Originally from New Mexico, but now residing in Nashville, Alex Stern released her new EP Midnight Bandits earlier this month. The collection of four original songs, all co-written by Stern, were inspired by personal moments and showcase her dynamic vocals and relatable songwriting. Stern kindly took the time to call and chat about her roots, the stories behind the songs and much more.
Many people say they have wanted to be a singer since they were young, but you truly knew it from a very young age.
Growing up, my Dad was an international pilot and my Mom was a high school teacher. When I was in school they taught you to pick one thing you wanted to be when you grew up, like a ballerina, a firefighter or a doctor. In my mind I compartmentalized things and knew that I really sucked at sports - I broke my toe doing a cartwheel once – and I was bad at math, so I often wondered about exactly what I was good at. One year when I was around nine, I was watching an E! Hollywood Story or something like that on television about Destiny’s Child. The show had said Beyoncé asked her parents for voice lessons at nine and I was like, “Wait a second that’s what I want, I want to be a singer.” So I just went to my parents and told them that I wanted to take voice lessons and they were like, “Okay.” The only songs I knew were from the Disney songbook, but it was so much fun and I loved being able to express myself in a way that didn’t have to be graded or timed. It felt natural to me and feel in love with it.
Throughout school, I participated in every musical and then in my junior year of high school everything changed when I got accepted to Grammy Camp, which is a young music industry professional camp hosted in all of the big cities in the US. I don’t remember how I heard about it, but I auditioned - even though I never thought I would get in. I did get in though and got to spend ten days in LA where we would wake up at 5am and go to bed at midnight – it was intense! But there was something about the industry in LA - I didn’t know if I could survive it because it was really different from what I expected. It’s not to say LA was bad, it just wasn’t the fit for me. So I went home wondering if I wanted to do music, which I did, so I tried again, but this time for Nashville and I got in. And I went to Nashville and just fell in love with the city. I learned what songwriting was and wrote my first song there in senior year. After Grammy Camp, I went back home and ended up not getting into my dream school, USC, which made me doubt my journey. So I went to the University of New Mexico, lived five minutes from home, joined a sorority, and took a job at a local PR firm. I loved my job, my school, and my sorority and wanted to do my best to live a happy and fulfilled life.
And then I realized that I was miserable. So I broke up with my boyfriend, quit my sorority and my job and told my parents I was going to Nashville. They were so supportive! They said, “Okay, that makes sense.” So they helped me pack the car and we drove to Nashville where I transferred to Belmont my sophomore year. I’m finishing up there in August and the whole while I have been learning about myself as an artist and writer and learning what it takes to do what I want to do. It’s been a long roller coaster of a ride, but I wouldn’t change it for anything; it shaped me into the person I am.
That was an incredibly brave thing to do to just pack up and move.
I think sometimes we have the opportunity to do really great things and I think part of doing great things means doing really scary things. And to say that it isn’t scary would be a big old lie because it’s terrifying waking up, writing with someone new and trying to create something out of nothing while you have student loans and are trying to make enough money to afford to release your music. It’s terrifying and stifling and there’s never any assurance, but I love what I do and I wake up every day excited to express myself, chase a good song, tell a story and connect with people because I honestly feel like that was what I was put on earth to do and every day I get to live my purpose.
That’s incredibly inspiring!
Was it always a pop and country lean you were drawn to musically?
The Spice Girls were my entire world (laughing)! I was a 90’s baby and loved N’Sync, and Backstreet Boys too. Growing up in New Mexico was very different from living in the South. There was no huge country music following there, instead, we had a lot of pop, Native American, and Hispanic music – and that’s something I am incredibly grateful for having been exposed to. My parents played a lot of 70’s music in the car taking me to and from school, so artists like Earth, Wind and Fire, Carole King, Bread and the Eagles were the soundtrack to my childhood. As I got older, I listened to the Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill and a lot of those country-pop crossover artists of the 90’s. And now, I’m just so in love with Brothers Osborne, their music is so authentic, and Maren Morris – she’s going to take the industry by storm. Kacey is so fun, the new Dierks song with Elle King is like my anthem and Keith Urban is my dream collaborator. I listen to literally everything all the time and being in Nashville, I’m lucky enough to get to know some of the people who write on those songs. I’m attracted to people who are doing things differently because as an artist, I strive to be as someone who is different, a genre bender. I love country music, but I think there’s a lot of elements from pop music that are absolutely timeless as well.
For sure, sometimes those genres can be successfully merged. You recently released your EP, Midnight Bandits, which contains four songs that do merge some of those elements. Are you writing from personal experience or do you draw from other places as well?
“Runaways” is about how I would want my dream relationship to be while “Already Gone” is being able to let go of someone who already let go of me. I think sometimes I love too hard and when it ended it was hard for me because I had started to attach the memory of him to things, like a car or cigarette.
For “White Picket Fences” I was at a songwriter’s round and was really listening because I find when songwriters speak they speak poetically and I was keeping my ears open for inspiration and one of the songwriters said that phrase. I heard those words and thought that so many people I knew growing up had the big house and wealthy parents who bought their clothes from Limited Too and I was this uncool girl. But then when I slept over, I noticed their parents were always fighting and they slept in separate rooms. White picket fences are supposed to describe this perfect life, but a lot of times behind those fences things weren’t perfect. So I reached out to my co-writer Pat and I think we wrote it in forty-five minutes. The song isn’t about a specific person or family, but I think it’s a story we can all identify or were all witness to. And “Midnight Bandits” is just about having fun. Part of being a musician means giving things up and I never had periods of time in high school when I was able to rebel and do crazy things because so much of my focus was on the music. This song and “Runaways” were created to help people escape whatever circumstances they’re in and I bookended them on the album because they capture what I was trying to capture with the entire EP which was to get away from whatever was on my mind for 3:30 and to transform to a different world where anything is possible.
Is that why you chose Midnight Bandits for the title of the EP as well?
Yes, I wanted people, when they listened, to feel like they could be young again. I think right now the world has a lot of hate and sadness and I wanted people to have that getaway and listen to something that made them feel happy. I wanted to provide some happiness, light, love and reflection in a world that lacks that today. Releasing the EP was a cool milestone because I feel like I am at a place now where I know who I want to be and what I want to say. I want to have an impact on and touch others and inspire them to do what they love.
Will you be planning to play out in support of the EP?
I did a small acoustic show during CMA Fest to get back into playing out because I’ve been crazy with writing and recording the album. It felt really good to get back out there and start performing again, which is a totally different mindset from being in the studio. As an artist, you have to have different levels of confidence you have to stay in check with – writing, performing and recording - and always work on increasing your confidence in those areas.
But now that I have a body of work I'm super excited to play out. I’m putting together a set list and getting a small band together to play here in Nashville whether it is our own show, a showcase or in a writer’s round. I’m excited to be a part of the music community in Nashville and have people hear the music.
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Purchase Midnight Bandits here