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I don’t think I’ve ever said this, but I have a list of people I’m hoping to interview someday. I discovered Alex Vargas a few weeks ago and he got me in tears almost immediately but I’m not gonna pretend that he had already made that list before I met him. But he could have. Because Alex is one of these artists that make my heart skip a beat and then kind of grow on me and never cease to amaze. He’s that kind of genius you wish you could have a proper conversation with but that leaves you so impressed that you’re not sure you could really act all cool about it, like you’re supposed to do during an interview. And, oh boy, I wasn’t ready. First and foremost, I wasn’t ready for those green eyes (yeah, I don’t need much to get disturbed), but in this show business where appearances are everything, I was definitely not ready for his striking genuineness.
If you’re not familiar with the 27-year-old, fear not: I got you covered and asked him to describe himself on the spot with an acrostic, while sipping on a cuppa on February 21 at the Botanique, where he would be supporting the alternative folk band Bear’s Den later that day. ‘It starts with an A so I get to be really pretentious and say Artistic. And L is going to stand for… Listener-friendly? E is gonna stand for Exciting, I think mostly because I get excited making the music. But I also have an X in my name… So I’m just gonna have to say Xylophone even if we don’t use xylophones on any songs’, the Acoustic/Noise Soul expert told me, laughing. What is this for a musical genre, you’ll ask me? ‘I think it’s sort of electronic music mixed with live elements and just soaring, soulful melodies, he explained. So it kind of broadened to Acoustic/Noise Soul even though there’s not that much acoustic guitar in there anymore.’ I’d personally add the term ‘raw’ to this nice cocktail because everything Alex writes comes from a very honest and personal place and I’m always admiring these artists who are able to expose themselves in such a light. ‘It can get really tough – it’s basically like staring at yourself in the mirror, like day in and day out. Especially when you write honest songs. But you can kind of mask it by telling the story whichever way; I mean you have a choice in terms of how you want to tell the story, he pointed out. And I overdramatize things and also turn stories into something else. Solid Ground is not necessarily about what you think it’s about when you hear it; it’s the same with Howl. A bunch of people asked me what Howl is about and who it is about, what’s her name…’ Convinced that ‘the whole point of art is to leave it open for interpretation’, Alex Vargas was happy to hear about the completely different meanings people gave to the latter. ‘When someone tells me they think [Howl] is a love song that I dedicated to a woman who I’m clearly, hopelessly in love with, I take that as a huge compliment despite the fact that Howl is for my manager (ed.: Tommas Arnby) who’s one of my closest friends and is just about the fact that I’ve been with him since I’m 16! We’ve achieved a lot together and we’ve been through a lot of shit together and we’re still here and we’re still doing it. We’re nowhere near where we both dream of getting to eventually but we’ve come over hills, we’ve moved rivers! For me, it’s purely about the fact that I’ve become an adult in the time that I’ve known him. So it is a love song… but not necessarily the love song that the listener would expect. And I do think that’s the whole point. It’s the same with Solid Ground. As long as you’re creating images in your mind when you’re hearing it, then I’m pleased; I feel like I’ve done my job.’
