Alex Winston, The Motor City Ingénue
Alex Winston doesn’t like comparisons. When trying to figure out whom Winston sounds like, it’s difficult to think of someone specific. You could say the Detroit native is one part Joanna Newsom, one part Lykke Li and one part PJ Harvey. Even so, none of these artists fully capture Winston’s breathy vocals and operatic sound. Winston takes in funk, soul, rock, and pop—creating music that is truly her own.
The 23-year-old (who is often said to be 19) is proud of her age and of her hometown, Detroit, which has played a key role in her pursuit of music. Growing up, Winston was engulfed in the jazz and blues community of Detroit, which led her to become a multi-instrumentalist and classically-trained opera singer. Winston can play the guitar, bass, drums, and piano—and she’s trying to master the accordion, mandolin, and ukulele within the next year.
Winston created The Basement Covers EP where she sang memorable songs by Mumford & Sons and Jack Penate. Since that EP, she has created her mini LP, Sister Wife, which will be released on March 8. The artist, who is a reflection of various musical genres, has performed with a gamut of artists with different musical backgrounds, including Chuck Berry, Ted Nugent and Freelance Whales. We were able to catch up with Winston while she was recording in London.
ILANA KAPLAN: How old are you?
ALEX WINSTON: I am 23, but for some reason everyone thinks I’m 19. I don’t know who started that rumor, but I’m 23.
KAPLAN: I’ve seen on a lot of posts that you’re 19!
WINSTON: I mean, the thing is, most people would probably be excited about that, but I’m really okay with my age. I’m like… can you guys get it right? I’m 23. I never want to re-live those teenage years. I’m totally content being 23.
KAPLAN: How did you start out performing?
WINSTON: Well, I feel like I’ve been doing it my entire life. I started taking music lessons and singing when I was about ten. I didn’t have one of those creepy stage moms that made me do stuff. I started bands at a pretty young age and played with my friends back in Detroit. I’ve always known that I wanted to do this. It was all I was ever interested in doing. I never had, outside of music, any extracurricular activities that I took part in.
KAPLAN: Were you in college at all, or had you just been touring?
WINSTON: No. I’m actually one of the few kids in my grade, especially girls, who didn’t end up going to college, just because I already knew what I wanted to do. I had already been actively working in music before I graduated. I tried to take a few community college classes, but it got in the way of music, so I stopped. I had real life college and traveling on the road college. It’s like a segue into adulthood, like living on your own for the first time. I went from living in my dad’s basement to moving to New York. So, it was kind of a big jump for me because I was either on tour or back in Detroit, so I never had that middle ground of easing into adulthood.
KAPLAN: Are you a classically-trained opera singer?
WINSTON: I guess. I took opera lessons. I can’t read music to save my life, but I would just copy and get away with it. I think that they thought I could read music, but I can’t. I would just listen. I did that for about ten years. I would listen to my teacher and the melodies. She would sing it. It was really me just mimicking. That’s one of the reasons I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. I felt that I really couldn’t be creative with opera. You’re supposed to sound this way here. You’re supposed to crescendo here. You’re supposed to do that. I had no sense of identity while singing that kind of music.
KAPLAN: Who and what are some of your influences?
WINSTON: Well, really all over the place. Detroit, definitely because of Motown and Stooges. When you come from a place like Detroit, you’re really proud of what you have there. I grew up listening to a lot of that stuff, but also early rock-and-roll like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. I feel like as I grew older, I’ve been working with different musicians, people that have are constantly showing me different things. One of my old bandmates was really into metal and ’80s rock, so I really got into that, too. I also love country, folk, and strong female voices, like Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, PJ Harvey, and Kate Bush.
KAPLAN: I was trying to think of comparisons, but I was having a really hard time because your voice is so different. I could definitely see a lot of that in your music. I couldn’t really define it, which is cool because it’s so hard find something so original.
WINSTON: That makes me really happy, because it seems like everybody wants to do this comparison game, and it’s so fucking dumb. Just because I’m a young girl that makes somewhat “left-of-center” pop music, they want to tell you that you’re like this person instead of taking it for what it is.
KAPLAN: How did you come up with The Basement Covers EP you did?
WINSTON: It really was not a conscious decision. I would be working on my own music in my apartment just trying to write a song and some note or chord progression would catch me off-guard. I would think, “Wow that sounds like this song or that song.” Since I’m so ADD, I would get so excited and start playing my own rendition of that song. I didn’t even plan on doing it. I didn’t plan on releasing it.
KAPLAN: Which artists have you had a great experience touring with?
WINSTON: I hate saying [I’m] a new musician, because I’ve been doing this forever, but they like to put [new musicians] on a lot of weird bills. I’ve toured with Freelance Whales and Ted Nugent; the spectrum is that crazy. I’d say opening for Chuck Berry was such an important night for me. Anyone that I’ve ever wanted to share the stage with, he’s in my top five. That was really cool. I just felt like, where am I supposed to go from here—I played with one of my idols. It’s just impressive to me that he is still doing what he does. He’s been playing since the fucking ’50s. He just puts on such a good show. Even if he messes up a few chords, I mean, come on! It’s Chuck Berry!
KAPLAN: What was the most meaningful song to you on Sister Wife?
WINSTON: I think the most heartfelt real song on that album was “Don’t Care About Anything.” It’s the only stripped-down song I’ve ever written with just a guitar and singing. Obviously, you’ve spent some time in New York. I moved there and it was a bit much. It was a bit overwhelming for me. I didn’t want to go out. I just felt a little homesick. I was just waiting to feel excited about something. I went through a phase of feeling kind of dull. It’s really easy to shut off in New York and stay in your apartment.
KAPLAN: Why the name Sister Wife for your mini-LP?
WINSTON: I call my backup singers my sister wives. To me, they are my best friends. We are all super close. It’s kind of like the closest relationship you can have without being blood related, to me. It’s a joke that they’re sister wives—obviously, we’re not polygamists.
ALEX WINSTON WILL PLAY TWO SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST SHOWS ON MARCH 17 AND 18, AND SHE’LL PLAY THE MERCURY LOUNGE IN NEW YORK ON APRIL 5. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT HER MYSPACE.