Musical Therapy and Communion on The Purple Line: A Conversation with Alec D’Alelio
By Noah Franklin
I sat down with him the other day to dig into what this is, why he’s doing it, and where he’s going from here.
Me: Alright, so what is it that you’re doing? What is this musical project?
Alec: This musical project is the culmination of about a decade, roughly, of a passion for music that I’ve directed in different ways over the years. I’ve been playing guitar for about 10 years. I played a couple instruments before that. Since like the sixth grade I’ve been making videos, putting them on Youtube. And then toward the end of high school that translated to me making covers and producing them in GarageBand.
I wasn’t always very into songwriting, but I remember specifically I did a cover of “Lost” by Chance the Rapper, and I had been doing everything super acoustic before, but with this one I was just like, “I wanna see if I can recreate the beat.” Just for fun. And I was actually surprised at how close I was able to get. And I was just like, “Wow, if I could recreate that beat, then what’s stopping me from doing my own beats?” And so after that, right around the time I graduated high school, I started digging into producing my own music. Specifically, I started doing a lot of sample-based instrumental stuff. And I’ve been toying with it through college.
So this year, I got back from studying abroad in Argentina in January. I was coming off of a break up. I was in kind of a weird phase, almost a quarter life crisis/existential crisis type mode where I just didn’t know what to do and I was really trying to figure myself out, you know? And coming from a different country, coming off of this relationship—which included all of these cultural differences because it was with an Argentine girl—it was just a lot to process. And I was having a hard time getting across how I was feeling to other people. And I just really started pouring all my unstructured time into making music. Quickly I started to notice some common themes in the subject matter of what I was writing and I thought, “Why don’t I just make this a project?”
Me: You said that you had trouble with communicating how you were feeling. So is this you doing that? Is this you communicating with people? Or is this more of a personal bloodletting—like, “I just need to let myself know how I’m feeling?”
Alec: It’s definitely both. I think that at its core, when I started working on this music, it was completely the second. I was doing it for me. And actually when I first started writing these songs I was really wary about sharing them with my friends or family. Honestly, it was really just the most natural way for me to work through how I was feeling and to be able to focus on other things. A lot of people around this time were like, “How are doing all the music and still focusing on classes?” And I’m like, because I kind of had to. Because it was how I got through the baggage of how I was feeling and I was able to be more in so I could focus on my academics too.
Me: So it felt like something that was necessarily happening, not something you had to sit yourself down to do.
Alec: I really didn’t work to build it into my structure or routine; it just happened. Music has always been therapeutic for me. But this time it was different. I was cognizant of the fact that I was processing some complicated feelings and emotions and things that were layered and would require me to be real with myself. And so it just started happening. When I really got into it, in like February or March of this year, I was doing a song every day or two. I made like 20 songs. The EP is five. So I just got into this cycle of making something, making something, making something, making something, and then like, “Ok...one of them will stick.”
Me: Do these feelings—these creative dumps—naturally take the form of songs? Are you thinking, “Oh this song is about this moment or this feeling and this song is about this one,” or does it all sort of bleed together?
Alec: It was different for different songs on the project. So this song called “So Far,” I was feeling super overwhelmed the day I wrote that. I remember sitting in class and just being like [exasperated gesture]. I hadn’t been sleeping very well. I was dealing with some toxic behavior and self sabotage. So after class I literally just went home and picked up my guitar and that chord progression for “So Far” came out. It’s easiest for me to get a feeling across through the guitar first. And then from there, once I have that, and kind of have the mood established, I can go into lyrics.
Me: Do you see where the song’s going?
Alec: It depends. So like with “So Far,” it went through iterations and iterations and iterations. It started as a two-minute song; now it’s five minutes. It started as the first song on the project; it ended up being the last one. That one was just changing and changing over a period of like two or three months. Whereas another song from the project, the song “Disposable,” that one I wrote entirely in 30 minutes. I was more feelin’ some type of way and I was able to channel it immediately. So I’m still figuring out my process, but it’s not like there’s one way that I go about doing it.
The song “Snooze,” which is the one that I have the two features on from Ajani Jones and L.A. VanGogh—shameless plug, two amazing local rappers—for that one I made the beat and I was like, “Oh my god, this is so crazy, this is so good.” And then I started writing verses on it. I was like “I’ll rap on this. This is gonna be sick.” And after writing like five or six verses I just decided “I don’t really wanna use any of these...I wanna get other people to rap on it.” Right? So that was a different process of me making the instrumental and then being like, “Here’s all these different directions I could take the song in,” and then ultimately deciding “I wanna bring other people in and have them help define what the song is.” And they did a phenomenal job.
Me: What was the process of that like? What did you tell them before they laid down their verses?
Alec: So the first one, Ajani, that was the first time I’ve ever heard an adept, professional rapper rap on one of my beats. I’ll forever remember the day that I got his vocal stems back and was just like “Oh my god, this is the coolest thing ever.” But I didn’t really tell him much, actually. I had the chorus already, but he really just went for it. Actually I was shocked when he sent it back. I was like how did he know? He actually had some lines—I think about a relationship that he’d been in—that really resonated with me, and I was like “Did he just get this from the beat?” Like, that’s amazing.
The second feature from L.A. VanGogh I got a lot later on. I sent him the beat and he said “Send me five adjectives or phrases that you think embody what you want the song to be about and feel like, and I’ll make magic with it.” And I loved that. I actually took a long time. I took like longer than I should have, like an hour to think, “What are the perfect five adjectives?”
Me: Do you remember what any of those were?
Alec: Emotional repression, self-actualization, finality, acceptance, and cathartic moment.
Me: That’s a cool way to approach a feature. I’ve always wondered how that works for professional artists.
