Alex the Astronaut: ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a lot of information to give the world’

Get the latest from Beat


Alex the Astronaut: ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a lot of information to give the world’

Alex The Astronaut
Words by Jen Kumnick

‘If it’s all too bleak keep looking at me / I don’t know a thing, I just stand there and sing.'

Alex the Astronaut’s upcoming album How To Grow A Sunflower Underwater (and the song these lyrics are from, ‘To Be Something Good’) captures the collective feeling of fighting against the immense weight of the world, in a desperate search for hope and joy. It can be hard to feel like there’s much impact one person can make, but harnessing her power to ‘just stand there and sing’ is more profoundly meaningful than Alex may realise.

Following the much-loved and critically acclaimed debut album The Theory of Absolutely Nothing, Alex the Astronaut’s new record How To Grow A Sunflower Underwater is a triumphant exploration of everything that has happened in Alex’s world in the last couple of years. And it’s been an eventful time – to name a few things, she’s been navigating her recent autism diagnosis, working through therapy for PTSD after being a full-time carer for a loved one, while also exploring notions of gender, identity, and the confusion of adulthood and relationships.

Read Melbourne’s most comprehensive range of features and interviews here.

Of the album’s themes, Alex tells us, “It’s a funny combination of like, ‘oh, I’m really proud I said all these things, that’s really good, and – oh my gosh, that’s a lot of information to give the world!” However, confronting these experiences with curiosity has encouraged a deeper vulnerability in her songwriting, “I think forcibly so,” she admits. “I had a lot of big things happen and I wasn’t going to write about anything else.”

That open-hearted nature is what allows her to effortlessly connect with such a wide audience. “I think it’s kind of exciting,” she marvels, “It means I get to talk about things that I think are really important to me, a lot, which is good.” And when she talks (or sings), people listen. Alex’s storytelling hones in on details that can be intensely personal or taboo, but does so in a way that is inclusive, with songs encompassing everyday moments and broad themes that are innately human and relatable. This ability affords her the influential roles of being both an entertainer and an educator – truly making her a voice of this generation.

Reflecting on the music-making process and its inevitable learning curves, the Warrane/Sydney-based artist says: “When I started touring as a musician the conversation was, ‘well, when do we release the first album?’, and I didn’t really listen to albums. So people on my team were like, you know, ‘your album is a big thing and you have to release it and it’s going to be exciting’. And I was always just like, ‘I like writing individual songs.’”

This meant that The Theory of Absolutely Nothing was mostly formed by a collection of songs Alex already had under her belt, tied together retrospectively. While there’s nothing wrong with that approach, she’s grateful to have fine-tuned the creative process this time around. “I was way more clear going into the studio, thinking – I really would like some big strings, and I would really like some big orchestra stuff” she says, eyes shining. “There was a lot more clarity going in…It was like, months and months of preparation before even getting into the studio.”  

The recording process took place in Meanjin/Brisbane, working together with Sam Cromack, Dean and Daniel Hanson (co-producers on the album, and all members of Ball Park Music). “It was really fun,” she smiles. “It was kind of like merging Ball Park Music and my band, in the studio.”

Not unlike BPM’s work, How To Grow A Sunflower Underwater is brimming with effervescent, playful production and grandiose instrumentation – all honouring the voice and songwriting style that is distinctly Alex’s own.

Armed with a playlist of references to take into the studio, Alex reveals that she was deeply inspired by Gang of Youths. “Dave (Le’aupepe) covers such heavy topics in his music, but because of the backdrop of the songs, it flows really well and you come out the other end not being beaten down, you kind of feel really excited for some reason, even though you’ve just been talking about these heavy subjects.”

She continues, “At the start, I really wanted Dave to work as a co-producer on the album. And then I talked it through and I think my managers were like, ‘I think they’re busy doing their album’. Which is good, ‘cause it’s a fantastic album!” she laughs.

A lyric in the recently released song, Airport confesses to feeling envious of a second big influence on the album, Phoebe Bridgers: ‘And the song that played was Phoebe Bridgers / I turned it off ‘cause I was jealous I didn’t make it’. But it comes from a place of deep admiration. “I just love her writing. I think she’s such a great musician and writer, and the second album Punisher is so massive.” Alex continues, “It’s kind of a similar thing where you don’t really realise what she’s talking about, and then you do, and then it’s like – oh, god, okay.”

Likewise, How To Grow A Sunflower Underwater handles its themes with care through earnest guitar chords and heartfelt lyrics, blissfully brightening what feels dark with bold orchestral optimism, singalong choruses and brass-led majestic moments, ultimately combining to create powerfully anthemic catharsis. “Before the song gets made, you kind of have all these ideas and it’s like, oh I really hope we could do that. And for me, this album is like – we kind of pulled it off!” I congratulate Alex for doing a brilliant job, and we laugh as she gives herself a pat on the back.

On the day we chat, it’s crunch time for Splendour in the Grass preparations – and that includes working on the animations for her set (on a struggling computer that is almost old enough to rival the dinosaur on the yellow t-shirt she’s wearing), and painting costumes with a friend in the bathroom (using a bath sponge in lieu of a second paintbrush). Never a dull moment, she’s swept up in the fun of it all returning after such a long time – this will be the first time in four years that she’ll get to perform a headline tour on home soil.

Touring as a solo performer for many years, Alex is really looking forward to enjoying the experience with her band this time. “It will definitely help to have some friends on stage with me. I think that always makes it a little bit better.” The extra time to prepare means there’s been a lot of thought and detail to put into the shows. “It’s just going to be really fun to be able to kind of implement some of the things we’ve been making over the past two years.” But nothing beats the feeling of having fans sing along, she remarks. “It’s so special when you’ve prepared and then all of a sudden people come walking in and start singing your songs. It’s such a privilege and I just feel so grateful, and relieved.”

How To Grow A Sunflower Underwater is out July 22, and tickets to Alex the Astronaut’s tour are on sale via Oztix.