One night, she sits on the dark stage in a black corset, flooded with purple light, her face and chest splattered with blood-red paint. She won’t even look up from her guitar as she strums brutally melancholic riffs. The large scale live-painting behind her shapes up a story of a dark romance.
Another night, she pours you a pint at the café where she works, then leaps over the bar, casually grabs her acoustic guitar, and co-sings “Karma Police” as the regular opening act of the Wednesday open mic.
True to her Gemini self, Alex Hicks is hard to pin down to one personality trait or category of art, let alone music genre. During our talk, Alex often burst into laughter or an old sappy country song. Here is what the VIU-schooled singer and self-motivated dancer, performer, and painter has to say about jamming, stage fright, and the music in grocery stores.
Navigator: Where are you from?
Alex Hicks: I was born in Calgary, but when I was two my parents and brother drove across the country to Prince Edward county in southern Ontario. My parents still live in the same house in the boonies, surrounded by trees, near Lake Ontario. When you’re out there, you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.
Where do your memories begin?
My dad built the house. We lived in a trailer at first, and then moved to the basement as he continued building. There was a lot of mud for my brother and I to play with. And the small town life. We lived 20 minutes away from Pikton with a population of 4000, so growing up, it was really big for me.
When did you first feel this musical itch?
I remember a moment when I was walking down the hallway to the washroom in elementary school and singing a song. I thought, ‘Yeah, that sounds really good’ (laughs). When I was five, I sang in my first talent show. My mom plays the piano, but she’s really shy, so she won’t play in front of people. My dad plays the guitar and sings. He won’t miss an opportunity to perform. If you pass him a guitar, he’ll have it the entire night and play for everybody. He always urged me to pursue music, but before I was singing I was dancing. I wanted to be a dancer and I took lessons to get my energy out. I was a wiry kid, so I had to dance that shit off (laughs).
What did dancing give you?
Confidence. I knew I was good at it. Plus, I was a control freak and loved telling my friends what to do. There were choreographed dances and organized productions with these little girls (laughs). I felt really, really good when I danced, and I still do.
So when did this transition from dancing to singing happen?
When I was five years old, my dad and I started to perform at the country fair every year. I got a lot of encouragement from the audience as a kid putting myself out there, but it wasn’t until I entered this country singing contest a couple hours away from our town. I sucked balls! I was so bad! They would have me rehearse with a band for a few minutes, and when the time came to perform, they’d give me the first note and I’d go in. I sang the one song entirely off pitch. I didn’t even realize that until my dad told me after. I was horrified by the experience because I humiliated myself publicly, but it was such a lesson for a kid. Not the best sort of feeling, but before that, with all the small town encouragement, I thought I was the shit (laughs).
What about the guitar?
I didn’t even notice the guitar until grade eight or nine. This is going to sound so cliché, but my dad was playing “Stairway To Heaven,” the most cliché song you can get inspired by, but I thought ‘I wanna do that.’ Then every day I would get home after school and go into the basement to play my guitar, and I did that obsessively. I can’t say there was anything else I obsessed about like I obsessed about my guitar.
Did you take classes?
I took a class in high school that showed us simple three-chord songs, and I got bored with that, but our music teacher let us into the quiet room to jam. I hung out with some guys that were playing power chords, and they taught me to play some Iron Maiden songs. And let’s face it, Iron Maiden is hilarious—funny dramatic stuff—but I was stoked to learn the power chord. I still play it.
What are your musical influences?
It’s all over the map. I enjoy a lot of music, and I don’t search for it. I’m always influenced by people around me and what they’re into, like my best friend when I was growing up. Her parents were so different from mine. They were European and their house was like nothing I’d seen before. The way they decorated it, the food they ate, and the music they listened to was all foreign to me. I went over there for a sleepover one day, and in the morning Milly’s dad was playing Buena Vista Social Club. I’d never heard anything like it before. I loved that shit because you could dance to it. So if I could draw any sort of connection in music I like, it’s something I can move to. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something upbeat, but if it moves me then I’ll listen to it.
Speaking of movement, is there any music that makes you run far away really fast?
(pauses) I don’t like spending a lot of time in Shoppers Drug Mart or grocery stores because the music in there is horrifying in a super aggressive way. Also, in Noodle Box, the music was crazy loud—this throbbing club music that did not suit the environment at all.
