STEVE HENDERSHOT: This is Cedar Cathedral, a podcast about artistry, craftsmanship and the creative life in the Great Lakes. I’m Steve Hendershot, along with Clare Hendershot, from The Diving Bell, our band in Chicago.
Put yourself in the mind of Ian Sigmon, an animator and illustrator in Detroit. You walk into a coffeeshop and recognize the barista, this guy Alexander that you met a couple of years earlier at a party. Alexander mentions that he’s starting a YouTube channel hoping to get his music career off the ground. So you check it out, and the videos mostly are covers of artists like Bon Iver, Adele and James Brown. But they’re really good. So you reach out to Alexander to see if he’s ever written anything original.
CLARE HENDERSHOT: Alexander says, 'Yeah, I’ve got a few.' So you go over to his place to listen, thinking maybe you can offer some encouragement.
SH: Instead, though, you stumble onto this treasure trove of great music. Finished, great music. At first you’re surprised and excited, but gradually it gets to be a little much.
ALEXANDER VLACHOS: I was playing him one song after another and he was just getting more frustrated and I was asking him what the frustration was all about. It was because I had all these songs that were basically ready but I was just kind of holding them.
SH: You’ve got a couple of options, at this point. You can yell at Alexander, chastise him for keeping all of this art to himself. You can marvel at the reclusive genius, then leave him to his own secretive devices. Fortunately the real-life Ian Sigmon chose the third way, which was to help Alexander get his original music out into the world.
CH: Alexander Vlachos became Greater Alexander, recording artist, and soon he released an album of delicate, haunting, beautiful music.
[Any Way Out of It plays]
CH: It earned good reviews, it was licensed by cool brands like VSCO, the Visual Supply Company, and it was even big in Japan.
SH: Yet a year or so after the release of that record, called Positive Love, Alexander was in a deep depression, feeling hopelessly disconnected from every lyric, every song. Greater Alexander was in grave danger. And on this episode of Cedar Cathedral, we’ll tell you how he made it through.
SH: Actually, before we get to Greater Alexander’s story, a couple of announcements. The big one is, if you’re in Grand Rapids, Michigan, please join us this Friday, May 13, for our first Cedar Cathedral gathering. It’s at Long Road Distillers, at 5:30pm, and we’re going to talk about food—specifically, how the growers and chefs and producers in West Michigan have nurtured a pretty special culinary ecosystem, and what they can do to build on it. I’ll be moderating a panel that includes Patrick Conrade, the executive chef at The Sovengard—we heard his story on the show a couple of weeks ago. We’ve also got Jon O’Connor, one of the owners of Long Road, as well as Josh Usadel, the greenhouse manager at Downtown Market. So if you love food, please come. If you don’t like food, a) something is wrong with you, but b) please come anyway, because these gatherings, like the show, are about bringing together creators, artists and craftsmen of all types, to build community and foster strange, cool collaborations. So come grab a drink and hang out.
CH: Later that night, our band will be performing at Long Road, along with our friends from Detroit Border Patrol. The next night, Saturday May 14, we’ll be in Detroit, at the Elizabeth Theater at the Park Bar, again with Border Patrol and also a band Thirty Men.
Then the following weekend, on Sunday, May 22, we’ve got our show of the year in Chicago. We’ve rented the venue Workshop and not only are we recording a live album that night, but we hosting a carnival that is equal parts 19th-century harbor-side market and trippy futuristic space carnival. You’re gonna wanna be there. Tickets.
THE LONG ROAD
SH: The notion that Alexander would keep his songs to himself isn’t far-fetched, not when you consider that as a first-grader in Detroit, right after his family moved to America from Greece, he didn’t say a word. He was functionally mute for a whole school year, just reading, and observing, taking his time until he was confident and it finally felt right to take that next step.
CH: It was the same thing for Alexander as an adult. He loved music, was so talented and even had a music degree, but didn’t quite feel confident enough to put it out there. So instead of performing and recording, he meandered through his 20s working a disconnected series of nonmusical jobs—changing oil, drawing blood at a hospital, baking bagels, working for a mortgage company.
AV: For the longest time I was ignoring my passion by saying ‘You’re not going to make it as a songwriter.’ I was very afraid of my own voice and I was actually just creating the songs to really help soothe whatever times I was going through. It was actually just more therapeutic.
SH: The idea of musical therapy is important here, because a big part of Alexander’s story, unfortunately, involves trauma, depression and mental illness.
AV: I had always had been having difficulty with depression and I was always taking different types of medications, way more than 20. I’ve tried so many, and the doctors would always just give me like the easy fix.
SH: When Alexander was a kid in Detroit, his dad thought he was being chased by Nazis, so he grabbed Alexander and his sister and two brothers and fled to Toronto. Alexander ended up spending a day in a Canadian foster home until everything was sorted out. More recently, Alexander’s sister, struggling with anti-depression meds, fell from a seven-story building. She lived, and is doing well now, teaching English in Asia, but these are things that will shake you up.
AV: Watching what she went through made me contemplate and figure out like what is it that is struggling within me that I have these same feelings that my sister is going through except I’m one moment away from doing something that she’s already done, and I always take that step back to feel it out, and that was when the awakening within me just I guess started happening.
