Having spent time in Albuquerque, Mexico, Boston, D.C. and currently Valencia, Spain, Alex McCue’s geographic background is almost as diverse as his musical background.
The singer is also well versed in piano and guitar, and draws on a number of genres through his music; with anything from soul to folk music firmly within his grasp.
Featuring themes that are socially and environmentally conscious in much of his work, McCue often communicates these messages through the feeling of peace found in his songs. Not only does his music reflect these ideals, but his actions do as well, with significant portions of his proceeds going towards causes like housing justice and helping indigenous peoples.
Clearly emulating inspirations of his like Frank Ocean and James Blake, McCue provides celestial vocals that intertwine emotional depth and heartfelt lyrics to perfectly complement the slow and jazzy instrumentation provided by The Group Activity, frequent collaborators of McCue, on the single, “Shape of Years” which came out in October of this year.
“Shape of Years” is highlighted by the airy vocals of McCue, which launches the listener into a mellow and dreamlike state. The jazz backing of The Group Activity dances back and forth with McCue’s voice to create a soft, soothing melody and a soulful, relaxed atmosphere.
We got to chat with McCue about all of this and much more.
Surprisingly, 2021 is almost in the books. How would you sum up your 2021 in one word?
This is still wild to me – wasn’t it just January?
My one word would be ‘transition’ – for New Years Eve 2021, I was in DC watching the fireworks (both official and unofficial, as any DC resident knows) on a cold evening with my girlfriend. We were still quarantining pretty intensely, and we didn’t know that less than a week later we would be a ten minute walk from an attempted insurrection on our nation’s capital.
The fear and cold eased a little after a successful inauguration Jan. 20th and then even more with the vaccine and the world opening up. I was able to visit my family in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the first time since 2019, and during that trip I also left my nonprofit job to focus on music more fully. I moved to Valencia, Spain, with my girlfriend later that summer for grad school, and started my music production and DJ classes in October. Now I find myself in a new physical and mental space, trying to make my way forward through the beauty and darkness of our world. That journey forward is what “Shape of Years” is all about, which is why I’m so happy that it could be the first release of this new chapter of life.
What does a day in the life of Alex McCue’s songwriting process look like?
I have two main songwriting practices – the first one usually involves coming up with a vocal melody or a chord progression and then intuitively feeling where the song wants to go from there. Once I find the first chord or the first few notes of a melody, the rest can usually click into place. The most important part for me is dwelling in the feeling of the song so that I can stay true to that emotion/intention during the discovery process. When it comes to writing words, sometimes they come instantly or sometimes I’ll just speak gibberish until the right sound and meaning comes naturally, which can take minutes or days.
The second songwriting practice is to collaborate with other producers on their instrumentals, which is how “Shape of Years” came about. The producer Saketti sent me the instrumental while I was on holiday, and I just put it on loop and began finding the melody. I can usually tell within 15 seconds if I’m going to like a beat, and this one definitely clicked. Similarly to the first process, it sometimes feels like the instrumental has a melody that matches it well and my job is just to find it, riding the waves of the song and not forcing it or centering my vocals over the other aspects of the production. The beauty of this is that I’ll sometimes let words flow that are true but that I couldn’t express or articulate without the music. It’s like I’m writing in a diary, except I then share that diary with the whole world lol.
Speaking of your songs, I was hoping you could talk about your single, “Shape of Years.” What’s the inspiration and influence behind it?
I began writing the song around New Years 2020, which was very much the slow ‘tick-tick-tick’ rise of the roller coaster before we all plunged headfirst into the most infamous year of my life. I’m not sure if the lyrics were a premonition or a grappling with all of the darkness that had already happened, but it quickly became a song about trying to find a compassionate path amidst the chaos. The beginning came out as riddles, encouraging myself (and the listener) to focus on preserving my health and to understand that the world I experience is just a projection of my own mind. It then turns into a conflicted pleading to the Divine to reveal how we’re meant to live, and how this all unfolds (or maybe not…). After that, it’s about trying to look within myself to find a path that is loving and compassionate and meaningful for both me and others. I’m still looking for that path, but I just hope that having the intention to find it is a good enough start.
The last thing I’ll say is that I’ve always been obsessed with time – this amorphous (and apparently relative) concept that controls so much of our lives. My grandma would always say that ‘The days drag on but the years fly by,’ and so the chorus and name of the song (Time flies, it takes the Shape of Years) flip that saying and try to make this ambiguous concept take a form (or a shape) so as to better understand it. I thought about burning a calendar for the cover of the song, but that would have felt like an attack against time instead of a flowing alongside it.
What was the vision behind the music video, and how does it coincide with the song?
