Words by Luke LaBenne
LA singer/songwriter Alex Izenberg made an impressive yet understated entrance in 2016, with the release of his debut album, Harlequin. He delivered moving chamber-pop ballads with impressive orchestration and solid song construction. On his sophomore record, Caravan Château, he elevates his instrumental and compositional prowess. Alex covers new stylistic ground and ventures into more psychedelic and experimental territory while retaining his congenial retro-pop sound.
Caravan Château is a reflection on love and relationships throughout Alex’s life. The lyrics are dense with cryptic specificity and details that feel both personal and poetic. Recorded over three years in four different studios with the help of many collaborators, including Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor and Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado, the album itself is a traveling show that takes the listener on a journey through time and space, into Alex’s musical universe.
Off Shelf: I love your piano playing, is that the instrument you primarily write with?
Alex Izenberg: My primary instrument is probably guitar, but I do play piano too. I feel like guitar comes more naturally to me because I don’t have a piano, but I know chords. If I write a simple chord progression on the guitar I can think about it for a second and then go, “Oh yeah. This is how I do it.”
OS: Do you start writing a song on the guitar and do you write the music and the lyrics together?
AI: A lot of times I’ll come up with one little melody/chord progression, with maybe some words in it. Then I’ll be like, “That’s the fucking song!” Then I’ll build off of that. Other times, I’ll have a song written or demo-ed out on a voice memo. I’ll have the lyrics written down and then I’ll be outside having a cigarette and I’ll think I should change this line or do this here.
OS: You gotta love those cigarette thoughts.
AI: [Laughs] I know.
OS: I was listening to your playlist Alex’s Favs on Spotify and I love it, I feel like it really shows the range of artists that influenced you. Is that what you intended?
AI: I just want to make a really good playlist so that when I release my next album I hold myself up to that standard. I love those songs. There’s that Jim Croce song, “Time In A Bottle.” I actually listened to that this morning and I started crying because it’s so beautiful. I thought of my family and I thought of my dog who recently died and I just thought of how precious life is. Sometimes I think, “This isn’t happening or this isn’t happening, so I’m sad.” In reality, I have all these great things and people and friends and family, in my life. I have my health, I have a label, I have songs to make. I have a family that supports me and loves me, I have friends who think I’m cool, and I have a roof over my head. I just felt thankful for those things and I just cried a little bit. Outside of just the song itself, it’s a really beautiful recording too. I think they captured a really good vibe in that recording.
OS: I can relate to what you’re saying. I’ve done that too, where you say, “My life might not be this vision that I had before,” but then you forget all the things you have accomplished and everything you do have.
AI: That kind of mentality is the main catalyst that got me to where I am today. I’m not saying I’m this huge successful guy because I’m not. I made an album that I’m proud of and I did it because I was trying to make myself happy and did it for the love of recording and recorded music. I wasn’t doing it to cater to other people who I don’t know. I just did it because it makes me happy and it brings me joy. I told someone recently I feel like music is one of, if not the great love of my life.
OS: After you released your last album you went through a tough time. Did writing these new songs help you overcome those hardships?
AI: Definitely. I feel like my new album, lyrically, is a step forward. A lot of the songs on my first album, Harlequin, sounds like Van Dyke Parks doing like an acoustic rendition of some love songs. Which is fine, but for this album, I was more inspired by like Grizzly Bear, Pink Floyd, Fleet Foxes, and The Beatles, obviously, because who isn’t? I released Harlequin in November 2016. I was expecting it to just be huge and it wasn’t huge. A part of me was really let down by that. A part of me didn’t want to do it anymore, I was just very sad about it and distraught. Then, I remember the Fleet Foxes album Crack-Up came out and it just turned me around. There’s a song on it, “Fools Errand” and he says, “I knew you fine, sight dream of mine, but I know my eyes, they’ve often lied.” All the lyrics related so much to how I felt about it, because I had this dream and it was gone, but then I continued to move quicker and stronger through the opposing force that is life. I’m really happy that record came out. I love that record. It really changed how I approached music from a creative standpoint. I feel like there’s a lot of attention to detail and the lyrics on that album are very cool, very ambiguous but poetic.
