Harnessing the hummingbirds

Alexa Wildish finds strength in vulnerability on debut EP

Alexa Wildish

After consulting several dictionaries, it’s undeniable: There’s a quality about Alexa Wildish that can best be described as magical.

From Oxford: magical (adj.): “beautiful or delightful in such a way as to seem removed from everyday life.”

The magic presents itself in the wistful lyrics of Wildish’s recently released single, “Weightless,” her tender but powerful soprano swaddled in a haunting melody rich with carefully placed strings and mournful pedal steel: 

I’m all hummingbird inside/ My chest trembles constantly/ It’s always buzzing in my veins/ Telling me I’m not OK/ I’ve run empty trying to catch this thing

The song — one of nine that comprises the self-titled EP she’s releasing on Jan. 31 — channels the progressive mix of bluegrass, country and folk of Wildish’s heros, The Wailin’ Jennys and Nickel Creek, while carving out space of its own. It creates a place as much as a mood, somewhere covered in fog, lights shimmering in the distance of the hazy gloaming. This is a place both new and familiar, both foreboding and inviting. 

My laughter fills up all the space/ Around someone I want to know me/ Words are crowding in my mouth/ Choking as I spit them out/ God, I’m reeling, it’s unbearable

From Merriam-Webster: magical (adj.): “extremely or extraordinarily pleasant, enjoyable, or exciting.”

The magic is there in person, in the mosaic of gold, green and blue cast into Wildish’s eyes, in her easy laugh and in the soft curls peeking out from beneath a beanie. 

The vulnerability that is the backbone of her music — the ingredient that makes the magical potion work — takes the form of a pixie-like woman, all hugs and coconut milk lattes with one shot of espresso. 

I carry an anvil in my hands/ So I could feel the heft of where I stand/ I’d crush myself under the comfort of control/ I’d rather be flattened than feel weightless and alone

It’s easy to wonder how someone so effervescent, so talented — so magical — could ever feel less than sure of her majesty. But that’s the trick: Her humanity is the source of her power. 

Wildish has been practicing musical magic since her childhood in Orange County, California, inspired by her parents, who played in a wedding band together, and her guitar-playing, theater-loving older brothers. 

“My dad used to see me out in the yard looking out over the canyons singing ‘Maybe’ from Annie, just so excited about it,” Wildish says. “And [my parents] were like, ‘We need to get her into voice lessons.’”

Still just a toddler, Wildish began voice lessons, singing art songs and eventually arias. While her brothers grew bored with theater, Wildish grew into it. 

“I felt there was this wider range of play with your voice; you could potentially be one character in one moment and then another character in the next song,” she says. “I really liked the broad range of stuff you could do in musical theater because it wasn’t just one type of music, it’s all types of music.”

Her drive was singular; Wildish applied and was accepted into Orange County School of the Arts as a seventh grader and studied musical theater there through her senior year of high school. 

But a different desire niggled at the back of her mind while studying musical theater at Elon College in North Carolina.

“After college I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’” she admits. “I had gotten a mandolin a few years back and I was like, ‘This is what I want to do — my own music,’ but I didn’t know how to do that.”

She traveled the world, quite literally, as a performer on a Holland America World Cruise for a year. She learned a lot, like how to protect her voice while belting out songs every other night, but the experience only further solidified her need to create her own music. 

So she and a friend from the cruise began writing music together, Wildish on mandolin, her friend on piano, and once their contracts with the cruise were up, the two decided to set up shop in Portland, Oregon, and show off their work at open mics. 

Wildish was still growing into her songwriting abilities, mostly singing harmonies on her friend’s tunes. It took several more years, a move from the rainy days of Portland to the sun-filled days of Boulder, and a three year break from music altogether before Wildish found her stride as a songwriter. 

“I think I thought I was being vulnerable in my early songs, but what I realized in hindsight is that I used to write songs being like, ‘Here’s the lesson I learned, I’m all healed now,’” she says. “But I realized that I wasn’t telling anybody how I got to that point. I think people want to hear the places in which you had to go to in order to get to the place you are now. And I think this is what this record really pointed me towards was that there were a lot of places in which I had a lot of learning to do.”

Bethany Powell

Wildish’s debut EP is a testament to her innate skill as a songwriter. Leaning into her experiences, into her insecurity and the journey it took her on, produced enchanting songs that won her third place last year in Telluride’s Troubadour Songwriting Contest and first place at Rocky Mountain Folks Festival Songwriting Competition. Her music inspired friends, family and strangers to donate $25,000 to an Indiegogo campaign to produce the record at Goosehead Palace in Nashville, Tennessee, where she worked with producers Dan Knobler (Lake Street Drive, Rodney Crowell, Maya de Vitry) and Russell Durham (a Boulder resident who’s played violin on records by Fleet Foxes and Michaela Anne). One of her heros, Ruth Moody of The Wailin’ Jennys, sang backup vocals on the record.

By the end of the lead single, “Weightless,” the “hummingbirds” Wildish feels are still there, but their vibration has changed; the fluttering now seems to energize instead of drain. She’s harnessed their energy.  

“What if I could let this fly?” she sings. “Would I circle the whole sky?”

The world is undoubtably about to watch Alexa Wildish fly.    

ON THE BILL: Alexa Wildish at the Winter Walkabout Music Showcase. 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1, The Well (St. Stephen’s Church), 470 Main St., Longmont. Tickets at downtownlongmont.com.

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