In an age where many art forms have been compromised and watered down to fit the new norms of the exploding digital realm, it is an increasingly rare thing to find a true artist who is dedicated to their craft and willing to take the path less traveled in order to create something truly special and original. In our current climate of immediate gratification where fast often trumps slow-and-steady, where imitation often masquerades itself as invention, and where so many voices clamor for our attention, it is a precious thing when we come across an artist who can fully honour the sacredness of their own process and see it through before rushing to share its fruits with the world.
Introducing Alex Serra.
A mere glimpse or sonic taste of any creation blessed by Alex’s artistry is enough to reveal that he is one such precious and rare gem. A breath of fresh air and burst of intriguing eccentricity amidst the noise, Alex has skillfully managed to capture the hearts of his growing global audience by meaningfully inhabiting the digital world where so much of our human interaction is now taking place, while also inviting them into a kind of innovative connective experience in the real world for which so many are increasingly hungering.
Alex’s musical offerings to the world began with his widely viewed and vast array of unique covers on YouTube, spanning decades of classics from artists such as Otis Redding to Ray Charles to Lauryn Hill to Bon Iver, all beautifully captured in a range of stunning settings and diverse locations across the globe.
A true artist, through and through, Alex has taken his time cultivating his musical expression and honing his voice, carefully crafting his creations and sculpting his sound with patience and purpose, through exploration and experiment, and with a willingness to repeatedly leap into the unknown and open to whatever emerges. The fruits of this persistent courage and curiosity are undeniably evident on his debut release and first recorded collection of original songs, In The Real World, which showcases Alex’s silky smooth soulful voice, and his colorful and stylistically eclectic vocalizations of deeply heartfelt and empowering messages, all carefully nestled into well-crafted songs that bear the mark of many life miles traveled and adventures braved. Perfectly complemented by the organic dub soul soundscapes provided by Alex’s producer, collaborator and musical ally, Totidub, the album is a true masterpiece that lives in a genre-defying space of its own.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Alex for a deep dive into his hero’s journey. He shared about the beginnings of his musical soul adventure, his formative experiences traveling with little more than a guitar and camera, and the ways in which his path unfolded in the years leading up to his powerful and bold debut album. As he consistently does with his art, Alex kindly opened the doors to his heart and gave an unfiltered peek into the intimacy of his inner world, the real-life experiences and challenges that he encountered on the road to harvesting his own voice and blossoming creative genius. Last but not least, he shared his inspiring vision for a new way forward and a global community of artists shining their “lightblood” together in the name of love and liberation.
Chris Assaad: How long have you been playing music and how did your creative journey begin?
Alex Serra: I would say that I’ve always been a musician but it’s taken me years to have the courage to say “I am a musician”. Perhaps because of youth conditioning of what I should be in my life, the boxes that I felt that I should fit into. The story of the world, you know, what everybody has to go through.
I feel like I started coming out of these boxes when I started sharing covers of songs that I really loved on YouTube. I did it as an experiment, in 2008, when YouTube was starting. And then there was this platform online where you could share your videos and your ideas and your things, and so I said, “Okay, I’m just going to record myself and put it there.”
I started getting feedback for the first time in my life, direct feedback from people that I didn’t know, saying that they really connected with what I was doing. And they really loved it. I thought it was fascinating to be able to share your intimacy, and to have people from different parts of the world connect with that intimacy and appreciate it. So it was like a super-interesting experiment, and it kept me wanting to keep sharing, and to keep exploring. I think it’s a very organic and slow process of, ”Wow, this is working, man! Just keep sharing your music and keep sharing these songs and these feelings.”
The thing is, I was using cover songs to express my own emotions. I was using other people’s music to release how I feel things and how I express. So I was making those songs mine, in a way, and I was putting my voice to those songs. It became a process of liberating. Liberating all the tension, all the tension in my throat, all the tension in my head and my mind of what is possible, what is not possible, whatever.
CA: What catalyzed your decision to follow your art and devote yourself to creating music?
AS: I was studying computer science because I thought it would help. I envisioned that in the future I would be some kind of artist related to electronics and to technology. So I studied that, and it was a big failure because I didn’t pass the first year of university and I repeated three times. So I felt like a failure, going to university every day knowing that I didn’t like what I was doing, but that I had to study something.
After three years of that, I realized, “Wow man, this is not what you want to do. Come on, just be honest and say what you want to do. Dream for once in your life!” So, I had the courage to dream, and I dreamt that I could be a sound engineer. I went and looked for a private school called SAE, which is the School for Audio Engineers. They have different schools all over the world. I went to this school in Barcelona, and I studied audio engineering for a year. I really liked it. I really liked the feeling of being in a studio and finding ways to capture sound in creative ways.
