Interview: Alexa Woodward on Getting Through Giving – We All Make Music

Interview: Alexa Woodward on Getting Through Giving

About a month and a half ago, rising Youtube music phenomenons the P.S. 22 Chorus received a visit from Alexa Woodward, a rising folk and bluegrass songwriter from South Carolina.

The chorus was hot off a closing performance at the Oscars, and Youtube videos of the chorus’s covers of artists like Lady Gaga and Phoenix had been garnering hundreds of thousands of views, so the two struck us as such an odd pairing that we asked Woodward for a chat about it.

But as we began to research her career, we discovered a thoughtful, compassionate independent artist whose story all independent musicians could learn from. We spoke with her about her unusual record label, her success with syncs, and her drive to keep compassion at the front of what she does. Here’s what happened.

What made you want to work with the P.S. 22 Chorus?
I discovered them when I was in Copenhagen on my first European tour. I was with some friends and we were hanging out after the show, and they were talking about them and they wanted to show me all the videos. And I found it strange that I didn’t discover them til I was abroad somewhere, but I think it’s really beautiful, what they do.

I think they have such a wonderful spirit, and they’re capturing a certain quality that happens when you make music that I think gets lost for a musician who’s making a living off of music. Some simple, soulful experience of the music that becomes harder to have when you treat it like a job.

It must have been surprising to hear that you got to work with them.
I was pretty surprised, yeah. I don’t know how many indie artists have really courted them and sought them out. But it’s true that they generally cover pop songs by Lady Gaga or the Bangles [laughs], not so much indie artists like me.

So how did that work?
Well, Warren and I talked about it, and the actual mysteries of how it came about are not within my knowledge. [laughs] He did most of the communicating. I don’t even have Greg’s e-mail address. I just showed up, met them, and had a great time.

I had this passing thought that maybe it was part of a larger pattern you have of trying to give back or get involved with social causes. What draws you to the causes you get involved in?
That’s a good question. I’m not really sure what draws me to work with them. I’ve always considered myself a person who cares about the world I live in, and I feel like whatever I’m doing has to honor that. And so my previous work in a non-musical setting was in HIV case management, and before that I’d done some volunteering in India and Cambodia, and I just think it’s important to care. [laughs]

The ironic thing about that though, is music is an inherently selfish career path. You’re promoting yourself, you’re trying to get people interested in you and your creativity, and I think it’s been very important for me to find every avenue that I can to make it a less egotistical experience, and a more authentic creative experience, where my music is engaging with the world around me in some way.

Before deciding to pursue music full-time, you actually went to law school. Did you study entertainment law?
No, I actually studied human rights law. And I worked on some pretty amazing cases, and it’s honestly not something that was inherently bad at all. It was pretty cool – I worked on some slavery cases in New York, where some of our clients had actually been trafficked into the States and held as slaves for seven years in a single apartment. And I guess what was frustrating about it wasn’t the overarching work itself. It was very slow-moving and very tedious, and I realized that the actual work of a lawyer is just bickering over nonsense with the opposing party. Those cases had been active for like seven years, without ever going to trial, and I realized that they would be active for several more years without going to trial or those people seeing any real justice.

So I was kind of disillusioned with law as a process, and at the same time I liked what I had going on creatively, and I had this opportunity with Warren and also with Constant Clip Records, and I just decided that for me it was most important to take this time to be creative.

I would love to work on those causes again, I just want to work on them in a way that’s meaningful. I felt that the work I was doing, I don’t know, it just wasn’t producing the results that I wanted.

Let’s talk about Constant Clip, then. They’re more of a collective than a traditional record label, right? How did you hook up with them?
Warren has become involved in Constant Clip through me. It’s kind of a cooperative relationship between Warren and Constant Clip, even though he doesn’t represent any of their artists besides me.

Constant Clip was kind of born out of this ridiculous hippie experience at the Kerrville Folk Festival, which just always sounds cheesy when I talk about it. The Kerrville Folk Festival is a very long-running festival that takes place in the Texas hill country, and people from all over the country attend it annually.

A lot of songwriters who are making their living as songwriters attend it, not to perform but to be there. At night they have these song circles that go from midnight until five o’clock in the morning all over the ranch. There are probably a hundred different tents, each with their own names and groups of people that perform there and hang out there. So we met at the top of a hill [laughs], in the Texas Hill country, and I don’t know, the particular group of artists that were there just connected, and we came back night after night. And Constant Clip was born out of that experience.

It is kind of just a collective, but it’s kind of more than that. The artists on Constant Clip generally tour together, they share with each other the things that a label tries to provide, but in a more organic and non-monetary way.

If you’ve been touring for four or five years, and you’re making a living off your music, then one of the things you can share with others is your booking contacts, all the people that have made sure you’re making a decent living at what you do. And if you take ten artists that are doing that, and doing it well, and they share that stuff with each other, you end up with a lot of resources that I think a top-down organization can’t give you.

So the label doesn’t give you a chunk of money to make a record that you have to pay back. But it’s sort of like [that saying], “Give a man a fish, he won’t be hungry today. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for the rest of his life.” If you’re giving people the tools they need to do it themselves, to not get into debt and still do it well, the artist ends up better off in the end because we’re not paying back a label. Every CD we sell comes back to us, which is huge if you’re making a living off your merchandise sales.

Staying on the topic of making a living, you’ve had a really nice string of good fortune with respect to syncs. Do you work with a licensing company? Does your manager do it? I had this idea that maybe at law school you’d met a bunch of people who work in publishing or something.
[laughs] No, I don’t. That’s actually a very random story. Warren isn’t involved at all.

When I was living in New York, back in the days when people still used Myspace, this guy sent me a message on Myspace, saying he worked for this licensing company. And I checked out his website, because he said he was interested in licensing my music. So it was just a flat-out solicitation from this company.

They were putting together an album of what they called laptop folk. It was a couple years after Juno came out, and everybody was into that indie sound. And despite the fact that they had tons of studio musicians working for them, they couldn’t make that happen [laughs]. So they started just soliciting people on Myspace.

I guess they were interested in taking all the songs off my first album, but the catch was that they were interested in buying the songs, which means I’d no longer have the rights to sell them in any form. So what ended up happening was I said, “No, you can’t have all of these songs, I’m getting ready to release my album, but you can take one of my old junker songs that I’m not going to put on the album, and I have two that I’d be willing to sell.”

I recorded a demo for free, and he liked the song, and they paid for me to record it in this fancy studio in New York. So I sold them the song, and they paid me $400 for it, and then made these big promises about how much I’d make in royalties. [laughs]

And at the time, I looked at it as, “This is a free $400 that I’m getting for a song I wasn’t going to use anyway. And I’m being screwed right now, but I’m also broke and $400 is awesome.” So I was pretty surprised when it landed its first placement. And I am consistently surprised, because they have no legal obligation to tell me when it’s placed, apparently, so I get random YouTube messages from people all over the place, because the National Geographic placement was for a show that literally airs all over the world. I’ve gotten e-mails from Indonesia, Scotland, Dubai, everywhere.

So it’s cool, and I do get some royalty money for it. I’m only getting half of the writer’s share, but it still brings in a few hundred bucks every once in a while, and it’s exposing my music to people who would have never heard it otherwise. And I did finally figure out a way to make it useful to me. I put it on my website for free, so people can download it for free in exchange for an e-mail address. I’ve probably added at least 1,500 e-mail addresses to my e-mail list, through downloads of that song.