TB: I remember hearing that song for the first time, and my brain waiting for another lyric to follow, and then I started processing what you had just said and it just sank in. It was deep.
A23: It is! At least for me, that is the hardest part.
TB: On ‘Fall 2017/What If?’ you sing “Did I mistake our anniversary for an expiration date. Or am I just lonely?”. Can you explain the idea behind that lyric?
A23: In the road of getting over someone, there are these bumps of self-doubt. You can have so much confidence in the decision you made no matter how much it hurts, or continues to hurt. But every now and then you can be in bed and it’s like 1am in the morning and you’re used to having someone in bed with you and you’re like “fuck, did I fuck this up?”. So it was meant to demonstrate that feeling.
TB: This song is obviously two ideas merged together. So originally were these two separate songs, or poems etc that you brought together?
A23: They were actually two different songs. ‘What If?’ used to actually be a whole song. And when we originally worked on ‘Fall 2017’ all that came out was all that exists now. I’m a big fan of not writing a bridge unless I have something I need to say. And with ‘Fall 2017’, I am so proud of how susicent that is, and it perfectly explains how I feel about that particular thing. I didn’t want to add to it. So when I was putting together the final tracklist and listening to a bunch of demo’s, I found ‘What If?’, and I hadn’t listened to it for so long, but it really sounded like the brother song to ‘Fall 2017’. So I sat down and found a way to link them together in the way that is now on the record.
TB: Was ‘What If?’ an older song of yours, because it gave me ‘Sad’ vibes?
A23: Yep! It wasn’t quite as old as ‘Sad’ but it was definitely from a prior era. I always say ‘Live In Me Forever’ was the first song I wrote for ‘Aftershock’, but I actually think ‘What If?’ was technically the first. I wrote that in December 2020 around Christmas, in the basement at my parents house on the piano. It was definitely the last of the old era.
TB: ‘Live In Me Forever’ brings the pain behind songs like ‘Somebody’s Nobody’ with ‘The Hardest Part’ with the lyric, “It’s hard to grieve the dead. It’s harder to grieve the living”. What were some of the conversations you had while writing this particular lyric?
A23: I went through a really hard break-up, and I actually went by myself to Big Bear Lake in California and stayed in a cabin for a week. It was a bit of a self torture session. There was no cell service, or anything, I was just out there. I was taking a walk one day and had this epiphany that I was grieving someone. That is what breaking up is. You are grieving someone who is very much still alive. Nothing is typically stopping me from calling her. I could call her at any moment, or I could go to her apartment, but I don’t, and that’s fucking weird. It takes a restraint that I don’t think anyone is really good at. You have to practice it.
Obviously it’s terrible when someone dies, and this song is not meant to say it’s easy when people die, but it’s just a different type of grieving when you could just reach out.
TB: I always say the hardest thing about a break-up is that you’re not only grieving the loss of them, but you are also grieving a community of people you knew because of them like their friends and family.
A23: Yeah! And they still exist in our people’s lives, but just not yours. And something that is new for me is them existing in the same capacity that they exist in your life to someone else. And that’s a whole other feeling. I actually have a song about that coming out soon.
TB: ‘Cosplay’ is an incredible song and one of the ideas is; “Should we call it quits before we go from friends to enemies?”. This is a concept that has been done in songs before – what was it about the sentiment that resonated with you and how you feel?
A23: That I think I’m finally mature enough to avoid it, potentially. In the past I feel like it was just inevitable. This song is about someone in particular, and being with them and it being really comfortable and nice, and then taking a step back to process if it’s comfortable and nice because of us together, or if it’s because of him and her before us. This is a new thing for me to do. I used to never understand that dynamic, and would just move on until we hated each other and call it quits.
TB: ‘Everything’s Fine’ is a song that feels like it may have been the hardest for you to write with lyrics like; “Everything’s fine except for me. Everything’s good that you can see. Everything’s cool except inside I feel it all burnin’ me alive”. Can you step us through the writing process for this?
A23: I think this song was new to me and difficult because I think I’ve gotten really good at carefully navigating mental health wholestically, and other people’s mental health. But this was kind of my first foray into talking about how I feel about myself, which is so strange as I feel people know me from talking about these subjects. But for me it feels like the first real venture into my own stuff, which was weird. This was another one I was really hesitant to put out. I had to be reassured that it was good and what I wanted to say. But I’m happy I did.
TB: ‘If We Were A Party’ has one of my other favourite lyrics on the record with “Why can’t we cry because it’s over, and still smile because it happened?”. I feel like this captures a rare sense of clarity in the break-up process where you can mutually feel the pain, but also see the beauty that was shared. Is this a strong takeaway you want people to have?
A23: Yeah! The tricky thing about this specific scenario is that I was the one who wanted it to end. So it’s easy for me to say it, but if you were on the other side of that then I can understand how you wouldn’t share that perspective. But in general, I think if more people were open to that being a possibility it could be quite a beautiful thing.
TB: This song also made me think of movie soundtracks, and specifically that this album could be a movie soundtrack. If you could choose a movie to slot this album into as the soundtrack, what would it be?
A23: That’s a good question! Honestly, probably a movie I will write in the future. I have a lot of movie ideas.
TB: ‘Magic Wand’ has some of the most literal lyrics on the record. Especially with “You left your magic wand in my nightstand right above my shoes. Now she touches me in all the same places, but she don’t feel like you”. Have you had to awkwardly explain to anyone in your family or media what you meant by that?
A23: Well, this is the only song on the album that I didn’t send to my parents before it came out *laughs*. It’s a song that is all true. It’s strange being with new people after being with the same person for a few years. It’s a weird new endeavor.
TB: ‘RIP You And Me’ closes the record beautifully with the lyric “You took me to hell and back once a week. Somеhow, we found heaven somewhere in-between? Hitting quite deeply for anyone who has been in a toxic relationship. It feels like a cathartic way to close the record. How important has this song been for you in your personal journey?
A23: Unbelievably! It’s kind of ironic as it was one of the first songs I wrote for the album. But I think when I wrote it I wasn’t there yet, and I was just aspiring to feel that way. I’m really happy you mentioned that particular line as that has always been such an important line to me. I think when you end a relationship that was difficult, it’s tempting to remember it as being only difficult, but I don’t want to remember it that way as obviously it’s true, but it’s not the only truth. There were some really beautiful moments, so I want to remember them as well.
TB: And lyrically I see a parallel of “Cause there’s nothin’ left to talk about. Sometimes, two strong people just don’t work out” with “But there’s some things that I don’t miss. Like struggling to coexist” from Crash. Are there any songs you do see lyrical parallels between?
A23: For sure! ‘Magic Wand’ and ‘Cosplay’ for me kind of go hand in hand with meeting new people and comparing them to your ex. It’s a very natural thing to do. And I think ‘Crash’ is the more immature version of ‘RIP You And Me’, which is more evolved. I feel like so many people are obsessed with this idea of closure, but to me it’s more-so a mirage. By the time you get there, you’re not actually there. So I don’t really strive for closure, I instead strive for understanding and patience with myself. That is more the path I have chosen.
‘Aftershock’ is out now!