The second year I went to London to study the second course, and in London something started to change in me, because for the first time I left my home. I was completely dependent on my own resources. I had to look for a job, I had to look for my own apartment, and I started seeing that this feels good. This independence and freedom to go and explore the world on your own.
I was working at a studio in Soho, in London, and they were doing the music for adverts and for movie trailers. The place was amazing. They have incredible studios and I was the runner there. I would do packaging, bring people coffee, take them to places and guide them through the studios. The vision there was that one day, perhaps, I could be an engineer in this place. The promise was that people started as runners, then went into this other section where you take care of the audios from clients, and then you went into the studios. So it was like a ladder that you needed to climb.
For some time, I dreamt that I could really climb up this ladder. But the vibe there was horrible, man. It was so superficial, and everything so plastic. So “put on your nice face and go to work” that I only lasted for a year. After a year, something happened and somebody told me, “You need to watch this movie.” It was called Into The Wild. And this movie changed my life, man.
It was like the character was speaking to my soul, really. He was telling me all the feelings that I went through throughout my whole life, about society and how things work. He was telling me that he was going to experiment to leave all that behind and to go find a new kind of life, a new style. Just seeing that movie and seeing all the adventures that this character went through, and the growth that he needed to face moved me. And in the end, it’s very tragic what he has to go through, but his message was super-powerful. You know, his life’s message. And the message in the end of the movie is that happiness is only real when shared.
After all his process of being alone and being trapped in nature because he couldn’t find his way out, he realizes in all his hatred for society, towards his parents, towards friends, what good is it to be happy on your own? What’s the point of enjoying everything for yourself and not being able to share that?
Something clicked in me after seeing that movie, and I thought, “Man, you need to live your life, you know? You need to go do your thing, explore, have fun. What is your message? What do you want to share with the world?” So at that time, I decided to go back home to Barcelona, and I decided to save some money and to go on a round-the-world adventure. Just travel the world, go with the flow, see what happens.
CA: What happened next? How did your travel experiences shape you and the music?
AS: I decided to go with a little travel guitar, with a camera, and with a computer, so I could still record my adventures and share them. I started a project called the Backpack Sessions, which was like a travel blog. My idea was to connect with the community of people that I’d been engaging on YouTube over those four or five years where I had been posting videos. I decided to speak to these people that were supporting and I said, “Guys, I’m going to go and explore the world, and I would love to connect with you and create art with you, get to know you, get to know your culture and explore life with you.”
That was the intent of my travels, and that’s exactly what happened. In a very unexpected way, but in essence that is what happened. I started meeting beautiful people, incredible open-minded people that had a vision of life that I was dreaming that was possible in my intimacy, but I never shared with anyone else, you know? For the first time I was speaking with people about freedom, about how to live a life that you are passionate about and dream about and share with people all around the world, how to connect through art, through music, through art in general.
It’s been a life-changing journey for me, this travel around the world. It lasted four years. I still feed from everything that I learned in those four years. For me, those four years have been like like a seed, like an embryo.
I think my life started again when I decided that I wanted to go traveling. And that was the seed for me to understand that I can decide what I want to do in my life, and to take the step to actually buy the ticket and go without knowing what was going to happen.
I could have gotten killed. There were all these fears of what would be possible when you leave your comfort zone. But to make the step for me was like, “Okay, the universe is seeing that I am brave. Everything that is going to happen from now on will come from this braveness.”
CA: One of your Youtube videos that I really love is your rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie”. There was something special about it that kept me coming back to it. Can you share the story behind that clip?
AS: Yeah, man. In this period of time on my travels, I got to Buenos Aires and I met my wife Anita. She was like a reflection of me in feminine, in a way. She was like reflecting how beautiful the human being is, you know? From knowing my masculinity and from having this femininity in front of me. And being able to look this femininity in the eyes, and having this infinite loop happen between us. I never had that before in my life. So I understood that this is possible, this mutual infinite respect, and I understood that this woman is amazing for me. She helps me bring this beauty out of myself, and apparently I help her too. It was like a beautiful relationship. But it only lasted two months, because I was in Buenos Aires and I had a plane ticket to South Africa.
When we started dating, it was funny because we met each other on the first day that I got to Buenos Aires. I was there for six months, but it took us four months to actually get to know each other. We were part of a group of friends, and then one day we decided to go and do a video clip together, because she knew that I was doing musical clips and this and that. She told me, “Let’s go do a music video” and she invited me to her place. She had a rooftop that overlooked Buenos Aires, the whole city. We got there in the afternoon, and we had the sunset come down. We sang a cover song of Amy Winehouse, “Valerie”.
