Alexander Wren’s precocious coming-up is well-documented, with the history of a wedding singer mother, a Hank Williams-loving father, and an older brother who worked in artist management. He started playing guitar as a tot, engaged in classical voice lessons in middle school, and began traveling to Nashville for songwriting sessions from Ft. Wayne as early as high school. Once he’d first connected with producer Micah Tawlks (COIN, Hayley Williams) in 2016, Wren worked to legitimize and expound upon the artistry that had begun to bud inside of him from an early age. By the release of his second EP, Assorted Love Songs, in 2018, it’s arguable that the now 24-year-old artist found his groove between somewhere along the lines of imperfect folkies with their hearts on their sleeves and more cerebral types who develop experiments with jazz tones and shimmering synths.
Wren’s latest, “The Earth Is Flat”, was recorded in Tawlks’ basement studio under necessary precautions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wearing masks, thoroughly sanitizing between takes, and only bringing in the bare minimum number of necessary faces to produce the track. As a result, the tune is delivered a tad differently than Wren had initially imagined, coming to light as a folksy jazz-fusion. It initially sounds sparse, and that’s well enough to communicate the song’s emotion, but subtle percussion, improv piano, and the palpable hum of tenor saxophones make for an intuitive listening experience. First looks can be deceiving, too, as the song is 100% less a flat-earther’s anthem than it is a wry look at a lost love. As far as what tone the song emanates from a musical perspective, Wren and Tawlks both express that “The Earth Is Flat” explores a “feeling you would get when free-floating through space.”
“The Earth Is Flat” releases on 18 September. Ahead of its release, Wren took part in an interview with PopMatters about the song.
Please tell us the story behind your song?
So this song is actually a rare example of a tune of mine being conceived without a real-life story. This is definitely strange for me because I feel like almost everything I ever write comes from an experiential place. It’s funny though because some of the best writers I know in town feel the exact opposite; they love to tell other people’s stories or even make up stories. For me, this hasn’t historically worked as much. Maybe some of this has to do with my motivations to create in the first place. The writing process for me is deeply personal and rooted in confession, introspection, and a whole lot of struggle. I feel as if I am looking inward as opposed to outward, if that makes any sense?
Anyway, I do remember when the idea was born, though. I just kept thinking to myself, what if you were in such an estranged relationship that it would be easier for your partner to convince you of some wildly absurd thing before they could convince you that they truly loved you — thus, the earth is flat. And I remember from the beginning being drawn to the potential shock factor of that statement — its nonsensical nature. I thought it had the potential to capture people’s attention and make a strong first impression. I wasn’t sure how the idea would work though, and even after the song was written, I still wasn’t convinced that tagline landed properly.
See, the whole thing with this song is irony. You’re overtly stating, “the earth is flat”. But that line isn’t actually trying to say that the earth is flat; it’s implying the exact opposite. Of course, the earth isn’t flat, and it’s common knowledge. So the whole hook of the song is contingent upon the listener picking up on that irony — the implicit message. And I just didn’t know if we had accomplished that. However, Lauren Weintraub, who co-wrote the song with me, was the one who really believed in this song from the get-go. And when she started playing it live, she said that people were going nuts. The Nashville community really loves and respects her, so when she told me that I listened and gave the song another chance. And I’m so glad I did that. She’s one of the big reasons this song is seeing the light of day.
So case closed, you can say one thing and actually mean something completely different. But don’t tell the writers I said that! I actually remember a songwriting book I read a while back that claimed it was impossible.
This was a co-write. Tell us about the co-writing session and how it was to work with your co-writer on this song. What did two minds bring to the table here in fleshing out the concept and telling the story?
Yes, this one was a co-write. Even that is strange to me. Everything about this song is peculiar. I traditionally haven’t liked co-writing. This isn’t to say that I don’t think it’s effective. Two of my three favorite songs were co-written — “I’ll Be Seeing You” (Rosemary Clooney) and “Wine Into Water” (T. Graham Brown). My third favorite song being, “What’ll I Do”, written solely by legend Irving Berlin. But like I said earlier, writing is such an introspective thing for me that I just have a hard time letting anyone into that sacred space.
Photo: Landon Edwards
For some reason though, that day Lauren and I were just synced. That’s also strange because it was our first time writing together. But other than that, it was like any other co-write… we booked in advance, we made some coffee, and we sat down in dedication to the craft.
