A songwriter talks about writing letters, letting go of your dreams, and what’s revealed in the light of a hotel bathroom.
A line stretches from the door of Lestat’s Coffee House past the corner where Adams crosses 33rd. The afternoon light is failing; the neon of the Normal Heights sign is blinking to life.
I wasn’t expecting this kind of turnout. I’m on the list, but it looks as though it won’t get me inside any faster.
A man emerges from the head of the line, talking to a much taller man, who is presumably the bouncer. They confer with that vague appearance of concern that, for my money, is just the way that adults mask their excitement. Kids jump up and down; adults find things to worry about.
The first man, the shorter one, suddenly looks my way. He has a weathered face, a torso like a wind-beaten tree, and eyes startlingly blue, even from this distance. Even more startling, though, is his expression–he’s possibly the saddest-looking man I’ve ever seen.
I nearly look away, out of politeness (or something). But there is something magnetic in the profound grief etched in his face, like hearing a familiar voice in a crowd of strangers.
This all lasts for just a second, and then he disappears back inside.
A friend of mine told me to come to the show tonight. I don’t know what the music is about, who the singer is or what he looks like. But somehow, I know that man I saw was him.
Lestat’s is a capacious coffee shop venue with the flat black walls and velvet hangings that say “1994 wuz here.” The stage at the back is a prop of plywood about knee-high from the floor, with a beat-up couch on it. A projector screen comes to life with an old-fashioned transparency cast against the wall, the kind they used in biology class when I was in middle school. It shows lines of handwritten printing that, after a few moments, are read aloud by a voice over a hidden microphone.
The emotion in the voice is palpable; a grim, John Wayne kind of grief bleeds through its dry recitation. It’s a letter he’s reading, a goodbye to someone dearly loved, a litany of memories and warm character references: running on the beach, secrets shared while lying side by side, a relationship that left all others a distant second.
As they unfold, reveal the departed’s identity. It’s a dog. A Labrador named Kona.
His voice breaks, and a guilty respect makes me take my heels down from where they are propped on the low stage. I look around behind me; everyone is mesmerized. Many eyes are wet. The voice soldiers forward with the love, patience and selflessness that it attributes to this dog, who died from cancer after fourteen years by his side.
The first time I meet Alex in person, it’s three years later. We’re in an airy warehouse loft in Soho, the kind with silky distressed flooring and furniture made of rebar. His face is exactly as I remember it from that distance down the block; even when he’s smiling, there is this profound sadness. But up close, there’s more to it, layers of meaning that will reveal themselves as we talk.
The first is a frank humility revealed in his acknowledgment that some are likely to look at his loss with disdain, especially if comparing it to other kinds of suffering. And he’s okay with that.
“Other people call their loss by different names. What I call my loss was Kona, my dog, who had been my best friend, who had been with me forever. I don’t expect people to understand it.”
What he calls the loss of his dog was actually the final nail in the coffin of his lifelong dreams. Just before laying Kona to rest, he’d given up his twenty-year pursuit of country music stardom. It was a surrender all the more cruel in that he’d had some real success in the past–a hit single in 2008, a video that hung out in the #1 spot on CMT Countdown for three weeks.
“I thought that was going to unlock all these doors that had been closed, and the clubs I’d been playing, to eight people in Des Moines, were going to miraculously shift into sold-out rooms.”
He smiles wryly.
“That didn’t happen.”
What happened, instead, was a quick slide into obscurity. One night, he found himself in a hotel in Chicago, staring into his reflection in the bathroom mirror.
“We all know how those hotel bathroom lights can be. My eyes were wrinkled at the seams, my hair was getting grey, and I was like ‘Jesus!’ With a flip of that switch, I was older.”
He left his music career and his soul-crushing job in Seattle, retreating to his sleepy hometown of Leucadia in southern California. He spent his evenings writing songs filled with palpable loneliness and tentative hope, songs that increasingly looked like letters to himself. Kona was the only other presence there, the one companion in his migration toward solitude.