It was a beautiful, beautiful evening. We had that whole evening making that video, and then after that we just set down and we had some mate. She started speaking about how she sees the world, and how she wants to live her life. I was blown away, and I also shared. It was just beautiful, man. And then it went dark, and we just laid down and watched the stars. There was this shooting star that came by, and I think we both asked for the same wish. I guess to be together or something, because it’s been since then that we are together. In spirit. We were separate for a long time, but in spirit we were together since then. That was the day that we fell in love.
CA: Before embarking on your solo project, you were involved with a group from South Africa called Native Young. How did that come about it? I remember reading somewhere that you had to part ways because you got banned from South Africa. Is that a true story?
AS: After Buenos Aires, I went to South Africa. And then South Africa changed my life again, because it was totally unexpected. My plan was to travel a little bit in South Africa, and then travel north to Tanzania, go up, and then maybe go to Asia. But I got to South Africa, to Cape Town, and the first week I met this guy called Yannick Meyer. Yannick was a young musician that was starting to create his own music in his bedroom, and he invited me to go stay with him as a couchsurfer, in his place. He had a beautiful house outside Cape Town, in this beach town called Noordhoek.
And so I said, “Yeah, man, let’s go and have some fun for a few days.” I went there, and he showed me his music. I was blown away by what he was sharing, because when I heard him sing, I didn’t understand how he could sing that way. He had this voice that was like a woman’s voice, but then sometimes it was like an old man’s voice, and then it was like a little kid. He played with his voice in a way that I’ve never seen before. And I was like, “Man, but is this you?” He was like, “Yeah, it’s me.” And I thought, “Wow, this is incredible.”
He made me understand that you can play with your voice when you sing. You can channel voices, you can channel people, you can channel characters, and you can be playful. I decided to stay there for a while and record his evolution, because he was just releasing this first demo that he recorded in his bedroom, and he was looking for people to create a band to play it live. He met a group of musicians from the townships in Cape Town, which is surrounded by townships where the black community lives. There’s a big tension there, in terms of racial tension. Apartheid is still very recent. You can still feel the vibe, and you can still clearly see the difference between black communities and where the white people, the rich people, live.
It’s very obvious, and you can feel it. For me, it was this super-interesting exploration to go into the townships and to meet up with these black people from the Xhosa community, and to make music with them. And to see them make music with Yannick, mostly, because I was like an objective viewer. Yannick is this surfer, blonde, beautiful white kid, going into the townships with this black people community. The contrast was incredible, you know? It was like, “Wow, this is super-interesting.”
They were both very inspired by each other. This marimba band really liked what Yannick was suggesting with his music, and Yannick really wanted to have this vibe as part of the band. We went to rehearse with them, and the first day, the first rehearsal we had was mind-blowing. It was like part of a movie scene. This marimba-maker had a garage and it was right on the streets in the township. The door opened and they had their rehearsal there. So open to everyone and all the people in the street would gather around to see these guys play and make music.
A lot of kids came around, and just started looking like, “What are these guys doing?” And for the first part of the rehearsal, they were kind of figuring out how they could play marimbas in the same tone as Yannick was playing his guitar. There was this kind of not understanding the musical theory because they’re different tones. Guitar is in one tone, and the marimbas are on a specific tone, so they had to transpose the songs and make them fit. And they don’t know music theory, man, they just play music. They just go with the flow and rhythm and all. I was the only one able to say, “Guys, what if you put your capo here on the guitar? It will fit into this.” And finally, it blended.
And it was an explosion, man! They were all super-happy, and making these songs, and everybody was smiling. It was electric! So I decided to stay in Cape Town and to explore this evolution. I said, “Yannick, I need to stay here. This is amazing.” And he said, “Yeah, for sure, man. Come stay with us.” So I went to live with Yannick and this thing kept going and kept going and kept going. We went to rehearsals and one day, I pick up a guitar and I start playing with them. And boom! It was epic. It was ecstasy. Next-level. We were all in ecstasy, and Yannick said, “Man, you need to join the band.” And I said, “For sure I need to join the band.”
I decided to stay in Cape Town indefinitely, and to give my whole life into this project.
And it kept evolving. We started doing shows. We started playing in the streets, because the guys are very used to playing in the streets with the marimbas. We joined them, and we created this vibe, this nomad band that goes here and there, and plays in the streets, and plays in bars. And then, this studio finds us. A friend of ours’ dad, Jonny Blundell, has a studio called Rootspring in Muizenberg, and we go and we share the music with him. And he said, “Guys, we need to make an album.”
We started creating an album and after two
years of recording and doing shows, we have this album. It is one of the most
beautiful albums I’ve heard in my life. It’s called Kings by Native Young. And man, this thing keeps going. They’re
still going in Cape Town. I had to leave, but they’re still going. In 2016, we
got booked for festivals in Europe and we came with the whole band to Europe. Because
I’d been illegal in South Africa for two years, I got banned from the country
for five years.