I specifically remember Lauren loving those opposites in the chorus – heaven, hell; sky/green, grass/blue, etc. – so we ran with that. I also remember having what I thought to be a colorful phrase in my back pocket, “it don’t take an Einstein…” I’d been wanting to use that in a song for a while at that point. Lauren came up with what I consider to be a brilliant line, “the other 364 it’s like I ain’t even here.” (This line finishing the full phrase of, “You might bring me roses a couple of times of year / the other 364 it’s like I ain’t even here.”) There’s just something about mentioning a specific number of days that I think is very effective in a strange way.
There was also a unanimous yes to that last pre-chorus allusion – it was honestly kind of a “Holy shit- that’s cool!” moment for the both of us. “We could keep on playing make-believe / just ignore Columbus – hell, it’s third-grade geography.” And actually, a weird little quirk about the song is after researching on our phones for what seemed like forever, we had no idea when kids learn about Columbus and the earth being round, so we just picked 3rd grade. That seems right… right?
The song took about three or four sessions, with all of them being a couple of hours each. And for me, that’s a lightning-fast song. I’ll write binders full of song revisions. But for this one, it just felt right to keep it as close to the original as possible and not overthink things.
So at best, I feel like co-writes can create some of the world’s best works of art. At worst (and I’d argue many times), co-writes can feel premeditated and sterile like doctor’s appointments, and who likes going to see the doctor? But for all of my bad co-writes, I have to say that my good experiences have made all the negative ones worth it; I wouldn’t have some of my favorite songs if it weren’t for a few co-writes.
“The Earth Is Flat” presents a very interesting soundscape and draws in some musical flavors that don’t always tend to “live together” in songs, which makes it quite unique and compelling. How did you come to find the sound and vibe of this song? How would you describe it?
This is where Micah Tawlks comes in; he’s my good friend and producer. I’ve always viewed our collaboration as 50/50. I always bring in a finished song, and he always has a strong vision for production.
Micah also had some great chordal ideas this time around. Particularly towards the end of the song when that jazz piano comes in. Once those chords hit, the sadness transforms into this three-dimensional thing. Come that moment, the song isn’t just melancholic, but a tinge bittersweet.
We both agreed that the song would feel natural and best if the bones were recorded live. So myself, Micah (on bass), and Dan Burns (on drums), got together that first day and laid down the foundation. Everything on the top was overdubbed and just the icing on the cake. One understated thing that I thought was very interesting was Micah’s BGV approach. In this sort of sad-ballad arena, you usually always hear a male / female vocal. But he wanted us to keep our distance from that sort of thing and actually ended up adding another male vocal – his own. Again, understated, but I really think this was a cool call – maybe even a tip of the hat back to my midwestern roots. There’s something about that lower male BGV that feels DIY and gritty in a sense. I love it.
Where he really threw me off, though, was the tenor saxophone idea. Timelessness has always been one of my main objectives when it comes to both songs and recordings. The saxophone is just one of those instruments that either feels very trendy to me, or nostalgic. But he assured me that it would be cool, so I took his word and we moved forward. And it ended up turning out really cool. To me, it has this classic Paul Simon thing to it, but in some areas, it almost feels like it maybe even has one foot in this worldy, jazz territory.
In recording with Micah throughout the years, I think his philosophy has really started to rub off on me. I used to think that production value was mostly used to mask bad songwriting. But the more I write and record and navigate this crazy industry, and really the more that I just live, the more I’m starting to see the value in forward-thinking. And that’s really what’s exciting me most lately – whatever feels like it’s ahead of me as opposed to behind or around me.
How do you feel that your original hometown (Ft. Wayne, Indiana) and your current hometown (Nashville) have impacted the music you make? How did moving to Nashville change or solidify your musical direction?
I feel very blessed to have come from the Midwest in regards to my musical roots. There isn’t really too much to do there, you know? But in a really good way; you end up forming bands and writing songs. And between the repression you might be getting from your church, school, and parents, you’re just ready to scream — cue the heavy metal. But really though, this is where it all began for me — rock, hardcore, etc. And not so strangely enough, that rabbit hole ended up introducing me to a whole different world of angst throughout high school: your songwriters — Damien Rice, Elliott Smith, Jeff Buckley, etc.
All that to say, coming from the Midwest, I think everything I gravitate towards, everything I envision, usually touches that angst on some level. I find fossils of this stuff in my taste on a daily basis, now seven years into my time in Nashville. I’ll be getting in my car with someone and Nine Inch Nails will be queued up, or some Tim Burton-sounding ’80s Tom Waits. It’s safe to say I’ve gotten some weird looks! I’ll also say, I really hit the lottery being raised by older parents. While kids were listening to the latest hero on the pop charts, I was listening to Eric Clapton’s, Unplugged. My dad also played a lot of blues music — John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Fats Domino. Though strangely enough, I never liked country music. He would play Hank Williams Sr. and Willie Nelson, and I remember thinking to myself that hell would freeze over if I ever started liking that stuff. Now, here I am in Nashville; I’m a student of songwriting and a maker of country music.