CANDID TO THE CORE
Although his fans can sometimes easily put his lyrics in disguise, his truth, on the other hand, is nothing but naked. Trust me, I might still be a beginner but I’ve been lucky enough to chat with quite a bunch of well-known and lesser-known singers, actors and directors for the past five years and I had never encounter someone as blunt as Alex Vargas so far. Brutally honest, he admitted that he ‘wasn’t actually really in touch with any of’ his former bandmates from Vagabond who he worked with from 2008 ‘til 2010. ‘Not because we don’t like each other, but it happened that way. I kind of hid away for a little while….’, he granted. It is also pretty rare to find someone willing to confess that he did things for the money… Alex is indeed featuring on five songs on We Are All We Need, Above & Beyond’s latest album released in October 2014 and which reached number one on Billboard’s Top Dance/Electronic Charts. If he wrote the recent single All Over The World (in half an hour!), he enjoyed trying to ‘convey someone else’s message and actually asking them about what the song is about and to explain in details what emotions they’re trying to express’ for the other tracks. But he revealed he initially didn’t know about the trance music group and accepted the offer because… well, it would pay the bills. ‘Above & Beyond have been around for… I think 12 years. And a couple of years back, they decided they wanted to do an acoustic album, renditions of their biggest songs. To tell you the truth, I had no idea who they were! But this is the crazy thing! I mean their latest album is called We Are All We Need, which is exactly the point. They sold out Madison Square Garden! That’s 14000 people!, he exclaimed. And most of my friends, when I was telling them about Above & Beyond, they were like ‘Who?’. But in their world, they’re huge! I have such a huge amount of respect for them ‘cause they do everything themselves, they run everything in-house. They’re very, very clever people and very creative people. And extremely, extremely talented songwriters! But yeah so the guy that they hired to produce that acoustic album they wanted to do is called Bob Bradley and he’s an old friend of mine that I met through my manager years back. So when they were starting to look out for a new male singer, he called me out and asked if I wanted to come and sing. Now I didn’t know who Above & Beyond were, I didn’t know these people; I knew Bob, he’s a really lovely guy, and I had no money. And I was getting hired as a session singer. So I did it and I earned some money. But then I met the guys whom I started working with and we did some shows together and we spent A LOT of time doing a lot and lot of rehearsals for these. They called them acoustic shows but there were beautiful orchestra arrangements, a 16-piece band and so on. And I’ve completely been embraced by this family that they had. So while, to begin with, it was a financial decision to say yes, that aspect just faded very quickly ‘cause I just really enjoyed working with them. (…) It’s always fantastic to see them because they’re just so appreciative of the success they’re having!’
THE RIGHT PEOPLE…
Alex Vargas naturally surrounded himself with like-minded people, never afraid to speak up and share their opinions: his manager has been leading the way for the past decade. ‘I met Tommas when I was about 15 or 16 back in Denmark. I think his brother saw me somewhere and he then came to a show and told me that I had a good voice but that my songs were shit, he recalled. It wasn’t nice to hear but I think it’s one of the most crucial stepping stones in progress – well towards progress anyway. ‘Cause at least I knew exactly where I had him! And I knew that one day when he was gonna tell me that he liked my song, it was going to be the truth, he wasn’t just gonna be sugarcoating it! So while it was tough to hear, it was a big part of me becoming a better songwriter’. Previously signed to Geffen Records, owned by Universal Music Group, with Vagabond, Alex is now teaming up with Copenhagen Records, where people also seem to believe that ‘an honest opinion means everything!’. ‘I don’t have a problem with major labels, I very much believe in them. But more importantly, I wanna work with the right people. In my last deal, I didn’t really have a relationship with my A&R. We signed the contract but then we didn’t really talk. Everything was done through Xenomania (ed.: the production team of Vagabond’s debut album) pretty much. Now I’m signed with Copenhagen Records in Denmark which is a Universal affiliated record label: they function as an indie but they have the resources of a major. And what’s really cool is that I feel like I can put my trust in these people and they understand what it is that I’m trying to achieve. But they’re also very honest with what’s achievable and what’s not. So what you want in an A&R is that you gotta allow people to get involved in this creative process. It’s the same with my manager: if my manager and I agreed on everything then there would be no point in us working together. The whole point is that we can challenge each other. And it’s the same thing with Copenhagen Records: I get honest opinions, I get applause if I do something right and I get critical feedback if they feel like I’m not quite there.’