I had to make a decision. And I decided, “Okay, it’s time for me to focus on myself, focus on my music, gather all the info, all the feelings, all the emotion that I learned in this journey and see what comes up.”
CA: What was that experience like of finally giving space to your own creations to come through? Can you share a bit of your process?
AS: It was three years ago. By that time, Anna was with me. She came from Argentina and we met in South Africa in 2014, and we were together in South Africa for a couple years. She also got banned when we left the country. We got home to Barcelona and we had nothing. We spent all our savings, everything, we just came to zero. Luckily, we had our parents here in Barcelona, and they embraced us. We started from scratch. It was very challenging, because we had to make money as well.
We were finding our ways to get by. And in the meantime, I was starting to vomit everything that was in me. Just like grabbing guitar, going into trance, recording these ideas, slowly building them, putting them together. It took me two years to record these demos of songs. I thought they were beautiful, and I thought they needed an extra touch. I felt they were on their way, but they needed someone with more expertise than me to “boom”. I put it out there into the universe: I need someone that I could connect with, and that he can or she can understand what I want to express, and have fun with this. Just have fun.
Very shortly after that, a friend of mine says, “You need to show these songs to Toti, who is a friend of mine. He’s a producer and he makes beautiful beats.” I showed him the songs, and he fell in love with the project. So we started this symbiosis of my touch with his touch. My songs were very sensitive, soft and tender, beautiful. And then he came in with all the sub world. The bass, the textures, the roar, all the organic stuff below it, under that.
It became this beautiful blend of soul and organic dub, and then after a year of experimenting with all these demos that I had and putting them together with Toti, we released this album, which is called In the Real World, and which is inspired by all this travel, all this journey that I was explaining.
CA: How has it been for you sharing this new original music for the first time?
AS: Now it’s like a new phase in my life, where I’m starting to share this with the world. I’m super fortunate to be collaborating with an amazing team of artists from my hometown in Barcelona, that I met since I arrived in 2016. Aina Oset (Na Lua) is a mind-blowing visual artist who does the visuals in our shows. She has the ability to transport people into alternate dimensions. I also collab with dancers Pau Arnal, Kenya Sauer, Aina Lanas, and the whole crew at Kampai Dance Co. You see these people dance and your head explodes. Go watch our latest video together ‘Human’. They have changed my perspective of music, now I can’t conceive of music without dance. We presented the project in Barcelona, which was beautiful because people from my whole life, from childhood to people that I used to work with, from family, everyone came. It was like giving birth to my universe, you know? In front of everyone. It was a beautiful transformation. And then recently, we did the same in Madrid, and it was … Even more. Because I feel like every time I do it, I’m more confident and I’m more open. This is where I’m at right now, man. I’m at the point where I really want to share my soul with the world, you know? I’m much more courageous than when I started sharing my songs in my little bedroom. Now, I just feel that this is my mission in life, to express myself and hopefully touch people to do the same.
I feel that we are artists. We’re all artists since we’re born. You know, you just have to look at a little kid. It’s a constant state of art. We at some point lose that, or believe that we shouldn’t act like that, or we should act this or that way. We believe it, and then we have to spend the whole life recovering this feeling and reconnecting. This is my mission, to reconnect more and more, and to open up more and more, and to help other people do the same. I feel that would be a beautiful world to live in.
CA: What is your ultimate vision for what you are creating with this music and these unique live experiences you are creating?
AS: I want to create a community of artists around the world that resonate similarly. And then we can just play and have fun together. And create art that is inspiring and that addresses the beliefs that we want to transcend. By experimenting, almost. Going through these things. I feel like a way to transform yourself is to experimentally put yourself in the situations that you want to overcome.
Say I have this fear. Okay. So I want to create a piece of art in which I have to go through this fear, and this is the piece of art. This is what I want to do constantly, and I want to find people that resonate with this kind of feeling. I just want to get into a state of flow that is never-ending, like a spiral. And I don’t have to worry about money, or how I can make it. It just happens, because the right people are there and you don’t have to take over all the aspects of the art. You just have to focus on what you know and do your best. And everybody else is doing that, and together it’s like, “boom!” I call it light blood. There’s a song in the album called “Light Blood”, and it expresses this. Actually, it was inspired by my relationship with Yannick and Native Young. It’s the idea that we have light in our blood. It’s shadowed by our fears, but when you overcome them, it shines. And it shines, and it comes out of your pores, and you shine. Literally, you shine, and people see it. I want to create a community of artists with these kinds of people. People that have shining blood in their veins. You can see them shine, and it inspires you, to see them shine. And the other way around.