It’s funny that you tend to pin music down to locations rather than naming genres you don’t like.
Genres are so cloudy these days. I can’t tell you I don’t like pop music because that would be a lie. I love pop music; I just don’t like shitty pop music, and that’s the stuff you find in drug stores.
What do you think you are best at in life?
I’m trying to create art that incorporates all the things I enjoy and am good at all at once. I can feel in my life right now, where I’m living and who I’m surrounded by, that all these things are starting to come into motion with one another. They’re still a little separate because I don’t know how to put them together, but then again, when you ask me how I got to playing the music I play now, I don’t even know what that means. It’s all sorts of things. Right now, I love playing the electric guitar and jamming with people, sharing these ideas, and seeing where it goes.
What does good jamming feel like to you?
It’s like meditation. You’re constantly letting go of what you just did, taking whatever comes at you, and being open to things—like playing a weird note and being able to say “oh, that sounded gorgeous.” Who’s going to say that it’s wrong? I prefer the spontaneity over knowing exactly what’s going to happen, but I’d like to have balance. There’s something more that I’m going for than just pure spontaneity. There’s this other neurotic part of me that wants to create an actual show or story to say something.
Does spontaneity bring you more inspiration?
Do you remember the a-capella song I sang the other night? I wrote that one during closing time at work. I was humming a melody while going through the tasks. I attached a word here and there, and without thinking about forming a sentence or a full thought, another word came and the thought formed itself. Sometimes it’s the other way around. I don’t know how to explain it. That song came easily because I allowed it to come easily. It felt good. I kept repeating it until I was done work. Then I went up to my room and recorded it over and over. I practiced so many times that I started to feel paranoid that my roommates could hear me and would get annoyed and say, “Shut up, sounds fine, go to bed!”
How do you like recording your music?
I’ve put out a record before, and I hate it. I can’t listen to it for long, but when I do, I hear my voice that was too young. The ideas were underdeveloped and put into permanence.
Do you feel like it was time wasted?
No, it had to happen. I like how crisp it sounds, but I don’t like my singing. You can tell I was not comfortable.
How do you become comfortable and effortless in your singing?
With time and the desire to do so. It goes back to meditation. Well, I don’t meditate. I use that word, but it’s not like I sit down in silence. I’d say that when you speak, feel your voice and get in touch with it. Your voice is an organic instrument which is reliant on your health… Or not even that. Tom Waits and Billie Holliday were heavy smokers and drinkers, but their voices were authentically theirs because they were comfortable with themselves.
Also, taking lessons helped me because I had someone else watch me sing. These teachers don’t just give you voice lessons—they’re teaching you how to be comfortable in your skin. They’re able to see where your discomforts are and how to help. I’ve heard so many people say “I wish I could sing.” I know they want to sing because they see how good it feels. That’s the desire, and then something stops them. Their body is closed. I’ve felt that before and I can tell when someone else does. It helps to have someone point out some techniques, teach you how to use your diaphragm and breathe. Breathing is huge!
Do you have stage fright?
Yes, but I move past it very quickly because I can’t handle it. It’s more important to me that I get to perform than focus on my fear. If I can keep my cool and breathe, the feeling of fear is actually beneficial. I crave that feeling. If I don’t have that little bit of nervousness, then it’s probably going to be a pretty shitty show. It’s going to be lifeless, and that’s scarier than anything else.
What brought you over here?
I came for the jazz program. Coming out of high school, I knew I wanted to be creative in some way, and music stood out to me. I applied to two schools—one in Toronto, where I didn’t get in because I didn’t know enough theory and my scales were off; but I got accepted to Malaspina. I was stoked; I felt that, locationally, that’s where I wanted to be.
So what is on your horizon right now?
I would like to free myself more. As much as I love playing the guitar, I feel that I’m going to stay in the realm of hanging with the boys and jamming. That’s not really about performing, but rather enjoying sound for yourself. I would like to get more into vocal, hands-off-the-guitar performance and feed that other part of my brain that’s writing the notes. I have this fantasy about making a music video with a bunch of chicks on long boards, singing and doing synchronized moves (laughs). I love physical performance. That’s where my heart is, so if I could combine all those things… But right now it’s just shaping. And I’m not going to force it. I’m just figuring it all out!