… AND THE RIGHT MOMENT
In a pretty similar creative approach, everything he does is a reflection of the person he is. There’s no gimmick and no limits. ‘Whatever you wanna do, you’re as free as you allow yourself to be’ Alex Vargas said, while he also warned that you might see him featuring ‘on a jazz album tomorrow if it was good’. And as he just keeps on going with the flow, his idea of a collaboration is obviously very organic as well. ‘I would really love to do [a hip hop collaboration] but it would have to be the right thing though. I’m not actively seeking it out but it’s definitely something that I’m keeping in mind, should I come across something exciting. It’s not that I don’t wanna do it unless it’s Jay Z, that’s not what I mean! If I come across an unknown rapper that I think is amazing I would totally do it! I’d also really like to do something with a female singer. But again, it’s gotta be the right one and I think that’s the kind of thing that just happens naturally rather than being set on. I’m waiting for the day when I’ll bump into Lianne La Havas so that I could go like ‘Hey! Hey, sing on my song!’! I think she’s amazing. I pretty much love her.’
But again, sometimes it’s not enough to follow your heart: you also gotta listen to your bank account, which explains why the sound of his Howl EP is quite different from Solid Ground, his last project. ‘Howl was an EP done based on need, really. I really needed to get something done on tape because I hadn’t for a long time, since my Vagabond days. So it was almost a necessity and something Tommy (ed. : Tommy Sheen, his guitarist, co-producer and co-writer) and I did for our own sake as well. We’re very lucky that – I think – more people than we expected responded really well to it because it was a very personal, very intimate EP. The reason why it was so stripped back was due to restrictions on the financial side – I financed it working in a bar, like so many other people have done, but that just meant that our hours in the studio were limited and also, as producers, that’s kind of what we were at, what we were capable of. We had a very talented engineer working with us: Jasper Dent. So that’s how it came about. When we had finished the Howl EP, we were very adamant that the next sort of bit of music we were going to release was going to be more evolved production-wise. We were very keen about making an acoustic EP with very little drums on it ‘cause that would live a lot of areas quite open.’ Some songs are a constant work in progress, though. That’s the case of Solid Ground, which ‘came quite a long way and went through a few different outfits’ since he finished the early demo, about two years ago. And it recently turned haute couture as Alex Vargas and Tommy Sheen are about to release its very final look. The live version I heard that night was closer to the new studio record and trust me, it was pure gold.
(This is NOT the latest version of the song, guys!)
FINDING THE BALANCE
A debut album is also on the way and should be preceded by another EP. ‘We’re just deciding now what songs to put on there and for the first time we’re gonna take songs to the radio. But yeah, we’re working on that album but when it’s gonna come out? I don’t know. I’m hoping later this year but you never know’, he told me. Musically-wise, he promised an in-between, with ‘a fuller production than the Howl EP but we’re probably going to incorporate a bit more of acoustic guitar. I’ve not entirely decided about it, we’re still working on it but I think the Solid Ground EP was quite full-on – we took the massive lead in making it really loud. The Jester was a very aggressive song; I had some anger like ‘Be loud!’, he laughed. So I think we might tone it down slightly but I’ll have to wait and see, it still is a work in progress, we have songs at both ends of the spectrum, songs that have a pretty full-on production and songs that are very sparse.’ As long as there will still have this Vargas vibe, I’m all good. Because when I met Alex, I actually found out that he was a lot like his music: down-to-earth just like his voice is deeply rooted in the ground, but also light-hearted just like his melodies can be quite ethereal. When I listen to his songs, the contrast is such that I sometimes feel like someone grabbed my heart right out of my chest and it literally takes my breathe away. I know, that’s intense. But again, his music is. And when one of these little moments happened while watching his performance that night, I remember thinking ‘There’s no way this guy won’t be all over TV and radio a few years from now’. I could totally picture him being shortlisted as BBC Sound of… let’s say 2016? At least I wouldn’t expect anything less.
This isn’t a video from his Belgian gig but this song was part of his setlist and I absolutely fell in love with it and I play it on repeat several times a day! Alex, if you read this: you’d better release it!
Stay tuned as I’ll be posting the part two of our interview next week, and this time you’ll get a glimpse of his current playlist and his musical crushes…