Friday, January 13, 2012

Interview with Alex Woodard on all-star CD+book project "For the Sender"

A version of my article originally appeared at

Alex Woodard used an ambitious promotion to draw attention to his eponymous independent album in 2008. Anyone who pre-ordered it would receive a personalized tune.

“I got quite a few responses and it worked pretty well,” said the Encinitas-based singer/songwriter, in a phone interview from Las Vegas. “I wrote a lot of songs for folks on my kitchen table. Then the record deal fell apart.”

Despite the bad news, Woodard’s spirit was suddenly lifted after attending a neighborhood guitar pull-type gathering with prominent area musicians like Sean and Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), Jon Foreman (Switchfoot) and Jordan Pundik (New Found Glory).

“It ended up being a fun and special night and became a recurring thing. Every time a few of us were in town, we’d get together at my house or across the street.”

Soon after, a letter arrived from a woman who had seen the album promotion and relayed how she puts pen to paper each autumn to commemorate the loss of a soul mate. She didn’t seek a special song, but wanted to share a piece of herself.

Woodard (pictured, below) told Sean about the letter and they were inspired to create the song “For the Sender.” That led to a unique same-titled book and CD project where a dozen songs were derived from letters by three other ladies and their life experiences:

Kim, director of San Diego homeless shelter StandUp for Kids; Alison, an Aussie medic serving victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti through Sean Penn’s relief organization and Katelyn, whose police officer husband Dan Bessant was slain during a 2006 gang-related Oceanside shooting, leaving behind an infant son.

Woodard and others from the gatherings, plus veteran tunesmith and fellow Leucadia resident Jack Tempchin contributed lyrics, vocals and music. Yet it took awhile to decide where the songs would end up.

“I really liked the idea of writing about other people’s stories and having another voice sing them,” Woodard said. “I was so tired of myself by then. When you’re an independent musician, you’re pushing yourself all the time.”

The adult alternative music artist put out five CDs since 2000, but it was the Americana-tinged ’08 album that found some success. “Halfway” garnered airplay at commercial country radio stations and a music video to “Reno” (with Sara Watkins on guest vocals) spent two weeks atop CMT’s Pure 12-Pack Countdown.

With “For the Sender,” Woodard discovered that “the most direct connection you can have with the listener is doing something for them.” About three-fourths of the way through the project, Woodard noticed a similar thread ran through the inviting folk, adult pop and alt-country songs and unexpectedly “found my own story in there toward the end.”

“The Table” revolves around a man whose partner dies of cancer. After penning the lyrics, Woodard’s dog Kona succumbed to bone cancer. The CD closes with an acoustic live take he did at Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta with Shawn Mullins.

Woodard produced the bulk of the “For the Sender” album and veteran Grammy-wining mixer David Thoener (Santana & Rob Thomas’ 1999 mega-hit “Smooth”) “worked his magic.” The Wallflowers' keyboardist Rami Jaffee even turns up on a track.

Recording at home without a timetable resulted in “crazy” scheduling.

“No one was around at the same time. If a song was almost done, I’d have to wait a couple months to get it finished with whoever was doing it with me; then have time for them to come by the house, perform and record it. It was definitely an exercise in patience.

“A lot of my job was to take my hands off the wheel and let it go where it wanted,” continued Woodard. “By the time we got it done, it was cohesive. It might be hard to define because of all these layers, but I don’t really care as long as it moves somebody.”

What was it like collaborating with Tempchin (pictured, left) - a seasoned pro best known for writing/co-writing hits for The Eagles (“Already Gone,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling”), Glenn Frey (“You Belong to the City,” “Smuggler’s Blues,” "The One You Love") and Johnny Rivers ("Slow Dancin', Swayin' to the Music" - originally released during Tempchin's stint in the Funky Kings)?

“He came by with his old Martin guitar and we wrote ‘Act of God.’ That’s one of the songs I’m most proud of [in my career]. Going back and forth with him was like being with an old friend.”

Tempchin didn’t want to stop. “He wanted to keep doing this on more letters because he liked the process so much. He was a fan of Sara Watkins, so I arranged for her to come over and write ['Broken Wide Open'] with the both of us. That was a big thrill for Jack.”

"I was happy to get a call from Alex about doing some writing," affirmed Tempchin. "There are some great musicians that live in my area that I have not met, so I thought this would be a chance to meet and play music with some new people. It worked out exactly like that, only much better than I thought. 

"You never know when you sit down to write a song with people if anything is going to happen," Tempchin continued. "Once we got the phrase 'my heart was broken wide open and that let the light shine in," the rest of [it] just started rolliing out. To write a lyric and then instantly have Sara Watkins sing the line makes you think you are in heaven."

For Tempchin, the stately "Act of God" is "very unusual" and one "that I would never have written myself." The project was unlike anything he'd done before. "The musicians are great, it is for a good cause and it is a songwriting adventure. Also, Alex is a brilliant record producer. I am looking forward to doing more work on this."

Sara Watkins was equally moved by the entire experience.

“Working together with friends to tell a story from someone else’s life with a unified focus is unique to anything I’ve been a part of before. I’m grateful to the people who sent Alex those letters and shared a bit of their lives with us,” she said via email. 

According to Woodard, the “whole crew” will be present for the live presentation at La Paloma Theater in Encinitas on Jan. 19. The first of two shows sold out based on word of mouth alone.

“That’s the one night everybody’s in town. Jordan is flying out from the East Coast after doing a show, getting on a plane, doing this and then flying back there the next morning. It’s been a challenge to get everybody in the same room, but everyone really believes in the project and the work.”

After spending three years on “For the Sender,” Woodard is glad to see everything finally come to fruition. “It’s been a very long process, but a beautiful one. At the shows, we’re going to present the letters and play the songs, but it’ll be done creatively.”

He plans to utilize video and audio recordings of each woman reading her letter. A limited number of books will be on sale there, but not with the album.

This spring, Woodard expects to put both print and audio components out simultaneously on a wider basis, but admits “we’ll have to see who embraces it. I think it would be a good [fit] for coffee shops and different lifestyle stores...I’m obviously going to need help. The book is a new thing for me. I’ve been a musician for so long that I’m not quite sure how that world works.”

Woodard deftly weaves his own life story and personal losses into the self-published 120-page book, with chronological background on the letters and songs. Designed by “Sender” song contributor Nena Anderson, the impressive, compact hardcover release looks like something you’d see on the shelves of Barnes & Noble.

“I’d like to do a different kind of book tour. I could take me, Sean and Sara Watkins or whoever is available out – have a rotating cast. We’d do book stores in the afternoon and play venues at night. That could be really cool.”

(Special thanks to Jack Tempchin and Sara Watkins)

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