Born in Alleghany County, Virginia and raised in the small town of Clifton Forge, North Carolina-based singer-songwriter Alexa Rose started singing and playing piano at an early age. After leaving home to study music at Appalachian State University, she honed in her songwriting with a pair of independent releases before landing a deal with Fat Possum imprint Big Legal Mess Records that resulted in her 2019 debut, Medicine for Living. Earlier this month, she returned with her latest full-length effort, Headwaters, which was written during the early stages of the pandemic and juxtaposes the Americana influences of its predecessor with intimate indie folk stylings reminiscent of Phoebe Bridgers or Waxahatchee. Though melancholy and reserved on the surface, the album’s nine tracks are packed with raw emotion, Rose’s natural knack for storytelling imbued with vivid detail and elevated by sweeping, gorgeous instrumentation. The pace seems at once calm and reflective while suggesting the richness of a life fraught with uncertainty and always in motion; rather than swimming against the current, Rose goes to the source of the river in search of something transcendent.
We caught up with Alexa Rose for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her earliest musical memories, the inspirations behind Headwaters, and more.
A lot of the album revolves around growing up and your relationship to your hometown. In what ways did you reflect on your upbringing while making Headwaters?
I think that those subjects were surfacing because I was really thinking about the concept of a decade – it had been a decade since I graduated from high school and left home and all these big milestones were happening. You’re really forced to think about time when you’re you’re locked down at home, and re-evaluate how you’re spending your time and think about what you’ve been doing over the last however many years of your life. And so, I was just feeling really nostalgic. That’s what ‘Clearwater Park’ and ‘Wild Peppermint’ and a lot of parts of the other songs – there’s a lot of looking back on those times, but they were all about how those memories inform the present and the growth that comes out of everything that we experience. So I was writing about my childhood best friend and getting to her house and always remembering how to get there, and about my first love and mix CDs in high school and road trips when I was in my early 20s. Because I had nothing to do, I was just reflecting on those things and really trying to cultivate a story of how they play out now in my life, how it’s changed the course of the person I’ve become.
You were talking about that in the press bio, where you were describing that early memory of sitting under a streetlight and just talking with a friend. What do you remember about those conversations? Were you surprised by any of the memories that came up during that period of reflection?
I guess mostly I was reflecting on that feeling of freedom and carelessness that I think we all take for granted. And as we get older, we are able to go back into it and see it with different eyes. Especially in that moment, I just was thinking about the dead-end road that I grew up on. We lived in this little house at the end of it and we would go get cereal at night, just a pot full of cereal, and we would sit underneath the streetlight and we would eat just this huge pot, like 10 different kinds of cereal. [laughs] And I was just thinking about the carelessness of that, and how you get older and you have to work harder to cultivate that feeling of carelessness. But no, I don’t remember what we talked about. I just remember laughing a lot. Being goofballs, eating cereal at midnight.
Is music a way for you to cultivate that sense of carelessness and escape?
Yeah, absolutely. I think it always is, and I think it’s the main way that I find that feeling now in my current life because it’s a space where I can be anything and talk about anything. And it’s not just for me, it’s for other people too, and I can share that with whoever’s in the room with me. I feel like in a lot of ways, that’s what’s been able to keep me in that space for so many years, this music.
Do you mind sharing some early memories of you enjoying music?
I didn’t really grow up feeling like I had any kind of technical proficiency in music, in a lot of ways. That was a good thing, because I think it enabled me to be really creative and find my own way of making noises. And I remember when I was a kid, we always had music on. My mom would listen to Billie Holiday – one of the first things I remember is listening to Billie Holiday – or she would play Raising Sand, which was an album that Alison Krauss and Robert Plant released. I feel like I was hearing songs that would come back later, and I would learn that those songs were so rooted in Americana and traditional music. But you don’t really need this long list of great records – you really don’t need to have this Rolodex of influences, you just need to hear a couple things. And so I remember hearing those things and being really… I just loved to sing, and so I just was singing and I was really shy about it and uncomfortable with it. But it really was a gift to learn from a young age and from a young age have something that I really loved to do that I felt connected with, that I could carry into my life now and will always be doing, hopefully.
What made you more confident in your singing?
I don’t know exactly. I was sort of a theatrical kid and I really loved acting, and I think that acting presented a way for me to express those things without being myself. It was easier to get up on a stage and be someone else. And then gradually, I just sort of bridged that gap. I didn’t really perform out – sometimes I would play covers and I’d go play at a little winery near where I grew up, and I was still just figuring out who I wanted to be when I got up in front of people and it was uncomfortable for me. And now, I’ve just learned how to be myself in front of people, and I feel the best when I just get up and perform and I’m just being this dimension of the same person who I am all the time.
What was it that inspired you to start writing and making your own music?
It was really random. I just sat down at the piano one day and I started writing a song. I think I may have always written little songs when I was a kid, but nobody ever really showed me how to do it. And in that way, I always [laughs] – I just really like to reiterate, whenever I talk about this, how much I don’t know what I’m doing. And I really don’t believe there’s a correct or incorrect way to go about writing, and there’s a lot of different schools of thought with songwriting, but I have never really looked at it that way. Just because, I mean, everything I’ve ever written or done is just a total expression of how I feel in the moment. So I just sat down at the piano one day and I was just, like, tinkering, and a melody came to me. I’d love to sing, so I was singing melodies with whatever I was playing and then put words to it. And that’s still – I’ve tried to have a method about it, and just for me personally, it doesn’t work as well. So I’m still out here, not knowing what I’m doing. [laughs]
Making this record and looking back on that time in your life now, do you feel like you have a new perspective on you who were as a person?
