Despite all the novelty and upheaval of traditions that accompanied this past year, one new beginning felt refeshingly more like a reunion than a departure.
That new beginning was the third studio album from Oregon based artist Tommy Alexander. Tommy’s latest album Waves has been received with much critical acclaim, topping many end of year lists and garnering recognition from KEXP and American Songwriter amongst others. Anyone who has listened to this album knows this praise is no mistake. Tommy’s jangly alt-country riffs and gritty deep baritone voice have drawn him comparisons to Johnny Cash while his songwriting and lyricism has been compared to that of Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson. His lyrics are both deeply personally and widely relatable. Within the first ten seconds of listening to any song on this album it feels like you’re listening to something completely new, but yet it still strangely feels like home.
Listening to the power and emotion within every song on this album, you would think Alexander spent a lifetime developing this talent, but in reality he got a late start in music. As a kid, he had crippling stage fright, and played sports to help deal with this. He grew up as a highly talented baseball player, eventually playing in college. After getting burnt out on school and baseball however, he dropped out of college and quit the sport. Soon after, he would receive a guitar as a present for his 21st birthday and he wouldn’t look back.
He would grow his roots in music over the following years, developing his sound and building a following through his first two albums, Old News (2016) and Baby You’re Blue (2019).
In December of 2019, Tommy headed out to eastern Oregon with his band as well as fellow songwriter Bart Budwig, who helped to produce and engineer the project. “We went out there for three days, spent the first day setting up and recorded a bunch on the second and third days. We ended up getting seven of the takes on the second day. Two of the songs on the record, “I Blame Myself” and “Waves” were recorded on 4-track cassette with my great friend Mike Coykendall. My songwriting process tends to happen kind of fast. It’s usually with a guitar and field recorder. A melody or something will strike me and I’ll start to freestyle on the recorder. Ideally the bens of the track will pop right out and then it’s just a game of editing and whittling it down to a concise idea.”
The title Waves feels like a perfect fit for an album that contains song such as ‘Troubled Mind’, ‘Whatever You Say’ (Alexander’s personal favorite from the record), and ‘I Blame Myself’, exploring a sort of rise and fall of interpersonal relationships and experiences. Another key song off the album ‘End of the World’, sums this idea up perfectly with Alexander singing in the most understated matter-of-fact style lines such as “It’s just the end of an era, the end of the way it used to be”. It’s Alexander’s emotion and honesty that he delivers lyrics like these with that really give these songs their meaning and elevate this album beyond Tommy’s already extraordinary talent.
After all the acclaim Waves received, Alexander wasted no time following it up with bonus track ‘Run River Down’, which he released at the start of the year. The song, which was recorded in the same session in eastern Oregon, is about is about letting go of the past and sinking into the moment.
The song once again features Alexander’s signature sound and poetic prowess with lines such as “Until this truth is ours at last” and “she knows dying ain’t the last dance to pass, so let the river run down, my hands”.
Outside of his own music, Tommy also started his own booking agency, helping artists around Portland (where Alexander currently lives with his wife) book shows and build their own careers. The business was understandably hit hard by the pandemic, but Tommy has managed to stay positive in his outlook, “With the venue and the tours, I had about 200 shows on the books that were all cancelled. Going from booking about 100 shows a month down to ten in seven months is for sure drastic —but we’ve kind of just rolled with the punches. I don’t have to look very far to see someone in a worse situation than I am.”