‘I always seek purpose in what I do’ | Alexandra Alden

Fresh from recording her debut album ‘Wild Honey’, singer, songwriter (and X-Factor Malta judge) ALEXANDRA ALDEN reflects on her early success as an artist… and the inevitable controversy that comes with it

As an artist you have been described as ‘alternative’ and ‘indie’... yet your musical formation (including a degree in Jazz) suggests a more traditional approach. How do you, yourself, define your own music?

My music is all self-written and was lately produced with three incredible musicians in Rotterdam – Hanyo Van Oosterom (multi-instrumentalist, producer, ambient artist), Ocki Klootwijk (bassist, sound engineer, producer) and Marien Okkerse (cellist) – for my debut full-length album ‘Wild Honey’. I suppose it takes inspiration from early jazz standards and 60s/70s’ folk music of musicians such as Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison.

I built all the songs centred around the finger-picking on the acoustic guitar, using a variety of tunings with my vocals sometimes floating above. I also took inspiration from west African guitar picking patterns and the drone approach in raga music. It’s a very minimalistic, dreamy kind of album. I was going through a period of mourning and longing for a safe place to land.

The music came easily and the words were incredibly vivid in my mind. The sight of the full moon was utterly inspiring in a song like ‘Candles’ and I was inspired by the chiaroscuro technique of Caravaggio’s paintings in ‘Muscle and Blood’.

‘Wild Honey & Thyme’ was a passionate ode to the Maltese countryside – quite a patriotic song, really. Perhaps if I’d sung it a bit more forcefully it could have been more anthemic but at that point in my music, I found subtlety so much more intriguing. I wanted people to feel the love I feel for nature and not necessarily shift the focus onto its destruction.

Can you outline the stages that led to an international record label deal? How easy/difficult was it to get to where you are today?

I threw myself all into the pursuit of writing songs to the best of my abilities from the beginning. I decided to go and study abroad because I wanted to go on an adventure and leave the comfort of my own home, while also learning about the history and evolution of contemporary music through the study of its foundations – that being jazz music. The Malta Arts Scholarships were incredibly generous in offering their support during my study at the conservatory too.

All I did was throw myself into making music and the rest has come down to… luck, I suppose? I always sought to try and make my presence felt online too, and play as many concerts as possible to improve my skills. I was always very shy and I needed to work on my stage presence. So I was always very, very persistent. I’ve always kept myself in the company of people whom I consider ridiculously talented, hoping it might rub off on me at some point too (haha!), and who have always been encouraging.

Were there any moments of self-doubt?

I do have moments where I seriously doubt all that I’m doing. It’s also a part of the artistic process, I believe. Self-doubt is instrumental in making sure that you are on the right path.

Sometimes I think a simpler life would be a lot easier. I hope one day that I can take a step back and have a garden with chickens, a vegetable and herb garden, luscious fruit trees and a kitchen to bake pies in and quietly write songs by the window onto the garden... or a house by the sea, where I can read novels all day.

I’ve got it all planned in my head, but I think it will be a few years before I settle down to my rocking-chair…

There was one night which changed everything, though – I was playing a solo concert at my school and I had written some new songs in a different tuning, so I was excited to finally present them onstage for the first time. It all went terribly wrong, though: halfway through my set, my tuner stopped working and I had to tune by ear for about 10 minutes – thus taking up the rest of my performance time. It was a disaster.

The reactions after were really sweet though – I think people must have felt a bit bad for me... One person came up to me and told me something along these lines: ‘Man, that was really good. If you ever want to play together sometime, let me know. I’m a cellist and I’d love to play with you’. Obviously I was completely taken aback.

Little did I know this would be the person who would put me in touch with two incredible Dutch producers who would then offer to help launch my international career with the recording of ‘Wild Honey’, signing me to ‘MARS Worldwide’ for distribution and ‘Earthbeat Bookings’ for bookings…

Do you see any contradiction between your own career as an original, independent artist, and your role as an X-Factor Malta judge: which is associated with more mainstream, commercial pop?

