I walked into my house one winter day after I quit university and there was Alexa Wiley, sitting on my floor with a guitar. She was trying with so much heart but the results were still coarse, rudimentary sounds. The house was otherwise empty, my roommate (who I guessed had invited her) gone: I was thinking, “who is this crazy bitch and what is she doing in my house trying to play that guitar and sing”. I knew just a little about her… She was a college jock who was reputed to have some strong ideas about feminism. Sitting down next to her was the unexpected beginning of a friendship with an amazing and inspiring woman. Her music has gone from coarse to refined, and has a struck a deep chord in many people along the way. In my opinion, she’s one of the people doing ‘it’, pursuing what feels right and saying the things of consequence that need to be heard.
Daniel: What’s your current project right now? Band stuff, gigs, solo, putting together an album?
Alexa: My current project is called Alexa Wiley & the Wilderness, it’s a band project. It’s an extension of what I’ve always done – write songs and play them, but it’s the most organized version of a band that I’ve ever had. The guys all love each other and it exists because we all like to play music and enjoy each other’s company. All the guys have other projects too – it’s the nature of being a musician. We just released our latest album with the same name Alexa Wiley & the Wilderness and are working on promoting that. Meanwhile I am working on remembering old songs and making new ones.
Daniel: There was a while where you used to play in prisons, correct? Talk about that – how it evolved, and why a prison.
Alexa:I organized a group of women in to play in a women’s prison years ago when I first came to Portland. Not sure why I came up with the idea in the first place but it makes sense. I think it was a project for a workshop I was taking about being unstoppable. I wanted to connect with women who were locked up – I wanted to bring something good to their situation, but I also think it was also born out of a desire to just connect with people. The men’s prisons I played in were more recent, I played in a few prisons with my trio and once I played solo – it was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had. I loved all the male attention – and I loved having an opportunity to connect with folks in prison who love music. One of the men who invited me into the prison was an inmate who was allowed to work with the public in a limited way to bring music into the prison. He saw me in the KBOO newsletter and reached out to me. We are still friends to this day. It’s been about 4-5 years of pen pal time. He is out of prison now in the same town and plays with a lot of the local musicians and we are talking about playing together. It’s just been hard to coordinate schedules. Prison is a weird place. Getting a taste for what it is like is really bizarre. It’s a total lockdown situation. There are some great people locked up behind bars for some stupid thing they did. A lot of people behind bars are also poor or minority – so there is a socio-economic thing going on too. If you don’t’ have money – you’re more likely to go to prison.
Daniel: You’ve been involved musically with environmental causes too. Give the low-down.
Alexa: Some of my songs are really love songs for the wild. I love the rivers, the wildlife. I am not a scientist though or a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) coordinator or I’d be out doing that. I wish I could do more, I wish I was a lawyer or somebody who knew how to restore ecological systems on a mass scale. All the organizing and protesting is so needed, but we also need the art. We need art to cultivate a sense of belonging, a sense of comfort, and a sense of empathy. Creating art is an act of survival – singing and writing. It’s never been about having a huge agenda or changing the world, it’s about doing my best to make sense of how I feel, who I am and what I can choose to say in my own way about what I see. I want to be more like Phil Ochs. If you look him up on Wikipedia it says “ Protest Singer.” Cause that’s all he did. He wrote and sang about all the things that were going on around him and he was articulate and smart and active and brave. Songs are powerful. I partner with organizations like Columbia Riverkeeper and perform at events to add my voice to the conversation, to the fight. I am always looking for ways to do this.
I’ve always wanted to sing. Though I was never very pretty or especially talented – I was always lip syncing and making up songs and recording them on old tapes when I was growing up. They were really cheesy but I was into it. As we grow up girls and women are taught that the most important thing is how we look. We are taught that this is the number one most important thing about us. Look at the media it’s everywhere. Women are still second-class citizens. Even when we are doctors, lawyers, scientists, it’s all about how you look while being fucking amazingly brilliant at the same time. The smarter women get the more men freak out. Men need help too, they need to be taught that they can be who they are instead of defining themselves by what they think they aren’t. It’s just such an ancient paradigm and it’s insidious. We are also brought up in this dialogue – this love story boy meets girl & other Cinderella stories that are so pervasive. When first I heard women singing about real things in high school and college -Ani Difranco, Tori Amos, and Joules Graves -and in their own way, it made me want to say something interesting and inspiring. In college I just started writing and singing at open mics. I just sang about whatever. I am sure in a lot of ways I looked like a young cliché feminist, but that’s not how I felt, that wasn’t my experience of it. Lots of times people didn’t like my music I am sure, but sometimes people would say it was exactly what they needed to hear. I just kept doing it. It was a drive and a deep desire, it wasn’t rational, planned or rehearsed. I was (and still am) singing for my life in a lot of ways. It is like medicine and in a lot of ways has helped me cultivate a sense of self over the years. I have these songs now, and people who love them. I have things to say and the songs are their own stories, they’re not really totally mine. Performing is like hiding in plain site. It’s this whole other thing that I do where I can say what I want in my own way. There are very few places we can do that.
