Talking with David Alexander, the singer/songwriter who records under the name Summer Heart, it’s obvious that he’s a man of the world. His accent doesn’t settle on one region, instead bouncing from a very Scandinavian lilt to something more English to the more flat affect of the States. The last of those might have had something to do with the fact that when we caught up with him for this interview, he was performing in Austin at SXSW and was spending a healthy amount of time in New York working on music. As for the rest, it evidences a man who loves to absorb the cultures of the world.
That feeling comes even further to life when listening to his music. Alexander’s lovely take on indie pop is informed by the sandy melodies of ’60s California singles by the Beach Boys, the rise of elaborate and emotional artists connected to the Elephant 6 collective in the ’00s, and the vast array of European acts that have commanded the charts and the underground in the years since punk broke. David joined us for a small stretch during our stay in Austin this past March to talk about his creative process, the influence of his travels on his art, and how he tries to maintain a spirit of spontaneity within his songwriting.
This isn’t your first time at SXSW, correct?
I was here last year.
How do you manage being a part of a festival like this with so much going on and so much expected of you?
I kind of just hope for the best and go with it. It sounds really stupid but that’s kind of how you have to do it. We did a couple of interviews yesterday and we were supposed to meet friends, and we had our own show, and load in was at 6pm but we didn’t play until 1am, for example. So, yeah, loads of stuff going on. And we’re just running around all day.
This is primarily a solo project of yours with most of the music being made by you. Is there any though to working with other people or bringing other musicians into flesh things out? Or are you just happy to handle everything yourself at this point?
It’s both. Actually, up until this point, it’s been me just writing and recording everything in my own kind of safe environment. I’ve been recording in different locations, but it’s always been me. But actually right now, I’m recording an album with some other people. We kind of write together and bounce ideas off each other. I really like to collaborate with people. But when you start a new project, it’s really difficult to get people involved. When things are starting to happen, it’s much easier to get more people interested in your project. So yeah, I’m actually working with some people in New York right now. After SXSW, I’ll go back there and continue working on that album.
In other interviews I’ve read of yours, it sounds like you work very intuitively, getting ideas down quickly without overthinking it much. Is that something you’re trying to avoid by working with people in New York? Are you laboring over things more?
Yeah, I want someone else’s eyes on everything that’s being done. But at the same time, I really love to just…when I work on music, I don’t even have an idea. I just have a feeling that I want to create something, and the feeling is like, “Okay, today is the day where I need to write something now.” I have no idea what will come out, but I just sit down with pen and paper or with my computer, my phone, or a guitar, whatever, and I try to make a sketch. And work quite quickly because if I think too much then I’m gonna kill the vibe.
Is it usually a lyric that comes first or a melodic idea or…
It goes both ways. I don’t think the melody comes first ever. Most often it’s actually a rhythm, like a beat or something that I work around. I used to write a lot of poetry. I have loads of old poems that I read through and rewrite into songs. So i never think, like, “I’m gonna write lyrics now.” I’m just writing something that becomes lyrics. I like that way of working. When you write lyrics for a song, it’s hard to think that you’re going to perform those words. Then you definitely overthink it. “I can’t sing this. It’s gonna sound stupid!” So it’s easier to take something that’s already there, and go, “OK, it’s still personal but it feels safer somehow.”
Do your feelings about these lyrics change over time, especially as you’re performing them night after night?
Yeah, they do actually. I don’t listen to my own music that’s already released. I never listen to it. Some of the songs you heard last night, we played them loads of times, and the verses kind of evolve within the live show. Maybe because we play them so often, we change a word here and there. Maybe I change the melody a little bit. But I’m not aware of it. It’s when I go back and listen that I realize that I’ve changed things in the song. So if you play a song like, hundreds of times in a two year span, and don’t listen to the original version once, things automatically change. And also when it comes to lyrics, you realize…[laughs]…unfortunately after you release stuff, like, “I should’ve done this.”
Most of the material you’ve released has come out on EPs. Is that an extension of this feeling of wanting to have your music come together quickly?
That’s pretty much how it works. And also we tour a lot. I write on the road, but it’s difficult to record and mix everything on the road obviously. So when I get back home, I kind of finish everything up I’ve been working on, and usually I haven’t really managed to do a full album because I want everything to fit together. So that’s why everything’s chopped up into EPs and singles.
Are you originally from the U.K.?
Okay…I wanted to get this right because you moved to Sweden to start making music but you were living in the U.K. before that, yes?
Yeah, I am actually from Sweden originally. but I was living in different places in Europe. I was living in London for a bit, and Oslo, in Norway and doing…nothing, kind of. Waiting for something to happen. I was working as a bartender for a little bit. And it was…I don’t know, I needed to do something else. I just quit my job. I didn’t have any money so I moved to my dad’s. He’s got loads of synths and stuff because he’s a musician as well. So I started playing around with his stuff and started making music. That’s kind of how everything started.
Bouncing around Europe all that while, how did that inform your music and your creative output?
I’m not afraid to tour. We went to SXSW without anywhere to stay, for example, and I know that it’s not scary. If you haven’t traveled, I think people might be scared of doing stuff like that. But traveling is a great influence. Every time I go to an airport, I know I’m going somewhere and I’m on the way to something. That inspires me.