Context, Creation, Come Up: Alex Russell ’23

For the inaugural edition of 3 C’s (Context, Creation, Come-Up), Kobe Thompson ’24 interviews musician Alex Russell ’23 ahead of his debut album “Stardust,” exploring his influences and creative process.

Context, Creation, Come Up: Alex Russell ’23
For the inaugural edition of 3 C’s (Context, Creation, Come-Up), Kobe Thompson ‘24 interviews musician Alex Russell ’23 ahead of his debut album “Stardust,” exploring his influences and creative process. Photo Courtesy of Alex Russell ’23.

“This album is for that little kid who was playing Rock Band in his room, wanting to be Rivers Cuomo,” Alex Russell ’23 said this about the upcoming release of his debut album, “Stardust,” sometime in the spring of 2023. For the first edition of “3 C’s,” I spoke with him  about the “Context” of what inspires him to make music, some insider secrets about the project’s “Creation,” and a glimpse of what’s on the “Come Up.” Keep an eye out for Alex at Valcony and Coffee Haus, where he often performs, and be sure to support his new group, the N.O. Collective.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the title, “Stardust.”

A: I was looking for older tracks and I came across a Nat King Cole record called “Stardust,” and I thought it was gorgeous. And so I did an interpolation of it for one of my songs, I sort of lyrically sampled it, and then I loved [it]. I kind of created my idea out of what that song meant to me. I started writing an album about that, and the stars aligned. When I was looking at my ancestry, talking to my father, hearing about the outside of the family and that I had a famous great aunt, Mildred Washington. She passed at a very tragic age, I’d say around 24 or so. And she knew Nat King Cole. There was a photo discovered of her with Nat King Cole that I got to see, and yeah, the stars aligned there.

Q: What are your influences?

A: I began to really settle into producing and writing three genres. I guess they’re sort of different for each genre. Like I’d say for hip hop, I’ve always really been very much influenced by Kanye, MF DOOM, and J Dilla. Especially from a production standpoint. I’ve been making hip hop for the longest [time]. I think I started producing that when I was 14, so I’m probably most experienced in that genre. Then when it comes to R&B and that sort of sound, any Soul sound, obviously Frank Ocean. Steve Lacey is one of the big reasons I began to pick up the guitar again this summer. Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Otis Redding, and then lastly, [in terms of] Alternative, Justin Vernon, and that’s what this album is.

Q: You talked about producing, and I’ve seen you play the instruments and sing the songs and write the lyrics and everything. How much of this album is a one-man project, so to speak?

A: Yeah, so there’s definitely stages to this. And we’re still — I’d say we’re at the midpoint now. My first stage is always writing the song acoustically. So for that, in the past I’ve only really used keyboards, the piano. I started learning guitar not too long ago, and I was able to use that. So I just sit with the instrument, and I’d write a song. I fumble around on the guitar until I come up with something that I like. That was the first stage this summer. That began to speed up as I sort of got in the zone. The next stage would be production. I mostly produced hip hop and R&B in the past, Alternative was new for me. I was only able to produce one of those tracks this summer. And that was the track with the Steve Lacey beginning and the Kanye sample, and the album is 12 songs I now have five songs produced. So that’s why I say I’m at the midpoint. So that part has been [only] me up until just recently where I started to ask for the help of Greg Smith [’24]. Greg is extremely talented. He actually just sent me the first demo of a song that I had asked him to produce from it and it’s wonderful. That’s going to speed up the process because I was really struggling. And Greg is — you know I can write the songs I could sing them, but I can’t produce like Greg. I also have been working with Austin [McNabb ’23E]. He is the primary engineer for this project.

Q: Of those five [songs] that you have so far, is there one that you think right now really captures the essence of the energy of “Stardust”?

A: I think the most predictable answer is the title track “Stardust” — it’s the outro of the album. I think the reason I have to say “Stardust,” the song, is because it lyrically ties the whole project together at the end. But, besides, if I weren’t going to say that one, I would say “Bird House” because it follows this weird musical shape, this weird song shape, and because there is a key change, and it’s very dramatic, but melodramatic, I’ve said that is the song that [most] closely aligns with the image of the album.

Q: Is this the first musical project you have released?

A: I have released music with a very close friend of mine who currently goes to Brown — we went to high school together, played lacrosse together, [and] we released three albums together. Those are all very electronic, experimental hip hop. It was never the sound that I really wanted to be making. I have a whole hip hop album that I’m still currently working on, the bulk of which was written and produced in 2020 during the pandemic.

Q: Do you feel like “Stardust” is very much for you? Who is this album for? Is it for someone? Is it for the people?

A: I feel as though this album is for me. That’s the way I’m able to tell you that answer, is comparing it in my head. I know that I feel this album is for me. I’ve always wanted to learn guitar. This album is guitar-heavy. I’ve always wanted to make alternative music. You know, I grew up listening to, like, Weezer and like Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s, and The Head and the Heart. So I always wanted to make stuff like that, but I never could — I never had a band to play with, I didn’t even know how to play guitar. So this album is for that little kid who was playing Rock Band in his room, wanting to be Rivers Cuomo.

