Photo Curtesy of: AJTaylor Images
William Alexander is an Australian Folk singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, and harmonica.
Alexander grew up in New South Wales, in the bush near Dubbo. He then moved to Swan Hill with his family when he was 13 and focused on his song writing and had his performance debut when he was 14. He left school when he was 17, and moved to Melbourne on his own to pursue a career in music.
He now is based in Bendigo and performs there and in Melbourne regularly.
I first met William at a gig he was playing at in Some Velvet Morning in Clifton Hill, Melbourne. He was supporting his friend Jed Appleton that night, and when I saw him perform I was just blown away. I knew this musician had something really special about him. I was completely mesmerized by his singing technique and his tone. As a storytelling visual artist, I was instantly attracted to his ability to tell stories through song in such a convincing and incredible way. When he finished his set, he came and sat next to me and had a bite to eat and I just had to tell him how amazing I thought his performance was. As we only talked briefly that night, I became interested to know more about William and his music career, so I took it upon myself to interview him. Funnily enough, we ended up doing the interview in Some Velvet Morning before his performance that night.
Alexandra: How would you describe your music style?
William: I would say that it’s as simple as can be. I like to think it’s tasteful. I play an acoustic guitar, so sometimes I strum it and sometimes I pick it.
A: Which musicians influence you?
W: I grew up listening to Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Slim Dusty. Bob Dylan was definitely my benchmark that set me up on my own race. Everyone has a starting point and then you go backwards in time. It’s like a time machine, you start with one guy or woman and then you make your way back before them, so you start listening to all these people that influenced the artist you started with. So I then started listening to musicians that influenced Dylan when he first started. People like Dave Van Ronk who became one of my biggest influences, also people like Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Clancy Brothers, and Pete Seeger.
A: Why did you decide to latch on to Bob Dylan in particular?
W: There’s so many people that did latch on to him, and sometimes you can’t explain it, sometimes it doesn’t make sense and when you think about his conventional skill level, I don’t know why so many people would latch on to him. He just had this magical thing that just attracted so many people, and it’s obvious because people like myself, 50 or 60 years later latched on to him at a young age. I don’t see him as a spokesman and it’s not that I would follow him and be a martyr, it’s nothing like that. I just think he set a benchmark in his field that people try to live up to, and it’s an admirable thing to try to live up to because it was beyond what lots of people were doing. It’s not to say I agree with everything he was doing and I think that’s why it’s not important to try and be Bob Dylan. You should just take the things you love about someone and morph them into what you’re doing.
A: Why did you choose to create music in the Folk genre?
W: When I was an ignorant child I preferred acoustic guitars to electric guitars because they seemed more magical. I think there’s something obviously more magical about a bunch of strings that vibrate through a hollow piece of wood to create a sound, that is a bit more mystical and magical to me than a bunch of wires that use electronic frequencies. I suppose that is what made me first choose to go into the folk music scene. As I got older and I have a lot of history, I realized that playing traditional music and learning a lot of songs that were written along time ago can connect my love of music with my love of history, so I guess you could say I’m a little bit of a musical historian.
A: Have you always made music within this genre?
W: To a varying degree, when I was in high school I started a little band called ‘Wilis’ with some friends and it was lot more contemporary. It had a lot of various sounds and was just one of those things that didn’t fit any box, which was just everything apparently and I found this really frustrating. This led me to leaving the band and going on to do my own thing. But I think it always had it’s ties to what I wanted to do.
A: Describe your most recent self-titled album.
W: (Laughs) It has totally no sentimental value and I kind of forget about it sometimes. I really just wanted an album, I just left that band that I just spoke about and started doing solo stuff so I had nothing again. I started from the bottom, I had nothing and I wasn’t used to it. I was used to carrying two CDs around and selling them. So I got together with my producer and said that I wanted to do a full album and he said, “do you have any songs?” I said not recently, but I got my old songbook out and just got a bunch of songs that were written quite a bit prior to that. So they were all old songs of mine and I recorded them. I don’t really play any of them, but I like that other people could possibly like them and now own them for as long as they wish.
A: What are some of your achievements in music?
W: I think there has been a few times where people have explained how much my show has meant to them. I’ve made people cry, and I’ve made people laugh, I think those are my biggest achievements. I think people liking my performances are my most personal achievements. I also won the NOVO Young Artist Award in 2014. That was hosted in the town where my parents lived. I was playing some shows and some festivals that they put on and I ended up winning the award. Which was funny, I didn’t know I was nominated and I got an e-mail saying there was an award ceremony. I got dressed up and went to the ceremony in the Swan Hill Town Hall and I was one of the finalists, and then all of the sudden I won this award and I think the prize was that they would fund a course of my choice, however I never really chose to do a course as I never felt that I needed to do one.
