An Interview with Alexandra Hamer

One of my favorite things about writing Trial By Steam is the opportunity to meet and engage with people who are actively creating things.  Whether it be a story, a garment, or a piece of music, Steampunks tend to always be in the midst of some new and wonderful creation. One such person I recently had the chance to chat with was Alexandra Hamer, a retrofuturistic musician who released her album Anachronique back in February. Her music and her DIY spirit is sure to appeal to Steampunks across the board, and thus it became obvious I needed to introduce you to her!

Please tell me a bit about yourself and your musical background.

I had a somewhat limited formal education, having been “asked to leave” school at the age of 16 and having done almost no work at all there in the preceding years – well, I’m a defiant little soul and neither my parent nor my teachers ever managed to convince me that their desire to see me in a certain place at a certain time performing a task of their choosing superseded my desire to be doing something completely different somewhere else!

I don’t regret any lack of formal education because I have always been an insatiable autodidact. As such, my music “career” began when I taught myself drums at the age of 14 with a pair of home-made sticks whittled from the back of an old sofa and a drum kit made of cushions and books – now doesn’t that sound romantic! Being of a somewhat obsessive disposition, I played them for 2 or 3 hours a day for 2 or 3 years and became really quite adept. Eventually my mother bowed to my determination and bought me a tiny second-hand drum kit – it was unaccountably covered in brown hessian but underneath it was a little sparkly silver relic of the 1960’s and I loved it!

It so happened that I lived in a house full of reggae so that was the genre I played and when I progressed to guitar, bass and keyboards I always played reggae on them first. Consequently, I am inescapably a reggae musician and you will always find the feel of it somewhere in my music.

But, there are many other musics that have written their little sonograms into my heart. Harmonically and melodically I love the Tin Pan Alley composers like Cole Porter and particularly Richard Rodgers but also the music of the First World War and the late Victorian music hall. Added to those I have a passion for the French chanson style of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel and I love the exotica style of the 50’s and 60’s as exemplified by the likes of Arthur Lyman. There are many others too, ranging from Chopin to Noël Coward to Björk.

My singing style probably has hints of Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Al Bowlly, Björk, Billy Holiday and perhaps some of the Britpop singers of the 1990’s. I do not, of course, claim to sing as well as the illustrious performers mentioned, I only note their influence on my modest abilities!


How did you decide to create music with such a distinctively antiquated tone?

That is not something I was aiming for but it naturally arises from my influences and tastes and my willingness to indulge them. I have a particular tendency to write in waltz time which is a very Vicwardian thing to do and I often use certain chord changes common to the period so these, combined with some of my instrument choices, may explain the antiquated quality to some of my tunes.

How do you go about writing a song?

I always start with the music. I usually noodle about on the keyboard with an interesting sound for a while and with luck and perseverance, a little tune will start to make itself known to me. Once I have the basic chord structure and melody I start to build up the orchestration until I have a good draft of the piece. At this point I sit back to consider what sort of an atmosphere the music is implying – what is it the music to? And what scene might be played out to this theme?

When I have the theme, I start on the lyrics – sometimes they come cooperatively but at other times I have to wrestle them on to the paper one letter at a time! I try to steer away from the “Ooh Baby, you hurt me so bad” school of song-writing and aim for themes and settings you don’t usually encounter in popular music. An example might be “The Birds, The Trees and You”: I felt it had the atmosphere of a deep, tropical forest and that image immediately conjured the idea of a pair of Edwardian plant hunters, high in the canopy of the Siamese rainforest experiencing what would turn out to be the most perfect afternoon of their lives, blissfully in love in the most extraordinarily beautiful and secret place.

Tell me more about your album “Anachronique”.

I haven’t particularly tried to create a unified whole but themes emerge of their own volition. For example, during any given period in your musical life you find yourself drawn to a particular set of instruments and some of the defining sounds on Anachronique are glass harmonica, music box, tuned gongs, Hammond organ, flutes and a big fat dubby bass sound. These inevitably lend a certain overall flavour to the album.

Lyrical themes also emerge in a similar way from the various fears, hopes  and preoccupations you have when you are writing but also from your broader interests and you can derive some of my passions from a listen to the album: for example, I am a xenophile and love anything exotic so I have songs set in places like Madagascar, Siam, Bulgaria and Japan. And whilst some are exotic by virtue of location, others are exotic by virtue of being set in the Vicwardian period (I always think of other times as if they were foreign places that you can dream of visiting). I was originally going to call the album “Tramp Steamer” as fantasising about such a vessel, plying its trade in the darkest corners of the Vicwardian globe helped inspire several of the songs like “One More Circumnavigation” and “Madagascan Boat Repairs”.

Many of the songs deal with isolation so many of my protagonists are essentially alone like Lizzie Green or the homeless Parisian girl in “Cats and Starlings”. There are also 2 suicides on the album but there are happy songs too and, I hope, enough comedy to parry the darkness.

I also have a great passion for Victorian actuality film and photography and this expresses itself in the videos. I have no means to make elaborate videos but I do have books full of early photography from which I can take appropriate static images for the songs. My hobby of repairing and colourising old photos also shows.

Tell me how you get your particular sound.