Alexa: Well the whole dynamic of women being objects is an issue. Women have always been closely linked with nature, that uncontrollable wild thing that we fear culturally. We have all these philosophies, like Christianity that say heaven is not on earth, that earth is a means to an end. We are taught earth is something to own and control, or at least “manage.” As women then we become the earth. We are the landscape to be managed, to be objectified. It must have happened around the cultivation of the land. If we read literature it’s usually a male character defining himself against nature, through nature, which is basically seen as this female aspect. So as women we disappear – we are the landscape to be explored. We are the metaphorical mountain to conquer. We have to be unconquerable and wild and yet at the same time controlled and managed. So if I am the woman hiking across the landscape – that becomes a whole new dynamic then. I have to wrestle with my identity in ways men don’t even think about – it’s just ingrained in our language. Poetically – I become both male and female the explorer and the explored. I am the wild and the wilderness manager.
One can also make the connection that some feminists have made – that because the earth and it’s beings are pretty much oppressed, as women, we may experience nature differently, we relate more to other oppressed beings such as animals for example. We might have a different view based on our experience. There are a lot of oppressed people in various situations so I am not pretending that I am an expert or anything, but women are minimized world-wide and perhaps then anyone who defines themselves as female can cultivate this other perspective of how things are because they notice the ads, they notice the kidnappings, the rape, the violence, the media because it’s more personal. It’s this age-old paradigm reinforced through language and culture. That same paradigm also applies in various ways for how we treat the earth and it’s creatures. I am speaking big picture here. There are so many wonderful men and so many empowered women and all kinds of folks who are living these beautiful informed lives. I just don’t think as a whole our culture is really that aware of how we even think and perceive our world. A lot of us want to be enlightened, but we are formed by a worldview that we grow up within, it’s not that easy to see outside of it. We have to work at it. I have a lot of work to do here myself.
Daniel: What keeps you motivated to make music and to make it better? Or is the music the motivation in your life?
Alexa: The music chooses me and when I am awake to it, I can hear it and participate. I am drawn to music maybe because it helps me be a better more whole person. Like a thirsty person wants water – I want to write better songs I am motivated to be better, because it makes me better, more whole, more compassionate, more kind, more balanced. Music has this ability for the whole community. It makes me less small. It takes me outside of myself and at the same time connects me to “myself.” It has this dual quality or uplifting and grounding.
Daniel: You’re self-taught in the sense that you weren’t raised with music lessons and got into it late. How did you go from college jock to recording artist and gigging musician?
Alexa: I am a scrapper! I keep showing up I keep playing. I meet amazing talented musicians and I learn from them. I meet recording artists and I record. I learn little bits from the people around me. In college I was playing a lot but never recording, and then in Bend, OR after graduation I met these amazing guys with a studio. They are now doing well in Minneapolis. I was going to this open mic in Bend where Matty-Matt who was 18 at the time and rapping would play, now you would know him as Matisayu, and he’s this really big musician now. There were a lot of people like that in Bend at that time. I mean it’s all around. I found the same thing in Colorado and then back in Portland when I moved back here. I am driven to perform so I have always been booking gigs and playing wherever I could. I still do that. It forces me outside of myself. It’s hard to play for people who don’t give a fuck about what you’re doing, but I think it is a good exercise. You really have to want to play for other reasons than getting attention. Being around other musicians and people who are recording really helps move oneself forward. Music is a community thing. It’s not really a solo act – though writing and playing can be for sure. It’s been a slow process really. It’s hard to be good at anything it takes a lifetime so I hopefully have another 40 years to write some songs and get better.
Daniel: Physical being having a spiritual experience or spiritual being having a physical experience? And what’s spiritual life like for you (if you look into it)? There again, does it all tie together for you? Women, environment, spirit?
Alexa: Physical being having a spiritual experience. I feel like I have to reach to be spiritual or I just feel like this object just stuck in the mud! I do feel my experience is informed by being a woman. People are harder on women songwriters and performers. We are harder on ourselves – we have to look the part. My job as an artist is to be authentic despite all that noise. But it can be hard to just get past my own thought processes and everyone’s expectations. Spiritual moments I guess would be moments where I just feel authentic and alive and not tied to a particular stereotype. I think music can do that on a good day. There is always that whole thing of wanting people to like the way I look, or to be skinny or sexy or whatever. Maybe it’s the same for men but I would guess it’s not so intense. The whole dynamic of the sexes is changing with genders becoming more fluid. So that’s interesting and hopeful.
Daniel: What’s inspiring you right now?
Alexa: Answering these questions.
Daniel: Anything you want people to know right now. Spit it.
Alexa: Thanks Dan. All the love to you.
www.alexawiley.com (videos, links etc.)
latest album: https://alexawiley.bandcamp.com/releases
Blog post & interview with Inessa Anderson: https://soundcloud.com/inessa-b/alexa-wiley-on-the-art-of?utm_source=soundcloud&utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=twitter
Daniel: Thanks, Wiley, all the love back. Besides being pretty and talented, you continue to inspire me and others. You have always been and remain, the shit. Keep charging.
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Photo credit and gratitude to Mirifoto for the featured image. The black-and-whites are from Wendy Santiago Surber – thankyou!