Q&A: Alex Winston on Writing At Home, Getting Too Drunk For A Show, and Dream Collaborations

Alex Winston
Photo by Nick Dorey

It's only natural to need a break from New York and its many wonderful distractions. Alex Winston took leave of the city when she began working on her debut album (and follow-up to her EP Sister Wife), decamping to her home state of Michigan (and her dad's basement) in order to give her music her full attention. Which makes sense in a way; her music is definitely inspired by Motown's brand of soul, although the way she blends those influences with indiepop quirkiness is definitely New York, as is her strong, sultry voice.

We recently spoke with her about writing the new record, how to wash away pre-show jitters (hint: alcohol), and her wish to sing with a funk legend.

You're writing the new record in Detroit, so I guess that's a good place to start. Why Detroit instead of New York? Did you need a break from New York, or is home a better place to write?

It's a mixture of both, I think. I've been traveling nonstop, and whenever I'm in New York I feel like it's easy to get loaded up with a bunch of stupid shit I don't want to do and it ends up taking away from writing time. I figured, you know, let's go back home where I started doing all of this in the first place. I'm literally in my dad's basement right now. That's where I started writing all my songs, and I just wanted to see what would happen. It's going well. I wish I could stay for another two weeks, but unfortunately I can't.

When can we expect the record?

I believe October, if my manager puts his foot up my ass. *laughs* I'm halfway done, and the next month and a half is going to be solely for trying to record some of these ideas. Hopefully, I want to finish it up in June for a September/October release.

Tuesday is your last show in New York for a while, right?

Right. I'm sad. I mean, I love playing in New York. I feel like I don't get to do it nearly as much as I want to. I've never played Mercury Lounge, and I think it'll be a fun time.

At the Delancey show during CMJ, you seemed to be having a great time on stage.

Yeah, that one was really fun. That was better than the Public Assembly show we played the night before. I got too drunk. I think it was first-show nerves, you know? I've played a bunch before that in my life, but it had been two years since I'd been on stage, and a lot more people were there than I expected. I put back, maybe, 100 beers. My boyfriend went up to me after and was like "you a little drunk up there? Maybe?" Just a little bit.

How did you first hook up with your producers, the Knocks? What makes them different from any other group of producers that has approached you?

I spent a lot of time trying to find people that I wanted to work with here, in Detroit. I only moved to New York a year ago. I was having a really hard time with the kind of music that I make, trying to find someone that understood it and wanted to be a part of it. I love Detroit, I love the Detroit music scene, but I don't think it's...there aren't that many girl, quirky, indie-pop things coming out of Detroit. Moreso now than maybe a year ago, I'm starting to see cool bands but I would meet with these producers and they'd want to write for me and I wasn't interested in that. They would listen to my songs and say they liked them and try to somehow turn them into something else. I was really fed up and down on that.

One of my friends who I grew up with here, he kept trying to get me to go to New York because all of my friends moved after high school and I was the only one still here in Detroit. He said to just go for a week, and he'd introduce me to everyone he could think of. I was skeptical, but within the first threw days, I met Ben and J-Patt (The Knocks). We clicked instantly. What I liked about them was that I played them GarageBand demos of songs that I'd been writing and they liked just those. They weren't trying to change what I was, and what my core was. They just tried to make it better. They wanted to add little things that would help bring the songs to a different level, but it wasn't changing the direction I wanted to go in. They are my producers and they're incredible, but I like about them is that it's totally equal when we're recording. We talk everything out. I'm used to older guys telling me what to do and how I should sound, and they're not like that. Even playing field.

One of the things that seems to be important to you is making sure it's your work that you're putting out there. When you write, do you write alone or do you try and collaborate?

I do write alone. I'm trying to be more open about collaborating, actually. I think it can be really cool, but for the most part, I'll bring a song to them that's fully done, or 80% done, and they add input. It's little things that they tweak. Sometimes, I'll go in and say "I want to cowrite a song with you", so it really depends. I really like the outcomes of some of the co-writes, even when I thought I would hate it.

While we're on the collaboration theme, let me ask you this: if you could do a duet with anyone, dead or alive, who would you pick?

You know, who I'm trying to get, and I'm trying desperately to do this, is George Clinton. *laughs* I have a song that I think would be so fucking cool if he sang on it. That's a really farfetched dream. It's funny you mention that, because I was just bugging my manager about it. How can we get George Clinton on this record. How can this happen? And if I can't get George Clinton, Bootsy Collins! One of two, come on. I'm going to keep trying!

Keep pestering them! Eventually they'll tell you to eff off or they'll actually do it.

Even then, that would mean that George Clinton told me to fuck off. So, a good story.

Alex Winston performs tonight, Tuesday, April 5, at Mercury Lounge. She's on at 10 pm. Warm Ghost, Two Lights, and Dirty Gold open.

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