Pierce Alexander plays The Royal American 1/16
Written By Shank Wilson
Photos © 2019 Taylor Czerwinski & 9 To 5 Magazine, LLC.
We all have a certain level of vulnerability to the power of music. Since you’re reading this, it’s probably safe to assume you fall on the side of higher receptibility to mood altering tones and vibrations. Whether you hear it subconsciously in the background of a movie or you’re in the front row of a live show, music moves us in ways we seem powerless to prevent. On the far end of the sliding scale of music sensitivity, there are a few people that need music like a smoker needs a cigarette. Their outlook on life depends on immersing themselves in it and sometimes the hardest part is figuring out exactly how to do that. Pierce Alexander is one of those people.
Through songwriting, Alexander’s decade long journey of personal upliftment culminated in the release of his first EP, “The Grand Scheme,” back in July. The album was produced by Josh Kaler and Owen Biddle at EastSide Manor Studios in Nashville. Kaler, a multi-instrumentalist and former Charlestonian, and Biddle, the former bassplayer with “The Roots,” also doubled as the rhythm section on the tracks. For a good laugh, you can check out Biddle in the hilarious “Real Housewives of Late Night” sketch where he dresses in drag to play his wasted-at-all-times faux wife.
Before he identified his musical path as a singer/songwriter, Alexander was a self-proclaimed “angsty teenager” that identified with the dark emotionality of 90s bands like “Smashing Pumpkins,” “Radiohead,” and “Alice in Chains.” “They’re so different stylistically from what I sound like,” says Alexander, “but I’m still influenced by the lyrics. Layne Staley’s voice (Alice in Chains) was special to me.” Alexander adds that “Rooster,” a haunting ballad where a son imagines what life was like for his father in the Vietnam War, “was the most moving one for me.” Obviously, this isn’t the typical subject matter a 13-year old seeks out, but the emotional complexity of those songs served him well as a songwriter.
When he was 15, Alexander began trying to capture that emotionality in his own songs. He recalls, “I ended a relationship that I took way too seriously and recorded an EP in my bedroom. I gave it to a few friends and they seemed to enjoy the fact that I made it.” As a residual effect, he also noticed that the angst switch could be temporarily turned off by creating music. “When I first started writing music, I had negative thoughts all the time and I always thought it would get worse as I got older, but it’s actually been completely the opposite. I’ve become way more positive the more I’ve made music.”
A recurring theme throughout Alexander’s youth seemed to be a constant personal evaluation of exactly where he might fit in musically. “I liked singing and that was all I knew. I didn’t have a definite idea of what I was going to do.” Alexander played drum set, trumpet, and piano, before he settled on guitar as a freshman at Wando High School. When he was 16, he joined the band “Heartfelt Hinges” as the lead guitar player. That’s when he says that the interest in the other instruments faded away. “I became focused on lead guitar parts and learned how I wanted them to sound,” he says.
Before his senior year, he was accepted to the Charleston School of the Arts and transferred there for his last year of high school. The entire band attended either Academic Magnet of Charleston or School of the Arts and the two schools shared a campus. As for the band, “We broke up, but I’m glad I went there.” He credits the members of “Heartfelt Hinges” with turning him on to indie-pop bands like “Grouplove,” “The Temper Trap,” and “MGMT.”
When he graduated, Alexander stayed in town and attended The College of Charleston. Candidly, Alexander intonates that some old feelings returned with the change in environment, “A lot of the time, I really didn’t feel like going to my computer and working on a demo or going out with my friends. I sort of realized it’s just taking away from what I could be doing…taking away from music I could be writing.” Looking back, he continues, “When I got to be 18 or 19 I started to understand what I wanted to do.” He sought out accomplished jazz guitarist, Lee Barbour. “I ended up taking lessons from him for 2 or 3 years. It started off with guitar and shifted to all the production stuff. I learned a lot from him.”
In the meantime, he says, “I was still trying to write songs and I was slowly figuring out what I liked and didn’t like.” He indoctrinated himself in a wider spectrum of influences including Foxygen, Deer Hunter, Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, Autolux, and The Beatles, whose influence weighs heavy on “The Grand Scheme.” “I rebelled against the Beatles when I was younger,” he says. “Once I started paying attention, I was like wow that was so cool.”
Alexander recorded 5 studio singles where he would have an outline for the song and let the studio musicians put their stamp on it. On “The Grand Scheme,” he took a different route. The songs were first recorded in the bedrooms of either Alexander or his lead guitar player, Nathan Whitley, and then sent to Kaler in Nashville. “Everything was done before we got there,” he noted. “So the way we recorded it in the room was pretty much how it is. This album is more me.”
Upon hearing him describe the album as “being more him,” you can’t help but notice that the album is a super-catchy statement of triumph over negativity. He remarks, “The unintentional theme of the record ended up being these inklings of blind positivity. In the past, I would’ve written about this love or something that didn’t work out. Now, I’m more that if this love doesn’t work out, that’s just what’s meant to happen.”
Sonically, the album is a fantastic blend of intimacy and modern production. Catchy, mood-defining synthesizer parts help create the upbeat aura of the EP, but the album still retains the Pierce-in-his-bedroom simplicity that draws the listener’s ears right to Alexander’s guitar and vocals. Kaler’s drum sound and performance are also a near-perfect complement to that vibe as well.
With the EP finished, the logical next step is to perform it live. Alexander’s live band includes Nathan Whitley bumping over from guitar to bass, Avery Greeson taking the lead guitar spot, Davis Rowe playing drums, and Weston Mize on synth. Excited about the lineup, Alexander says that the band is coming off their “best show yet” back in September at the Queen Street Playhouse. “We’re starting to get into this rhythm where it seems possible to tour,” he says.
Alexander has taken a big drag off that musical cigarette and exhaled out something he can be proud of in “The Grand Scheme.” From lead guitar to singing to songwriting, the further he drifts into the bottomless ocean that is music, the more control he has over any lingering negativity. “That’s the biggest change that’s happened,” he declares, “hopefulness and positivity.”
See Pierce Alexander, North By North, Infinitikiss, and Bizness Suit at The Royal American tonight 1/16.
Tickets and more information: theroyalamerican.com/schedule
“The Grand Scheme” EP can be streamed on Spotify and can also be found on iTunes, Apple Music, and all platforms.
For more information, you can go to @piercealexandermusic on facebook and Instagram, piercealexandermusic.com on the web, and piercealexander.bandcamp.com on Bandcamp.