The video was filmed about a ten minute walk from the home studio where we recorded the project. When we were recording this song or many others (including “Disguise”, which will drop in early 2022), we would take breaks by walking over to the lake and watching the sunset. Because of that, the sunset over that lake was infused into the music, so it was only fair that we showcase that to the listeners. Plus, to us, the song just feels like it’s set at sunset. It’s hard to explain, but the translucent, mysterious, and meditative qualities to the song lend themselves perfectly to the transition between day and night. We had already collaborated with the talented videographer Nuno Miguel, and were originally drawn to him because of the work he did documenting a hike in nature with his partner. The pieces clicked (including scheduling, thank goodness) and it turned out to be a beautiful, tranquil sunset in the Wampanoag land of Massachusetts. It felt right, and thank goodness it came out right as well.
The last thing I’ll say is that nature was the perfect setting for us because it allowed us to film outdoors and socially-distanced during COVID. Nature was (is) how we escaped and connected with friends during the pandemic, so being there for the video was also sharing that authentic part of ourselves.
How do you know when a song like this is finished? Do you find yourself wanting to keep tinkering and re-recording tracks etc.?
SUCH a good question – I’m not sure if a song is ever truly ‘done,’ it just gets ‘done enough.’
For this particular track, we loved what we put together but knew that it was missing something. Because Saketti (the producer) and I had played in a band together, we both had a similar idea for what the song needed: Jonte Samuel, Saxophonist Extraordinaire. We actually met Jonte when he was busking in the Boston T (subway) – he has a board with all of the national flags from around the world because he can play all of their national anthems. If he sees someone that he thinks is from Oman, for example, he plays their national anthem or a song from their country, gives them a big surprise, and makes them feel a little more welcome in the cold city of Boston. After the chance encounter on the T, Jonte became a staple of our band The Group Activity, and became a cherished friend. He is such a talented saxophonist that, once he laid down his track, it was ‘done enough.’ 🙂
What messages and/or feelings do you try to convey to the listener?
The song came from a place of trying to find a compassionate path to move through the darkness of the world, and so one of the main purposes of this meditative track is to ask people to slow down for a few minutes and consider how they show up and how they want to show up in order to make a way that is loving and clear. The track invites listeners to question where they might have been ‘moving fast and learning slow,’ and it hopefully emits the energy of rest, introspection, calm, meditation, and a deep investigation into ourselves.
As a part of that path that is clear and compassionate, we’re also collecting donations from the song and giving 50% to indigenous organizing to prevent the expansion of fossil fuels into their territories. Here’s the link to make a donation – hopefully this can serve as an idea generator for the infinite ways that people can make the world a better place.
What does success as a musician and songwriter mean to you?
Really the success is about building a cohesive and compassionate community that resonates with our music and our intention to make the world a better place. Whenever I envision my favorite future, I’m performing music that I love to a theater of thousands of people. The energy of the room is one of love and peace and joy, and the people sing along to the music. I would like to sell out a tour that crosses national borders, and to be able to sustain myself and my family with music and writing (I’m working on a novel and have about 80,000 words). I also want to use that platform to further movements for social and environmental justice, collecting petitions signatures, registering people to vote, raising donations for organizing led by communities of color, and spreading important messages from stage.
What does a dream gig look like for you?
Love this question. Performing music that I love and using the platform for social and environmental change is a big part of it. I think the dreamiest of dreams would involve performing onstage with my idols and influences (Frank Ocean, Natalia Lafourcade, Lianne LaHavas, Jack Johnson, any of the surviving Beatles, etc.) for many thousands of people. I’d hit a beautiful harmony with Frank/Natalia/Lianne/Jack and would then transition into one of my original songs that people knew, loved, and sang along to. We’d radiate love and peace and energy and we’d share that with the crowd, raising consciousness and awareness for important causes at the same time.
What might fans expect from Alex McCue moving forward?
“Disguise” music video out in early 2022! We filmed “Disguise” with the same videographer and cast of characters, so in a way it’s a ‘Part 2’ for “Shape of Year”s. We also just got a few songs mastered (including one in Spanish) from the illustrious HamStank (the same mastering engineer we used on this project) so those are coming in 2022 as well. On top of that I’m working on a song with Jaz D. Ramos (a talented Boston vocalist) and am working on building a home studio so that I can record more music and put on livestream concerts. This is finally allowing me to produce my own music, which I’ll share over the course of the year.
Lastly but not least…ly I’m hoping to work toward a tour for the later half of 2022 or in 2023. So a lot of work is in the works, and the best way to stay in touch is to follow me on Instagram, join our mailing list, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until then, be well and take care.