An artist of many disciplines, Alex Somers takes inspiration from all walks of life. His studies in music took him from Boston (Berklee) to Reykjavík (Iceland Academy of the Arts), where he became involved with Sigur Rós. With the famed band, Somers’s role included not just producer but designer as well with his contributions to artwork for albums such as Takk… Alongside frontman Jónsi, he formed duo Jónsi & Alex, who released two albums Riceboy Sleeps (2009) and Lost & Found (2019). As a producer, Alex has lent his talents to works by Julianna Barwick, Gyða Valtýsdóttir, Damien Rice, Amiina, Sin Fang, and Briana Marela. In the decade between Riceboy… and his official debut albums, Somers expanded his audio expertise to film. As a composer, he’s contributed soundtracks for Miss Americana(the Taylor Swift documentary), Honey Boy, Captain Fantastic, the How To Train Your Dragon Trilogy, Aloha, tv shows Black Mirror (“Hang the DJ”) and WGN’s Manhattan, and composed alongside legendary composers such as Danny Elfman (Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far) and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. 2021 marks the first time he channels his talents into a project solely his own, a chance to express himself while simultaneously sharing all he’s learned from his partnerships, friendships, and wide-ranging interests.
(Photo Credit: Bella Howard)
When I went to music school, I studied film scoring and music therapy. But I was 18 — I’m not sure if I really knew what music therapy or film scoring was, but they felt interesting. I was always curious about it, and other people would tell me, “Your music sounds like a film score,” even when I was a teenager making ambient music. I didn’t ever really want to be a film composer, it was never a goal, but then filmmakers started using music I had made as “temp music” — which is what we call the music that editors put in when they’re cutting together films, and then later it will all be replaced by the composer. But sometimes people get really attached to the temp music, and decide to hire the people who’d made it. So that happened to me, and I started doing film scoring.
I discovered that I really like it. It’s really collaborative, because when you’re on a team who’s making a film in general, you’re kind of a spoke in a very large wheel. Of course, there’s the director for whom the film is their baby, and there’s someone who wrote it; sometimes that’s the same person. Then there are lots of producers who really care about the film and want it to get all the love it can get. There’s the picture editor, the music editor, and then if I work totally by myself or with some of my friends who are great musicians and engineers. There are lots of folks orbiting from every angle.
I love collaborating, and I love helping to tell a story through different means — through music and sounds, showing restraint here or going for the extreme here. It’s really fun to be a part of that process. Every film is different, and I’ve learned a lot. I feel like I’m always refining what I do — you always learn something new, whether it’s a small project or something that takes nine months. I think it’s informed the music I make when it’s not for films, and vice versa. It suits my personality.
Songwriting starts and ends as a solitary endeavor. I’m always on my own just making something — little sounds from a sampler or playing the piano by myself, or sometimes even playing the acoustic guitar then transposing those harmonies to other instruments. When something takes shape and I have rough mixes, I open it up and typically work with just my friends — pianists who play much better than I do, a string section, some double bass, percussionists — any friends who make cool noises and help me expand what I’m doing. So I overdub lots of stuff with my friends, and then I mix alone.
I multitrack everything, so I have lots of separation on my music. I don’t put loads of people in a room and capture it, like a picture of it; I’m not really interested in that reality. I like to record everything in its own space so I can manipulate each thing, and make it feel close to you or far from you. And a lot of times, I don’t use the original instrument the song was written on. So once I build up the piece of music around the skeletal structure, I remove the bones and it just floats there in a way I find satisfying. The song makes less sense, because you don’t know how it grew in that direction, because there’s nothing underneath it informing those decisions.
I never pin songwriting and composing against each other. I do think they activate different parts of the brain, but I’m usually doing it all at the same time — usually it’s not like a whole year, or even a couple months, where I’m only focused on one. Usually I’m dabbling in a few different projects at once. I think they inform each other in a very literal and technical way — just techniques I discover. Or sometimes if I’m doing a film score and I think I nailed it, but the director comes back and says it’s not right, and I’m revising it over and over, I maybe end up doing something I never have done, just because I want to get the piece of music approved for the film. Sometimes when you’re going outside of yourself and your own horizon like that, you stumble into really cool stuff. You become open-minded to stuff you wouldn’t do, and you discover new tricks in the studio, or use different pieces of gear or software in a new way. I feel like everyone I know who produces music has their own little bag of tricks, and it’s just expanding over the years. That comes from collaborating with other people and seeing what they do, and taking a pinch of that — or sharing what you do, and that gets slightly morphed. That happens to me all the time, at least once or twice every film.
My new records, Siblings and Siblings 2, came out of sessions for a silent film I scored called Dawson City: Frozen Time by the filmmaker Bill Morrison. During those sessions, I started having all these sibling songs to that batch of music, and then those sibling songs became sibling albums. They were primarily written and recorded in Reykjavik, and then mixed in Los Angeles; there are a lot of good friends of mine playing on the records. I tinkered with it on and off over the past few years, and it’s finally coming out. I’m excited to finally be sharing it.
Siblings 1 and 2 are out now via Krunk.
As told to Annie Fell.
(Photo Credit: left, Bella Howard)