There is an incredible amount of treasure to find in folk singer Alexa Woodward’s music—perfectly twang-y banjo, dusky stars, calming echoes, and secrets you’re lucky enough to be let in on. One of the most remarkable things about her music, though, is its sense of balance. This balance is made even more notable when you learn about Alexa and her story. She’s an artist who’s spent time in bustling New York City and the more relaxed South Carolina, who’s musical influences range from Andrew Bird to Nina Simone, who’s done million-hour-long open mic nights in dingy New York clubs and done a tour across the United States and Canada. Her new album, Might Nigh, is a magical blend of the beauty of the Appalachian region of southeastern America, and a personal reflection on a rapidly changing life. We talked with Alexa all about her music, her fun tour stories, and how she’s living a life of balance and happiness.
Tell us a bit more about your background. How did you first get into music? I have always loved music, though I don’t have any formal training. I picked up the guitar and the banjo in college while living in Boston and started playing open mics. From there I was invited to join a couple of shows and ended up performing shows regularly while living in New York City. After three years of living and playing in New York, I took off to pursue two years of full time touring in the US, Canada, and Europe.
Who (or what) are your biggest musical influences? Joanna Newsome and Mariee Sioux for lyrics; Andrew Bird for interesting layered arrangements; and Nina Simone for the important big picture stuff. I feel like music has such a mosaic effect on my creativity that it’s really difficult to pinpoint what comes from where. Just about everything I listen to and enjoy, from Motown to hip hop to indie folk, has found its way into my songwriting in one way or another.
I saw that you were raised in the south, but then moved up north to New York City. Do you feel like those parts of you come together in your music, or that one overtakes the other? Both of these regions have certainly affected my music. While I was in New York I was influenced a good bit by the anti-folk scene—a movement that produced a quirky variety of folk-influenced pop music, producing artists like Regina Spektor and others.
I remember my first few open mic experiences in the city involved showing up at the Side Walk Café in the East Village to sign up for open mics that started at 7pm and went until 2 or 3 in the morning with hundreds of performers. Those nights were so saturated with artists trying to do something memorable that they often became a showcase for anyone who could out-weird everyone else. It was there that I tried to understand my unique voice and carve out something authentic.
Touring and then coming back to South Carolina, where things are generally slower, and less saturated, I think my music has experienced a lot of space and I have enjoyed the ability to weave natural themes and experiences into the songs.
Your songs have such a sense of honesty and genuine exploration to them. How do you manage to stay true to yourself without being overwhelmed by all of the other music and art being created? I love the process of creating something that is deeply personal for me but is also accessible to a listener who knows nothing about my life; I think the best works of art allow the listener or viewer—the person experiencing the art—to filter the creative quality of the work into a framework of personal meaning. So I don’t pay much attention to what is being created around me as far as feeling like I need to keep pace with trends or do something new or marketable; I just let things come out as they come. Then I work the songs into recordings or arrangements that feel like an honest expression and if I’m ultimately happy with them, they make it onto albums and out into the world.
I noticed that nature is very present in a lot of your songs—from water, to mountains, to moths. Does something about nature in particular inspire you to create art? I do find nature to be deeply inspiring. There is an elegant simplicity in the natural world—an efficiency that is simultaneously indulgent and beautiful. I don’t think we humans have figured out how to emulate that uncanny ability of natural systems, to exist without producing waste, to find systemic balance. I admire that and find that it translates into principles and ways of being that are conducive to music.
What does the process of writing a song entail for you? I write in waves. I tend to have highly productive periods of creativity that span over a couple of weeks or a month where themes and ideas that have been percolating finally take on more robust forms. Often times the lyrics and melody develop at the same time, and some of my best songs were written in a single sitting, coming together in a few hours. Others require working and re-working over time.
Your music is so calming and thoughtful—is the process of creating your music as soothing as the result? The initial experience of writing a song could be described as a rewarding expression of something that feels like it needs to come out. While I enjoy the process of working with musicians and sound engineers to create a record, that part of the process requires a tedious attention to detail and a huge amount of work.
I saw on your blog that you just finished working on a new album —exciting! Can you give our readers an idea of what to expect? The new album is called Might Nigh, which is an Appalachian English phrase meaning “almost” or “very nearly.” The album has twelve songs, many of which are in one way or another tied thematically to the Appalachian region of the southeastern US; some through references to specific places (i.e. Table Rock State Park, the Blue Ridge Mountains, Highway 25). These songs, written between 2011 and 2013, cover an array of benchmarks in my life. Those two years were full of significant life events: getting married, losing my father-in-law to cancer, deciding to adjust my musical path and taking on a job at a university rather than touring full time, and most recently, being pregnant with our first child.
All of these events were significant moments of passage —moving into a new stage of life that feels a bit more balanced and perhaps more reflective of those qualities in nature that I mentioned appreciating—trying not to waste anything, and trying to live in a harmonious way that is both rich with an appreciation for life but also reflects a more steady and thoughtful way of being.
What’s been the most fulfilling part of your musical journey so far? Music has brought me into relationship with so many people and places, from traveling on a shoestring budget and sleeping on floors and couches to waking up in a mountainside inn in Switzerland wondering how I managed to be paid to do what I love. While touring full time ultimately became a pretty exhausting lifestyle for me, I managed to gather so many wild and memorable experiences along the way. I still find ways to cultivate those experiences—playing festivals and shorter tours that work with my university job, and continuing to discover so many deep and personal connections with others through music. I’ve also learned about the benefits of being exposed to new audiences through licensing songs through National Geographic, MTV, the Cartoon Network, and a number of other film and television placements—in general, music has made my world bigger and wilder, and I am grateful for that.
Do you have any advice for young women, struggling to balance their creative goals with “real world” demands? I used to struggle with this tension between following my heart or pursuing a more practical path—I really felt that I had to choose one or the other. Over the last year I spent eight months creating what I think is the best album I’ve produced so far while working a full time and incredibly rewarding job in economic development at Clemson University.
I have a law degree and three albums under my belt and I don’t say that to boast about accomplishments, but to say that you can be a diverse person with a variety of skills and interests without having to sacrifice any of the important qualities that make you feel fulfilled in life. Real world demands are a part of life. We have to learn how to live and survive in a challenging and changing economy and I think finding the balance in being practical and creative allows us to have more freedom in all aspects of life. There may be times in life that require you to take a leap into the unknown and completely pursue a creative path—but eventually I think the ultimate goal is one of balance. The sooner we come to a place in which creative goals and real world demands are less in tension, I think we are able to live with less restraint and worry. At least, I’ve found that to be true for me.