Show of hands: at the age of eighteen, who among us was in a band or actively engaged in playing a musical instrument?
Alright, keep your hand raised if you were also writing songs.
Now, keep those hands up if you were adept with six instruments while also able to create delicate, complex orchestral arrangements; you were writing songs with sophistication and maturity normally reserved for professionals with years of experience; and you self-recorded and released three album-length collections of songs that year alone.
That lone hand in the air belongs to Alex Pester. Having just barely concluded his eighteenth year, he’s now got nearly two dozen albums, EPs and singles to his name on Bandcamp—the results of five years of restless creativity and experimentation.
His newest album, Devotion—eight superbly crafted songs exploring that eponymous topic—is a gem of subtle beauty that should appeal to fans of chamber pop heavyweights like The Divine Comedy or Patrick Wolf. One of the album’s tracks, “The Things I See”, is included in the April 2020 episode of Gray Days and Gold.
Originally from the quiet river town of Barnstaple, North Devon, UK, he’s now studying commercial music at Bath Spa University. He replied to my questions while in isolation with his girlfriend’s family during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Mark Griffin: Were you raised in a particularly musical home?
Alex Pester: I was raised in a very music conscious home. Music was always playing, but no one in the house was physically creating it. My dad encouraged me to take up guitar lessons at age thirteen, he did it with me at first but soon had to stop due to work. As soon as I started playing guitar I knew that I’d rather be playing my own songs than someone else’s. Since then I’ve been perfecting my craft and constantly changing and re-inventing my “sound”.
My first projects were rather haphazardly recorded onto GarageBand, with the same MacBook I use now. I recorded my first collection of songs at age fourteen with Please Kill The Messenger, that was a scratchy sounding thing that was as much folk as noise. In that year I recorded another ten collections of songs. I’m hesitant to call them albums as that would suggest some sort of thought or through line. Eventually I began teaching myself other instruments—bass guitar, mandolin, ukulele, piano, drums—in order to play my ever expanding arrangements.
That’s a remarkable inner drive toward pursuit of a musical vision for someone so young. Are you pursuing sounds in your head, or do you sense yourself still absorbing and interpolating ideas from artists and composers you admire?
I think it’s this sense of getting to something that feels right. I’d never want to be one of those artists that sticks within their comfort zone and perfects one facet of their musical interests. I’ve always been drawn to the great musical eccentrics who do away with genre in pursuit of their vision.
The Incredible String Band have been a huge influence on me, in particular their album The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. It’s so singular, there’s nothing that sounds like it in my opinion. This idea of organised mess is something very appealing to me, and boy is that a messy record. Along similar lines, Paul McCartney’s self-titled debut is my template as far as home recording goes.
I’m glad you made that comparison. Despite its relative sophistication, Devotion still has the slightly rough around the edges, come-on-gang-let’s-put-on-a-show quality of that McCartney record, which is an essential part of its charm in my opinion. What are some of your other favorites?
I love Animal Collective and The Microphones for their scrapbook approach to sound making. I think of it as someone collecting leaves and things and sticking them in a book. I never intend to sound directly like anybody, but I do steal a lot of things like a musical magpie. There’s also this big interest in electronics that I got from my Dad, and this idea of creating something organic with these cold machines, I like the juxtaposition.
If I had to choose a record as my favourite of all time, I think I’d have to cheat a bit and do a one-two punch of Forever Changes by Love and Rock Bottom by Robert Wyatt. Forever Changes was one of the first albums I remember wanting to learn on guitar, and I quickly realised how there were these odd chord choices that seemed to spring up out of the mix at closer inspection. I credit it as the album that gave me my love of chords. Rock Bottom is a murky and painful album, filled with drones and dark synthesisers—but also beauty. It certainly inspired [lead track on Devotion] “Devotion 1” with its cold bustling romanticism.
Why did you want to dedicate an entire album to the idea of devotion?
