Art Alexakis’s Sun Songs isn’t just the Everclear founder’s solo debut album. It’s also a candid look at the changing world in which the singer and his audience find themselves in. A few of the songs (“The Hot Water Test” and “California Blood”) relate to his 2016 multiple sclerosis diagnosis, while “House With a Pool” and “Orange” deal with the realities of those who sell their futures for material goods (the former) and California’s changing political landscape (the latter). “Arizona Star”, meanwhile, is a loving tribute to his youngest daughter while “White People Scare Me” needs little explanation beyond the title.
The album is both deeply funny and deeply moving. Though fans of Everclear will find that it doesn’t stray too far from the fold, it’s nevertheless a different kind of statement than what Alexakis has made with that band. Co-producing the album with friend Stuart Schenk (also a talented engineer), Alexakis worked on the record for about a year, ultimately delivering an album that is deeply personal and deeply comforting.
Alexakis recently spoke with PopMatters about the making of Sun Songs as well as his MS diagnosis. He warms quickly to the conversation, which he peppers with humor and a frankness that is sometimes disarming.
What inspired you to make a solo album?
I always know when I’m ready to write, I start coming up with melodies and writing ideas down. I wanted to make a record, but I didn’t want it to be an Everclear record. I didn’t want to make another full-on band record. The idea of going in with an acoustic guitar and recording everything with an engineer/producer, just the two of us was great. Some songs would demand more instrumentation. Some would be good without it. It was a totally different process. I didn’t chart everything out, graph everything out like I usually do.
I was going to put it out on a friend’s indie label, but I called Everclear’s label and said, “Hey, technically, I have to give you this record, but you’re not going to want to give me what this guy will.” The label said, “We’ll give you that much money. In fact, we’ll give you more. Take your time.”
“House With a Pool” interests me. People trying to achieve status but selling their futures along the way.
I’ve always had that fight the power mentality. Even with the success that I’ve had, I still have that. People want the house with the pool in California. But I’m also talking about what happened before the housing crash at the time of the Great Recession. People who were making $40-50,000 a year were getting $500,000 houses. That’s not sustainable. People couldn’t afford it. I’ve always held the middle class as what I want to achieve. I have a house with a pool now because I have MS and swimming is the only cardio I can do.
“Orange” is a great character study.
Were you drawn to songs like that, as a listener? I think about Lou Reed’s lyrics and how he could write a song about just about any type of person.
Absolutely. I loved Lou Reed. It always irritated me that he couldn’t really sing. But I loved his writing. When I went in to do this record, I realized that I’m a rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriter. I knew when I was making this record; it wasn’t going to sound like Iron & Wine. I had to come to grips with that. I thought about doing these real pastoral songs, but that’s not me. That would be me trying to be somebody else. But I tried to stretch myself.
I really had fun with “Orange”. You’re punk rock until you hit a certain age, and then some people let go of that and try to become other things. They were never that punk rock in the first place. It’s also poking fun at Orange County because Orange County was always very conservative, and now it’s not. It’s more conservative than a lot of places, but it’s gone blue on the maps. I love saying that over and over again because it drives my conservative friends in Orange County crazy. [Laughs.]
You wrote about your health on “The Hot Water Test”.
This disease isn’t going to kill me, but it could very well make it so that I want to kill myself. A lot of people who commit suicide or who have an assisted suicide are people who have progressed in MS. I do everything not to progress. I take my medications. I work out. I’ve gone on a plant-based diet. I’m doing everything in my power so that I can be around as long as I can be for my family. That’s become Job One: Be healthy, be happy, be grateful.
This has been a wonderful thing for me in a lot of ways. It broke my heart when I heard it for the first time, then called my wife. We just started bawling, both of us on the phone. By the time I got home, she had all our computers out and said, “We’ve got this. You can do this.” From that point on, I knew I was going to be OK because I knew that I wasn’t alone. There will be somebody there for you and often it’s not the people you think.
You had no trepidation about sharing your diagnosis with your fans? You just put it all out there?
It took me three years. I was diagnosed in 2016. I didn’t hide it from anybody, but I didn’t make it truly public until this spring. I was ready to write about it, and if I was going to write about it, I wanted to have some say in how it was dealt with. I didn’t expect the response I got. Almost 100,000 people have reached out. But it took me a couple of years to come to grips with it and start eating better, quit smoking cigars. I also had a double fusion in my spine, so I had back surgery. Now I find out I’ve got to get hip replacement surgery. I’m falling apart in my 50s! [Laughs.] I was never sick a day in my life. This is what you have to look forward to!
[Laughs.] Do you feel that music is helping with the process?
One of the strong symptoms that you get is fatigue. I have to rest in the afternoon for an hour. I’m learning how to maintain my health. I think work is healing. Keeping your brain and your body busy is healing. When I play shows, I don’t feel tired. I don’t feel pain. I don’t jump on speakers anymore. But it’s still rock ‘n’ roll.
How much does doing a solo tour free you up in terms of what you play night-to-night?
I still gotta play the Everclear hits. The audience wants to hear them. That’s cool. I don’t have a problem with my hits. I’m very grateful to them. They’re friends who have helped me through life.