While browsing Bandcamp in the spring of 2020, I was amazed to stumble across the vintage-sounding chamber folk music of Alex Pester, a young UK artist quietly, but at breakneck pace, self-producing albums of uncommon musical sophistication and grace while only barely having started university.
At that time his most recent record was the simultaneously bucolic and experimental Devotion, rich with adventurous arrangements featuring real orchestral instruments, and musically rooted closer to 1970 than to his own era. It was followed a couple of months later by its conceptual-bookend album Seasons. (If you’d like to know more about Alex’s earlier musical history, please see our interview from April 2020.)
He’s now celebrating the release ofLover’s Leap, his longest and most ambitious work to date, so we caught up to talk about the new album. (Advance tracks can also be heard in the recent August, September, and October episodes of Gray Days and Gold.)
Mark Griffin: Do you have, for lack of a better term, a ‘mission statement’ for this record—what your goals were and how you feel it’s an evolution from, or connected to, your previous work?
Alex Pester: My mission statement for Lover’s Leap was to create the music that’s in my mind in the purest sense. There was far less second guessing with regards to the songwriting and arrangements of the album’s songs than on previous projects. By jumping on ideas as soon as they came into my head I was able to make songs that reflect my natural musical intuition. I also found myself taking more risks in creating more ambitious arrangements and productions.
Thematically, Lover’s Leap bears a lot of consistencies with Seasons: finding pleasure in simple things and moving through anxiety with the help of the ones who love you most. Where the new record differs from the two that preceded it is in the self-referential nature of some of the compositions—I feel there was a conscious shift towards more intimate subject matters and environments. This album is deeply personal and feels like a more fully rounded portrait of myself than the snapshot songwriting of Seasons and Devotion. I think a lot of that has to do with the sessions for this album running over a year.
Sixteen months between albums is quite a change of pace for you. Were you working from the start toward something of much greater scope than you’d attempted before?
I just kept writing songs really, and purposely tried not to tie them all together immediately. A few tracks were almost ready for Seasons but I cut them and re-recorded them. It’s funny that they have this kind of unity now, because for the longest time it was really a big patchwork of styles. I think the strings and harmonium helped to tie it all together. I was treating it as my own individual ‘White Album’, just seeing what sticks. It’s quite a polished thing in its final form but it still feels as immediate as any of my other albums.
The protracted length of the sessions didn’t greatly change the rate at which I completed these recordings for the most part. I guess it’s only my new found sense of artistic restraint that’s kept this record shiny!
There are a number of new directions for you on this record, from a psychedelic rock jam amid the song-suite of “Love On Our Shoulders” to the extended narration of “It’s Only Tea.” When we last chatted, you expressed some awkwardness about performing even brief spoken passages on the song “Devotion 1”, and now in “It’s Only Tea” you’re narrating an entire story set to music.
I think I’ve got a greater sense of confidence in the spoken material on Lover’s Leap. I poured more of myself into those narratives and made an effort to take myself seriously. “Devotion 1” is very nebulous and cryptic, the delivery is quite detached and I think I felt a bit embarrassed to attempt something that revealing vocally at the time. My confidence in my voice and musical identity in general has actually skyrocketed as a result of the pandemic. I think there’s a greater sense of exploration and looseness in this new album. It feels less assembled than previous projects and more instinctual.
How did the pandemic help to increase your artistic confidence?
The pandemic has changed so much. I think I’ve just had to treat myself a bit kinder in order to get through it. I wouldn’t directly attribute anything positive to this awful period—only that I’ve had to mature a lot in this time, and that the isolation has forced me to measure my expectations of myself more proportionally. I definitely used to put more pressure on myself; my creativity used to be so do or die. When you have to face things larger than yourself, you have to find yourself first.
You’re now in your third year studying commercial music at Bath Spa University, focusing on not just artistic but career development. (The Berklee School might be an obvious US equivalent.) How have your studies there changed your expectations about the music industry?
I think I’ve had to manage my expectations with university. In first year I had it in my head that by going to university I’d just get a record deal, and it just doesn’t really work like that. I think my view of the music industry was antiquated. Bath Spa’s been great for friendships and feeling like I finally have a sense of place—I railed against the injustice of it all for too long and would rather focus my energy into areas that make me happy. I’ve never been one to compete for people’s attention, and when I’ve tried to it’s just made me miserable.
Your earlier albums were recorded primarily on your laptop. Has your time at school, including access to their studio, affected your approach to these songs?
It’s nice to be back on campus and have full use of its facilities—the drum parts on Seasons and most of Lover’s Leap are actually from a marathon drum session I recorded in my first year before the pandemic hit. This album is more of a collaboration; Joe Thomas plays a couple of tricky figures on “Love On Our Shoulders” and“Jackrabbit”, and Carys Lewin plays one of the harmoniums on the album. I had the pleasure of living in a very musical house-share last year among some of my dearest friends, and I think Lover’s Leap reflects the grab bag instrumentalist ethos of those heady times!
