Do you like soul music? Abraham Alexander and his band tear it up Live From KCRW: HQ.
Photo by Larry Hirshowitz.

Abraham Alexander: KCRW Live from HQ

Intimate performances, fresh sounds, and candid conversations with a view.

Soul-drenched singer-songwriter Abraham Alexander’s biography is an epic read. From the opening lines alone, he’s an extraordinary human leading an extraordinary life: “Born in Greece, where he spent the early part of his life with the Acropolis as his playground, Abraham was transplanted to Texas in the early 2000s at 11 years old to escape the ever present racial tension of his birthplace.”

His story weaves on from there, including an attempt at a professional soccer career, a plunge into medical school, and perhaps the first (and last) instance in recorded history of a family encouraging one of their own to drop out of med school to pursue a career in music. Alexander breaks down his stranger-than-fiction backstory in conversation with Anne Litt — alongside the tales of how he came to collaborate with such luminaries as Leon Bridges and Mavis Staples. Plus, he serves up core-shaking renditions of the emotionally vast material from his 2023 debut LP SEA​/​SONS. “Tears Run Dry” and “Déjà Vu” — a quietly devastating examination of a heartless justice system  — are on offer. And click in immediately to experience Alexander’s ultra-slow-burning take on Chris Isaak’s classic “Wicked Game.” 

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The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

KCRW: How does a sense of community influence your music?

Abraham Alexander: One of my philosophies, I say it all the time, is [that] the second person that believes in a dream is more important than the dreamer. Because they bring it to life. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my community. 

And it’s your family that really encouraged you to get into music, correct?

Yes. I was coaching soccer, I was working at a clinic, and I was going to school… thinking about med school. I was getting about 15 hours of sleep a week. And [my parents] told me that I was killing myself on both ends. They [let me know that they] thought that I should drop everything, and pursue music and see what happens.



What can you tell us about the story behind “Déjà Vu,” and how you came to work with Mavis Staples”

“Déjà Vu” is based off of Khalif Browder, a 16 year old who was wrongfully accused of stealing a backpack, and then sent to the worst prison in America — Rikers Island. [He] spent three years there, and while he was there he spent two thirds of his time in solitary confinement. And he was [also] being molested… like you name it… A young 16 year old. That just resonated with me. And they were trying to get him to take a plea deal, but he wouldn't because he kept pleading his innocence and saying, “I didn't do this.” It's crazy that the person with integrity was the one behind bars. 

After three years, they let him go. And he was crying for, “When do I get to see a judge? “When will I have my justice?” It never came, and Khalif ended up taking his own life by hanging himself in his mom's house. This isn't about black or white, I feel like it's about a justice system. As an artist, I feel like it is our job to be [the] soundboard of the times. It's the only song within the album that isn't my own story, but I [take it on]. Khalif could have been released from prison if [only] his mom had $3,000 to bail him out. So, you know, I feel like we live in a system that's perpetually vomiting this division, and we're not realizing that we're more alike than not. I feel like the system we're in is blind, but it can be shifted. The scales can move depending on your coin… You know, $3,000 for a life… 

… I met [Mavis Staples] in Austin. I’d just finished the tour supporting Leon bridges. And they asked me if I would be open to opening up for Mavis. I was like, “1,000% yes.” We get there, I do my set, and after my set she gets on and she spends about 10 or 15  minutes just talking about my set and how she feels like she's passing the baton to the next generation. Afterwards we met up, she gave me hugs, and she's like, “Baby, if there's anything that you need, please let me know.” And I was like, “I got an idea [laughs].” But I'm super grateful because her voice on that song holds so much weight, it carries generations, and because of what she's done her voice is so dynamic. And not just her voice, but her life. She has walked, and because she walked, I can stand and live and be in places… So it's not just her voice alone, but it's who she is and the life that she gives into the song.

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You’ve experienced so much in your career that feels serendipitous, like the Mavis Staples encounter, and how you met Leon Bridges. Do you believe in fate?

I don't believe in luck, but I believe in fortune. [Think about it] in terms of a farmer: You sow seed, but you're fortunate that the sun shines just enough. And you're fortunate that it rains just enough. Because if it shines too much, the crops wither and die. And if it rains too much, then they drown. But [there’s also] the process of going out there and cultivating the field. And even though you might not see what's buried, or see that it's growing, you still know that something's happening. So I feel like the fortune [is in] believing in yourself, and believing that you're made for something bigger. And [believing that] what you're going through is not just for you alone, but it's for others.

… I'm waiting [for a new friend who’s running late], I see these guys getting amps out of a van, and taking them into the building [where we’re meeting]. I was like, “I'm going to go see what they're doing.” And they said, “We're recording this guy named Leon Bridges, and we're looking for people to come into the studio. Can you sing?” I was like, “No, no.” So they asked, “Can you hum? And [the next thing I know] they're like, “Cool, show up tomorrow.” 

The next day I worked 12 hours [at the day job]. I was exhausted, so I was just going to go home. [But] the exit that I took was blocked off, never happened before [or since]. But it was blocked off. [The only route home was by that studio] So I [thought] I guess I might as well stop and see what they're doing. I went, and I was part of the making of Coming Home.

SEA/SONS is your debut album, but you’ve already worked with Leon Bridges and you have these features on the album from Mavis Staples and Gary Clark Jr. You’ve also opened for The Lumineers in Europe. What does this moment feel like for you?

It's surreal, but it's a testament [to not] hold on to your dreams with a closed fist. Hold it with an open one. Because you can't receive with the closed fist, it has to be open. Sometimes things get taken away so that better things can be put on. It's an incredible journey, and I'm so thankful.

Credits:

KCRW Music Director/Interviewer: Anne Litt 
Director / Editor / Color : Angie Scarpa 
Directors of Photography : Dalton Blanco, Vice Cooler
Camera operators : Dalton Blanco, Vice Cooler, Angie Scarpa, Miko Scarpa
Recording / Mix Engineer: Nick Lampone
Assistant Recording Engineers: Henry D'Ambrosio and Hope Brush
Producers: Liv Surnow and Anna Chang
Lighting Design: Jason Groman
Art Director: Evan Solano
Executive Producer: Ariana Morgenstern 
Digital Producer: Andrea Domanick

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