Herbert Meets: Willie Alexander

Willie Alexander is a New York based musician and composer whose journey began with the accidental discovery of his singing talent. Fast-forward to today and Willie has just completed a five year stint with the San Francisco Symphony and now lives in New York where he is composing – most recently the music for Kim Kardashian’s SKIMS Fashion show. 

I soon found out when listening to his story that Willie is tenacious, warm and unafraid to get to the heart of the matter, so that’s exactly what we did. 

Willie Alexander by Alejandro Garcia 

Do you think there is space for classical music in today’s world? 
I do, I think there is a misconception that classical music is dying but I think it is having a rebirth with a very different face and sound. 
We are also seeing classical technique, influence and sounds all around us. Look at Pyer Moss who has a choir singing contemporary music in a classical style at his fashion shows or artists like Kanye West have recognised that there are people outside his sound world listening to his music and have started to engage with classical music.
What do you think is behind this rejuvenated interest in classical? 
For a long time, classical music felt like it belonged to one type of person and that it was ‘one thing.’  As a result of social media we are now exposed to a greater diversity of people in the opera, ballet and art world daily. People of colour and queer people are coming to the forefront of the classical world, which represents an important intersection between our modern world and the historical genre.   
So, would you attribute the growing diversity of the genre to its growing appeal?
Yes, I think it’s driven by the culture of people’s color. I live in Harlem and it’s known that there is a renaissance happening. I mean, look at The Metropolitan Opera – they have just staged and all-black opera – granted it’s a very famous opera (Porgy and Bess), but they have brought in such amazing young talent.    
I also think Millennials through to GenZ are pushing through the kinds of adherence to tradition that maybe existed in previous generations and are more open to different artistic experiences…now people want to push themselves out of the box.   
In terms of you and your relationship with classical music – how did it all start? 
Well, I’m from a very small farm town in central California called Hanford and apart from my sister, my family are not musical. It’s funny, my mom says she always knew I would be a musician because as a child all I wanted to do was watch Fantasia on repeat. Then, at high school we used to take a class trip once a year to the San Francisco Symphony. On one of the trips, my best friend and I decided we wanted to work for the Symphony – that’s just what we were going to do! I wanted to be the timpanist and he the clarinettist and that was that. 
Had you started singing at this point? 
I had always enjoyed singing for myself, but not seriously. One night, my sister overheard me singing to the radio and she dragged me by the arm into the kitchen where my mom was washing dishes. When I started singing for her, she stopped and started crying – it was the very first time any of us knew I could sing. 
My sister then secretly enrolled me into choir at high-school and that led me to specialise in voice at community college. But the first year of that was…horrible (laughs). I had never sung opera and did not know a huge amount about classical music. The first time I heard someone sing an aria was a fellow student. I found it very beautiful, but it was a ‘what the hell have I signed up for?’ moment.

Willie Alexander by Alejandro Garcia 

What changed? Was there a turning point where you ‘knew’ you wanted to pursue singing professionally? 
At my first recital, I got on stage and I had no idea what I was supposed to do, so I just stood there in silence… when the music eventually started, I choked – I couldn’t make a sound. 
I was mortified and a student that came to reassure me afterwards told me that it ‘happens to the best of us’ and ‘it wouldn’t ever happen again.’ I didn’t completely understand what she meant, but it was that moment that I decided to work so hard  that it would never happen again.  

Over the next year, I moved from being one of the lowest graded kids to one of the highest and I decided to audition for an opera company in Fresno, CA.  I got in at 18 years old and ended up doing two seasons with them.  

Yeah, there was a lot going on at that time. That summer, I came out and decided to move to San Francisco with the guy I had fallen in love with. I dropped out of college and the opera company…but it didn’t work out with the guy and I found myself at the end of the summer with no school to go back to and nowhere to live.
I was lucky because a friend of mine at the time invited me to come and stay with him in LA to figure things out and a couple of days before I left, I got a call from the San Francisco Symphony offering me a full-time position.  
I can’t believe it – 
I know right? It was crazy. So, I packed my bags and moved to San Francisco and crashed at a friend of a friend’s house called Tramaine, who became like a brother to me.  A couple of months later, I started with the Symphony and was there for five and half years until I moved to New York last January.
Why pack up your life in San Francisco and move to New York?
I always had a desire to be in New York – it had been somewhere I had romanticised and after five years in SF, I wanted to push myself and try something different. 
Once I had moved, I decided that I didn’t want to sing anymore and that instead I wanted to turn my hand to composition. So, this past year, I have taught myself to play that piano and I have been writing every day. 
Are you working on something specific? 
I am currently working on a song cycle – it’s a work in progress.  I have just started sharing it with friends when they’re over at my house –      
How would you describe your sound? 
When I hear it in my head – a lot of it is classical music in its orchestration. Its written for a male voice and piano, string quartet, clarinet and saxophone. I guess it has blues, jazz, R&B and minimalist influences – some people have described it as ‘if Phillip Glass was black’ – I’m not sure how I feel about that but, that’s what it could sound like. 
You mention Phillip Glass – but have there been other musicians that have impacted you throughout your life? 
At the very beginning of my singing career – it was Audra McDonald. And then at college, someone said that my sound was almost like Jessye Norman and I was like ‘who’s that?’ 
Like – ‘she better be good!’
(Laughs)…exactly – I went home and looked her up and I was like ‘Oh my god, that’s Aunt Janine!’  I had this gorgeous aunt that looked just like her. And the first video I saw was Jessye singing ‘Ride On, King Jesus’  in a red and gold gown with the huge shoulder pads and I thought, ‘this lady is an opera singer.’ She became my biggest inspiration for classical singing. 
I also love Gregory Porter’s voice, I admire Caroline Shaw who is the youngest musician to win the Pulitzer Prize, J’nai Bridges– a singer that’s tearing up the opera scene right now and Steve Hackman who does orchestral arrangements that mix instrumental and rap. I would also love to collaborate with Kelsey Lu and Blood Orange– 
Are you working on any collaborations now? What’s next for Willie Alexander?
This past week I did a fashion show for Kim Kardashian’SKIMS. I collaborated with Vanessa Beecroft who is an Italian contemporary performance artist on that. 
I also want to release an album of my music this year so I am working hard on that. It will probably be a mixture between the song cycles I wrote and some instrumental pieces, so watch the space! 


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