When did you start playing music?

I started taking classical piano at an early age, but I started to want to change and improvise on the pieces that I was playing, which wasn’t allowed. I saw this guitar my dad had bought in 1981 in our basement. I started to pick it up and learn by ear, or from my dad, or my cousin, Aaron. I started taking guitar lessons when I was 12 with an incredible mentor, Francisco Pais, and later picked piano back up with another great mentor, Steve Heck.

What musical involvement did you have while at Harvard? How did your experiences at Harvard influence your music?

The Intrinsics was a huge thing for me. They taught me how to let go of my insecurities and ego when I play guitar… that just focusing on groove, your bandmates, and the song is way more fulfilling than taking a fiery solo… also that being part of a community teaches you more about music than practicing scales and licks in your room.  

…also Music 173R with Vijay Iyer. It brought together musicians who wanted to create music together without the baggage of genre/background, or the politics of “level” or experience. If you want to become more flexible, empathetic, and creative as a musician, you really gotta take it. It’ll change your life.

 

What’s been the most mind-blowing, perspective-altering musical experience or memory you’ve had?

(Alex sent me a link to the video below, in which he’s playing guitar for Jess Best’s “Saturday” release show). That experience really showed me that you can make music to heal people. You can make music in a community that really comes together, and music can really give people life.

What inspired you to write an album?

During a rough time in my life, I didn’t feel like I could do anything else but play music. I just started writing because that’s all there was at the time. As I wrote, I saw that there was a thread that tied the things I was writing together. That’s when I realized that I wanted to make an album.

 

The album has a story arc. What made you want to write a concept album instead of a collection of singles?  

Once I saw the common thread, I started to see the arc. I made a rough outline, and lyrics and melodies would fit the moods of certain parts of the story. Then it was kind of like putting together pieces of a puzzle until it had a cohesiveness and a good flow. So the concept of the album was the inspiration for a lot of the songs, instead of the other way around.

 

There’s a metaphor throughout the album about a mother and daughter. What does it signify?

I hesitate to say it explicitly. I just kind of hope the songs can be whatever someone wants or needs them to be. I also think there’s something nice about being able to listen to an album and pick it apart.

 

What collaborators did you have on this album?

(Alex spoke a lot about his collaborators, who he clearly respects and trusts as musicians and storytellers. While I couldn’t go into depth about each of them in this article, the full album credits are available at agraffmusics.com/kora-her-mother)

I feel really grateful to have had inspiring, empathetic, creative people working on this project. I feel like I could write a book about each one. I want to give a particularly special thanks to Connor Schultze. I trust his ears more than almost anyone’s, and the album wouldn’t exist without him. He’s one of the kindest, most hard-working, creative, and badass musicians I have ever met, and I’m really lucky to have him as a close friend and musical collaborator.

This really doesn’t do it justice but the main collaborators were:

Connor Schultze: bass, exec. production, mixing, engineering, co-writer

Paul Bloom: keyboard, production, co-writer

Jess Best: vocals, production, co-writer

Tree Palmedo (‘16): trumpet

Melanie Hsu: cello, string arrangements

Martine Thomas (‘18): viola, string arrangements

Donnie Spackman: drums, percussion, mastering, engineering

 

What advice would you give to an artist creating their first solo album?

Here’s one small nugget I heard: I went to this Ben Folds workshop and he said you have to separate the reckless creative and the ruthless editor. They have a contract with each other that the editor leaves the room while the creative is working, and when the editor comes back, [they] can do whatever they want. You’ll be your best critic when you separate ‘em and you’ll be your worst critic when you don’t.

 

You performed this album for the first time in Leverett Library Theater last spring. How did that show come about?

I was really inspired by Hannah Firestone’s (‘16) “Thank You for More Than You Know and Good Morning” and wanted to do a similar thing of bringing a bunch of artists that I love together to make a something really vulnerable and meaningful.

 

What was the inspiration behind the album cover?

I reached out to Serena (Eggers ’17) because I really admire her style. I noticed she did a lot of cool, abstract, body-[inspired] imagery in her work. I told her the story of the album, gave her a few words of prompt. She’s freaking incredible.

 

What are your future musical goals? Are you working on any new music? 

I’ve been writing a lot of music about family and about politics recently. I’d love to perform the songs from K&HM so I’m trying to get some shows. I’m also working with Jess Best, and Beaverton, two projects that really inspire me and I feel lucky to be a part of.

You can find Kora & Her Mother on Spotify, Apple Music, and Soundcloud under artist name A.Graff. Alex’s upcoming shows will be posted on his site and Facebook page.   

Harvard Rock Review