Association is one thing; reality is another. I seek fluidity in my work and I think that, in art, the boundaries that exist are only ones which you create yourself as an artist.

Making art is the very definition of freedom to me – you can do whatever you want, however you want. No one else has to like it either, but bonus points if others like it as well. At least, that is my personal philosophy.

However, making a living as an artist is another thing – of course you need to appeal to an audience. Remember that the market is completely saturated, and as an artist you need to stand out in some way. Otherwise, who is going to buy tickets to your concerts?

Being up on that podium as a judge was an extension of a belief that I have, that any kind of art can be accessible to a wider audience if it is given the right platform. The music industry and any big business can hinge its success on good marketing as well usually.

While my music may not be considered typically ‘mainstream’, it doesn’t mean that I am not knowledgeable in music or in the industry itself. Being an artist comes down to many different factors, and I was very happy to give me own perspective on things: because, after all, art is also subjective when you reach levels beyond the hobbyist, the amateur and the semi-professional.

All the judges on the panel came from different backgrounds and different genres of music, and that’s part of what made the show so exciting, too. Of course, we weren’t going to agree on everything, although, many times we actually did.

Similar to the way that I was taught by own mentors and tutors, the contestants in X-Factor were given access to information from all across the music industry and it is important to give any young artist the opportunity to learn from many different people in order to find what their true calling is in their art and music.

I also mentioned this during one of the live shows – that for me, the show is primarily about the contestants. I put a lot of personal work on hold to be able to attend to my contestants whenever they needed me.

You have received a lot of criticism in that role, partly for speaking English. Yet I have noticed that Ray Mercieca, who also speaks English, tends to get criticised less. Do you think that sexism/misogyny has something to do with this?

My audience has always been polarised. While I have been receiving significant support for my work, I could have never prepared myself for the criticism I was going to receive as well.

I do think that the criticism may have something to do with me being a young girl who the general Maltese public knew nothing about before becoming a judge on X-Factor. People were shocked that I seemingly came out of nowhere. People were even more shocked when I seemed to speak in my mother tongue, English; and I was never one to mince my words either when it came to giving criticism.

That’s exactly how I was taught, though – to cut straight to the point so that I can get to work on what needs to be worked on. Studying music intensely makes you more self-aware. The more you learn, the less you realise you know.

At least that’s how it is for me. Hand on heart, I respect the viewers and try to view each and every comment – the good and the bad – as they help me grow both as an artist and a human being.

On the subject of misogyny, you made a powerful statement by attaching references to murder victim Chantel Chetcuti on your dress. To what extent do you consider yourself an activist as well as an artist? Is it a driving force in your career?

Statistics show that women are more commonly on the receiving end of domestic violence often with brutal endings, including cases where women have been burnt alive, choked or thrown off cliffs.

Christine, Irena, Karen, Yvette, Margaret, Meryem, Silvana, Caroline, Eleanor, Maria, Antonia, Shannon, Lourdes, Marija Lourdes, Angele, Chantelle: I shouldn’t have to live at a time when this list grows – but I do. I wanted to take this moment to pay homage to all the potential that was robbed with every victim that we lost to domestic violence.

Art is a very immediate way to express oneself and communicate a message to others, sometimes without the use of words. In that sense, it is a very powerful tool which I believe can change people when it is given the right platform and attention. That is why I think it should be used responsibly, too.

As fashion designer and local couturier Luke Azzopardi put it, ‘I always seek purpose in the work that I do’: which is a sentiment I myself also work by – which is perhaps the reason why we connect together so well as artists and as people.

I seek purpose and truth in my work. I am highly affected by the world around me and it is indeed a driving force in my career. Music helps me make sense of the world around me and to help process my emotions, whatever they may be. The things I feel strongly about in my daily life are bound to come out in my art somehow. It’s a cathartic process.

At 25 you are still at an early stage in your career. How do you see yourself in 10, 20 years’ time?

Making more music. Maybe I’ll have that vegetable and herb garden, though… with some chickens running around (maybe kids? oh dear…) and I’ll bake mountains of pies, and invite all my loved ones round for a slice and a cup of tea.