Until she wasn’t anymore.
A few days later, Alex found a letter in his mailbox. It was from a fan of his, a woman named Emily whom he’d never met.
Alex had invited his fans before to send him letters, but no one ever had before. This one could hardly be called a fan letter. It was a confession of lost love, its determinedly joyful wound as fresh as his own.
…every year around this time, when the memories fill me, I write him a letter. I thought I’d share it with you, not so you’d write a song for he and I, but because I think your songs are gifts. Pieces of yourself used to help other people with their stories. So, here is a piece of myself. It is all I have to share in return for the wonderful thing you are doing with your music and your talent.
This letter changed everything for Alex, who had never known his introspective songs were gifts, who had never known how much he was sharing through his music, and who had thought that with Kona had died his final chance to feel love, connection, and part of life.
The letter from Emily became a song that Alex wrote and recorded with a couple of songwriter friends. The song resonated so strongly with listeners that Alex decided to deliver it to Emily in person. The video of that encounter resonated so strongly that other fans began writing him letters, and Alex wrote more songs about them with more songwriter friends, and by YEAR, the show For the Sender had a cult following that packed out Encinitas’ La Paloma theatre with people for whom the message meant more than just a night of local luminary singers.
The four letters in For the Sender were chosen based on their mysterious connection to Alex’s own life, at the time he received them. Alex wrote a book, readable in an afternoon’s time, showing the interweaving of these stories and his own. He printed 300 copies to give audience members at the show; one of them left with a publishing executive, who marched the book straight into her boss’ office the next day.
A week and a half after the La Paloma show, Alex was sitting in the office of Reid Tracy, CEO of Hay House, the largest independent publisher in the US. By the following month, he was traveling with various members of the For the Sender collective on song-delivery missions around the country, reading the letters, playing the music, and offering the stories to a new group of people who felt their own stories told within those words.
“We all have these same victories, these same defeats, these same joys, these same triumphs, these same tragedies–they’re all the same. They all evoke the same emotion, in all of us. In that way, I think, you can relate to each other’s suffering and each other’s joy, on your own level. You can connect to people much more authentically.”
Four years later, For the Sender is a project difficult to classify; Alex typically doesn’t try. It’s a sort of package deal–a record of 12 songs , a book no larger than the palm of a man’s hand, a traveling song-and-story show that is part Carter Family and part Broken Social Scene.
The project has brought him many more letters, which have led to more songs, which have become a series of books. (The second volume is soon to release, and Alex is now writing the third.) It has given him a friendship with Dr. Wayne Dyer, another Hay House author who felt a profound connection to the book. It’s also gotten him a manager whose former clients include Steven Tyler and Slash. (Their photographs are hanging on the wall behind him, as we speak.)
These photographs, together with the rebar furniture and the sunlight flooding the airy room and the espresso made by a coolly ingratiating assistant, look like success. The right kind. The kind that arrays itself with built-to-last versions of the authentic grit that got it here.
Alex looks tired–his show yesterday at the Javits Center had some rough sound issues, and he spent three hours signing books afterward–but good. His hair is neatly cut. His grey v-neck is clean. There’s kind of a dazed quality in his husky tenor voice that indicates he’s still getting used to this whole scene. It’s the daze of someone who always identified himself with success of a certain kind and is still processing the different kind that’s come to him.
Despite having spent two years putting together the project and two years since then promoting it, Alex doesn’t really know how to define what it is.
“I knew I had these lyrics, and these letters, and I figured that I should tell the backstory behind getting them all, to make it make sense to people. And I’d wrap my own story around through that.
“I didn’t know what I was doing…I just let it be what it was going to be. I think that’s why it ended up being special.”
Affiliation with Hay House has brought certain changes to the project. As the nation’s biggest publisher of inspirational and motivational titles, their brand is strongest with the self-help crowd. Rather than playing late hours at clubs and coffee houses, For the Sender is being presented at daytime events to a largely self-help crowd.