OS: I feel like that comes through in your lyrics on this album. They do seem poetic, ambiguous, and very personal.
AI: There’s songs like “Anne In Strange Furs,” “Dancing Through The Turquoise,” and “Requiem,” where I’m exploring new ground. If I’m releasing a record how do I make Robin Pecknold feel the way I felt when I heard Crack-Up? I know that goes against what I was saying about how I’m not doing it for other people, but when I said that I was more referring to critics and people like that, not people on my side of it.
OS: Well on some level you’re doing it for other people because you want people to enjoy it and be affected by it, but you’re doing it for yourself too.
AI: Yeah. I just think Robin Pecknold is one of the great geniuses of our time. I’d love to collaborate with him someday.
OS: I can definitely hear their influence on the album. I know you were also inspired by Grizzly Bear and Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear mixed this album. What was that like meeting your hero and working with him?
AI: I have many heroes but he is definitely one of them. It was crazy. I remember my label manager went to go meet with him and he was like, “Yeah we met with Chris today.” I remember thinking like, “Oh my god. He’s real.” It’d be like if I saw Frank Sinatra in real life, I know he’s dead but it’s like, “Damn. He’s not just like this Santa Claus character that exists in my phone.” Then I ended up meeting with Chris at a coffee shop and we talked about the record, what I wanted to do and asked each other some questions. I remember I was waiting in the back of the coffee shop and he came in and he went to shake my hand. I just remember thinking, “Keep your hand steady. Don’t have a shaky hand.” Then we were sitting down and every time I would lift up my coffee cup to drink it I’d be spilling some of the coffee that was puddled on the top of it on my lap. I just remember thinking, “Oh god.”
OS: He probably didn’t even notice.
AI: If he did he was probably like, “Aww. That’s cute.”
OS: What was the process of making this album?
AI: The record actually started in 2017 with my friend Dash and we produced the songs “Bouquets Falling In The Rain” and “December 30th” together. Then in 2018, I worked with my friend Greg and we produced a number of the songs from the album. We did “Requiem,” “Sister Jade,” “Anne In Strange Furs,” and “Revolution Girls.” Then in 2019, I collaborated with Jonathan Rado from Foxygen. We just worked on that song “Caravan Château” for like a day. Me and my friend Jay, who played piano on it, went to the studio. We recorded the piano, we recorded the vocal and I went home. I didn’t sleep the night before, though, because I was very nervous. I was nervous because I felt like I was going to be nervous if that makes sense.
OS: Yeah. You didn’t want to seem nervous.
AI: I didn’t want to seem nervous.
OS: And did you?
AI: Yeah, I was a little nervous. I didn’t sleep the night before so I kind of had that zombie vibe to me which actually made me less nervous. It was good. I think it’s a good song.
OS: I was blown away by “Disraeli Woman” when I heard it, there are so many elements that are so well balanced.
AI: The song was made in the summer of ’18 and it was originally just vocals over this sample loop of an old 60’s song. Then at the last minute, we couldn’t clear the song, sample-wise. My label manager Pete was basically like, “Would you mind just doing your own music on it?” So then at the last minute, Greg and I just did original music. There were originally horns over the sample so we just kept the horns in.
OS: That makes sense because I feel like it has a vibe of a 60’s soul song.
AI: Yeah, you could play it right after Bill Withers “You and Me” and it fits right in.
OS: Your blending all these different eras and styles. Do you ever worry it’s going to sound too dated or too much like something else?
AI: The thing is I don’t think about it, I just create. When you start thinking about it, that’s when it gets slippery. I do think about the recordings obviously, but the thing is you just don’t compare. It’s ok to draw influence but as far as comparing, I don’t like to do that.