Alec: Yeah, well it’s different of course when you’re actually able to get into the studio with people. This was a bit different because I haven’t been established at all in the scene. And the Chicago scene is very tight-knit; everyone knows each other. And so trying to break into that space as a bit of an outsider is not super easy.
Me: Let’s talk about that. What are you doing to actively put yourself out there? Are you showing up to open mics?
Alec: Yeah I’m trying to get more into open mics. Over the summer I was going to a lot of events. Young Chicago Authors, for example—well, actually, this isn’t a YCA thing officially—but Kevin Coval, who is a founder of YCA, does a monthly thing called the AV Exchange, which curates performances by artists, poets, comedians...so I’ve been going to those, trying to meet as many artists as I can. I went to three or four album/EP/single release parties over the summer which is a great way to connect with people. Just showing up.
It’s a bit harder now that school’s back in session. I’m trying to start going to open mics every week in the city, it’s just that I’m taking five classes and working with a lot of student organizations here so it’s easier said than done.
Me: I’m sure. What about the Northwestern community?
Alec: It’s been really cool over the past year or so to watch the kind of independent music scene at Northwestern grow. Around the same time, actually, that I was getting back from Argentina, a couple friends of mine were in the process of starting a new student organization called the .WAV Company—shameless plug for that too—so I got involved immediately, and what they were trying to do was centralize the Northwestern music scene a bit. And it was immensely successful right off the bat. We’ve had weekly performance opportunities for student artists and also have been trying to provide opportunities for professional development, helping people figure out how to market their music, how to actually release and distribute their music.
As a Senior now, I really want to help do everything that I can to help younger student artists get through these processes without so much friction. Because actually, every year for the past four years I’ve had the same goal of writing and producing and releasing an EP and I wasn’t able to do it until this year.
Me: But obviously if you had completed your goal earlier, if this EP had come out last year or the year before, it would be completely different, right?
Alec: Yeah I was gonna say, it wouldn’t have been this EP. It would have been a totally different EP.
Me: When you look back on these songs, are you like, “Damn, I wanna change that,” or is it like, “I successfully communicated what I wanted to communicate?”
Alec: Right when I finished the songs, I was like “Oh my god I want to change so much, oh my god.” But honestly, at this point, now, I love them. I mean, they’re not perfect, and I love that. I did justice to the way that I was feeling. And I worked through it through the music.
“So Far,” after I wrote it and recorded it, it literally became an affirmation, like a mantra for me. Whenever I listen to that song, even though there’s a lot of tension in it, I have a lot of comfort in it too. Because whenever I got that same feeling that led me to write the song, I can listen to it and just be at peace.
Me: That’s awesome. So when I saw you perform at Evanston Rocks, you were pretty bubbly. When you perform these songs live, are you just feeling that catharsis? Or does it ever send you back into that place?
Alec: It’s both. I mean there’s something really, really beautiful about being able to take negativity, especially negativity that’s directed at yourself, and turn it into something beautiful. No matter what I’m playing, even if I’m playing the saddest song ever, it just still makes me happy to be able to play music, and play music for people.
Me: So now that you’ve done the thing, how do you keep the momentum going? Are you just gonna keep recording songs?
Alec: I wanna work with other artists as much as I can. I think that’s the best way for me to move forward. I actually have some productions in the works now. I’m producing songs for a few other Chicago artists. I’m really excited about that.
I think that, from the beginning, this [EP] was a very individualized pursuit. It was the most introverted, most introspective period of my life where I really wasn’t spending that much time with other people—which is not like me. It got to a point where I was like, “I need to bring other people in.” So as the process went from super individualized to a bit more collaborative, it made me realize the value in collaboration. And I think it’s an interesting dynamic that these songs were conceptualized in a very individualistic way, but then later became a bit more of a communal effort.
Me: What do you feel like that value of collaboration is for you? Why do you crave that?
Alec: Oh man…because there’s nothing like it. Music is at its core inherently individualistic because everybody views music in their own way and everyone’s experience is so specific to the way that they’ve spent their time, but also some of the best music results from collaboration. Some of my favorite music projects of the last few years have been collective efforts. I really like what Brockhampton’s doing, and in Chicago I really like what Pivot Gang is doing.
And not all artists, obviously, are gonna mesh, but when you’re able to find somebody who is able to mesh with you conceptually but brings something totally different and unique sonically into the mix, and you can just align...that’s what happened with Sam I think. I had this song “Real W Me,” now maybe my favorite song on the project, but I wasn’t feeling confident about it at all. I was like, “This is clearly missing something.” And so I had Sam come in, and I don’t remember exactly what I told him, but he ran with it, and it came out so good, and added so much value to the track. It’s moments like that.
Me: Were you listening to music during this process? And do you feel like there are influences that pop up?
Alec: I actually was listening to way less music than ever because I was doing songs all the time, and I was making tweaks to them all the time. I would do a rough cut of a song, export it, listen to it on my walk to class. I was just listening to my own stuff and taking notes on it. So a lot of the times that I would normally be listening to other music ended up becoming occupied by me just listening to my own music.
But in terms of influences, Tom Misch will forever be my number one influence. Every song that I’ve written is rooted in kind of a combination of jazz, rock, and hip-hop guitar. I’m very inspired by the independent Chicago wave too. But I was definitely not listening to too too much music.
I really really didn’t want my sound to be too influenced by any one artist or genre; I really wanted to be kind of exploratory about it, and just find it naturally. So the fact that I wasn’t listening to that much other music ended up being conducive to me making sense of all the music that was going on in my head. I was still listening to music though, just not in the crazy way that I do normally, which is like...pretty excessive.