As with most of my albums Lover’s Leap was predominantly recorded on just one microphone in a number of living, breathing, groaning rooms. I like simplicity in terms of set up; the drums were all recorded using a five mic setup of two Oktava overhead mics, AKG kick, SM58 snare, and a crumpled ribbon mic placed in a cupboard! So in total there were only six mics used to record the entire album!
I played more piano and lead guitar on the album than I usually would—I think Todd Rundgren’s A Wizard, A True Star was mostly responsible for the musical shifts of gear and decorative production on the record. In total I wrote about 30–40 songs for the album and ended up recording 26. It was nice having choice for once; usually what you see is what you get with my albums due to the ridiculous release frequency. I think this whole process has made me generally more aware of how odd I am.
I’d like to know more about“Love On Our Shoulders”, since it’s obviously one of the more ambitious things you’ve attempted. First—and I say this as someone raised on pop who casts a wary eye at songs over five minutes long—kudos for creating a 14-minute track that never outstays its welcome. It might almost be considered a tone poem, an attempt to express something mercurial and multi-faceted through a variety of musical approaches. How did it come together?
Half the time spent on the album was on “Love On Our Shoulders”. It was the core of the album for the longest time. To call it a labour of love would be putting it gently; it took an age to assemble. The rest of the record was a comparative doddle.
Writing longer songs can certainly be tricky. I think my previous attempts were definitely more continuations on a theme that just happened to run longer.“Love On Our Shoulders” was, as you say, an effort to convey a feeling throughout an entire piece. Ironically I feel the theme of ‘devotion’ is more accurately felt in this piece than anything off of the eponymous album. I think that sense of continuity between compositions is what allowed this experiment to come off; it gave a meditation momentum. It’s the questions you ask yourself at night with your loved one by your side—love and commitment in the face of all of life’s anxieties. I think I’m proud of it because it feels necessary; in asking more of myself as a composer and confidant, I’ve made my music more universal.
I completely get what you’re saying about the dangers of straying from the pop idiom. I’m still of the belief that there hasn’t been a better song written than“Metal Guru” by T. Rex. I love immediacy, but I don’t quite have the spunk for it!
Earlier this year you were playing with a psych rock group called Those Vignettes, a very different type of music than your solo work. Do you find it refreshing to occasionally wander into someone else’s immediacy and let your hair down a bit?
I love performing with Those Vignettes; it’s very much a democracy, but at the same time it’s a welcome break from my personal music! It’s nice to just play as the guitarist and throw caution to the wind.
What about playing your own songs live—is it something you’d like to do, or are you content for them to exist in the world just as studio recordings?
For me it really is all about the recording. Sometimes I think I just write songs so that I have something to record. You really get into a rhythm when you work like that. I write most of my songs as I record them, I essentially plan nothing. So I guess I do treat the song writing process with great immediacy, but I fuss awfully over the arrangements and productions.
I’m making more of an effort to play live more often. I find it very nerve-wracking. It’s hard for me to disconnect the subject matter from the performance, which isn’t always a bad thing.
Is that to say that the songs are so deeply intertwined with the emotions at their core that you find it hard to perform them without being overwhelmed by those emotions?
Often times, yes. I also struggle with self confidence issues with regards to performance. I like doing a lot of takes.
I’d like to mention your drawing for the album’s cover, which is the sort of densely-packed and intricate illustration which if reproduced on a 12″ LP would invite a viewer to get lost in it for a long time while the music plays. It’s another obvious labor of love that you’ve expended such effort on something which, sadly, most people might only ever view at thumbnail size.
I’d love for Lover’s Leap to have a vinyl run, but that seems quite a ways off. The real life illustration is in fact 12″ x 12″. I started drawing it in December of 2020 and only finished it 2 months ago! I was inspired by the album cover of HMS Donovan. I love John Byrne’s painting style and thought about adapting some of those elements into my illustrative technique.
Last year you expressed that making a living from your music wasn’t necessarily a goal; you’d be happy to make your art on the side. In the meantime, it sounds like your time at Bath Spa has disabused any notions of pursuing a traditional record deal. What are your current feelings about what a career in, or outside of, music might look like for you?
I currently work at a brilliant record store, and I intend to stay there for as long as I can. I love Bath—I’ve come of age here. It’s really hard to speculate about the music industry. In all honesty I would love to have someone sort out distribution for me and get me on bills at festivals. I’m not sure how much I want it—I have to be very sure of the reasons behind my goals. However, I am certain that something will happen, if it’s not already happening…
You can find Alex Pester’s album Lover’s Leap on Bandcamp and other streaming services.