tommy alexander
Originally from Santa Barbara, Tommy Alexander spent his late teens making a name for himself as a highly-ranked collegiate athlete. But by his early twenties, he was disillusioned and growing restless with the sport. A life-long listener, Alexander had never written or played music until he got a guitar as a gift for his 21st birthday. Though he was a highly-ranked amateur at the time, Alexander quit the sport, dropped out of college, and threw himself (with an all-star support system) into writing and performing music full time.

Since then, he’s released three full-length LPs, two EPs, and founded an artist collective and record label. His latest, Old News, was produced by Mike Coykendall (M. Ward, Blitzen Trapper, She and Him, Bright Eyes) and features guest appearances by Robert Burger (Iron and Wine) and Jay Cobb Anderson (Fruition). Old News combines groovy beats with traditional folk influences, mixing modern sounds with meaningful messages.

He has two shows in the Bay Area this week, tonight at Bocci’s Cellar in Santa Cruz, and on Thursday the 22nd at Amnesia in SF. We had a chance to catch up with Alexander last week.

The Bay Bridged: Hey Tommy! It’s great to finally get you on the line!

Tommy Alexander: Yeah, thanks man, sorry about yesterday.

TBB: No worries, schedules change, I’m just happy we were able to make it work.

TA: For sure, man.

TBB: I heard a little bit about your story, and it was enough for me to say ‘Hey that’s something I’d like to read about,’ and my editors agreed! So I limited the depth of what I researched, because I want to hear it in your own words.

TA: Totally.

TBB: What I do know is this: You received a guitar for your birthday and that changed your life.

TA: Yeah, it was my 21st birthday and I had just quit playing baseball. It had been a little while since I was enjoying the sport, I was kind of just going through the motions and I thought, ‘You know, I gotta change this.’

TBB: Where did you play that year?

TA: That last year I played at Ventura College in Southern California. I kept seeing friends of mine and a lot of people around me playing music, and that seemed so fun and kinda lighthearted, I got a little jealous. I wanted to be able to just sit around a fire and jam, too.

TBB: Totally.

TA: I just wanted to be a part of stuff like that. I didn’t have any grand intentions, I didn’t have any plans. I just wanted to play.

TBB: Did music ever play any kind of role in your life before that? Were you going to shows?

TA: I did, I was going to shows, I’ve always loved music. I think I remember being younger, my dad asking me if I wanted a guitar and if I wanted to get into music, but I was always so busy, I was comfortable with my relationship with music being just a listening relationship. I never really had any drive. It’s kind of funny, there was always a guitar at my dad’s house. But you get so busy as a kid, and then when you do find any time at the end of the day you’re exhausted.

TBB: So you got this guitar for your birthday. Did you jump right into creating your own songs? How did you go about approaching this new instrument?

TA: It’s funny you ask that, the first song I think I learned was a Johnny Cash song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” and once I learned those three chords, I was like, ‘Sheesh! I want to start writing my own songs.’ So I took the chords and I wrote a song, and then I worked on a second song, which was the same chords but I just flipped the structure. I only knew I needed the three chords, so if one went E to A, the next would go A to E, so it’s kind of funny. Once I started learning songs I realized how simple they really are. Often the ones that I was most interested in were, at their core, simpler songs. The complicated nature of them was more in the melody or the lyrics, or the ability to share a unique story with a simple idea. I kind of gravitate towards that in general, still, which is to play something simple and tangible, but the melody is where I get creative. I really just love melody making.

TBB: Very cool!

TA: Yeah, so I’m kind of on the same tip of what I started doing, writing songs that aren’t too complicated but might have a folky, Americana nature but also that kind of stick with you for whatever reason. They’re more like a mantra for me. It’s very therapeutic, writing so many songs, sometimes. I have no intention of what it’s going to be, and then it comes out, and then I have something to work with. Like ‘Oh, OK, that could be about this,’ and then I figure them out.

TBB: Did you find yourself sticking to Johnny Cash or other musicians’ styles that you were into at the time, or would you say you found your own voice rather quickly?