Alex likes to kick things off with a bang–after reading the first letter aloud, as he did at Lestat’s, he takes the microphone in hand says to the crowd, “Stop dreaming.”
I giggle, imagining the reactions–startled inspiration-seekers looking up, flipping through their notes for a point of reference. Alex laughs at it, too.
“The reason I do that is the plans that the universe, or God, or whatever you call that, had for me, were way bigger and more beautiful than I could have dreamt. It didn’t matter what I thought I was going to do. I think it’s a lesson in letting go, more than anything else. Let go of those preconceptions of what you think you want…because in anything–a relationship, a career, where you want to live–what you think you want isn’t what you need.
“You get there, you get what you want, and you realize ‘wait, this isn’t quite it.'”
That, he says, is the real lesson behind his letdown in Chicago. His dad’s saying “Don’t be an old man in a young man’s game” is built on an untrue premise. There’s no age limit on the game, Alex insists–look at Bruce Springsteen or Willie Nelson. Instead, it’s us that put constraints on things–that success looks a certain way and only comes by meeting certain goals by certain times, after which, it’s not worth trying.
That was the model of success that Alex’s parents had followed. Alex says he knows his dad wasn’t trying to discourage him from his dreams–he just didn’t want Alex to end up broke and disillusioned in the middle of nowhere.
Of course, that’s exactly how he did end up. And while he wouldn’t be quick to cheer on his own son’s efforts to play music to six people who aren’t listening, he realizes that we ourselves are the ones who put constraints on what we can or can’t do with our gifts, on what qualifies (or doesn’t) as success
“I’m not a big Christian guy. God…I don’t throw that word around much. But I do believe there’s a way things work. There’s just a way. The being done part is you going and doing the best that you can, like I said, every day. And then not being attached to where it leads you, or what it’s going to be. You don’t do these things every day to get to this.
“Like with your project.”
He extends his hand toward me.
“If people start telling you that you need to set really concrete goals you’re going to arrive at, that says more about them than it does about you and your project. By doing that, you might be completely missing the point of what it’s supposed to be.”
I get chills. I was just having this conversation–with someone in particular? With myself? I can’t remember now.
“It doesn’t mean what you do every day is wrong. You keep doing it. But you don’t get all bent out of shape about this one thing it’s supposed to be. You let it be what it’s supposed to be.
He opens his hands, as if releasing a bird he’s caught.
“That’s the project. But that’s you, too. It ends up being something beautiful. As long as what you’re putting out there in the world connects, that’s what matters.”
I finally get the courage to tell Alex how sad he looked, that first time I saw him. He admits that the first edition of For the Sender was grounded in sadness–rather, in an openness to sadness that is seldom found or acknowledged in our goal-oriented world.
The phrase “letting go” stands out in the book and in the songs that accompany it. Alex knows as well as anyone how painful it is to let go. He also knows that submitting to it forges something as ethereal and invisible as snowflake fronds–something invisible to the eyes of anyone who hasn’t experienced it before. For those who recognize it in each other, intense connections are formed.
Without the sadness Alex had been going through, the letters might not have connected with him as deeply, and For the Sender might not have been made. But even as those connections were creating a larger audience, Alex found himself moving out of sadness.
“Life shifts. Things change. That’s part of being detached–not in a bad way, in a good way.”
With two more books to write, he had to decide whether he was going to permanently identify with sadness, for the sake of maintaining the connections For the Sender had made.
“I was trying to figure out what I was going to do and what that was going to look like. Is it themed? Do you stay in this sad zone? There’s all these things to figure out…
“I ended up not doing any of that, just letting it come to me.”
Planning things out too methodically, he says, creates an expectation that can end up killing the greatness of what you set out to achieve. The very people who flog the importance of plans are the people who don’t end up doing anything at all. The disgust is palpable in his face, his old-soul expression changes momentarily to a little kid confronting vegetables, as he remembers his days of working for corporations in Boston and Seattle.
