The Life & Times of a Quarantined Artist: A Conversation with Alexandra Stréliski

Though Alexandra Stréliski was slated to perform at The JUNO Awards, the worldwide pandemic caused it to cancel, but Atwood Magazine was still able to sit down and speak with the composer on the quarantine life and her musical process.

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The artistry of Alexandra Stréliski cannot be overstated. Starting with her debut release Pianoscope, Stréliski has provided this world a litany of emotive, enrapturing compositions, led only by her piano. She deftly slides key to key, each movement containing a finesse and mastery that is quite simply nonpareil.

After its release, her music was picked up by film soundtracks such as Dallas Buyers Club and used to great effect. Her pieces of music offer a transportation of sorts, taking the listener on a sonic journey that sees the worlds of love, fear, hate, and joy all coalesce into one singular expression. She captures the human spirit, letting her music tell stories that words fail to properly express.

She expounded upon her offerings in 2018 with INSCAPE, an album whose sound cemented Stréliski as one of the greatest modern-day composers, and people took notice.

Alexandra Stréliski's 'INSCAPE' Is a Melancholic, Bright Step Towards Finding Hope

:: OUR TAKE ::

She was invited to perform at the 2020 JUNO Awards, a departure for this event as instrumental-only music has not often been in the spotlight to such a degree. However, as the world was launched into a pandemic with the Covid-19 outbreak, the award ceremony was canceled, and so too Stréliski’s performance, which City and Colour’s Dallas Green was slated to join in on. Though unfortunate, good came of it as Atwood Magazine was still able to chat with the artist and composer – despite the circumstances.

INSCAPE - Alexandra Stréliski
INSCAPE – Alexandra Stréliski

During our conversation, we began with life updates, detailing one another with the quarantine experiences we were facing. “I’m in the Netherlands right now and everything is hectic,” she explained. “Everything is closing, even the borders are closed. Europe isn’t looking too good at the moment.” Instead of the awards, she went back to a familiar place, choosing to surround herself with her love.

I didn’t want to be by myself, so I just left. I’m going to be okay, though. I’m in an apartment in the city with food and I think it’s obviously better to be quarantined and avoid crowded airports, you know? I’m still kind of grasping reality.” She went on to express her disappointment with the cancellation, stating that, “I was looking forward to playing with Dallas Green, that was going to be awesome. We got along great and we had done a demo. It was very nice, but that’s life.”

With our life updates told, we continued on, Stréliski providing in-depth knowledge to Atwood Magazine on the machinations behind INSCAPE, her growth since Pianoscope, her life within an agency, and even a signature dish she has been making recently. Get all the info in our exclusive interview!

Listen: ‘INSCAPE’ – Alexandra Stréliski


Atwood Magazine: It’s been two years now since Inscape’s release and it is still being dissected and cherished by so many, a great example being your upcoming performance at The JUNO Awards. How does it feel knowing your album still has such a strong impression on so many?

Alexandra Stréliski: It’s, well—you know, because I had done Pianoscope first, I had seen its significance as I released it completely independently. My mom was sending out copies to people and she was sending out copies everywhere. For eight years, I never thought of it as a category by itself, so I had a feeling that because Pianoscope is timeless, there’s no… it’s very classical in that sense where it is timeless. So I feel that has to do with the music genre and but I’m also incredibly humbled and happy it’s resonating so much in people’s hearts, and imaginations, and whatever it’s creating for people.

And what I get from people is that it makes them feel good. So there’s not a better reward for an artist I think than that. And it’s the most useful thing I could do as a human being. Still, now, in this whole period, I’m like, “What can I do?” I can play the piano, that’s the only thing I can do. The most useful thing I have in my toolbox, you know? Make people feel calm a little bit, that’s for sure. So yeah, I am very grateful.

And I’m also grateful that the Juno Awards didn’t happen with everything going, I mean, maybe it will come back stronger, but that they had the guts to put some instrumental music live on stage. Of course, my album sales, to them, apparently made it obvious, but that it’s not it, you know? They had to have the guts to put me there. In the first place.

You’ve stated you’re not much for classifications on music, so when you’re constantly being referred as one of, if not the greatest, neo-classical composers of this time, how do you respond?

Alexandra Stréliski: Well, I don’t really mind. I mean, the world neo-classical, if you look at it in a geeky way, it’s a term that already existed. It’s from people after the Romantic era that wanted to go back to sort of classical structure and stuff and I don’t identify with that at all. So if you ask me about this, then I’m going to say no. I don’t see that. But people right now need a word for describing it instead of the usual classical, modern, classical, whatever. And so be it, you know? Like, if people need a word for something, I don’t care. And I really don’t. I mean, I’ve seen I’ve been missing something that goes beyond categories, and to me, music is music and art is art. That’s all it is. It touches people’s hearts or does not.