A: I have noticed you choose to sing traditional songs that aren’t written by you more often than your original songs, why is that?
W: There are a couple of reasons. Anyone can write a song, it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. So what makes me any different? What makes me special? What makes my songs stand out? Probably nothing in the grand scheme of things, I’m not putting my songs down, I’m being realistic. So I think before I just jump out and establish myself as a songwriter, I just want to establish my skill and a reputation in doing what I do and for me that means paying my respects to the people that influenced me before I try pushing my own songs.
A: Why do you reckon it’s important to bring back traditional folk style music?
W: There was a time where there were a bunch of songs that the authors were really unknown mainly and everyone just knew the songs, they were songs that were universal and everyone owned them it was communal. I just think it’s important to part back to them. It might not have influenced people directly, but people who were influenced by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, these things influenced them, so I guess it’s paying homage to the past.
A: Where do you get your inspiration from to write your songs?
W: Straight up I have to hand it to early Dylan as later he got to a more abstract point where I reckon I wouldn’t venture to. However, you can’t help but acknowledge that he is in there somewhere. Also the traditional songs, they were simple, they didn’t need to be abstract or ‘showy’ but they just punch you with sadness, happiness, and fear in a way that is subtle and you don’t really realize you feel it until after you felt it.
A: When you write your songs do you feel anything and are you aware of it?
W: Sometimes, I think I like to be a bit cruel. There was one song a wrote that isn’t released yet, where I built this picture of a sad farmer and his life is kind of sad and then he meets this woman that he falls in love with and they get married. I jump it straight to this high and I’m thinking this is going to make people really happy and then all of the sudden in the last verse the wife dies, and the song ends with her dying and the man being right back where he started from. It’s just one of those things as a songwriter you can develop a temptation to be a little bit cruel.
A: When you began your career, what was your initial idea that wanted to do with it and what did you hope would come out of it?
W: I just wanted to be like Dylan (laughs). I dropped out of school when I was 17 and I went to Melbourne with my suitcase and guitar and I lived on couches because I wanted to do that. I never wanted fame or anything like that, which is great not to be disappointed. I just wanted to live on couches and have that daily grind of singing where I can and feeling excited to play anywhere that was the only idea setting out. I just wanted to be a Folk singer and to be known as a folk singer.
A: I think especially nowadays people are beginning to realize that fame isn’t all that great and it can wreck you and then you won’t be you anymore. Do you think that if that happened to you, you would change?
W: Probably, It just seems like a subtle evil and I think history tells us that it does change people and anyone that thinks that it won’t affect them is probably just naïve. So I guess a lot about not wanting it, is just out of fear. I don’t think I have the integrity to remain my own kind of person in that circumstance.
A: Have you played at many festivals? Which ones?
W: Not too many. Although a stand out one was Bendigo Blues & Roots Festival, which I played in November last year. That was amazing; I think it embodies everything that I find comfortable about festivals. It was huge, there were 150 or so artists playing, which makes you feel a little less special in some ways (laughs). It was just throughout town, there were no fenced off areas, it was communal. I was friends with a lot of the musicians playing and we were all just hanging out watching each other, having a drink, having a laugh and eating food, and I lived in Bendigo at the time so it was just like my backyard had turned into this music festival which was amazing.
A: When you were 17 you made the decision that you wanted to focus on your music career and develop it. Did you just stay at your friend’s places? Did you feel like you had to grow up or mature quickly?
W: Yeah it all happened naturally. So I lived with these people that I met at a party for a month in Carlton. You just meet more and more people, I was going out a lot and I was playing more shows and then the networks just started building so I was moving from place to place and meeting more and more people, so yeah it all progressed really naturally. I did feel like I had grow up quickly. But in the same way it was an easy way to start things out. When I moved out of home for the first time I didn’t have to worry about renting a place or paying bills. It was hard in a way but it excluded that hardship.
A: So you would like to keep creating your music, playing at gigs and recording. Do you also have a day job?
W: Yeah, I used to be an administrator for a musical tuition school, but now I have a job in retail. I work in a guitar shop, so I sell guitars, I fix guitars, and I talk about guitars. Which is great and I have a great group of guys I work with. It’s not the highest paying job, but it’s rewarding in many ways.
A: Are you making another album at the moment? If so is it going to be like your last?
W: Not as we speak. However, I have been talking to my producer about getting into the studio in the next month to do some demos and sort out what it’s going to look like. But yeah there’s another album in the works, I don’t think it will really be too much like the last one, as there probably won’t be as many of my songs on it, and I’m planning it to have a lot less instruments on it. It will be as simple as it can be, but it will be full of songs that I love, which is the main thing.