Interview: Heather Alexander

By Peggi Warner-Lalonde

Heather Alexander photo

Heather Alexander is well known in many circles as an accomplished musician. Not just a vocalist and instrumentalist, Heather also composes and arranges. One of her most recent projects is a collaboration with Steven Barnes, inspired by his novel Lion's Blood. We recently interviewed Heather Alexander by email, and this is how it went:

Peggi Warner-Lalonde: How would you describe yourself as a musician? Would you say that you are primarily a vocalist, a guitarist, a composer, a folk singer?. . .

Heather Alexander: That's a hard one. . . . I guess I tend to think of myself as a "musical entertainer." I sing, play, compose, and tell stories, so that's probably the best description I can come up with.

PWL: How did you first get started in music?

HA: Actually, I was born to it. My father was a professional jazz guitarist who taught me to read music before I could read books. My grandmother was an actress in the British theatre and music hall before she came to the US, and had me quoting Shakespeare to my third grade classmates (much to their confusion).

My voice has always been my most reliable instrument, and in and after college I was in several genres of music, while trying to find my forte; everything from opera to country-western.

I had very little formal instrumental training, save for the nine years of violin in elementary through high school orchestra. At the end of that, I hated the violin and hid it away in a closet for four years, until one day when I was at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Novato, CA, I discovered a serious shortage of fiddlers. I thought that since I was at their level when I put the violin down, I could just pick it up again and play for the dancers. . . . I was wrong.

After four years of not playing, I was, shall we say "rusty." I tried out for one of the groups at the Ren Faire, and was told to "come back when you can play in tune."

The following year, after much practicing, I came back and formed my own group to play for the Irish dancers. This time we were successful enough that we had other musicians asking to join us. This group eventually became a band outside the Faire, and we performed Irish music and my originals at pubs in San Francisco.

PWL: Not only are you a musician, you're also a storyteller. Can you tell us how that came to be?

HA: It all started with a skunk.

I was driving to a gig one day, and a skunk ran out in front of me. He of course got frightened and turned his tail towards my brand new Jeep. At that point I was able to determine the braking power of my Jeep by leaving a matching, double-line streak on the road that looked just like the skunk.

After I came to a complete stop, the skunk dropped his tail and sauntered happily off the road.

I was so amused by this escapade that when I arrived at the gig, I found myself talking about it to the audience, from the stage. At the end of the night, I had several people come up to me and tell me that they enjoyed the show, but that they particularly enjoyed the story of the skunk.

From then on I found that my audience enjoyed hearing the little glimpses into my life from my own peculiar viewpoint.

So now, like the Tonight Show, I have my own little monologue at the beginning of several of my shows.

But if you're asking where I learned how to tell stories, then I would have to credit my grandmother with that. Being invalid and living with us, she had no other way to entertain a small child except by telling stories of her own life from "merrie olde England" to Hollywood.

PWL: Your stories come from your own life and experiences -- what about your songs? Where do they come from? Do you primarily write your own material, or do you perform other people's songs?

HA: I tend to perform my own material, although I will do other pieces that capture my interest and fit into my genre (like Archie Fisher's "Witch of the Westmerelands").

Hmmmm. . . where does my music come from? Some of it is wishful fantasies and some is real-life experience presented in a fanciful manner -- since I tend to see everything that way, anyway. I would half-jokingly say that my life is a fantasy novel with myself as the hero. <grin>

PWL: I first encountered your music through filk, that is, songs related to science fiction or fantasy works. How did you first get involved in projects such as these? And can you tell us a bit about your work for Lion's Blood?

HA: When I first performed my originals, it was for friends and acquaintances, several of whom were in fandom and the SCA. When they heard my stuff, they felt it necessary to convince me there was an audience out there that would be receptive -- so they took me to BayFilk, the Bay Area Filk Convention, back in the mid-eighties. Here, I heard Meg Davis for the first time, and performed my originals for an audience that I hadn't met beforehand. They liked my show.

Off Centaur Productions was taping the concerts for a compilation album, and asked if they could put some of mine on it. I agreed. For several years after that, I performed on Off Centaur's and later Firebird Arts and Music's albums, primarily work for hire. Often I would learn the pieces during the plane flight up to Oregon for the recording session. Eventually, I was forced to split with Firebird, and began producing my own albums in the folk genre.

Almost three years ago at OryCon in Portland, Steven Barnes corralled me in the coffee shop and made me a proposition. He explained the story idea he had come up with, an alternate history where (in an nutshell) Black races colonize America using Irish as slaves, and asked me to write some songs to help him visualize the Irish slaves.

I was honored and excited by the idea. Steven burned with enthusiasm and we fed ideas back and forth for a while. I came up with four songs initially, and gave Steven rough recordings of them. He gave me a copy of his rough draft, and I came up with more songs. He used my music to inspire him to write, and I used his prose to inspire me.

I love this kind of collaboration, and had been wanting to do it on my own since I broke up with Firebird. We both were very pleased with the results, and when the album was released, I produced a series of performances which consisted of Steven reading passages from his book, interspersed with songs and music from the album. They were very magical shows.

PWL: Are you happy with what you've achieved so far with your music? Where do you see yourself going from here?

HA: My music has allowed me to reach a moderately stable place in life. My husband and I now support ourselves with the music business and we have just purchased the home that we expect to grow old and cranky in, so yes, I am happy with what my music has achieved for me.

