The name Alex Wong may not necessarily be one that’s immediately recognizable, but just take a look at his already impressive resumé and it quickly becomes apparent that this is an artist who has made a tremendous impact on the indie music scene in his varied career. Moving between the roles of singer-songwriter, producer, engineer, band member and all-around mentor, Wong has run the gamut and done so with aplomb and dexterity. His projects carry a subtle signature that is engaging, modern-with-heart and wholly engaging, and his approachable skill pushes his collaborators to explore new territories and ways of expression, which ultimately benefits the project and creates sounds and spaces that reveal new strengths.
His most recent project is dubbed A City On A Lake, but is essentially the fruition of a long journey to solo work. It may carry a stylized name, but this is the solo album that Wong has struggled to make, and the outcome transforms those trials into triumphs. It’s a cohesive vignette that examines the intersection of urban life with personal growth and troubles, covering the territories of love and loss, but overall it’s a cogent and thoughtful reflection on the human condition.
Glide Magazine recently spoke with Alex Wong about his new album, the path he’s taken from toddler to adult, his time with Vienna Teng, what excites him about being a producer for acts like Delta Rae, Melissa Ferrick and Ari Hest, and above all what it’s like to make a name for yourself in a business that celebrates innovation and individuality but doesn’t exactly make it the easiest to navigate the many, many pitfalls of a life as an artist.
Tell me about your musical history, all the way back to when you were a child. What compelled you to make music?
I started playing piano when I was five, and was taught by my mother. I never thought too much about doing it– it’s just always been something that I did. Also, I have seen photo evidence of me banging on a toy drum at age three that my grandmother gave me, with a huge demonic smile on my face– I guess that should tell you something! I started playing drums for real at age eight, after careful lobbying with my parents. They agreed to let me have a snare drum, but only if I continued my piano lessons. Eventually, they saw where my interest lay and let me continue with drums.
I got into classical music in high school, and that was my first major influence. I was completely smitten with the orchestra and playing repertoire as a percussionist. In fact, Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung was the first music to make me cry.
During college I took a fairly abrupt left turn, after worrying that I was going to end up in an orchestra for the rest of my life, so I joined a rock band and moved to LA. The band was signed to Epic Records for a few years, and we toured and released an album together. The band broke up soon after, but because of this experience I’d found a new love for pop music. I loved the structure, the freedom and digestibility of the form. I wasn’t writing yet when i was in my mid-twenties– that didn’t come until much later on. I guess I didn’t have much to say before then, and coming from an instrumentalist background singing was always the most difficult thing for me, mostly because of self-confidence reasons. But, I discovered that I loved songwriting and equally so the producing aspect (which I strongly feel is part of the writing process) and eventually started singing my own material and found a way to do it that was comfortable for me.
I first became familiar with your work during your time collaborating with Vienna Teng. How did that relationship start?
We actually met at an open mic in Mountain View, CA. We were both fans of each other’s songs and struck up a friendship immediately, but it was a few years until we would collaborate together. My band, The Animators, toured with her a few times, actually. I started touring with her band in 2007 and we produced a record (Inland Territory) together in 2008. Then, we started doing a lot of duo shows, which was really fun and musically challenging. I’ve learned a lot from her as a musician. She is an amazing talent.
What was your favorite thing about working with Vienna, both live and on the Inland Territory record?
I was always impressed (and jealous) with her ability to consistently nail performances with little or no practice/warm up. Her voice always sounds in top shape no matter what, which is not the case with me by any means! On the record, I really liked her openness to new ideas and desire to push her music and comfort zones as far as she could, even though her fans would have been very happy with more of the same.
What caused you and Vienna to part ways?
She went to grad school and was taking a break from being a full-time musician, so we just weren’t going to be touring nearly as much. For me, I had hit a point where it was "now or never" with my solo project, and I felt I was hiding within other projects instead of stepping up and doing it. I needed to make a leap of faith to carve out the time to actually complete it. Even so, I will always have immense respect for her as a musician and person and hope we can work together again in the future.
You mention meeting Vienna in Mountain View, which is just south of San Francisco– an area that I know is really special to you. You’ve also gotten really involved with the scene there, especially through KC Turner, who has really made the house concert a viable and popular option for music fans in the Bay Area. How’d you get involved with him?
I first met KC Turner through my last band, The Paper Raincoat. We performed at one of his house concert series. He is one of the most energetic, hard-working promoters I’ve met and he seems determined to revolutionize the SF music scene. I always love doing shows with him because he puts 150% into them and cares as much as the artist about making the show a success. Now that I live in California, I hope to become a regular in the SF music scene. I’ve always admired my musician friends there. They are super talented and always seem to be exploring and creating unique projects and bands, more motivated on challenging themselves and their audience rather than becoming the next Katy Perry.
You’re also fairly well known for being a record producer. You’ve worked with some great artists already, like Delta Rae, Ari Hest, Melissa Ferrick, etc. How long have you been interested in being in the producer seat? What makes that role so engaging for you?
I’ve been interested in producing for as long as I have been interested in writing. I love the process of listening to a song and finding out what kind of world it wants created around it. I feel that every choice in production, from the sound of the snare to the guitar or string lines, needs to communicate the intent and lyrical concept of the song somehow. I get very new age-y when it comes to producer concepts, and I like to start records with a long list of adjectives from the artist that describe in any way at all some quality that they’d like to see come through on the record. A lot of these words have nothing to do with actual music, but somehow our brains translate them into a musical analogy somewhere in the process, so it’s valuable to have that board visible in the studio at all times. When we’re not sure about a part we can always check with the board if it represents any of the concepts up there.
