An interview with sad-pop artist Alexander 23

The former New Yorker talked about working with Olivia Rodrigo, music production and his favorite spots in the city.

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Manasa Gudavalli

Alexander 23 performs for a sold-out crowd at Terminal 5 in Manhattan in early March 2020. The former New Yorker is performing songs he wrote during the pandemic on tour. (Staff Photo by Manasa Gudavalli)

By Yas Akdag, Music Editor

Alexander 23 is notorious for writing sad music. His song “IDK You Yet” — written about a difficult period in his life — is certified gold and recently went viral on TikTok. In a TikTok video, Alexander 23 joked about a popular fan-created slowed-down version: “y’all really took my sad and slow song and made it sadder and slower.” The artist is currently in the middle of his North American tour, having just performed in New York on Friday. Phoning in from Philadelphia, we talked about his music and tour. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Yas Akdag: What’s your creative process like? Do you consider yourself more of a songwriter, producer or a mix of the two? Did you learn one first?

Alexander 23: I think definitely a mix of the two. But I try to wear specific hats whenever I can — it makes the process easier. For me, it usually starts with songwriting. I’ve learned through a bunch of trial and error that I’ve had the most success when I just start with a lyric that I really love. Obviously there are exceptions, but I usually start with a lyric and then pick up the guitar and workshop it a little bit until I have enough where I’m like, ‘OK, this feels like I’m going to start putting it down into the computer.’ Then I’ll go into producer mode a bit.

Yas: You worked on “good 4 u” with Olivia Rodrigo, right? How was that experience, and do you enjoy producing for other people?

Alexander: It was an incredible experience. Olivia is one of the most brilliant artists I’ve ever worked with. It was an honor to help her vision come to fruition. For me, working with other artists is kind of imperative. It’s a nice way to feel creative and useful without the comprehensive pressure I put on myself when it’s for my music. Not only do I enjoy it in a vacuum, but it’s also become an important part of my own process as far as making my own music.

Yas: Is there somebody you’d love to collaborate with that you haven’t yet?

Alexander: I’d love to collaborate with Kacey Musgraves. That would be a dream come true, even if it was just songwriting. I’m a superfan so that would be great.

Yas: You use Ableton to produce, right? I have kind of an impossible question for you — if Ableton suddenly ceased to exist, which digital audio workstation would you spring for?

Alexander: I love this question — I’ve never gotten asked this and I love any technical questions. I came to Ableton from Logic, so it’s tempting to say Logic — but I’m going to go with a dark horse here. I’m going to go with Studio One because I think it’s the most similar to Ableton. I’ve seen people use it and it looks really fun. I think the right answer is obviously ProTools, but I’m going to not pick ProTools to try and piss off anyone who does like ProTools.

Yas: You were at the University of Pennsylvania before you dropped out to pursue music. How did you find the experience of making music in college? Do you have any advice for people who might be in a similar situation — who are focusing on their music career while juggling being a college student?

Alexander: The most important thing is there’s no one path. If you talk to everyone, everyone kind of does it differently. The biggest piece of advice that I can say is to stop waiting. I feel like, myself included, people get caught in this trap of waiting until they have enough money to do what they’re passionate about or until they have enough experience. You don’t choose those things, they choose you, so just start. Whatever that means for you, just start.

Yas: Who would you consider your major musical influences? Is there anyone unexpected?

Alexander: I think Usher. He’s a songwriting inspiration of mine. I think the storytelling in his music is extremely underrated, super visual and well done. I don’t know if people would expect that.

Yas: What’s your favorite song that you have out? Or is it something that’s yet to be released?

Alexander: It’s definitely something that’s yet to be released. I’m very, very excited about this new music. It’s starting to come together — I have some fully finished songs now that I’m really excited for people to hear. 

Yas: This is the first major tour you’ve been able to do since COVID-19. Are there any songs you’ve been dying to perform on tour, like songs that came out in 2020, such as “IDK You Yet”?

Alexander: It’s extremely strange putting out music and then having to wait months and months or years, even, to play it live to people. It’s usually such an integral part of the process, both professionally and creatively, as far as just getting some comments on your career and shows. It’s really nice to be able to play these songs live. It’s amazing to play “IDK You Yet” live — it’s so cool to hear people sing all those words back at me. Another one from the new EP that’s been so fun to play live is my song “Brainstorm.” It will forever be one of my favorites of my own songs. It’s nice to get to do a different live rendition of it. 

Yas: Though you live in Los Angeles now, you previously lived in New York. Do you have a favorite spot in New York?

Alexander: I mean, Tompkins Square Bagels. My brain just goes straight to food. Ippudo for a bowl of ramen. Where else? You can’t really go wrong walking from the West Village to the East Village on Bleecker Street. I just like being outside downtown. 

A version of this story appeared in the Nov. 22, 2021, e-print edition. Contact Yas Akdag at [email protected]