I like to mix the music so that it sounds as if the musicians are in a little cosy room with me – it’s a small and intimate sound and a production style you might use for a jazz quartet or small folk band. I love unusual instruments that sound organic and slightly broken and I often push them a little out of tune to instil some humanity. Musically, do I have to work with computers as I have no band nor any pets that might be trained to play but I don’t like the robotic sound of sequenced music so I play (almost) all the parts manually and leave most of the imperfections in. I do cheat when I have written a piece too cunning for my limited keyboard skills by, for example, recording it at half speed or doing the right and left hands separately but it is at least a recording of a performance rather than a programmed sequence.

What is your favourite track on the album and why?

Ooh, tricky – I can’t pin it down. I am proud of “The illusion of Free Will” and “Madagascan Boat Repairs” because they are essentially reggae in 3/4 time which is technically impossible – in fact, I think I might have invented it! I like “The Birds, The Trees and You” which I think might be the best song I’ve written, though I don’t get the impression that listeners agree!

I do have some favourite moments on the album, for example, the second half of “The Great War” because the string section counter-melodies make me slightly tingly. Then there’s the way the rhythm section pulses gently in under a long glass-harmonica note, 55 seconds into “You’ll Never Be Too Close” and the bass line to “The Illusion of Free Will” which appears 1 minute and 35 seconds into the song and is placed within the bar in a way that only a reggae musician would consider plausible. Oh dear, that’s too much detail isn’t it! That’s the insanity of making music – you easily become obsessed by tiny, tiny details that no-one else hears or cares about!


How do you describe your music to people who have never heard it before?

Dismissively usually – I might typically say “It’s a bit odd, I doubt you’ll like it” but I am used to people frowning at my tunes and as I have only sold 7 copies of the album, I think there is good reason to suspect that it’s not the most approachable or easily likeable music in the world! I think some people are disconcerted by my odd and androgynous voice and if they are not used to reggae, some of the note placements can sound somewhat back to front.

Personally, I love my music so I take refuge in the van Gogh hypothesis and will just have to wait for the world to catch up with my genius!! Then again, maybe 7 copies is actually really good in mp3 world – I have no frame of reference but I have just halved the price of the album!

Generally there is nothing new in music, there are only new combinations of musics that already exist – that is where the originality and innovation can be found and out of my fairly broad set of musical interests emerges a genre all of it’s own – perhaps I should call it “Alexandrian”! A big question for a musician or composer is whether you try to steer your music towards a preconceived sound or genre or whether you simply indulge yourself and let it find it’s own course and I prefer the latter approach. That may sound like arrogance but I feel that the more you compromise by pandering to an audience, the further the music gets from something you could call art. And now I’ve gone and called my music “art” which is very pretentious of me but I didn’t say it was good art! Of course, secretly I do think it’s good art but I would never say that in an interview!

What does steampunk mean to you?

I could not call myself a steampunk as I don’t have the look and am probably more Dickens than Verne. Nor are my interests confined to the Vicwardian period. I do love Victorian clothes but I don’t actually have any and as I don’t really socialise, I have little reason to get a good look together.

I do think the steampunk tag is appropriate for some of my music though as it combines Vicwardian musical structures and styles with more modern technology than they would have had access to and that combination of Vicwardian and modern seems to me the very essence of steampunk. For example “You’ll Never Be Too Close” is a Victorian tinted melody in waltz time set to a music box but I have extended the music box beyond it’s natural range by use of sampling technology. I also have a tendency to a Victorian turn of phrase which rather fits the genre.

How DIY is your music?

Entirely – I compose the music, write the lyrics, perform it, record it, mix it, create the videos and artwork. I also like to tweak and create instruments, even if it is only in a virtual sense. For example, on “Olga, Soft Upon Me” there is a solo instrument that sounds somewhat like a harpsichord but is actually a set of hair clippers that I have sampled. And on “The Great War, the main melody is played on a sampled Armenian reed instrument called a Duduk but I have managed to upset it with the computer and caused it to slide in and out of tune slightly and growl at itself.

 Are there any upcoming events in the near future you’d like to mention?

I have not done any gigs for a long time and have none planned but I might do one at some point in the future. I’m quite at home on stage but gigs always involve social interaction both before and after playing the music and I’m not very good at that. I am making videos for more of the songs from the album and once those are completed I will probably work on some new tunes. I think I might do a smaller collection next – perhaps of 3 or 4 tracks as a mini album or EP and I’d like to work some of my other interests like philosophy and palaeontology into it somehow – I feel quite sure that my weird voice, singing a waltz about the philosophical connotations of the extinction of the Indricotherium will be the very thing that finally propels me to international stardom!

Where can people find your music?

My music can be found in various places. You can listen to it and download it at:

http://alexandrahamer.bandcamp.com/

but it can also be found accompanied with videos on Youtube:

http://www.youtube.com/user/Alexandrasaurus

Or with better sound quality videos at Vimeo:

http://vimeo.com/user5568224/videos/sort:newest/format:detail

And in various other quarters like my Facebook page:
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Alexandra-Hamer/121564887896176

Or on Myspace:
http://www.myspace.com/alexandrahamer