And when it does, and, I mean… maybe it was my destiny to be this person who would introduce many people to this genre, but I don’t see that. In Europe, this has been going on for years, and in America it’s new. So I go and I talk about it as best as I can. But the fact is, I am definitely not the geekiest musician out there, especially my classical side. I know barely anything. I just play the piano as an expression of myself, a person expressing themselves, and that’s how it goes because I’ve been put in this position. Now, I do my best, and I really didn’t realize that because I’ve been asked a lot of questions, but my goal is not to educate people; My goal is just to express myself as an artist, and I’m just happy to see the response.

Alexandra Stréliski © Raphael Ouellet

From your first composition “Atmosphere” to now, what have been some of...

Alexandra Stréliski: [haha] Oh my god! “Atmosphere,” where did you find out about that?!

Hey, I’ve got to do my research, you know?

Alexandra Stréliski: Oh my, “Atmosphere.” So long ago [haha]!

So from that piece to now, what have been some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced as a composer?

Alexandra Stréliski: Oh, as a composer, it’s to bring my work on stage—that has been the biggest shock, and also to just dare to live this life, to say “okay, this is what I am and what I’m going to do full time from now on.” When I took that decision, I was working in advertising being paid fairly well and I just decided like, “Okay, well, I’m gonna, like, gain $10,000 a year,” and that’s gonna be it. I’m gonna manage it and I’m gonna cook only this spaghetti sauce, and I’m gonna… And I had some sort of resigned myself to that. And that ended up not happening at all, but I had to make that choice.

I think it’s like being in love. So I think sometimes you need to be like, “Okay, I’m just going to be single, I don’t care. I don’t give a fuck, I’m looking for no one,” and then you find the love of your life, you know? You hear that all the time and it was the same thing for me. So that was the biggest challenge; it was to live the life and it was to put myself in the service of composing and creating.

You’ve stated before that you went through dark times in a fairly quick manner before Inscape. Do you feel those experiences were what led you to the creation of the album? Was there a version of Inscape that existed before those dark moments?

Alexandra Stréliski: Yeah, there was already a version out there.  I did not compose Inscape during those times because, literally, when you’re suffering from depression, you can’t do anything. And that what it did. The way that I play, the way that I interpret my own music differently is tentative. Some songs came after and the story came after and the title and all the storytelling behind it. And it also helped me to be the person that I am on stage, to perform as I am now. I would not be as solid if I didn’t go through that sort of midlife crisis that shook everything.

Watch: “Overturn” – Alexandra Stréliski

Finding the light within the darkness.

Alexandra Stréliski: Yeah, exactly! There is always light after dark and I think that’s just how life is. It’s made of light, and it’s made of darkness, but you carry on.

Compared to Inscape, what’s the story behind Pianoscope? How did you go about making your debut album?

Alexandra Stréliski: Pianoscope was very much less thought with its storytelling. it was just stuff that I had been composing since I was pretty young, like, just stuff I had composed and then I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna put this on an album,” because I was moving out of my house and thinking like, “my mom’s gonna miss hearing my music.” I also started to work in advertising there and I figured I wanted to do film—I’ve always wanted to do film—and I figured if I compose some themes that are close to my heart.

This is really what I do, and people call me for decks, then I’m going to be happy in my professional life because I’m going to be called upon for what I do the most naturally. So it was a simple sort of album just for my family and friends and also sort of putting out in the universe somewhere on Bandcamp, but maybe something can happen with a director, and that’s exactly what happened.

Is there anything you miss about the agency lifestyle?

Alexandra Stréliski: I miss creatively working with my two guys. If someone had a problem or we were in a rut or like, “Oh my god, I have no inspiration,” then we would help each other. I miss having a creative team because now I’m a little bit more alone. I have to call many decisions on my own and I don’t get to bounce ideas too much, which is okay because I have to rely on myself, and that I like. I like working with 30 people and to look around and see. I guess being a performer, even though I tour with the team, is a bit more of a lonely thing, especially when you’re in the media.

Watch: “Prelude” – Alexandra Stréliski

Was there anything you took from that job that you utilized in your own music? What kind of perspectives being on an agency team afforded your music and storytelling?

Alexandra Stréliski: I don’t know about my music. I think I have a tendency to do stuff concisely. Like, I don’t like to do a 90-minute track where I get myself bored with my own music. I get bored very easily so I guess I’m concise. That, I think, got me to work in advertising are not the contrary. I don’t think this is the influence of advertising. I think I just work well in that setting because, naturally, I do that. But also I use this quite a lot. Like, for instance, I did an interview the other day and I was supposed to jam with the indigenous artists and it was supposed to be a girl that I that I’ve heard of and then at the end, it ended up being something completely different.