Q: Tell me a little bit about any big challenges and things that you’ve had to learn or adapt to..

A: I always need to work with a bassist and a drummer. And that can be hard, you know, because you have a vision of a song in your head, and when you write it, that’s what you think it’s going to turn out as, and then based on the other musicians style that you’re working with, they may not have the same interpretation. They may just go a completely different direction with it. Sometimes that works, like there’s a song called “Ribbons” that I performed at Coffee Haus in Marsh. [It] was supposed to be very somber, and very guitar-heavy, like almost drumless. I started playing it with Adrian [Freedman ’24] when we were jamming one day and he put “four on the floor” to it, which is a very loud drum beat, present in a lot of EDM. It was just very unexpected and it sounded amazing and I’m currently working on producing that song with the “four on the floor” Adrian put in, with the bass part Gabby Moore [’23] put to it.

Q: What incites you to either change something that’s already on “Stardust,” maybe put it in, maybe save it for a later project? What are you looking for in these ideas that make you think this belongs on “Stardust”?

A: I think with every project that I work on, there is one word, or a phrase that encapsulates the album. But I typically break off around five to six, maybe seven branches of themes that I want present in the album. Those themes drive the album content. So everything pretty much ties into one of those themes and all of those themes tie back to the main album message. Sometimes I find that a track I’ve written aligns better with one of those themes or the main album message than a track I currently have in the tracklist. And then it sucks because I need to get rid of that track. But I always keep the archives. I always like to keep tracks for later, trying to fit them into new ideas.

Q: You said that you really want “Stardust” to be 12 songs. Are you worried about it going on too long? Or is there some reason why that 12-song limit just seems to work really well for you?

A: I imagined making this a 30-minute album. With the 12 songs, I found that [it]clocks around 30 minutes each time, but I would love to have an extended version of it, you know, if the people want more — 17 songs is quite doable. And I can see that version taking over. Often, the song that I end up [putting in] shows a natural progression in my style and ability. So typically, that song is better. And if not better, just more suitable for the album.

Q: Is there a point where you have a song, and you just have to say, ‘This is good enough’?

A: You can say that as early as the ideas [stage], as late as the full, produced track, but as early as you’d like, because I think the perfect next step in that, and I tell this to any artist, is to then collaborate. You don’t have to feature someone or get someone to produce it for you. Just give it to another ear and see how they react to it. See what they would recommend. It doesn’t even have to be a musician. If it’s a musician, cool, see what they play over it. Have a friend who plays an instrument you don’t play come and fiddle around on it and see what new melodies they create. But it could just be like, your parents, what do they think of this? They’re music consumers as well.

Q. Is Alex Russell your performance name as well?

A: Yeah, so, I have two names. I released, I think, most of my artists’ music under Alex Russell. And then After Hours is gonna be all [my production that] I release. Yeah, sort of like, you know, MF DOOM is Metal Fingers and Metal Face. The alter ego thing has always been very cool to me.

One thing that I needed to say is the J Dilla inspiration. I don’t know how to fit it in here, but it’s, it’s got to fit. The big idea behind “Stardust” is the continuous album, the sonically continuous play. Every track in “Stardust” is going to transition into the next one, smoothly. So far it’s turned into a lot of tracks being in C major, and certain things [being] forced, but I’m trying to clean it up and J Dilla did that. That’s where I got that from.

Q: So, on the horizon, we were talking a little bit before about the Group of Seven. Talk a little bit more about who they are and how they’ve helped you.

A: So there is a studio on campus that I have worked in since freshman year. I’ve worked in it with Isa [Tariq ’25], Austin, PJ [Smith ’24]. And I generally have a lot of friends who are musicians or artists or producers that I hang out with. We typically hang out in that studio. Me and Austin, we’re in there, kind of making a lot of music together, and we [were] kind of working with a few artists like PJ Smith, Jerome Raymond [’24], just like tag teaming the production. Sort of Austin taking the engineer role, but really just sort of collaborating and we were really enjoying that. We then talked to Isa Tariq who came up with this idea for a collective, and so this is from the genius of Isa Tariq. Stanley is beyond talented as a rapper. He’s coming for Kendrick Lamar. And then PJ — I’ve never heard such a unique, gorgeous sound than when I’m listening to one of his tracks from Austin.

Q: Do you have a name?

A: We do not have a name yet. [They are now the N.O. Collective.]

Q. Is there anything that you’ve done previously that you want to plug, any other future projects adjacent to “Stardust” that you also want to plug: This is your chance to just get out all the names.

A: Look out for Alex Russell. Coming soon. Because I am releasing a single in the next two weeks from “Stardust.” [That single has since been released, titled “Tanya.”] I just created a TikTok. It is @LiveAlexRussell. On TikTok, that’s kind of showing all these live performances and just all [of] “Stardust” and I guess a couple covers here and there. Beyond that, look for new music from all of those seven. And be on the lookout for moves from Isa Tariq, he’s always making incredible moves.