In Conversation: Alexandra Stréliski

Posted by

A trailblazer in the modern classical world and a household name in her native Canada, Alexandra Stréliski’s minimalist, emotionally striking music has been enthralling listeners for over a decade. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s surely only a matter of time before it does.

Stréliski’s debut, 2010’s ‘Pianoscope’ was originally self-released, with her mother sending out mail-order copies from the family’s basement. It eventually gained the attention of Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée, who would go on to use her work in numerous projects. Stréliski subsequently signed with Montreal-based label Secret City for 2018’s ‘Inscape’, which cemented her reputation within the classic landscape. 

Having been long associated with the neoclassical genre, her recent work would see her exploring something new. Feeling that the tag didn’t accurately reflect her work, she used lockdown as an opportunity to explore the idea of encapsulating and expressing emotions through art, inspired by the Romantic movement’s love of individual expression.

The end result is ‘Néo-Romance’, a stunning collection of 14 pieces that deftly straddle the melancholic and the uplifting and make for an altogether beautiful listening experience. Paul Weedon caught up with Stréliski last month as she was gearing up to take the album on tour for the first time.

[embedded content]

How does it feel to have the record out in the wild now?

You always just kind of put music out in the world, you know? The best thing is not to expect anything, just put it out there and see how it works its magic on its own… The music will end up finding some ears. It always does.

In the musical space that you inhabit, I kind of get the sense that Spotify playlists are your best friend andyour worst enemy in many ways. People discover your music, but it’s often without any sort of context. 

Especially, I think, in the last few years, yeah. I don’t want to call out Spotify or anything like that, but the whole playlist game is like passive listening and it can devalue the art in a certain way. I don’t want to be a composer for a spa waiting room, you know? That’s not my life goal, obviously, but if it happens that someone is at the spa and my song comes on, they have this emotional response to it and then they are curious enough to look for it, then that’s good. I’ve had the chance of having lots and lots of streams on those playlists.

There’s something to be said about constructing an album with intent. Néo-Romance very much tells a story for you. I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit? Somebody coming to it from a playlist may not get that.

Absolutely. I mean, I do believe there are little stories within each track and then there’s a larger story if you listen to the album, and that’s what I love to do. I think albums are a little bit like movies. They have a narrative arc. To me, that’s what it’s about. It’s about transmitting an emotion and getting a person to escape a little bit of their own everyday life to dream and think about whatever is going to come to mind while they’re listening. It’s also very different from one listener to another. I just like to suggest and put it out there and see what it does.

You never know how people are going to respond to it.

The only thing you can do as an artist, really, is make the conscious choice to dedicate your life to sharing it. Someone once told me that you have to put yourself to the service of your art and I thought that was a genius sentence. I made that conscious choice in 2017. That’s really when I dedicated my time to that. Prior to that I was a little shy with it… Since I was small, I’d played the piano. It has an effect and I didn’t want it to affect people. I was just kind of reserved. I was like, “No, don’t look at me. Leave me alone!” It took me a while to come out of that shell and now I’m fully fledged into it. I’m playing in front of 3,000 people next weekend and I have to own it, but I did put my life in the service of it. So in regards to what you were saying, I think as artists, you don’t know. You’re just playing stuff. You’re constructing it and then you can put your producer’s hat on, but ultimately, as an artist it’s like, “Hi, this comes out of me, does it do anything to you?” And it usually does. It usually finds very mysterious and magical ways to resonate.

[embedded content]

I wanted to talk about the neoclassical label that’s often ascribed to your music. Néo-Romance is a departure from that for you, isn’t it?

On a personal level, the most important reason why I called my album Néo-Romance is because I identify more with the Romantics and the way that they were dreaming and being spontaneous and emotionally driven: death, life – all of these big emotions. I feel like I live in that. For me, it’s just more of a natural way of presenting it. If I’m to have a geekier discussion on the history of art, I just think we’re at the stage where now we can be more precise in the way that we identify these projects, and maybe not all put them in one big bunch because they’re piano-driven with some electronics or some strings.

No, I agree. I think it used to be a useful catchall for journalists to put artists in boxes. That’s less relevant now.

And, honestly, I’ve never really cared. My main point in life was always just to make music and share it, however you want to categorise it, because I’m really sitting on a line between classical and mainstream and pop and cinema music. Call it what you want to call it, but for it to have the label of neoclassicism? It’s weird because neoclassicism already existed… It’s not a statement. I just happen to identify more with that movement. And at the same time, what I found interesting was to be like, “Okay, what if I am a modern romantic composer? What does that mean in today’s world?” And that’s really the thing that I wanted to propose: what does it mean to be a dreamer in these very disillusioned and polarised times? The Romantics were about nature and now you can’t talk about nature without thinking of climate change. And can you dream, really, with all this, this hyper digitalization, and this bombarding of information that we live in? That’s really the standpoint that I thought was interesting in regards to the Romantics.

The record took shape during the pandemic. A lot of musicians have remarked that writing music during lockdown wasn’t that dissimilar to their experience in regular times. How was it for you?