It was simply convenient to do so. Most of my better songs are around the topic of love while not necessarily being love songs. I think in my next project I’ll branch out to other areas, but I think the time felt right to do so on that album. I had just started my relationship with my girlfriend and I struggled to write about anything that wasn’t related to that somehow. I’ve always used my songs as a way of saying things I may have struggled to say straight-faced in real life; for example, those spoken vocals on “Devotion 1” were a funny thing to record as it all felt a bit self serious. It worked out though, I think.
You’re obviously prolific on your own, both in terms of output volume and the range of sounds you’re able to generate. Why did you choose to bring in the collaborators who appear on Devotion, and how did you find working with other musicians?
It was like being a kid in a candy store finding people who play brass, strings and woodwinds. I had moved from a small town to a relatively large city, so I just wasn’t able to have access to people who could play those instruments before. I’m reasonably skilled at most of the instruments I play, but it’s guitar and rhythm that are my strong points.
I’d say I enjoy working with people as long as it’s controlled. I like to just work with one person at a time and build a track up piece by piece, it’s very much bits and bobs. A lot of these songs were cobbled together more than finely assembled. I’m a perfectionist on my own terms, but don’t put that much pressure on others. I was very lucky to be working with such patient musicians, I must say.
I imagine you must have a lot of musical and lyrical ideas hanging around. How do you organize them while deciding which ones deserve immediate attention and which ones might still be gestating for use at a later date?
AP: There’s not much organisation that takes place, mostly just recording whatever I feel compelled to record, and then deciding if the end product fits with what else I’ve been making. I have a very good memory for my chords and melodies, and sometimes I get little snippets of old things that just happen to fit right with what I’m currently doing. The last song [on Devotion] “She’s The Light”, I’d had lying around for about two years before recording the version you hear on the album.
What are you working on now?
I’ve finished recording an EP that is very much in-line with my Devotion material lyrically, but with more detailed arrangements, more prominent drums and a lighter and happier mood. This EP features heavy collaboration from my girlfriend’s family; her mother plays the cello and her father plays bass. I’m also working on something totally different, which is more in the vein of psychedelic experimentation, where I’m cutting up sounds and rearranging them to create a new genre/approach to song structure.
I once read a book of interviews with musicians about the creative process. Nearly all stated that composition/songwriting is a lot of hard, conscious effort but that, extremely rarely, there might be a moment when the tune, lyrics, or both come tumbling out effortlessly. In those moments, the person feels more like a conduit than an active creator, trying simply capture the essence of what’s flowing through them from some other plane of existence or consciousness. Since you’ve been composing intensively for at least the past five years, I’m curious as to whether you’ve yet experienced that phenomenon.
I have experienced this many times. “Devotion 1” felt very much like that. I had spent some time crafting a chord progression but didn’t have much past that. I put down a track and got into an almost trance and it ended up going on for 9 minutes. I later listened back and found that I had subconsciously written new sections without really being aware of it. I incidentally used an edited version of this take for the final song. That acoustic guitar was done in one hit.
I experience a similar thing while making arrangements. I never really write arrangements, I sort of just create them in my head while interacting with one of my songs. My girlfriend has helped me to notate some of them, but the process remains quite mercurial. I often get imposter syndrome, as I feel as though I’d been gifted the idea or stolen it. It’s certainly a strange process.
I get the sense that you’ll be making music on your own terms and at your own pace, to satisfy your innate drive regardless of whether your work achieves commercial success. How would you define success in regards to your musical career?
I think if I’m able to attract a small but loyal fan-base and support myself financially through music, it would have been a great success. I don’t feel any need to make a lot of money from this, I never have historically from gigs or online sales. I love being in the position I’m currently in creatively, where I can make whatever I want for a small but brilliant group of people.
I can see myself writing songs for films one day to supplement my artistic income, but I don’t feel as if 9-5s are below me; quite the contrary. I quite like not having the stress of having to rely solely on my music for income. I love doing what I do, and most of all I’m thankful for the people like you who help others to find new things. Without people like you I may not have had the inspiration to start making the music I make. On that note, I’d like to thank Jamie Redmond for teaching me that music can be fun to make.