A master of distraction and a man of few words.
“I was a very paranoid child. I was terrified of the wind, every time the wind would blow I would run inside scared.” Suddenly, the previous half an hour spent chatting to the 25-year-old Alex Izenberg is beginning to make sense. “Every time a van went by as well I thought someone would get out and kidnap me so I ran inside to the house too,” he tells me from his new home in Chatsworth, Los Angeles, some 20 minutes from where the now reclusive singer grew up.
It makes perfect sense because Alex is somewhat withdrawn in conversation, a master of distraction and a man of few words. I can’t tell if he is reluctant to share, or if the lack of engagement is because I got him out of bed. When I introduce myself he coughs loudly and tells me he is just hanging out drinking coffee, and later when I ask if he’s still afraid of the wind he tells me very slowly, “I have my moments, even now.”
Alex, like his music, I discover, has an enigmatic quality that’s hard to pin down. His shape-shifting debut album, ‘Harlequin’, has arrived on Domino imprint Weird World and it’s an immersive, off kilter journey full of dead ends, blurred lines and wide-open space.
There is a captivating childhood naivety to its make up, despite the rather adult arrangements that move effortlessly from track to track. Alex’s playful vocal’s take us down avenues of hope but never stray too far away from a dark path and much like this bizarre telephone call, the road to nowhere lies softly on his sat nav.
Why is the album called ‘Harlequin’? An early icebreaker gets the silent treatment. “It’s a secret,” he finally replies after a sip from his mug. The stunning body of work is Alex’s debut album proper but it also marks a culmination of half a decade’s writing and recording under various pseudonyms. “No comment,” is his reply when I try and dig further.
There are moments of light of course, and once engaged Alex is charmingly eccentric. He really springs to life when we talk through the recording process. “I finished making it a year and a half ago so it’s nice that things are finally moving in a different direction. My album has a lot of arrangements on it due to working closely with Ari Balouzian who produced and arranged the record. He knows the twists and turns of all my songs and is very adept with classical music but ultimately he is a kindred spirit, musically speaking. We’ve known each other a while, you know. I started making records at his house.” Then Alex stops. Another long drawn out pause. “We met through a mutual friend and he started helping me make songs as my recording set up is pretty limited where I live and he likes collecting gear and microphones. We are constantly showing each other new music.”
Maybe the coffee kicked in or Alex got used to my voice as he’s in full flow now. He even asks me what my favourite track is and I answer ‘The Farm’, a sprawling album opener recalling Scott Walker at his most psychedelic or ‘Yellow House’ era Grizzly Bear. “Cool!” is his animated reply. I tell him I particularly enjoy the train sample that signals the end of the track and the beginning of the record’s exploration in sound.
“Yeah, well the producer of the album, Ari, works on films. He has a bunch of sounds that he has recorded in his computer. I asked him if we could use it and that was that.” All of a sudden silence, another sentence from Alex abruptly comes to a finish and we slide back into the quiet of the LA morning. “I don’t really remember the details to be honest, it was almost two years ago.”
In a rather neat twist, Alex’s complex phone manner seems to mirror the winding, complex nature of his work and I find myself admiring his defensive attitude when questioned on the recent media attention. “Someone called me jazzy last week, which I didn’t really understand. I am definitely not thinking about making certain kinds of music at all. It’s not something I think about when I sit down to write. Sometimes the songs come up a certain way and that’s just how the songs come up.”
Alex has also regularly been compared to throwback artists that toy with melody, like Simon & Garfunkel. “I really like them a lot,” he says. “There are certain songwriters like Richard Harris or Paul Simon who have in some cases the ability to compose a lyrical line that is so perfect, so distilled, so clean and pure, they can just write a couple of lines and make you expect something and then hit you with something else. Somehow it has a double meaning… I don’t know what I am saying.” He trails off but there was genuine passion in Alex’s words, then we catch a slight chuckle. For a 25-year-old, these are touchstones from another generation, so what did he listen to growing up? “I don’t know, I think it was just stuff I was exposed to, from friends and family.” You can almost hear him smiling.
Such a multifaceted album must be difficult to translate to stage, and performing all the intricacies of ‘Harlequin’, and the secrets that lie within, would, I imagine, be a daunting task. Maybe that’s the reason Alex has yet to play and even plan any shows in his most recent of incarnations. “No, there are no plans to tour at the moment,” he tells me. “We don’t have any plans yet. We don’t even have a live show.”
But is it an ambition of his to hit the road, one day?
“Seeing a band whose record you love live can be a great experience for you as a musician and a person,” he says, “but I didn’t really go to a lot of concerts when I was younger. I am 25 now and I still don’t go out to see a bunch of shows. It doesn’t mean I haven’t been to concerts, I just haven’t been much.”
OK so no immediate tour, even with his spiritual musical partner Ari?
“The live set up is going to be a little different and I think he is going to play select shows with us. To be honest though, we haven’t even got into it yet.”
We swiftly move on to pop culture. ‘Harlequin’ and its dreamlike, feverish atmosphere it manages to resonate long after it’s finished playing. Like your favourite film or book, it lingers. So despite it being a long time ago, I ask Alex if he remembers what he was reading or watching in the studio?
“I hate reading,” he says. “Honestly. I just think it’s so boring. I would much rather watch a movie or go on my phone. I liked Children of Men though.”
Cool, I say, not quite remembering the British lead in the film, Clive something. “Owen,” Alex perfunctory replies.
To be taken at face value, Alex’s short replies are often a delight. “It would be nice if people heard my music and just wanted to be a better version of themselves,” he gently explains when I inform him I found the album to be hopeful and at times almost romantic. We discuss melancholy and its use in music and move back to his childhood again. “I have always been musical,” he tells me. “My friend’s brother played guitar so I wanted to play the guitar like him, so my parents got me a guitar, you know.”
Alex wonders what his young self would have made of all this, releasing an album and having international press ringing him up at all times of day. He laughs. “Well I feel very lucky to have a label like Weird World behind me. Many of my friends don’t have any labels and they are super talented. I am really lucky as an artist to have this platform behind me giving me an extra push and having that support. I just hope people take something from my music.”
So we get ready to say our goodbyes and trade pleasantries on the weather. “Errr, well it’s hot, like the 80s,” Alex says, puzzled by my rather British send off. Without thinking I say the seasons are changing in London and the wind is picking up. “The wind,” he replies tentatively, “it still makes me a bit uneasy.”
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