ACES AT OTHER TIMES VINTAGE IN NEW YORK, MARCH 2017. PHOTOS: TESS MAYER.
For Alex Stewart, who has created music under the moniker ACES since 2015, medium is no barrier. In addition to songwriting and performing, the Brooklyn-based artist and film editor designs her own merchandise and credits images with propelling her sound forward. While she always knew she would end up working in a creative field, she didn't anticipate combining her visual and musical talents. "I definitely didn't know how strong visuals were to me, and what that language really meant to me," says Stewart. "That's what was so fun and special for me, to put those two things together and realize they were the same in a sense."
On her debut EP Stranger, produced by Ian Miller and out this Friday, Stewart constructs a realm for listeners to enter. Entrancing and otherworldly, the tracks surround you; ACES' melodic voice blends seamlessly with synth-pop soundscapes. The experience is akin to being underwater, the music moving through you in slow motion as the lyrics swim in your mind, conjuring up vivid scenes.
While writing "Stranger," the EP's title track—which premieres below—Stewart had a specific visual in mind. "I very much thought of it being this person in a house looking out their window," she explains. "I formulated a movie in my mind around that one." The song's lyrics ("You keep changing but I'm keeping pace / I wasn't really up for this / You're the one I don't want to miss") evoke a wistful moment of reflection and the complications of being in a relationship with someone you felt you once knew. "I think that's the hardest thing," says Stewart. "When you're looking at someone and they've changed."
BORN: Ottawa, Canada. Canadian through and through. I was raised basically in the middle-of-nowhere Ontario, but Toronto has been the important place for me. My family lives in and around that city now and that's where I spend my time when I'm home.
CURRENTLY BASED: Brooklyn, New York. I've been living in Brooklyn—oh god, now you're really taking me back—off and on since 2008 or something along those lines. My husband lives here and so I've been coming for a long time. We'd been doing long distance for ages, and once I was done with school I moved here. New York City always called my name, so that's where I decided to plant my roots.
MOVING UPSTATE: I recently bought a house—first time homebuyer—and it's in Kingston, New York. It's a really special little city and more than that I just fell in love with this house, and its my ACES oasis. It's going to be an extension of me and, of course, an extension of ACES because of that. It's a special space where I'm looking forward to starting the next chapter of ACES, both in a writing sense but also with the other work I do, whether it's video, collaborations, or even the merchandise things I've been working on.
HER DEBUT EP: These were the three songs I wanted to put out first. They're a part of a greater collection of "what is ACES?" songs. It wasn't so much finishing an EP as it was, "Oh, these three fit together. These are now something on their own." They stood out to me as being their own thing, so I gave them that, since I did release them as singles. But I do feel they are a certain collection of songs, and "Stranger" was the first song I ever wrote for ACES, so that was really special to me, for it to be the title track; it represents a lot of what I'm trying to achieve with sound spaces.
COMPLETING A SONG: I was just talking about this with someone, when I was doing collages at the start of the weekend with these artists, and I was like, "How do you ever know when you're done?" At one point you just step away and you know. For me I always say, "Keep it simple, stupid." At some point you don't want to overcomplicate something and that's probably my approach to most things, and with these songs I think that's true as well. Sometimes I end up stripping quite a lot away so it can have more special moments. Once I hear those, once I feel those as I'm listening, I know the song is complete.
I do feel I've come to a point when I know it's done, but then how does it live in other ways? For me that's where I'm like, "Of course, video," or it's the artwork even. It could be anything. It can live on and live in many forms, and that's a pretty important part of who I am and what my work is as well. Whether it's an immersive live experience or a video, it can live in different ways.
REVISITING "STRANGER": Talk about not being able to know when you're finished with a song! That was one that was really special to me, and it took a while to try different things out until it was right. Sometimes there's something so, so special about a demo, it's really raw, and for me it's like a burst-of-creativity moment. When you try to make that something into a more fleshed out idea, it's often a challenge to make it emotionally raw and special again. Honestly, it was more about patience and taking my time with it.
THE VISUAL COMPONENT: I started editing and directing videos around the time that I started ACES, so I started doing these two things all at once. It was natural that that's how I started writing music. I think it's a great way to communicate, through visuals, even if I'm working with a producer. It's this really easy way, for me at least, to understand something and to explain what I'm doing, and I love that part of the process. Every day I block off a bit of time, whether it's books or magazines or online, I'm constantly looking at images and getting ideas in that way. I'll print out a lot of images, put them up against the wall and everywhere; that's how I start [the songwriting] process. I build some stories in my mind, much like someone would a storyboard for a film or a video.
EARLY INFLUENCES: My father would always make these amazing playlists for me growing up, but I think he also influenced me creatively in a sense. Canadians are proud gardeners, home-keepers. I've always been into design and everyone around me had a certain level of taste, and I think that did influence me. But I'm the first musician of the crew.
BEYOND ACES: Of course there are things I make specifically for ACES, so that's a no-brainer, and I have a couple of specific people I work with that I am going to be working with more to create quite a lot of ACES videos. But as far as what I do outside of that, mostly it's [editing] arts, fashion, and culture pieces. A lot of them are travel pieces, so in February I was in Japan for a while filming different craftsmen in four different cities. I completely fell in love with Kyoto and Japanese-made everything. It's incredible the attention to detail and the design that goes into the smallest of things. So in that sense I've been really lucky to travel with this video work I do; that has been a huge influence.
I was in Turkey last year filming the rose harvest. Turkey is one of the biggest exporters for rosewater and rose oil. Imagine looking out at what looks like a vineyard, except it's not wine, it's just completely pink. There are roses everywhere. You wake up at the crack of dawn and the smell is incredible—they're the most vibrant things—[I was] picking roses at 5 A.M, on my birthday last year. [laughs] Everything is pink now—even the house I bought is pink—maybe ACES is going into its pink phase.
WHAT'S NEXT: The Stranger EP was a completed idea a while ago; it takes a bit to put it out there. As that's going on, I'm very focused on bringing all that to life in videos as well as itching to write more music. Whether that takes the form of a follow-up EP or album, that's certainly in the works. And then of course to perform it, whether that's video, live sessions, or live. I'm starting to focus on all the different ways I can bring it to life.
I'm about to start this new chapter. I'm going to have this physical space that I've not ever had before in my entire adult life, to write music and create whatever it is I want to, whether it is a live session or a music video or any kind of content. I'm really excited to explore that and treat this space as another extension of ACES. I can't wait to see what happens when I start to experiment with that. I have certain fantasies about it. I think it's important to meditate on those thoughts a bit, to have some goals, have a direction, have some inspiration. But who knows what's going to happen? That's the fun part, too.
STRANGER IS OUT APRIL 21, 2017. FOR MORE ON ACES, VISIT HER WEBSITE.