"Dealing With Grief & The Rekindling Of Creative Passion" An Interview With Alex Henry Foster
Alex Henry Foster was the frontman in the Canadian band Your Favorite Enemies when his father passed away. As a way of dealing with the grief Alex turned his back on music for a while and moved to Tangier. It was here where he was able to heal while also rekindling a creative passion inside by writing what would become his debut solo album “Windows In The Sky”. Unsure of being able to perform the album live, Alex was persuaded to appear at the International Jazz Festival in Montreal in 2019, and it’s this performance that was recorded and released as his new live album “Standing Under Bright Lights”. We caught up with Alex via email to talk about the albums as well as having an honest chat about the changes in his life over the past few years.
3S&O - The album “Windows in the Sky” was conceived and written in the wake of your father passing. Was it something you consciously set out to do? Alex Henry Foster - Actually, I wasn’t thinking about making an album nor was I envisioning the potentiality of any new creative project at the time. I was living in Tangier, where I had drifted about a year before, and started addressing the major burnout and profound state of depression I was in. Grieving my father was at the center of what I had to face. It was the vivid symbol of that very painful process, that led me to look into sorrowful regrets, singular moments I had overlooked or should have embraced, the relationships shattered in pieces around me, my profound state of faithlessness, and my complete loss of interest in life in general… These were also pretty significant matters I needed to face the reality of after a decade of denial and pretending. So I wasn’t planning anything… I spent days and nights writing, reflecting on my past, trying to determine the reasons or the instant that started my downfall. I knew I was pretty damaged, but I had to figure out if I was broken beyond repair. Writing became a sort of emotional detox, and the more I was torturing that phenomenal number of pages with anger, fear, sadness, misery, and despair, the clearer it became that even if I might never find the answers I was looking for, I would nonetheless have to let go and accept the reality of who I was rather than trying and explain myself for the affective disaster I was struggling with, as much as I would have to take ownership of the distressing self-imposed anguish I was the sole responsible of… It’s the acceptance of my inner condition and being honest with myself that eventually turned my desperation into a liberating standpoint and that guided me back into the light, as frightening as it was. That decision to abandon my ever-growing torment to that stream of emancipative motion allowed me to begin an in-depth grieving and reflection. The subsequent words that bloomed out of that mourning process became the foundation of what is now known as “Windows in the Sky” several months later… It’s a long answer, but without the context, I think that it would be difficult to understand the creative journey I’m presently welcoming people in. 3S&O - How far into the process did you realise that this would be a solo record, rather than one that would be done with your band Your Favorite Enemies? Were the band immediately supportive of it? AHF - I would say at the very last stage of the whole writing and recording process, probably because everything took place quite naturally. Even if I had realized that all those words were becoming lyrics and all those tiny bits of sound started looking like songs, I didn’t feel like I was in an album production process whatsoever, nor did I intend to do anything more with it than respond to the intuitive need I had to express the object of my reflections… at least at that initial point. It’s probably halfway into that creative motion that I felt a little more at peace with the fact that I was working on something that was way more cohesive and distinct than the still-mingled emotional state of mind in which those songs had been crafted. Yet, releasing any of it to the world was a non-existent perspective for as long as I can remember, and this is why I felt free to do whatever I wanted. The more I was digging into it, the more obvious it became to me that an album was taking form… As for Your Favorite Enemies, since it has always been a really beautiful yet highly complex relational entity based on friendship, I didn’t have to say much. They were all very supportive and involved from the get-go. I think they understood the honesty of the place I was in. It was a personal voyage, not some career move. It was real and without ambition. They wanted me to go as deep as I was willing to go and pushed me to go deeper when I wanted to keep those songs for myself alone. I wouldn’t presently be sharing with you if it wasn’t for the way they encouraged me. They basically freed me from the excuses I would have used to prevent a release… This time, though, I wouldn’t be able to hide in the context of a band: I had to expose myself. 3S&O - How were you feeling during the creation of it? Did you realize that it was becoming a source of catharsis for you? AHF - The whole process has been a long one, but the writing and recording were quick. If it felt honest and real, I was moving on. I knew that the second I would hesitate, I would go back and turn the intuitive dimension of the songs into a self-conscious effort to denature their essence. The sessions were short. I didn’t spend much time trying to figure things out to turn any of those songs into something they were not. I didn’t care about the structure, the time length, the sonic complexion, or the genre, the only direction I was following was “is it honest?” If the answer was “yes”, I moved on. That’s why the cathartic aspect of the album came way later for me. The creation was the musing period, in a way… 3S&O - I heard the album myself for the first time a few weeks ago while in the grip of anxiety and immediately felt it resonating with its themes and mood. Were you surprised when people connected with this really personal and private work that you’d created? AHF - I’m very humbled and grateful for the privilege that I’m being offered to connect with people on such an intimate level. I went through so many different phases of acceptance to get to this point, from the doubting moment preceding the release of “Windows in the Sky”, up to taking a chance to get back on stage almost a year after… Every one of those steps has been made with people who have welcomed me through the album. I don’t think I would have been able to appreciate, let alone be at peace, with everything that followed the album release if it wasn’t for that very singular connection with people.
