We’re overlooking the city from one its highest points. We’re in luck today; there’s a clear view as far as North Wales, maybe further. It’s bright, humid atop multiple layers. But this feels like something of a seasonal encore given the drabness of this September.
The park leaning over Everton Brow is the premier vantage point for taking in Liverpool’s skyline. The array of parked cars meeting for a lunch hour escape tell you this much. It’s also a space reserved for unregulated natural beauty. In between the walkways and treelines, roughly sketched formations of wildflowers interrupt a backdrop of high-rise flats with flecks of red and yellow. However, only their last reserves remain. Summer is no longer in session. Alex Stephens, the face and feelings behind STRAWBERRY GUY, is resting his head among a wilting patch as he has his photo taken. The rolls of film capturing the scene paint a picture of dreamlike stillness. Landscape and subject are currently resting in unison. A symbiosis between two forlorn entities: the draining colour in the summer landscape; an artist whose music bathes in the slow fade of autumn.
In between each click of film, Alex is much more vibrant. He’s the brightest hue on the hillside, both in character and appearance. The full force of the midday sun, intensified by the photographer’s light reflector, is bringing this out in abundance. Though, as he protests, it’s coming at a cost of his eyesight. And so the eyes remain shut, for the most part, matching the blissful aura that permeates Strawberry Guy’s keyboard-led arrangements.
Back inside his flat, there’s an abundance of reference points that point to where Alex’s penchant for luscious melody derives from. Records by The Beach Boys are strewn on the couch; a strung-up picture of The Smiths is softly illuminated by a pair of searching Georgian windows. Perhaps the most telling of all, though, is a photo of Mac DeMarco hunched at the waterside, an image that accompanied his 2015 LP, Another One. These are a good entry point for the palette of Strawberry Guy, but by no means a full reflection.
Beyond the impressive collection of strawberry-themed bric-a-brac dotted around his home space, there’s a particular sincerity that’s present as we take shots in his bedroom-turned-studio. Alex insists his keyboards are turned on as we take his picture. It’s a small detail, and one I suggest won’t draw much attention. Yet, he ensures the power light is visible, and proceeds to play a run of muted notes. The only sound present is of the keys clunking in their chord shapes. There’s no desire for pretence, only a cautious honesty – one that’s offered in comforting spoonfuls across his new EP, Taking My Time To Be.
While Strawberry Guy might still be a relatively fresh creative vessel (only playing his first gig under the moniker at the turn of the year), Alex isn’t overly new to the scene. He’s had a stint in Trudy And The Romance, but, most recently, you’ll have likely seen him tending to the keys on behalf of The Orielles. However, there’s a distinct change in direction for Strawberry Guy, he insists, one that’s clearly more of a personal endeavour and cathartic experiment.
“My work with Trudy and The Orielles has always been quite separate to what I was writing myself,” he starts, when asked if the two projects served as a precursor to his own music. “The Orielles make the most fun music. When we write together, because there are four of us in a room, it leads us to write quite uplifting music. It’s quite the opposite for my own.” As noted during the latter stages of today’s photoshoot, the bedroom set-up is made for one. A singular chair stands in the middle of a wealth of keyboards, synths and a guitar. It’s a space programmed to pen dateless diary entries and their dreamy soundtracks. “I write and record almost everything on my own in my bedroom. Because I’m alone, it gives me the freedom to be a lot more emotional, or at least explore a broader range,” he explains.
A self-proclaimed “chord geek”, Alex has poured his classical piano training into sepia-tinted songs, rubberstamped with meandering vocals that match the expanse of his blanketing organ use. It’s heavily romanticised but not hopeless. It’s music that circles the swirling halo of Beach House, with the aforementioned melodic deftness of Mac DeMarco and The Beach Boys. Yet, he plays down the formula in which the songs are produced. “A lot of them start off as mistakes,” he confesses. “Sometimes I’ll play a chord wrong and it’ll sound interesting and I’ll take it from there.” It’s a process that helps break with the formulaic nature of classical training; a similar pattern to the poet, moulding and interchanging between patterns of metre and syllable structure.
In little more than a year, play counts of over two million have been amassed on YouTube. Fans have even gone as far to edit their own videos for his music. One daintily pairs Without You with scenes and edits of Kukolka, a 1988 Russian film about a gymnast. Another, pieces What Would I Do? with clips from 1971 film Minnie And Moskowitz. Comments in each video include: “I want to play this song next to someone I care about”, “these feels” and “this makes me miss a love I never had”. “I’m crying” is a regular feature also. It’s clearly a shared space for outpourings, both in the music and the reactions it generates – irrespective of the sterilised, internet domain in which it exists.
I ask Alex what it’s like to see his music mushroom in the wider world before it’s been properly unfurled in its local surroundings; whether this allows for a greater depth to explore. “The increased popularity in the last year has been a little bit strange,” he admits. “The way all this started was just through putting the songs on SoundCloud. Because I’d written and produced them, I thought they should be somewhere if people wanted to listen. I wasn’t deliberately trying to make it a thing.” By luck, the songs were picked up by the right listeners, including proactive fan video makers specialising in bathtub melancholia. But there remains an obvious draw for compelling, personable connection with the audience, another signifier of his romantic endeavour. Strawberry Guy isn’t a blissed-out veneer. Each piano stab cuts close to the body playing the notes. “The online world can be hard to resonate with. It’s weird to think that some guy who’s had his heart broken in Brazil is listening to my songs as a means of making it through.”