I love helping other artists manifest a vision they have for their music, or discover one they didn’t know was there. It’s a great feeling. I love collaboration and the energy it generates when it’s done successfully, so I look forward to that as a goal in each project. I’ve also just been really lucky to work with such inspiring people who teach me a lot each time I do a record. I love being able to learn about different kinds of music, the influences of the person you’re working with, about what inspires them, and how they learned to do what they do. I love problem solving, and I believe (for better or worse) that all musical problems have a solution, you just have to listen close enough.
Is there a new band you’d love to produce?
I’d love to work with Emily King and Jeff Taylor from NYC. They were making some of the most interesting and beautiful music I heard during my tenure out there. Emily’s record 7 is one of my favorite indies I’ve heard, and Jeff is a true original in every sense, as well as a hell of a player and singer, and it’s really rare to see someone so tuned in to their own sound and vibe these days that you really don’t reference other music when listening. Also, an LA based artist named Gaby Moreno, amazing vocalist and guitar player and contains such a wealth of emotional range in her vocals, and can unleash them at will. Pretty intense! I’d also like to work with the Borromeo Quartet. They are an incredibly tight classical quartet from Boston that seem very interested in furthering the definition/possibilities of chamber music without losing the classical integrity.
Tell me about your new venture– A City on A Lake. As the band’s bio indicates, you’re the main force behind it.
I’ve been wanting (and needing, really) to do a solo project for a long time, and I just wasn’t really ready, mentally or musically, until now. I tried to do a solo record in 2007, but I wasn’t personally ready and had so much anxiety when I tried that I actually threw my back out!
Why did you choose to call it "A City on a Lake," when so much of the music deals with the urban landscape, and the energy that comes from being in a city? Also, why not just call it "Alex Wong," rather than a more stylized name?
The name is inspired by a story I was told of the history of Mexico City. When the Spaniards conquered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, they built their city right on top as a show of strength, but they were unaware that the Aztec city was built on a lake bed, and this haunted Mexico City life for the next few centuries. The city center is sinking, the earthquake damage– all activity on the surface of the urban environment feels the impact of what is underneath. I liked that idea a lot, that everything that happens on the surface of things always has roots in what is below.
A lot of the songs were inspired by the idea of above and below the surface, whether it was a metaphor for life/the afterlife, or before/after a relationship/event, or your words and your thoughts. Musically speaking. the name just seemed to fit the sounds I wanted to create more than my name (which I did try for a while, but it never felt right to me). I felt I didn’t want to give this project too much of a singer/songwriter vibe, which is the feeling I get when I see a person’s name on a bill. Looking ahead, the next record will be even less "song" based than this one, and I wanted a name that could encompass different types of sounds in the future.
How long have you been writing these songs? When did you know you were ready to make it into a full-fledged album?
I’d been working on this batch of songs for just under a year before I started recording them. There were other songs that I had started recording that didn’t make the album. This just felt like a good collection for the mood I wanted to showcase with this debut record for A City on A Lake. I may release the other songs at some point, or they may become songs for other projects, or Christmas presents for fans… you never know!
You’re so used to being on both sides of the studio glass– either as performer or producer. But with this record, you brought in engineer Eddie Jackson to work with you on vocals. Why didn’t you do it yourself? Was it an exercise in letting go?
I have self-produced before, but it’s not easy and everything takes about four times as long for me. It’s doable, and I’m definitely pretty happy with the results from most elements. But, I knew that vocals were going to be the toughest thing for me on this record. It is the instrument I am most insecure about as an artist and I really wanted to push myself in a way that I wouldn’t be able to do on my own– without tearing my hair out/giving up completely!
Eddie and I have a long-standing (12 records?) and synergistic relationship in the studio and I’m very comfortable with him as a musician and person. It was about having someone in the process from the inner circle more than anything else, and I trust his objectivity and his ear implicitly. This whole record was an exercise in letting go! And if you ask Eddie, I probably did "produce from the booth" to an annoying amount, but thankfully he is a patient dude and knew that I wouldn’t just be able to shut off my control freak side completely. (laughs)
Up-and-coming talent Ximena Sariñana sings with you on the record. How did that collaboration begin? What’s it like to sing with her?
We met on tour last spring, when i was playing with Elizabeth and the Catapult, and Ximena was touring solo. We were both opening for Sara Bareilles and traveling in a van together. We have worked and toured together a lot since then, mostly with me playing drums in her solo project. She has one of the most unique voices I’ve heard and her command of it and natural charisma on stage is truly inspiring. Watching her, it’s clear she was born to do what she does. She is also a very sophisticated ear and seasoned music fan as well, with an astounding musical memory. Even though she is a solo artist she is actually a great backup musician, and is very talented in blending and supporting someone else when that is her role.
What do you see as being the future for A City On A Lake? Will you continue to record under this name? Will you be touring? What can we expect to see from you?
I hope to continue to expand the definition of what this project is without losing the cinematic, "headphone" quality of the music. I’d like to make something longer form that doesn’t necessarily have to be confined to pop song structure. I’d like to do more collaborating with visual artists and other mediums. I will definitely continue to tour this project and make as much music as i can. I’d also like to continue working with inspiring people as a producer and writer and expand the type of records I put out. I’d love to do a hip hop/beat driven record. And lastly, I may or may not be working on a top secret cookbook idea…
For more information about Alex Wong/A City On A Lake, please visit his official website. Also, you can follow Alex on Twitter and Facebook. His tour for A City On A Lake starts September 8, 2012 in San Francisco, CA. More tour information here.