3S&O - I know you had reservations about releasing the album and, again, about playing the songs live. How did you overcome this challenge? AHF - Maybe because I have a self-destructive personality…! But it goes back to the last conversation I had with my father on his death bed, two days before he passed, where I kept pressuring him with questions I believed would allow me to understand my own emotional struggles… He told me something that seemed simple at the time, especially as I was looking for something way deeper coming from that man of profound faith. He put his huge hand turned almost skeletal on mine, and said that I should stop being afraid to live, to embrace life to the fullest, that I should keep creating, follow my instinct, materialize the invisible I was envisioning, and leave my past behind, that no answer could set me free; only acceptance and let go would. He told me that I needed to keep taking chances, that it was who I had always been, that it didn’t’ matter if I had lost myself, as he knew I would find my way back and that he was proud of me. That gift of life from my father is the reason I’m able to keep going… 3S&O - Being asked to perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival is such an honour. Were your thoughts of playing the whole album or were you initially thinking of adding songs from Your Favorite Enemies too? AHF - I accepted to play that concert to pay a last homage to my late father, to share that moment with his friends and his family in the context of a festival I used to attend with him as a kid. I had no intention of turning that pure moment into some entertaining concept. YFE and their songs had nothing to do with it. From the moment it was announced that I would play that concert, it was about “Windows in the Sky”, about my father, and nothing else. It was important for me to be transparent with everyone, so no YFE fans would be disappointed. I didn’t want them to feel confused in the narrative or to believe I had kept it just cryptic just for them to buy tickets. That night was something else, and I believe people appreciated that level of transparency, which for me reflects the measure of affection, respect, and gratefulness I have for them. 3S&O - Was there a deliberate thought to make the night an event? From watching the footage the production comes across as intimate yet really encompasses the audience. The lighting seems really powerful too and works well with your performance. Was there much thought put into making this something special for everyone? AHF - The conceptualization of the night came from the vision I had to establish a visual template that would allow people to dwell on the songs’ emotions as deep as they were willing to go. They wouldn’t have to worry about the other people around them… That was the foundation of it all for me. I had the incredible honor to work with Pascal Boily, a stunning light designer who’s been a longtime friend and collaborator with YFE. He understood what that moment was about for me. Yes, the production is impressive, but I didn’t want anything, as cool as it might have been, that would turn that pure instant into a show. Pascal did a fantastic job in that regard because he had a lot of restrictions to work with… I really wanted for time itself to suspend its implacable nature for us all to commune…
3S&O - I love the way how the songs on the live album “Standing Under Bright Lights” are faithful to your original versions yet also seem to add and expand to them. Was this something that you and the Long Shadows came up up with together or did you find yourselves becoming lost in the moment of the performances? AHF - In fact, the whole idea behind the concert was to make sure I would preserve the nature of the songs without trying to emulate the album version. I didn’t want music sheets, didn’t want the musicians to play their parts… It was intuitive. Even the rehearsals had that very special imprint. It was about the emotions, not about the parts. It was about forgetting everything we thought we knew of those songs so we could be uplifted by the spirit of the “now”. It takes very confident musicians to accept something like that, especially when we’re 11 on stage and that I am the one calling the changes live. It’s like conducting an 11-piece orchestra in an improvisational stream. I don’t think we even played any of those songs the same way twice, and it explains why, when the album clocks at a little more than 1 hour, the live rendition is over 2 hours… For me, music is the only art form that is free by design, and that’s what I am interested in, if not obsessed with. That concert is the embryonic incarnation of that vision in so many ways. That’s why it had such a towering impact on everything that followed for me and how I eventually understood why so many people wanted me to release that live album after seeing and hearing bits and pieces of the evening… 3S&O - You open the live album with a new song “The Son of Hannah” which hasn’t been released as a studio recording just yet. Was this a decision to catch your audience off guard? Was the song originally intended for your first album or is it the result of fresh writing sessions? AHF - It’s based on my propensity to always look for me than can be seen… Every time I either embark on a new tour or craft the details of an upcoming project, it’s necessary for me to press the same issue: “Is there something missing? Is there something more?”