The difference was that in regular times you have a lot of noise. There’s lots of stuff going on. In my case, I’d have to accept a show, refuse a show or take this project, or this project. There’s always something going on. Then everything stopped. I guess it was more about the space and the time to do things, you know? Also, in my case, I was in another country. My album, Inscape, got pretty popular here in Canada, so there were lots of things linked to that and galas and prizes and stuff like that and it was kind of hectic. And then I ended up in Rotterdam in a pandemic with nothing else to do. I called a guy who had pianos. I’m was like, “Hi. I’m a pianist, I need to compose an album.” I couldn’t go to his store. So I told him, “Can you just send me a piano that you find inspiring?” And he did, thank the Lord. And it was a good one. He picked well, because I composed Néo-Romance on it in another country, in another setting. It really was like a reset button for me.

Now you’re preparing to take it out on the road. Obviously pieces like this are constantly evolving, especially when you play them live. How does that process work for you?

I’m about to find out, because I’m literally this afternoon stepping into the room to start constructing it, so that’s going to be nice… You have to try to liberate the songs, because when you record, you decide that this is going to be the structure and then you listen to the mastering and the mix and then you start becoming the listener of your own music. I think the whole process for live is how do I liberate them so that I can see what emerges? You’re gonna feel like extending a section. You’re gonna feel like jamming it. You’re gonna feel like playing really loud in a place where you’re playing soft. I think that just has to emerge on stage. I mean, you can say, “Oh, I’m going to open up this section, and I’m going to try to improvise in this place.” But I think ultimately it’s gonna be born in the process of living on stage… I mean, creating is a very organic process. We have all these nice words, and we explain and we tell our stories, but ultimately, it’s a very organic thing.

The nuance between listening to a recorded piece of music and hearing it in a live setting and how it’s been adjusted to work in a space or work with players is fascinating.

And every day is different. Every show is different, like the tempos. I certainly never play exactly the same tempo. It can totally change your feeling of a song if you just play faster or slower. I’m really looking forward to that part, which is also a very real part. Putting an album out there has a lot of marketing and stuff like that with it. It can feel a bit unreal, you know? Whereas on the stage, it’s just the basis of what we do as musicians. We show up on stage and we meet people.

[embedded content]

Away from the stage, you’ve done projects for the screen. How does that compare in terms of scoring your own projects?

In terms of time, it’s a fine balance. When you’re scoring a film, you need to reserve quite a chunk of your year to do it. That has been a bit of a challenge. But in terms of your own art, I always like to say that it’s a bit like the same process, but reversed. It’s just about who’s telling the story? If I’m putting my music in the service of the character or scenario, or universe or whatever it is, then I’m being like an empath to whatever this story is going to be. When I’m writing on my own, I’m creating this very free music that is waiting for the story to be told by whoever is going to listen. I find that actually very fascinating to reverse these two things.

Pianoscope was originally self released with your mother sending out mail order copies from your basement, but I’m really interested in the fact that this eventually led to your work being championed by the sadly now late Jean-Marc Vallée. Can you talk me through how your creative partnership came to be?

Yeah, I mean, you’d have to ask him, really, because it was magic to me, completely. Jean-Marc was someone that I very much admired. I just received a request one day to place Prélude in Dallas Buyers Club. After that we met, because I sent him a letter to say thank you. It helped a lot and it gave me a lot of visibility. We met and we became friends and we worked with each other on some of his projects. But I think it was very much what we were saying in the beginning: you send music out, and that resonates somewhere. In this case, it resonated with an actor that he was working with and he put it in a playlist and then Jean-Marc heard it. And that’s it. It’s as simple as that.

That’s the universe just kind of doing its thing for you.

I mean, I see it this way now, because I’ve had such a journey since that moment. It was a starting point for me, because it meant that someone of this quality – because I admired him so much – can resonate with what I do as an artist. That meant a lot.

One project in particular I wanted to ask about was Sharp Objects. Did you get to spend much time with him on that?

Yeah, actually, I went to his house to watch that, because I sent him a copy of Inscape before anyone else. I sent him the record out of the studio. I said, “Hey, this is my new album. What do you think about it?” I asked for his advice, so he was living with Inscape maybe six or seven months before the album came out. And he’s like, “Hey, I have a series coming up and I have a character who’s obsessed with piano music.” I went to his house, because he wanted to show me the places where my music was going to be featured. And then he needed a concerto for another scene, so we discussed and watched the series. And it’s dark. I was traumatised. For one, I was like, okay, I’m just sitting in Jean-Marc Vallée’s house. This is all very normal. Second, I was traumatised with the art because it’s very dark. And he was passing through all the scenes. I have a song that’s at the very end of the series, so I had to understand everything that unravelled, but I had to live that in like, two hours. It was like binge watching something in two hours and it was quite like a punch in the face of emotion, so that was a funny thing. It was a great day. It’s also a day where I told him that I liked movies more than music and he said he liked music more than movies.

[embedded content]

‘Néo-Romance’ is out now.

Words: Paul Weedon // @Twotafkap
Photo Credit: Johanna Berghorn