“You know, why is it all sad people that listen to my music?” he jokes, ironically. But he’s not blind to its emotive qualities, and his own similar experiences as a listener. “Some of the best songs are uplifting but are able to incorporate a range of emotion, and I think that can be so healing. If I listen back to The Beach Boys, you sense how emotional their songs are, but they’re no less uplifting than an out and out happy song.”
We’ve been speaking for a couple of hours now. The rain has come and shifted our interview undercover. So far, Alex is pretty upfront about how he wants his music to be perceived as an honest portrayal. He underlines that experience and occasion are the biggest influence on his subject matter – both happy and sad. Importantly, though, always uplifting. As for the name choice, it’s not a derivative of the blonde locks that frame his face. It was branded by his friends in Her’s who noticed his taste for strawberry milkshake. “It just really stuck,” he tells me, as we shift seats until the rain passes overhead. “I like to think it’s fitting for my music, anyway. Strawberries are quite sweet, and so is my music,” he adds.
There’s also a frankness that Strawberry Guy isn’t a new entity, despite only being revealed to the world in the previous two years. The heart-aching happiness is something that’s been channelled from a young age, now transferred in to song form. But, as with any expression, there’s a process of journey; a change in state and feeling. “Strawberry Guy is close to my personality, but it’s also a form of escapism. When I sit down to write, it can be such a release for sadness.”
“When I was a kid I was always composing. I would just come up with little melodies, never quite full songs. I was really into film scores. The first one I got into was the Coraline soundtrack. I heard that and thought that was the best thing; I even bought the CD. I then wrote my first song at 14, but I would keep it to myself.”
In Alex’s press shots to date, and accompanying illustrations, there’s a recurring floral influence. In relation to his music, it appears symbolic of his progression and product. An organism that will flower, but in its own time, and only if tended to correctly. “Well, I didn’t think taking the shots in an industrial estate would be so romantic,” he adds with sarcasm. Taking My Time To Be feeds into the narrative, alluding to the steps taken to arrive at the record. Acceptance also of an environment, and one’s position in it.
Since his teenage years, Alex has been crossdressing, something which he says helps him release an alter-ego. It’s something he now embraces, after initial worries and fears. It’s another offshoot that ties into the unrushed feel of the record. “Taking My Time To Be is just about learning to be comfortable with myself. I was crossdressing for years and then I finally came out to my mum about it when I was 18. The album title focuses on worrying whether I’ll be loved, by anyone. I shouldn’t, it’s 2019, isn’t it? But that captures the feeling I had growing up, unsure if people would understand why I was doing it. I’m a hopeless romantic. There’s always a dominant feeling of wanting to be loved. That’s what the EP is about really, just summarising those feelings and changes in myself. Being comfortable being myself. Generally not caring so much.”
The more we talk, the more the ease and lack of worry seeps in. You can sense there’s been a full acceptance of self in terms of former anxieties. Everything else on the exterior is dealt with in his musical confession. He’s clear on not wanting to overtly draw the crossdressing into his music. It bears no explicit relation to feel or its sonic character. It’s merely another form of release; a second layer of skin. And with every song he arguably sheds a new layer of himself as Alex, and adorns another as Strawberry Guy. As unadorned entities, the wig and clothes choices don’t arrange the glistening synths and sticky drums that you hear. “A lot of the music is centred on escape. Escape from feelings. I think there are a lot of internal things that were going on when I was growing up. You know, I’d be going into a shop to buy a dress. It was terrifying,” he explains, touching on how crossdressing is a medium for comfort, not an overarching theme for him as an artist. “Being a heterosexual guy who enjoys crossdressing brings a lot of questions. It’s something that I’ve wanted to write about, but not something I’m actively looking to make a part of anything. I’d never want to get on stage in a dress. When I dress up, it’s a form of escapism. And because it isn’t me, I don’t really want to take that personality too close to the music.”
Where the inward comfort has in fact found a way into the music is the efficiency. It seems easier than ever for Alex to be able to write and compose. Freer in self-restriction and confidence. “It’s something that I feel I have to do. It’s like a compulsion, something I have to release from myself,” he says, with his face lost in thought. “Sometimes I just have to run home and start writing on the keyboard when I have an idea in my head.” Even now, as he tells me this, there’s a twitchiness as though the train of thought is dreaming up ideas to be worked on in his bedroom studio.
It’s this very bedroom studio plays a huge part in his freedom, his escape. The imaginary world abundant with an emotive oxygen. As he says himself, “when you’re in a studio, time is money,” and there’s undoubtedly added pressure when expected to be creative on a restricted timescale. Why leave a realm entirely of your own design? “In my room, I can record whenever I want. I can just leave a song, come back to it in a month, maybe two months, even a year.” The floral aspect of his music and its iconography seeps in again; the timely flowering of the EP and the growing impression of himself as something that should now be celebrated internally. Time is of the essence, but not in shortage. For Strawberry Guy, there’s no knowing when his music is going to be. It’s growing, changing and feeling, chord by chord, day by day.
Strawberry Guy’s debut EP, Taking My Time To Be, is out on 27th September via Melodic Records.