They had very little experience and then they started singing all the time because there was something not well communicated. It was a mess, it was a mess, it was gonna turn out to be this complete mash-up that’s not good at all. I just have this sort of mode where I can, and I under a very short deadline, put in something, and so we got together and we ended up doing something quite cool. I think it not just me, I collaborated with them but in my case, I was like, I was in advertising mode or is like, “Okay, I have this brief and I have to do something with it that works in very little time,” you know? And also you know, the thing with Dallas [Green]. I did a demo and many things. I still have the reflex for putting puzzles together to present an idea and that all comes from advertising.

When listening to your music, it feels apparent that you have an appreciation of incorporating every emotion and thought that goes into life experiences. Is that something you think about when making music?

Alexandra Stréliski: No, no, no, that’s something, I think… I think maybe my subconscious needs to express something good. It’s something that I hear and I discover while I’m playing and, like, just like someone would listen to me and discover, I feel sometimes I’m a witness of the process. Like it’s to fill in the canal to something more than all of this. But definitely emotion and thoughts come out. I think, also, I needed personally to express myself. So I don’t feel it’s just something I think of while making music.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but right now, your rendition of Bach’s “Concerto” and your work on an upcoming short film would be the closest you’ve come to composing for television and film. Do you see yourself wanting to make that step into making soundtracks for more television shows or Hollywood, big-budget films?

Alexandra Stréliski: Yeah! Especially if I have to be quarantined [haha]! I have to say that, while I’m on tour, it’s a little bit more difficult these days, but I definitely want to. I wanted to do that since I was a kid, write for film. So I’m going to be extremely scared but extremely happy when I get a film that inspires me that I want to do. I’ve done some, as you said, but, like, really big Hollywood production or series I would be very happy to do.

Watch: “Concerto in D Minor (After Alessandro Marcello)” – Alexandra Stréliski

You’ve been composing and creating music for quite a while now. During these years, who have been the composers, artists, or bands you’ve been inspired by or have simply enjoyed listening to?

Alexandra Stréliski: I think I’ve been inspired by many people that… I’m not the kind of person who goes in vinyl stores and studies, like, ’70s, jazz-funk, whatever. Like, I’m not like that and I just kind of listen to something fast in because someone’s listening to it and I grab something from that and then something else from it.

For instance, if I have to look at careers, definitely Philip Glass and his career have an impact on me because he’s one of the first who brought the piano and organ to scores and also to the stage. He’s doing this sort of mixed career which I like, which I want to have also. I also like the fact that he creates this sort of emotional, like, the core notes, he can create emotion and I think that’s great. And then Chopin had an impact on me because my dad was listening to him his entire life when I was a kid.

But then I’ve also been influenced by, like, for instance, folk music like José González. I love his minimalist style. I listened to a lot of Ben Harper when I was little and Sufjan Stevens—many things, you know? I also listened to some Infected Mushroom when I was in my 20s and some System of a Down and many, many things. Now I listen to music but never go, like, deeply, deeply, deeply into these long phases. I just listen to many things and I enjoy them.

Now, as an aside, I’m avid cook myself, and though not the greatest, I’m interested in your process in the kitchen. Do you have recipes in mind or is it a “let’s see what’s in the kitchen” and then you go from there?

Alexandra Stréliski: [haha] Yeah, that’s what I do! Especially now because I had to do the groceries in the Netherlands, and like other people in other places in the world, people are just like grabbing anything they can, so it’s like, it’s a mess. So you just, like, I just grabbed some ingredients and now I’m trying to figure out what to do with them. But I like to just get inspired. I look at it and I’m like, “Oh, I could do this and that and this and that” and I decided to do that and then it just comes, you know?

But I have a recipe that I do regularly. Like, now I’m making a green curry because I wanted to make green curry [haha] which is just great. It’s easy and it’s, like, vegan, gluten-free, and everything we want, you to know? It’s a kick-ass sauce. I like comfort foods. For food, I think I cook the way I do music which is, like accessible, universal, and with emotion. Good for the soul, you know? Never complicated. It’s never visually nice. It’s not, like, you know this fancy plating stuff [haha].

What excites you most about the future of your career? Any directions, or new territories, you are looking forward to exploring?

Alexandra Stréliski: I’m excited to do another album and see what comes out of me after Inscape. I’m excited to continue living in different places in the world as much as possible again because I love to travel and I love human beings and I like to observe how human beings live in different places in the world. And I’m looking forward to making the short film as we discussed, I think this is gonna be a nice, maybe not next step right now, but the soon to be to, and, and I’m gonna be spending some time in the states as well on this in the plan.

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INSCAPE - Alexandra Stréliski

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