OS: The press release calls this album a “reflection of the hall of mirrors that is love.” I feel like you capture that with the music that sort of nostalgic feeling, but also with a bit of an unsettling tone at times. Is that what you were trying to capture?
AI: The album came together over the course of 3 years. It’s a lot of pieces, it’s almost like a scrapbook. Does it sound like it was all done in one session like Dark Side of the Moon? No. I still think it’s cool because somehow it does all seem homogeneous and unified in a way through the lyrics and it’s my voice on every song. I feel like there are a lot of records that are like that. I think part of the beauty of the record is that every song is on its own trip. Every song is its own thing.
OS: Was it ever challenging to make it seem cohesive?
AI: If I like a song individually, I’ll like it with the album because an album is essentially a playlist.
OS: You did this album over the course of a few years with different people. How did that differ from the making of your first album?
AI: The first album I did exclusively with Ari in his apartment. It was all done over the course of a year in the same studio and then I mixed every song with Chet “JR” White of Girls. Recorded it in one place. Mixed it in one place. Done. With this album, it was recorded in four different studios and mixed predominantly by Chris Taylor and I. Ari produced and mixed “Lady,” Dash produced, “December 30th,” and “Bouquets Falling In The Rain.” It’s kind of a 60’s record in that way. It’s not until the 70’s where they started to say, “We’re going to take this recording to Joe So-and-so and we’re going to mix it with him in this studio.” Which is cool, that’s how most great records were made. I think that Caravan Château is a bit more all over the place than my first album, at least in terms of the creative process.
OS: The chorus on “Sister Jade” is a good mantra for any relationship or friendship: “I would never leave you or take you away from the things that you love.” Is that how you treat the relationships in your life?
AI: Not really [laughs]. I’m just kidding. Yeah, I try to be compassionate and loving, but I haven’t been in a relationship for over 10 years. On that song I was inspired by Carl Wilson from The Beach Boys and “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibration,” going for like a sunshine pop, 60’s love song that would have universal appeal through the lyrics and the chorus.
OS: You say you haven’t been in a relationship for 10 years so is this album a reflection on your entire life as opposed to something that happened recently?
AI: It’s a reflection, but not all of it is. “December 30th,” that’s about Julie who sings on “Disraeli Woman,” that’s her birthday. I wanted to make my own “October 26” which is a song by The Pretty Things from the 60’s. It’s in the same key, E minor. I was like I want to make a song as good as that and I think I did. I think “December 30th,” is “October 26” level.
OS: The album is called Caravan Château and the album cover looks like a psychedelic traveling castle. It gives me a Sargent Peppers vibe, was that the thinking behind Caravan Château?
AI: I was just really drawn to that picture. It’s by Daniel Lean who does collage art in Australia and I thought, “Damn this is really cool.” I showed it to my label manager and he really liked it too. At one point it was going to be another cover. I was fluctuating between two other images and at the last minute he said, “You know what, we should probably stick with this.” I thought that’s probably a good call. Then we put the border on it which is inspired by the Fleet Foxes album Helplessness Blues. It’s kind of a classic motif, it’s not like they invented it. I just really liked that look because I thought the burgundy border would be complementary.
OS: What do you hope people take away from Caravan Château?
AI: I just hope that it makes them feel something. I feel like people are really numb and just being pushed through obstacles constantly. Whether they’re walking down the street or driving in their car, I hope that Caravan Château can help them step outside of their minds for a second and think, “Wow, I think I like this a lot.”
OS: I keep saying, “Life is a video game you’re designed to lose so you may as well get whatever joy out it you can.
AI: [Laughs] Yeah it doesn’t seem like that at times, but it’s a cool video game too. Just like an RPG that you can run around in. Not Grand Theft Auto, I don’t mean like Grand Theft Auto. I mean like Zelda: Ocarina of Time or something.
OS: Right. You can go do some weird side missions and get some vegetables for some townsperson or something.
AI: Yeah or like ride a horse and jump over the fences.