By Amanda Nordqvist
On the 2nd of November, Bristol-based musician Josh Alexander released his debut full-length album, Hiraeth – an imaginative delve into a world of carefully weighed organic piano, analogue synthesizers and spacious ambience. With a track record of writing film scores and producing his own EP’s, Alexander ultimately decided to lock himself inside a house in Wales, with one goal – to compose an album. The project proved extremely fruitful as the musician ended up with a glorious collection of tracks, ranging from bubbly and dreamy, to sensible and thoughtful; a generous light in the dark winter slowly creeping up on us.
Let’s start from the beginning. How were you introduced to music?
I grew up in a house that always had music playing, where it would range from early 20th century classical music to Miles Davis to Brian Eno and a lot in between. There were thousands of records in the household for me to listen to – not so much a big deal now with Spotify etc, but it was pretty amazing back then to have that many records readily available. It’s had such a big impact on my own tastes, both in listening to and making music.
When did you start creating your own?
As soon as I could! I would lock myself in my bedroom for hours as a teenager, producing music on whatever instrument I could find – either a crappy casio keyboard, cheap xylophones or borrowed guitar. Anything I made would go online and I would share it as much as I could – it could be terrible music but I found that every time I shared anything it would open doors; either a conversation with other musicians or other new opportunities that would in turn lead on to something else.
Eventually, this lead me to creating various EPs under different monikers, as well as composing soundtracks for film... and now this album!
Did you ever study music?
I was classically trained in the clarinet at school, but then my musical interests veered in many different directions. I'm not a virtuoso in any particular instrument, but can just about scrape a melody out on a fair few.
What can you tell me about Hiraeth?
I decided to give myself a project and a deadline, in which I would write and record some music in a week while I stayed in an old barn in the middle of Wales. It was freezing cold and raining a lot of the time, so it was the perfect reason to stay inside and make music! I had half a track written before I arrived, but I ended up writing a lot more than I thought I would and managed to put together the best part of an album while I was there.
Getting in touch with Moderna Records was a real shot in the dark. I'd never spoken to them before but thought I would try my luck, so it was amazing to find an email back from them the following morning saying they wanted to release the album. It's been great working with them too – they bring a keen eye for detail and a lot of passion, which I think has had a big positive impact on the album and how I work.
Could you describe your creating process for me?
It typically starts with an idea that usually comes to me while I'm walking or when I should be thinking about something else. This idea usually gets fleshed out on the piano, and then maybe I try playing these ideas out on my synths or any other instruments if I feel like it could work. I try to keep things flexible or experimental when creating, which means a lot of what I make is from 'happy accidents' that occur when I'm just playing around.
For Hiraeth I wanted to create a very intimate sound on the piano, so I placed layers of thick felt in between the hammers and strings. This allowed me to put the microphones really close to the piano, which then picks up all the nice sounds from the piano keys and other mechanical parts. I would spend a lot of time trying to pair the recorded piano with the right synth sound – I wanted to make sure the two elements complimented each other and no juxtaposition.
When Moderna were involved they helped arrange for it to be mastered by Taylor Deupree at 12k, who did a fantastic job and really brought the record to life.
What is your biggest inspiration when composing?
With Hiraeth I wanted the album to convey the moods and feelings associated with where it was recorded – primarily the welsh countryside. You could step outside during the last light of day and see the starling murmurations, and then an hour later it would be pitch black and suddenly everything sounds a lot louder and more intense. There’s a real range of moods with the place, and I wanted to try and get that across. I approached it as a soundtrack for a building.
How does it feel to be releasing your debut album? What were your thoughts and expectations throughout the whole process?
I'm really excited to be able to share it with everyone. Over the last few months the album has changed from being a personal project to something quite different, so my expectations for it haven’t really caught up! I'm just looking forward to getting it out there.
The promotional/social media part of the album release is something that I've been quite unfamiliar with before, so that’s been a learning process for me... but thankfully the guys at Moderna have been very patient with me, haha!
Is there a particular time in your history of composing that stands out to you the most?
Composing the music for the film Pixelschatten was a big highlight for me because of how it pushed me to collaborate with everyone on the project. Making music is usually a solitary activity for me, so it was really rewarding to challenge myself in that aspect. I would have long conversations with the director about specific moods and themes, which I would then try to boil down and compose bits of music to take to the other musicians on the project. There were five of us recording the music and we would swap a lot of ideas throughout the whole process – it was great fun!