Ready to talk about your feelings? Alexander 23 is at your service. Taking stock whilst touring his debut album, Aftershock, the artist reflects on the price of writing from personal experience and moving past the label ‘bedroom pop’.
Speaking from a tour bus before hitting the Montreal leg of his shows, Alexander 23 tells me he slept terribly, but an upbeat demeanour hides any weariness at the relentless schedule. In fact, via Instagram, Alexander thanks his fans for the “energy and love” that has “brought him back to life” from pre-tour exhaustion — grateful for their ongoing support. He’s halfway through a string of dates across the US, Canada and Europe, playing to those of his 5 million monthly listeners lucky enough to get tickets.
The 27-year-old singer-songwriter-producer is preparing to perform a set of 17 tracks, including much of this year’s debut album, Aftershock. From buzzy debut single “Dirty AF1s” to the viral track “IDK You Yet”(over 400 million streams and counting), his sincere songwriting and tender vocals are striking a chord with a generation anxious to process their feelings.
‘I wonder if your therapist likes me’, ponders Alexander in the opening line of ‘Aftershock’’s introductory track, “Hate Me If It Helps”. Co-written by close friend and certified pop-superstar Olivia Rodrigo, much like his penning partner, Alexander situates himself in a vividly specific school of songwriting. His specificity manifests in the employment of blazingly particular personal details about his breakup — ‘I’m sorry I paid for your SSRI’s’ — as well as a multitude of heart-wrenching broader statements: ‘Apart we’re great, but together, we suck’.
The battle between specificity and vulnerability is something we discuss in detail. Agreeing that “it’s a difficult dance” to be both, Alexander believes that “in music nowadays, there’s a lot of people that want a mix of specificity and vulnerability.” Arguing that the two things are really different, despite his consistent use of specifics, it’s the vulnerable side the artist prefers. He explains: “I think you can be extremely vague in your specificity, and I combat that by writing about things that actually happened.” His music is perhaps vividly vulnerable then, setting candid lyrics against guitars, synths and drums — often played by Alexander himself.
Going solo in 2019, the ‘23’ moniker stemmed from his birthdate (23rd January), a love for Michael Jordan (jersey number 23), and experiencing a series of major life changes at 23. Basketball is a recurring motif, Alexander stating elsewhere: “I would really appreciate it if people would listen to my album enough to make me famous enough to play in the NBA All-Star Game…” With over 18 million streams on Spotify alone, it could be an achievable goal. His Instagram bio describes the artist as a ‘starting point guard’, arguably one of the most specialised roles on the court. Alexander’s musical specialism? A well-proven ability to articulate personal experiences, wrapped in catchy melodies and emotive lyricism.
It’s a specialism exercised in Aftershock, a project that has listeners missing the ex they never had. A confessional chronicling of the end of a relationship, bittersweet tracks like “The Hardest Part” and “RIP You and Me” encapsulate the feeling that, in Alexander’s words, “if the breakup was the emotional earthquake, the creation of this album was the emotional aftershock.” His latest single, “ill”, featuring Kenny Beats, also grapples with heartbreak — ‘I get physically ill / When I think about you getting physical with someone else’. Matters of love are very much the artist’s wheelhouse.
Born Alexander Glantz in Deerfield, Illinois, a solo international tour was something young Alex would never have dreamed of. “I’m from outside Chicago. People don’t do music professionally, that’s not really on the menu of careers,” he laughs. What was on the menu? After his hopes of being a professional basketball player “died in high school”, Alexander studied mechanical engineering, wanting to work on electric vehicles or something in space.
Joining a band while at college, he was inspired to learn bass, piano and drums as part of The Heydaze. Getting wrapped up in a college band might be relatable for some, but most people’s adolescent musical projects don’t reach 20 million streams on Spotify. Alexander tells me of the band: “We had the typical music industry experience of getting signed, having some initial excitement and a song on the radio stations,” but “ended in a crash and burn style.” In hindsight, he considers this his education for seriously pursuing music: “It gave me insight into how I wanted to go about it this time around.”