Which is another great thing about Fort Wayne, it’s so close to Nashville. My brother Justin, who moved to Nashville some 15 years before I did, was working at an indie label in town at the time. And when I was in high school, it was really doable for my parents and me to drive down to Nashville and visit. And that’s what we did every month throughout my four years of high school. We’d come down to Nashville for a weekend, and I would meet with a songwriting mentor, co-write, meet new friends, etc. If we would have lived somewhere that required us to buy plane tickets every month, I’m not so sure that the Nashville trips would have been doable.
The Fort was also very supportive — especially throughout my time on American Idol. I had multiple churches throwing watch parties; one of them still happens to be a staple music venue in the Fort Wayne scene — C2G. They hosted an open mic there the first Monday of every month that was very welcoming to all sorts of things. Indiana felt communal. It was a great place to grow up.
Nashville was definitely a big change for me. I decided to make the move after high school, and I learned very quickly how seriously people take things down here. One of the biggest Nashville developments for me was a dedication to the craft. As many writers do here, I treat it like a job. Like Leonard Cohen famously put it, writers are fully employed. Throughout the four years that would have been my college degree, I wrote just about 400 songs. Many of those days I didn’t feel inspired. There were even times that I had to give myself a prompt and set a timer on my phone in order to get through the day. And I know people feel differently about creativity, and I also know that different things work for different people, so I’m not at all trying to say what I did was best or even the right way of doing things. But I will say that I’ve found inspiration to come through dedication and catharsis in going to work every morning. Really, I just think I’ve written songs, like this one right here, that I don’t think would have been possible without that dedication.
And really that’s the thing I admire most about Nashville. LA can be about the performance, the entertainment. New York is often about pushing boundaries. In Nashville, it’s all about the song. And as much as I love to poke fun at our overused “all about the song” slogan, at the end of the day I really think that’s what music is about – at least for me. When you strip away whatever smoke and mirrors might be at play, all you have left is a song – what is that song telling people? What is that song doing?
What’s next for Alexander Wren?
Well, right now I’m starting the process of recording my first full-length, which is something I’ve been fantasizing about forever. It only took a global pandemic for me to cut the bullshit and start doing what I actually want. Pre-COVID, I thought it would be years before I’d be mature and good enough to slay the Jabberwocky of a debut LP – what I made it out to be in my mind. But with this killer disease running rampant, it’s made me start to think, well… I’m not getting any younger.
Out of those 400 or so songs that I previously mentioned, I’ve taken what I consider to be the best and compiled them – I’ve been likening this record to a mosaic. Though the songs might not be orbiting around one central theme or idea, everything was written during this same Nashville/20-something season of life. So all of the songs definitely have a similar – maybe coming of age – undercurrent running through them. In the song selection process, I’ve definitely given preference to songs that have just seemed to stick with me over the years for whatever reason. Songs that have a bit of magic and just feel instinctively right.
Anyway, that’s really where I have my sights set right now. I started music in the first place to write, record, and release. Why not put all of the focus there? As I’m looking to the future, one other thing I would also like to see for myself personally is a better work habit. Again, COVID has taught me that life is too short. These past seven years in Nashville, I’d been trying to do everything else on top of the writing, recording, and releasing – social media, networking, etc. It was a lot of little stuff, and I was going crazy. I didn’t really have a life. It was like my limbs were all being pulled in different directions.
COVID-19 really forced me to take a look at my situation and ask some hard questions – why? Or, what is the meaning in all of this? After four and a half months trapped with my family in Florida for quarantine, I think I came up with somewhat of an answer: life’s too short to frenetically chase some success we’re told will make us whole. That’s what I was doing for so long – chasing success as opposed to chasing meaning. The way I see things now, social media is fleeting – there’ll always be a new flavor of the month. Or even something like streaming numbers as well – that stuff doesn’t give a song, or a life, its inherent meaning. And when it comes to networking and trying to climb some social ladder, well, it just feels more and more like one big popularity contest to me.
Now I realize that, for me, the songs and recordings themselves (and even shows – whenever that’s a thing again) are the things that hold the true potential to heal and speak to the innermost parts of us as humans.
So to condense all of that, I think what’s next simply looks like writing the best songs and recording shows the best records I can. Because again, at the end of the day, that’s why I love music, and that’s where I think the meaning truly lies. Yeah, as long as I’m doing those two things, I’m happy… and hopefully, others are happy as well!