SH: That awakening involved eating better, doing yoga, losing weight, and meeting with a holistic healer as well as finally sharing his music. But after Positive Love came out, two things happened to immediately threaten that. For one, a really entangled five-year romantic relationship finally went up in flames. And then there was his followup to Positive Love, this really ambitious project that both did and didn’t go according to plan. Alexander fastened onto an unreleased song of his called Bag of Bones, a song born out of this fear that he couldn’t get the songs out of his mind and body and out into the world.
CH: He had an idea for a video that he pitched to Ian. He wanted to shave his head and his very large beard, and then perform the same song for the camera every day for 200 days as he aged—as his hair grew back in all its unruly glory.
[Bag of Bones plays]
AV: Bag of Bones just came channeled out of this dream. I had this just vision of me aging and dying with all my songs inside me and when I pitched it to my friend, Ian was like, ‘That’s a million hits.’ It’s so intense and just involved.
SH: So Alexander did it. He invested 200 days in this project, and the end product was a minute-long time-lapse video that was really powerful. It resonated with the people who heard it.
AV: People would send me their feelings about like personal thoughts about what they were going through, their struggles, how they’re struggling in their own bag of bones.
SH: But there weren’t a million hits. Not even close. Those covers of Adele and James Brown that Alexander had posted to YouTube when he was getting started, those got more attention than this very personal magnum opus that was 200 days in the making. It brought Alexander to this moment of reckoning, between building confidence on account of making this work of art that he knew was good, and then shrinking back because of the reception, and also because even with the success of Positive Love, he wasn’t making much money.
CH: All the optimism from Positive Love melted away, and those lyrics of hope and encouragement began to ring hollow for Alexander. He began sinking back into …
AV: This deep abyss of emptiness that I was feeling that I didn’t comprehend just what it was, what it meant to give all this positivity and all this love out but not be able to receive it for myself. I’m trying to figure that out in myself why it resonates so loudly with others but where I missed the point in myself.
SH: Alexander fell back into despair, but at the same time, he didn’t entirely lose sight of what he had accomplished. Some of that warmth, some of that promise, some sense of accomplishment, had sunk in. The Bag of Bones video gnawed at him two different ways, as a success as well as a failure.
AV: It was definitely a lesson that was showing me what this body is capable of. That was very meditative work and at the same time it was something that just needed disciplinary action to make me realize that I’m in it for the long haul. But something is still holding me back, and that is that I almost still feel like I’m a slave to what I envision and what a platform decides to pay me whether or not the song is heard.
SH: And so Alexander had a choice to make. He either had to take another strong step forward, or retreat. And forward won. He started working on another album, this time aimed squarely at himself, honest and full of longing but also bathed in encouragement. It’s called Let Love In.
[Let Love In plays]
AV: I’m trying to just reestablish myself into this trust and that’s what the letting love in like believing that this space that is out there is truly trustable.
A STRONGER VOICE
CH: As he works on this new record, Alexander also has found a new community at Assemble Sound in Detroit. Assemble is a studio and musical collective housed in a historic old church building that sits in the shadow of Michigan Central Station, a giant, iconic Detroit building.
SH: One night after recording, Alexander crashed there on a couch.
AV: I ended up sleeping the whole night here and one of the other artists that came in the morning, I scared him half to death.
SH: It was a producer named Jon Zott, and once he got over his terror, the two of them started talking. And soon Alexander got the idea to record a pre-album album—a record of ambient, piano-based songs called Spilled Love that he plans to release as a prequel to Let Love In. These are the songs that have been playing in the background throughout the episode, and they’ve important to Alexander because they reinforce that artistic discipline from Bag of Bones. But this time, instead of performing the same song over and over again, he’s inventing something new, every morning.
AV: I wake up very early in the morning anyway to do meditation and get myself together, so maybe I could just wake up to coming down here and just, recording something.
SH: Alexander struggled when he held his songs too close. Now music is pouring forth, and he feels good, like he’s seeing clearly, and his voice is growing stronger.
AV: Assemble Sound helped me climb out of my little cage that I was in. I was creating, but I was creating under this false perceived way of how I saw the world. I wasn’t seeing it in the right light, because there was a part of me that was missing.
SH: I met Alexander at Assemble Sound last Monday at 11am. And already that morning, he had made this from scratch.
[Feeling Inemuri with Deceased Belongings plays]
AV: For the longest time I didn’t understand why I even called the project of what I am Greater Alexander. It’s that understanding of finding this greater part of myself.
SH: Look, it’s not like everything is completely smooth sailing for Alexander. For one thing, he’s still hustling to earn money, driving for Uber and delivering pizzas. And then, of all cruel ironies, in March he was in a car accident — his car totaled after being hit by another pizza delivery guy. But where once Alexander Vlachos was consumed in silence, now Greater Alexander stands in his place, determined to let love in, and also to sing out.
CH: For more on Greater Alexander including the Bag of Bones video and a link to the site where you can become a patron of his art, visit cedarcathedral.com.
CH: We conclude every episode with a song from a great indie band from the Great Lakes. And today, naturally, that song comes from Greater Alexander, from his not-yet-released album Let Love In. It’s called Seventeenth Try, written during the last days of Alexander’s bitter relationship.
[Seventeenth Try plays]
SH: Cedar Cathedral was produced this week by us, Clare and Steve Hendershot from the Diving Bell. Thanks to Greater Alexander Vlachos. We’ll be back in two weeks with another tale of Great Lakes creativity.