“I wish I’d had a recorder. Because people said nothing. Like, nothing. They get hung up on what they think something’s supposed to look like. It was just people sitting in a room, yapping, throwing around buzzwords they learned in MBA school. Nothing really got done.”
“You don’t want to be that meeting. Where everything looks good, it fits into this kind of structure, someone can do a story about it… That’s just not where it ‘s at. What I’ve seen, it’s in a very visceral connection you have with other people.”
I’m about to tell him my own personal rant–how “connection,” and even “story,” have become buzzwords. Marketeers have discovered those words’ suggestive power, in a world of digital media, and now every two-bit programmer and production company refers to themselves as a “storyteller.”
But Alex saves me the trouble.
“The connection’s one thing; we all want to feel that way. But it’s in the emotion of the story. That’s the important thing. That’s what people will respond to.”
The reason For the Sender works so well at these Hay House events, he says, is because they are an anomaly.
“We’re the one thing that people see that they’re not expecting to. Because of that, we are the most popular. It would be one thing if I just got up and talked for a while. But I get them to feel it. And that’s what people want.”
There’s a ring in his voice that could be dramatic emphasis to convey other people’s longing, or might just as easily be the echo of his own.
“Right now, nobody knows me. But 30 minutes later, they do. The reason they do is because I get them to feel something. That’s how they know me.”
Alex gets a lot of letters these days. He reads them all, as long as they’re written by hand. That automatically narrows the field–partly because Hay House only passes on the handwritten ones to him, but also because the message in a handwritten letter seems inherently more powerful.
I’ve found this, myself, and wondered what makes it so much easier to write out a meaningful letter in longhand, with no planning beforehand, when sitting down to type an important email is so much harder.
Alex suggests it’s in the visceral connection of making words directly on a piece of paper. A keyboard, he says, assumes a screen, and a screen assumes an electronic connection–all things between you and the physical actualization of the words.
“Where all you gotta do is take out a piece of paper and write, I think that connection is so true, it makes it easier to get your thoughts out. The channel is wide open.”
I add that even beyond the contrivance of a digital medium is the expectation it involves–of immediacy, of efficiency, of getting it done. Whereas when I sit down with a piece of paper, I know that no matter how quickly I think, it’s going to take some time to get it out. I’m okay with that at the outset, so I’m okay with letting the words lead me into unexpected places, and maybe ending up somewhere different from where I started out.
“For so many years I’d been trying to get a record deal, get somebody’s attention. I was trying to determine what was going to happen when. Manufacture meetings, relationships, timing.
“You can do it. But it just doesn’t work, long-term. It doesn’t lead you to where you were supposed to be.
“Timing is something in life that you cannot manufacture. It is super organic and you can’t mess with it.”
I step out onto Mercer Street, the cobblestones reflecting heat that offsets the cold wind shooting down the alley. I think back to my first New York City job on this very street–the entrance is only a few doors down. But it’s closed now; a new business is in its place.
When I first moved here, this street promised the life I was greedy for. I walked here in the chill of early morning, staring at yesterday’s newspapers clustered in the gutters while I waited for someone else to arrive and open the door, breathing the fishy stink of Canal Street that drifted freely down the block. I left when the street was an inky mess of rain and darkness, tiptoeing past the homeless men who sang with bawdy abandon in their cardboard-shielded corners.
I never saw it look like this, the cobblestones lit up like gold in the afternoon sun. All the greed with which I moved here, the impatience that rode beside me every morning on the subway, the companioned defiance and defeat that finally drove me out of town…it never let me see this place as anything but a goal. I never enjoyed it.
Not until today.
I walk down the golden alleyway, happy in that half-sadness that accompanies saying goodbye to someone you genuinely connected with. For a minute I imagine whether we might talk again, and what might happen if we did. Then I remember his final words in our conversation…
“What makes you think you know what you want? You think you do; we were taught to know that we do. You might find that thing, but it says nothing about your heart. Most of the time, it ain’t what you need.”
…and I decide to let it go.