. This is essentially based on the fact that I don’t believe in replicating a moment that could have been meaningful and significant in the past, for me this would be like recycling emotions into an inconsequential and pointless repetition… I knew there was something floating around that would be specific to the Jazz Festival concert, something that would take place as a prequel to “Windows in the Sky”, a sort of introduction. It remained blurry for a while, so I kept digging without turning that obsession into ambition. Everything I was coming up with felt too self-conscious, too polished, too perfectly aligned with the rest of the record for me to even consider any of my ideas. I was looking to touch something else, not to add more of the same. And I just let go for a while - which is also part of my creative process. I don’t want obsession to become some illusive infatuation, it needs to remain intuitive, no matter what I may be looking for or believe I may be longing to find. In that particular case, it all came to life when I had a conversion with Jeff, my dear friend and The Long Shadows’ bass player, about a story that he had read in the morning… The story is based on an Old Testament woman named Hannah who was weeping and supplicating God to be able to conceive a child, which in her cultural context reflected a profound desire to find her purpose, to contribute to her community. Her devotion was so consumed that a prophet named Eli thought she was drunk, which would have been a great offense. She explained why she was so desperately weeping. She basically felt like a failure. She promised to consecrate her child to the Temple would her desire be granted. It was, and she kept her promise, not knowing that her son would be one of the most important kings to rule over the country years later, while the prophet’s sons were ungrateful disgraces (Hannah’s son is Samuel who is venerated as a prophet by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike)… And as completely far-fetched as it might sound, I felt like that story perfectly represented the image I had of my father. What struck me in that story is as much the characters involved, as the social context and different outcomes. My father felt lost most of his life, drifting from a place to another, alcoholic and depressive. He looked for answers in every possible philosophy and belief, from the power of crystals to all sorts of esoteric studies. He was looking for something greater than himself, wanted to find his purpose, which he eventually found in Protestant Christianity. He saw his life transformed radically from the moment on. May it be rational or not, his desperate weeping was answered in a way. He dedicated his life thereafter to what he had never actually paid much attention to before; his wife and his son. Eli’s sons represent his constant battle against his demons, a reminder of his old self, awaiting to resurface at any doubtful instant to take everything away from him. He knew how destructive he could be… that’s why he despised religion so much, I guess. He knew all the magic tricks and wasn’t into that anymore. The song is also an intimate eulogy reflecting that new life of his, but I juxtaposed it with my voyage, my insecurities, and my soul-searching experiences, my faithlessness and my distrust, my fear to be a failure or seen as one, my constant struggle with the possibility of being rejected or not being enough for others to welcome me for who I am… The parallels in the song ultimately became one, partly my father’s story, partly mine. Am I the son of Hannah or am I one of the sons of Eli? I guess I’m a part of all those characters in a way… I’m still musing about it all… 3S&O - I’ve noticed that you’ve created a positive community within your social media. What struck me was you often mention the word “communion” and that, for me, really describes your interactions; the fact that you seem to want to create bonds and dialogue that go beyond the usual “hey, my new album is coming out soon so please but it.” Was this something that you’ve deliberately tried to cultivate? AHF - People, whoever they are, are the fundamental reason that defines my journey, both as a person and as a creator. I never wanted to feed the whole “icon” or “unreachable persona” that are often made to sell products or to commercialize art through self-obnubilation. I don’t have anything to sell, I simply have the unbelievable privilege to share with others, to connect, to exchange, to welcome and to be welcomed… I don’t point the finger at those playing the rock ’n’ roll gimmick of ego… But it ain’t me and for that, I can be grateful I was too scared to lose myself when I started with Your Favorite Enemies…! For me, that communion with people is more important than any of the songs I may ever have the blessing to share with them. It’s not about me, it’s about “us”, and it’s everyone’s decision to define the measure by which they are part of that “us”. There’s absolutely no notion of ranks or importance… I’d rather receive 100% of an honest 1% than realize that I am giving 1% of that 100% back because I’m the artist… I’m not special, I’m not entitled to anything more than the others. That’s why, in my opinion, it’s a safe space for anyone willing to take a chance to share and that’s incredibly precious to me.
