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Alex Northrup on the Sincerity & Stylistic Detours of 'Popular Songs That Will Live Forever'

We caught up with the Rochester-based multi-instrumentalist Alex Northrup to discuss his 40-minute tour de force, what he's been up to during the pandemic and his plans for new music in 2021.

Photo by Sam Hirsh

Rochester-based multi-instrumentalist Alex Northrup went from releasing nerdy piano-pop to more delicate and intricate compositions in the mold of chamber pop, with rays of quintessential psychedelia and sunshine pop. If any of Northrup's previous work foreshadowed this transition on his latest solo album, Popular Songs That Will Live Forever, it was "Lose Myself," the winsome and immediately endearing cut from his 2017 debut album The Great Mundane. There’s a playful and wistful childlike yearning to Northrup’s latest effort that's truly vintage. Over his soothing tenor and heavenly harmonies, Northrup navigates a retro-leaning and piano-pounding rock style that he calls "electro-chamber pop," that’s filled with complexity, retrospection and obscurity.

"Belongings" is a minimalist ditty that doesn’t pretend to be anything but that. With its eerie orchestral swells and haunting vocal melody, it stands out high above the rest. "No Fixed Address/No Broken Heart" is bolstered by its ghostly and sweeping solo piano, serving as an interlude to the bold and lavish "Another World," which is Northrup at his absolute best. Its hazy smear of synth-soak psychedelia and ambiguity is reminiscent of the sonic dreamscapes Northrup accomplished with his boyfriend, Sam Hirsh on the debut album under the moniker Luxury Robe. Northrup gets more adventurous with his synthesized soundscapes on the quirky "Passing By," which includes a sky-high guitar solo from Hirsh. His toned-down cover of The Association’s "Pandora’s Golden Heebie Jeebies" is a whirlwind of psychedelic touchings, with a wheezing organ layered with juddering sound-effects that sound like a breath from a horror movie. Northrup has a monotone voice on some cuts here, but his delivery is smooth and sensuous on the sonically-detailed epic "Goodbye Blue Monday." The album closes with a slow and simple acoustic guitar that feels uplifting and refreshing from the maddening world outside.

Popular Songs That Will Live Forever was one of our favorite albums last year and we were able to catch-up with Northrup, who dive into the stories and inspirations beneath the new record.

It’s been over half a year since you released Popular Songs That Will Live Forever. How crazy was it dropping an album in the midst of the pandemic?

Alex Northrup: It honestly became a bit of an afterthought for the first part of the lockdown. I was already finished by early March, safe for the mixing and couple lead vocals. It got put on the back burner while my boyfriend moved in because of the lockdown and we had to figure out how to navigate through this new world.

Has it been stressful for you to not be able to perform your new material to a crowd?

No because if the coronavirus hadn’t happened, I would’ve assembled a band to debut the album live and then immediately move on to new material. It would have been a challenge to recreate this album live, with the songs being so sonically diverse, so I’m actually not having to deal with the stress of that! My boyfriend Sam Hirsh would have been a shoe-in since he played some of the lead guitar parts and probably Jake Walsh (Total Yuppies, Alex Norhtrup & The Backup) too, since he plays the only live drum track on the record.

With the electronics more upfront and immediately apparent, would you call Popular Songs That Will Live Forever a stylistic jump for you?

I think so. It’s the first time I’ve ever ventured into playing synthesizers. I’ve used a Casio keyboard drum machine in the past, but this album was based around the sound of the Korg DDD-5 drum machine. It was initially just a placeholder, but as I kept working, it grew to define the sound of the record. The writing process was different too. Many of the songs were based on loops and beats I created and then developed melodies and lyrics from it. My typical method usually starts with lyrics and melody over a chord chart, so that the song can be interpreted into any arrangement. On this album, the arrangements are integral to the compositions.

The songwriting feels more personal here, even if there’s some ambiguity to the lyrics. Where was your headspace at when recording the new album?

I got out of a years-long dysfunctional relationship at the beginning of 2019, and for the first time in my adult life, I had a place of my own where I could set up the studio how I wanted and just be myself. It was liberating, to say the least. Creatively, the floodgates burst. I was writing and recording more than ever before. There’s enough material in the can to develop probably three more albums! The months leading up to the pandemic, was the best time of my life, and I think that is reflected in the album.

What albums were you listening to when recording the new album? You’re definitely embracing chamber pop, baroque pop and even some quirky synth-pop with a lo-fi aesthetic.

I was introduced to Au Revoir Simone and Stereolab in early 2019. The latter was definitely a huge influence. Made me rethink pop song composition. It was a year of rebirth and reinvention for me. I even lucked out and got to see them in Boston on their reunion tour! We saw Thom Yorke in Toronto the same weekend. However, I found solace in and a new appreciation for my old favorites in the sunshine pop genre, namely the works of Curt Boettcher. My most listened to song on Spotify for the year was The Association's "Pandora’s Golden Heebie Jeebies" so I thought that’d be a fitting song to cover for the album.

"The Only Thought I Need" is one of the most unique songs in your discography given its synthetic vocals. Did you aim at doing something different on the track?

I was specifically trying for a dense vocal arrangement. I think it makes this song stand out. Not being a good singer makes it hard to put this stuff together. But I would really like to explore it more when I get a group together again.

I see that you post a lot on social media videos of vintage electro-mechanical keyboards and the process of repairing them. Did you mean to incorporate and experiment with all these different musical instruments on the new album?

There’s definitely a lot going on in the compositions, especially in the second half. It wasn’t so much "experimenting" as much as it was: "I have these instruments, I know how they sound, and I know how I want to use them." It’s a culmination of getting to know the sounds of the instruments. However, whenever I acquired a new one, it immediately went on whatever song I was working on at the moment. That’s how the Fender Rhodes piano ended up on “Another World.”

How has it been being a solo musician compared to the groups you were in prior?

There’s merits to both. I love the camaraderie and collaboration of a group. But I started to get frustrated with how groups wouldn’t last. Like, what do I do with that material now? Even if I wrote it, it still belongs to that band, in a way. Like when Paul McCartney sings "Hey Jude" nowadays—it's still a Beatles song, even though he wrote it. By keeping all my output under my own name, I never have to feel like certain material belongs to a certain project. It’s giving it a sense of continuity.

What fellow Rochester musician would you collaborate on a split 7" with?

Katie Preston. She’s an absolute genius writer and singer and a gem of a human being to boot.

What have you been up to during the pandemic? Any plans for new music for 2021?

My boyfriend and I bought a house, so now we have room to do all the work we couldn’t do in our tiny apartment, like producing an album for Methodist Bells, building guitar pedals and restoring vintage keyboards and amps. We’ve both been recording new music. He’s finishing off an album he’s had in the works for over a year and I’m just aimlessly recording things with no real goal in mind, since it’s too soon to make any definite plans putting together a group, which is something I’d like to have in place before releasing anything else. It keeps the juices flowing and most of what has been coming out are instrumental compositions, some minimalist, electronic-tinged stuff mainly because I’m at a loss for anything to say lyrically. It turns out this is the music I just enjoy making at the moment.

Popular Songs That Will Live Forever is available now. Stream the new album below.

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