Alex Headley: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyor of: a melody and an anecdote

Alex Headley is notorious for being hard to get a hold of, so interviewing him could’ve been a task, but Wavelength’s Kevin Parnell figured out the best way was to tempt Alex with the promise of lasagna and pie. Little did Alex know that homemade lasagna takes three hours to make.

First off, probably no one’s gonna know who you are, so tell us a little bit about yourself.

That’s absolutely horrifying that no one’s gonna know who I am. That’s an intimidating situation to be in.

Well, two also unknown young girls are playing the kalimba and acoustic guitar before you.

That’s horrible because that’s exactly what I was expecting to do. It sounds like I’ll just be repeating them and I’ll have no originality whatsoever. I’ll have to put a whole new set together.

And after you are The Williamson Playboys, a more well-known musical comedy duo, so hopefully people from the comedy scene come out too.

I guess that’s good, except for the fact that it means they know what they think is good comedy, whereas the normal person probably has no idea, so it’ll be a highly critical audience. Oh god, what kind of situation is this?

What instrument do you play?

I’ll be playing maybe the Wurlitzer, maybe some different pianos. I haven’t decided if I should have anyone accompany me. The disaster of people accompanying me is that they always screw up. Also, I don’t play properly half the time. I think I’ll do it just myself.

There’ll be swirling colours behind you as a backdrop.

I’m gonna draw a lot of attention to that if things go sour. I’ve found that in the past, when performing, the type of music I play isn’t background music, so it’s not going to be just a pleasant experience for people.

Why is it not background music?

It’s really based in the lyrics, whether they’re more comical or serious. I really need to get people’s attention at the beginning with the lyrics, or they’re not gonna get into it.

What’s the style of the music?

It’s all over these days, but I’d say it’s a little bit folk or pop music. It’s definitely not adult-contemporary music, which one person described me as. If I’m adult-contemporary then most adults are disturbed because I don’t they should be listening to what I’m trying to contribute. One of my struggles right now is being all over the map with my songs. When I was younger the songs were way more comical with the obvious intention of making people laugh. I still have songs like that but I have songs now where the melody is pretty serious and the lyrics are just strange and not highly laughable. And the audience doesn’t really know how to react to that. It’s getting hard for even me to tell what is a serious song and what is comedic sometimes.

You haven’t performed in Toronto in a few years, but you have played on many stages including The Rivoli, Cameron House, Holy Joes, Clinton’s Tavern and more.

It’s been a couple of years, but I used to play a lot and have experienced some great crowds and some rebellious crowds who were not into what I was doing at all. I don’t know if you always want to give the people what they want, but you should definitely give them something that’s worth thinking about.

How do you find the crowds react when you play musical comedy in a non-comedy setting, like to an indie rock crowd?

This is a problem, because if I go and play my stuff at a comedy club like Yuk Yuks people there are also puzzled because they hear the songs and say yeah there are humourous aspects to it but it’s not full out comedy. I’m hoping the other types of crowds get into the melodies and music and then enjoy the funnier aspects too. I’ve been wondering why I even write songs like this, because I’m not an entirely ridiculous person out to get a laugh. I think it comes down to the fact that I’m an awkward individual and for me music is a means of expression, but I express myself in awkward ways. It’s hard to find a balance in a set list because I want to play the funnier songs and also the stranger not-so-funny songs but if you lead the audience down one path and then suddenly switch, it’s a lot to expect them to go along with you, especially when, two songs later, you switch back again.

What are some of the songs about?

In the early days a lot of them were very bizarre love songs. A new one is kind of about how I’m persecuted in society and I’m identifying myself with the persecution faced in the United States by black citizens in the 1960s, or Zionist Jews who feel persecuted for their religion, but in my case I feel persecuted because I don’t play video games and I can’t really fit in. I was always troubled as a child. I’d go to sleepovers and they’re playing Final Fantasy and I’d have no idea what was going on. I’d want to play a more standard game, like Jenga. You know, people join rights groups for a reason, like the women’s rights movement, and I know what it’s about because I’ve experienced that.

What were some of the twisted love songs?

A recent one came from a real life experience when I was at a party and I didn’t really know anyone and so I stepped outside for a bit and saw this guy in the darkness pouring his heart out. I walked a bit closer and it turned out he was having his conversation with a tree on the corner of the property. So I wrote a song from his perspective about how painful a situation it can be if your girlfriend is a tree. There’s another song about my own love affair with a sandwich, which is an affair that happens over and over again in my life.

You’ve also written a lot of songs about famous political figures: Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin.

“Even Hitler Had A Girlfriend” is a song that people tend to react differently too, but the whole point of that one is that it’s not about Hitler, it’s about an awkward man in society going through life alone and wondering why things are like that for him when even a guy like Hitler could have a full and loving relationship to the point that the girl would enter into a suicide pact for him. It might not have been the most beautiful relationship.

Why the other historical figures?

I’m trying to find a kind of path in life, like most people, and that’s gonna sound disturbing when you’re naming people like Hitler and Mussolini and Pinochet, but at one point in my life I thought I had to figure out how to make it in this world, so I’d flip on the Biography channel and I’d put my life up against the featured person’s life on the show, like what did they do by a certain age and what have I done by that same age? So I’m watching it and it starts off with the guy being born and that’s great; I was born, we’re on the same page. At the age of five the guy goes to elementary school – I did that at that age. And then at seven he joined the Mickey Mouse Club and all of a sudden I’m behind Justin Timberlake and there’s nothing I can do. On another night watching the show my life is matching up pretty good with the subject and then at the age of twelve the guy kills someone and I realize I’m watching the biography of Saddam Hussein.

And you also have a background education in history that seems to influence your songs?

I guess I’ve always been drawn to music as a way of understanding the world, and history has some great stories. So when it came down to studying Stalin or the Industrial Revolution or whatever, I didn’t want to actually study so I’d just remember key things and then write a song about it. I like my songs to tell stories but I like to use real events or people I know as the base for those stories. I guess I’m just mostly interested in people and the strange lives they lead.

By Kevin Parnell