I have several albums planned at this point, as well as new songs being written. I expect to produce an album with my band, Uffington Horse (who also performed on my last two albums) by the end of next year, and possibly a solo album later this year.

I also am hoping to tour farther from the west coast (but this is more difficult when you don't have a booking agent). There is a trip to Germany in the works for 2003, and with luck, possibly to the UK as well.

Musically, I'd like to do more author collaborations, creating music for fantasy cultures, or soundtracks to books. I also have some pieces written for fantasy instrumental music, not quite like the new-age-space-music of yesteryear -- similar but with more teeth -- which I plan on recording in my "spare" time. And of course I plan to continue writing, singing, and fiddling live, until I grow old and cranky. <grin>

For more information, including where to find Heather's albums, see her Web site.

Heather's "Not Quite Complete" Discography:

2001 A Gypsy's Home, Heather Alexander (Sea Fire Productions, Inc.)
2000 Gaia Circles, Gaia Consort (Suddenly Naked Arts)
2000 Roundworm, Bob Kanefsky (Prometheus Music)
1999 Where the Magic is Real, Various Artists, Live (FilKONtario)
1998 Waxing Irish, Shanachie Artists (Shanachie)
1997 Midsummer, Heather Alexander (Sea Fire Productions, Inc.)
1996 Life's Flame, Heather Alexander (LiveSea Fire Productions, Inc.)
1994 Crosstown Bus, Various Artists, Live (Dandelion Digital)
1994 Now Four Shillings Short, Four Shillings Short
1994 Shadow Stalker, Heather Alexander (Firebird Arts & Music)
1994 Wanderlust, Heather Alexander (Sea Fire Productions, Inc.)
1993 Following Wind, Morgan (Fishbite Recordings)
1993 Rainshadow, Thayer (Watershed Productions)
1993 Songsmith, Heather Alexander (Firebird Arts & Music)
1992 Heather Alexander, Live! Heather Alexander (Firebird Arts & Music)
1991 Oathbreakers, Various Artists (Firebird Arts & Music)
1990 Backlight, Various Artists, Live (Firebird Arts & Music)
1990 Border Patrol, Various Artists (Firebird Arts & Music)
1990 Encore, Various Artists, Live (Firebird Arts & Music)
1990 Fever Season, Various Artists (Firebird Arts & Music)
1990 Footlight, Various Artists, Live (Firebird Arts & Music)
1990 Freedom Flight & Fantasy, Heather Alexander (Firebird Arts & Music)
1990 Keepers of the Flame, Phoenyx (Phoenyx)
1990 Keltia, Various Artists (Dirty Linen)
1990 Limelight, Various Artists, Live (Firebird Arts & Music)
1990 Oathbound, Various Artists (Firebird Arts & Music)
1990 UnReal Estate, Various Artists (Firebird Arts & Music)
1989 Carmen Miranda's Ghost, Various Artists (Firebird Arts & Music)
1989 Firestorm, Leslie Fish (Firebird Arts & Music)
1989 Magic, Moondust & Melancholy, Various Artists (Firebird Arts & Music)
1989 Tapeworm, Bob Kanefsky (Firebird Arts & Music)
1987 Southwind, Morgan (Fishbite Recordings)
1987 The Black Unicorn, Various Artists, Live (DAG Productions)
1987 Where No Man. . ., Various Artists (Off Centaur Publications)
1986 Stage Struck, Various Artists, Live (Off Centaur Publications)


"Lifetime of Song"
lyrics and music by Heather Alexander
copyright 1996, Sea Fire Productions, Inc.

How great is the need for the toys of mankind
If you learn how to feed from the joys you can find
When a smile and a wink and a snippet of song
Are good trade for a drink and a place to belong

What gift can I find in return for this prize,
All the genuine kindness I see in your eyes?
I can learn of your dreams and this much I can do
For this moment it seems I can give them to you

I will fashion a rhyme with a twist of my tongue
I will turn back the time to when all things are young
I will give to this earth of myself, right or wrong
For your kindness is worth my lifetime of song

I confront all your fears so for you they will die
I can cry all the tears that you tough boys won't cry
All the words you can't speak will be my common speech
All the answers you seek I can help you to reach

This vow that I make for my lifetime will stay
For the music you take, you can give what you may
A green paper eagle or a smile when we part
All tender is legal when sent from the heart

I will fashion a rhyme with a twist of my tongue
I will turn back the time to when all things are young
I will give to this earth of myself, right or wrong
For your kindness is worth my lifetime of song

 

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Peggi Warner-Lalonde is Senior Music Editor for Strange Horizons.

Heather Alexander makes her home in the countryside outside of Portland, Oregon and is performing regularly up and down the West Coast, in venues from Portland to Seattle. 2002 saw the release of her fifth solo album, Insh'Allah, music inspired by SF author Steven Barnes' novel, Lion's Blood. Previous work on book/album tie-ins like Songsmith and Shadow Stalker, as well as her original Celtic rock album Keepers of the Flame (with her former band, Phoenyx), have assured her popularity at SF cons, while her appearances at pubs, coffee houses, Folk Music Festivals and Highland Games have made her music available to the public at large.

"Lifetime of Song" is available on Life's Flame.
This album, recorded live in 1996 during a series of house concerts in Berkeley, CA, brings home the unique magic and scintillating energy of Heather's live performances. Digitally recorded and mastered, Life's Flame showcases the warmth, humour, and musical breadth of a Heather Alexander show.