TA: Right away it seemed like there was always an influence of that older music, but I think I found a way to make it my own right away, comparable to other artists who’ve come before me…I’ve never felt insecure about someone saying ‘That sounds EXACTLY like this,’ you know. It’s more like, ‘That kinda reminds me of a John Prine tune or Bright Eyes,’ but it wasn’t anything that I felt was too similar.

TBB: More like a happy coincidence over outright emulating?

TA: Yeah, totally. I think it’s a natural thing for people to want to compare, for reference. I do it myself. Even though it’s different you try to make a reference point, you compare new stuff to stuff you’ve heard and sort of compartmentalize it. Some artists get a little annoyed by it, but I think it makes sense.

TBB: Something I’ve been wondering since I first heard the story: What kind of guitar did you get? Is it the same guitar that you are still using?

TA: I still do use it, but it’s not the one I play. It’s a bit of a beater now, but it’s a Fender acoustic guitar, it’s covered in stickers from the last 10 years of travels, probably four layers. It’s a miracle that I still have it, I’ve been prone to lose and break things over the years (laughs). I don’t think there’s anything else that I’ve had for 10 years.

TBB:That’s a pretty crazy thought.

TA: Yeah, it really help me be a little more mindful of the things that I have. It’s hard to take care of instruments on the road.

TBB: What are you playing now?

TA: I have a Taylor that I’ve been playing mostly, and then I’m kind of in the market for some new instruments. I just made a new record. Old News came out a couple of months ago, but I actually finished recording a brand new album.

TBB: Oh wow, no way!

TA: Yeah, I’m pretty excited about it, there should be singles coming out soon. But I’m excited to start playing electric guitar, too. There are entire new realms to dive into, and it can be kind of scary because it’s a can of worms, but I’m trying to push out of my comfort zone and keep that drive alive. I just started toying with a little micro Korg synthesizer the other day. Sky’s the limit really, if you’re into something, you never know where it can take you. It’s exciting. This last record I just made, it’s pretty rock and roll, and I feel like that freed me up to write some more folky tunes in a way. It’s an ebb and flow, you never know what phase you’re going to go through so all you really can do is ride that wave out. It’s all about expressing yourself.

TBB: How did you get the idea in your head that you wanted to get these songs you were writing to record? Was it part of that wave, and you just fell into it, or were you sitting around the campfire and blowing your friends away?

TA: I think that when I first started playing and singing, I was around friends that were really supportive and were immediately like, ‘Dude, you’ve got something really special, go for it.’ My partner at the time was super encouraging, pushing me to do open mics and shows and make a little album, and it just kept snowballing into a wild ride from there. Once I put out my first little demo I couldn’t wait to put out the next one, refine it, and get better and do it again and again.

TBB: So it wasn’t because of external pressure, you wanted to keep taking those next steps forward?

TA: It was so much fun, it’s addicting. I think one day it would be cool to have a catalog of like 30 albums.

TBB: I’m looking forward to your shows coming up in the Bay, Bocci’s Cellar in Santa Cruz wasn’t on the schedule before, and I was bummed about having to miss the Amnesia performance in SF on the 22.

TA: Oh that’s awesome, I’ve never been to Bocci’s, but I used to live in Aptos, out in the redwoods. Most of my first songs were written out there. I had the guitar for a year, but once I got to Santa Cruz I was pumping songs out.

TBB: This place is super inspirational, for sure.

TA: It really is such a potent place.

TBB: Do you have a favorite part of the Bay Area?

TA: That’s tough. Oh man. Such an epic place in general. Lately I’ve been loving going to Oakland, I’ve got a bunch of friends between Oakland and Berkeley. But I just kind of get giddy about the whole place, it’s exciting, I’m not from a big city at all so just coming into the area. SF is so culturally diverse and alive and changing all of the time. Everyone there is resourceful and just trying to make it.

Tommy Alexander
Bocci’s Cellar
September 20, 2016
9pm, $10 (21+)

Tommy Alexander
Amnesia SF
September 22, 2016
9pm, $7 (21+)