After the breakup of The Heydaze, and with an economic necessity to expand his skillset, Alexander learnt to write songs and produce music for other people. “I’d also just broken up with my girlfriend at the time, so I didn’t really have a place to live and was couchsurfing in New York,” he remembers. “It was a pretty rough time. I decided to learn how to produce and how to write, and took it all a lot more seriously. It worked and it didn’t. I think for me, the best way to learn how to ski has always been to fall down the mountain. I just fell down the mountain for a few months straight until I figured things out with my music.”
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Perhaps this early attitude was the key to his success, as well as the “artist’s perspective” he brings to songwriting and producing. Having worked on both sides of the recording studio, he says, makes him a good collaborator. “I know that when I’m making something for me, if it goes well, I’m going to have to sing this song for the rest of my life,” he explains, “so I bring that energy into the studio when I’m working with someone else.” Alexander can now cite writing credits for the likes of Rodrigo and Tate McRae, including co-producing Olivia’s Grammy-nominated and Brit Award-winning undeniable summer breakup anthem “Good 4 U”.
Despite his success as a team player, Alexander was ready for his Michael Jordan moment. Discussing life after his move to LA, one day he woke up and told himself the time was now, a pivotal moment bringing the realisation: “Time isn’t going backwards.” He explains: “I called my publisher at the time, and said ‘I’m sorry, but we have to cancel all the sessions, I need to make my own music’. Then I called my best friend, who ended up being my manager, and said ‘Dude,I’m going to write music for myself and I want to do it with you.’ And he was like, ‘Let’s do it’.”
Reflecting on his journey since this juncture and what he’s most proud of, Alexander admits: “I’m proud of the progression I’ve made. I feel like I’m getting more and more towards who I am as a person and what my tastes really are.” His music is also now heavily informed by the vibe of his live shows, with extensive touring meaning he’s had to think beyond the four walls of the studio. “After years of reconfiguring songs so they’d feel good live, I wanted to make songs that can just be played out,” he reflects. He’s excited to tour in Europe, especially a sold-out show in Amsterdam and one in Warsaw, Poland, where he’s never been but his grandma was born.
Alexander previously described his early songwriting as defined by ‘brutal truth and honesty’. I ask if he feels this extends to more recent releases, and he agrees: “I definitely do, but almost to a fault. Sometimes I wish I was better at writing from a narrator’s point of view. It’s difficult to do that for myself, but at least I know I can do that for other people.”
I’m intrigued whether this staunch commitment to honesty causes friction in Alexander’s personal life. He shares a story to answer my question. “I recently met with an ex-girlfriend. We got coffee and it was nice, because I’m a pretty big believer that you can’t be friends with your exes. It was the first time I’d been confronted in person about it. She asked me if I was done with songwriting about her, and I said ‘You know what, I can’t make any promises, but as for now, there are no new songs about you!’” Half laughing, he adds, “I wrote a song a couple years before which was very obviously about her, and she actually sent me a Venmo request to pay her royalties.”
The way Alexander translates painful experiences into song, it seems, is part of the magic. But he’s aware of the fine line he treads, admitting: “It’s a very selfish process. I went through some stuff, and this is how I know how to process it.”
The singer also hopes these new releases move away from the ‘bedroom pop’ label ascribed to him by some after an early DIY approach. “It’s convenient to put people into categories; it feels good in your brain,” he reasons. “I’m not mad at anyone who has written an article describing me as a bedroom pop artist. If that’s the conclusion that you came to after listening to my music, that’s fine. It’s just never how I thought about myself, and I think this album is proof that that’s true.”
With new music and plenty more shows on the cards, a break certainly isn’t. He’d rather maximise every minute than switch off, he’ll be “producing for other people on the back of the bus”, and is always making new stuff of his own — “whether it’s good or bad”. Whatever’s next for Alexander 23, it’s sure to be another slam dunk.