I just would look back and think that I was learning, I was still figuring out who I am, and I’m still figuring out who I am. Life is just so full of change, and we think we get to a certain point and it’s like, “Oh, this is who I am now, I’ve reached it.” But really, it’s just so unpredictable, and we’re not actually in control of any of that. And so we just continue to adapt and change as long as we’re here.
I think at that point, if I were to look back on myself 10 years ago when I was really just starting to write songs, I would see myself trying to package it in a certain way and have this sense of identity that was like… I don’t know, it always came from a pure place, but I was less aware of that fact, and now that I’m aware of that fact, I find that there’s more ease in writing, and I’m not trying to think about who’s ever going to hear the song, or is it a good song, does this make sense to other people. It’s like, does it make sense to me? Do I connect with this? Because maybe there’s a line that’s more intelligent or you think sounds more cool or academic, but you just don’t connect to it, and what you really want to say is the simple line, that like, your heart is broken. And if you connect to that line, and when you sing it and play it you really feel it, that’s what the line should be.
It’s interesting that you mention identity, because I wanted to bring up this one line on the album: “I want to be the same person but I feel myself slipping away.” It has this directness that you’re talking about, but at the same time, I was thinking that it could either be about the person that you were back then, or it could relate to the need to retain a sense of identity more generally.
Yeah, absolutely. To me, it applies either way. I felt like in a literal sense, when I wrote that line, it was about this one specific scenario and somebody who I don’t keep up with as much anymore, but I also really felt it very presently in that moment. All of life is just trying to cobble together this identity – especially now, with everything being on the internet and with social media, constructing an identity has become really important to us, but we’re so multifaceted. You can’t really consolidate everything into this one identity that you’re going to have forever. You can have pieces, but… Yeah, so I feel that all the time. I feel that every day.
Was that sense of self something that you wanted to explore more with this album?
Yeah, I think so, because when I was writing this album I was really grappling with that whole concept. I was like, who am I now that I can’t tour and play shows, which is the thing I’ve been focused on for several years now? Who else am I aside from this one thing that I have really cemented is my identity? But there’s more to that, and I was definitely searching for those other pieces while I was writing the album.
What are the other pieces that you were thinking about?
In addition to just my experience, I was thinking about all the people who have informed my experience, and their journeys, their identities. And I was also thinking about my family and my grandparents and great grandparents, how different life was for them, and the juxtaposition of my own experience and what I’ve been able to do in the world based on my privilege. So I was writing about my great grandparents and the sense of place that I’ve always felt from their story, especially because I live in western North Carolina and there’s a lot of sense of place in the mountains and there’s a lot of history here, family history for folks who’ve been here several generations back. And really, the concept of staying in one place and really having an attachment to it that informs your identity, versus what’s more common now and what has definitely been my experience with just moving around a lot and not really feeling completely rooted in one place. And having this big open future of “Where will I end up?” instead of just really cherishing one place and knowing that you’re going to be there and thinking about how that’s a really, really special part of identity for people who have that experience. Which hasn’t been my experience so far, but I kind of would like it to be. It just doesn’t seem like that’s been in the cards for me yet.
Another line I wanted to ask you about is “You know it gets harder to hear myself over all this humanity,” because it sort of feels like it comes from that place of wanting to focus your energy on other people, which makes it harder to focus on yourself.
Yeah, absolutely. The whole song is about that place of calm, trying to remain in that, but also trying to not to remain in that for yourself but so that you can be of service to other people and you can be present. Not because you don’t want to know about them, but because you want to be able to comfort people or be a positive person in the world and not let any of that get to you, to where you just feel completely broken down. But it’s like, we do – I mean, how can you not, just if you’re paying attention? And I think that I am at my core just really kind of a softie, you know, I’m just a gentle person. And I feel like I’ve always been kind of quiet and I just want to make something gentle and share it with people, but the world is really loud. And it can be hard to be soft because in order to protect ourselves, we have to be hard sometimes. And it’s really important to remain in touch with that softness that’s underneath all of that stuff, that shell we have to build up to protect ourselves. So that line was me trying to fight for that, that quietness and that softness that I think is inside everybody, and we all just navigate it differently and have different sensitivities to it.
On the song ‘Haywood’, you sing about playing music as “some kind of religion.” What is it, do you think, that keeps you faithful?
The way it feels… The way it feels if I’m alone and I sit down and play a song, or, more importantly and closer to my heart, the way it feels in a room of people. The way that it can just jolt you out of whatever you need to be jolted out of. That song was kind of inspired by this guy who was playing fiddle on the corner when I was leaving this venue, and he just had his back to people and he was playing for his own enchantment, I guess. He was so in the moment with what he was doing, and I think that image encapsulates that without having to describe it any further. Because it’s just that feeling of being able to get totally lost in something where you feel seen and you feel safe and you feel like, you know, you’re being yourself. And that’s what keeps me in it. And it’s not just – it’s like, you can be yourself, and you can show other people how to be themselves; you can make other people feel seen. Because that feeling is contagious.