3S&O - Mental health is something that’s on everyone’s mind at the moment after what we’ve all gone through in this past year due to the pandemic and that it’s something that you’re very passionate about. Do you feel that we need to speak up more about these sorts of subjects now that used to be a lot more taboo in the past? AHF - I think the writings have been on the walls for a long time, from all the prescribed pills to the horrific number of people who consider taking their life as the only way to stop a pain that cannot be seen… Everything we can’t comprehend has its form of taboos until we take the chance to open up a little, to reach out, to express the confusion we may feel. I have so much admiration for those people… I wish I had only 10% of their courage. The matters of the heart and soul lie in the realm of the intangible. I was so scared to expose myself before, for so many reasons… Fear of being abandoned, of failing others, of being judged or looked upon weak… I’m still dealing with emotional struggles… I probably will all my life and I accept it now, unlike before. But now, I deal with it with a peaceful and hopeful perspective. I may never find the reasons why, but I don’t have to. I can open up, reach out and express my distress… Oh, I might be a failure, I might be abandoned, judged, looked upon as weak… it might all be true, but I nonetheless take the daily decision to live in the light, as scary and frightening it is more often than not. I don’t have any answers for people struggling as I do, but I have the empowering ability to welcome and this doesn’t require any answers… That’s how I see it. And every time I hear someone talk about their struggles, it’s an incredible inspiration for me as a person, some sort of a potential victory over my own darkness… 3S&O - How have you approached the past year? I know you’ve been working on putting the new album together but what else have you been up to? Have you found time indulge in a new hobby or have you taken the time to reflect? AHF - My year has been made of so many different periods. I came back from a European tour on March 15th of 2020, right when the Canadian government closed the borders and grounded airplanes. As I was quarantined with my musicians and the touring crew, I started doing live streams and direct-to-vinyl performances in my studio, a former catholic church we bought and transformed into a venue/studio/multi-media complex a few years ago, located about an hour outside Montreal. In August, I came back home in the highlands of Virginia with my 2 dogs. I took some time to muse about the last couple of years and when I decided to release the Jazz Festival project, I was already working on 2 different book projects, one about the period between the release of “Windows in the Sky” release up to the completion of “Standing Under Bright Lights”. This one is almost done and should be out sometime in the next upcoming months. The other one is about the relationship between my father and I, and is set for 2022. 3S&O — Finally, what are you planning to do next? Are there any plans for new recordings or are you itching to get back out to play some shows? AHF - Besides the books I would like to complete before starting to work on any new music, which should take place sometime this summer, I’m presently working on a very important project that will take place in Tangier this upcoming fall… Life creates life! I take the time to appreciate every little glimpse, no matter what they are made of so I can have something singular to share with people when I’ll have the uplifting privilege to go back on the road… We would like to thank Alex for taking the time to answer these questions as well as being so open and honest with his answers. Also thank you to Zac Leeks at Division PR for arranging the review and email opportunity. “Windows In The Sky” and “Standing Under Bright Lights” are both available now and can be ordered from www.alexhenryfoster.com. They are also available on most streaming music sites.
Website - http://alexhenryfoster.com/
Interview - Scott Hamilton