Empathy and Evolution: the “Sound Garden” of EXES [Interview]

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

Interview with EXES

photos by Sarah Elly

“I get stuck on stories,” vocalist Allie McDonald admits.

And that’s why EXES has plenty to share. After the milestones of their 2016 debut “18” and later “The Art of Saying Goodbye” EP, 2017’s heart-wrenching “Cain” paved the way for several singles and eventually two collections in 2019. Now, the duo, consisting of Allie alongside producer Mike Derenzo, are preparing to release possibly their most captivating body of work yet. The standalone tracks from ‘Once More, With Feeling’ that we’ve heard so far push boundaries while simultaneously pulling the listener closer to what’s important – the message.

“I think our sound has actually evolved, which is something that I like about this collaboration,” Allie observes. “Both Mike and I are growing up and our music is changing with us. [The electronic elements are] definitely a strength of Mike’s production. He’s able to fully create a sonic world for our songs to exist.” Mike attributes this ability to capture the essence of a feeling to a more inventive mindset, “constantly learning and experimenting, figuring out what works and doesn’t.” As a result, their sonic world positively drips with memories, swirling and crackling with the truth that is so deeply embedded within each of them.

This sound has been something that, up until now, the duo has often had to access remotely, having been based on the opposing coasts of the US with Allie in Brooklyn and Mike in Venice Beach. As of recently, they have finally been collaborating in the same space. “It’s great,” Allie expresses. “I actually moved about two miles from Mike. We’re writing TOO many songs now. It’s important for us to have that face to face time weekly – so we can write, but also just to hang and write up business plans for world domination, of course.”

Instead of highlighting the differences that the project brings out between the two of them as individuals, she chooses to emphasize how alike they are. “We’re actually more similar than different,” she says. “We both are extremely anxious individuals who like to stay indoors. I think that because of this, music has become our way of connecting with the world.” This introversion is present in the emanating nature of every chord, the songs demonstrating the ability to hold back at just the right moments.

EXES’ music – in their words, “nostalgic, cinematic, and intricate” – is like an intimate conversation, Allie’s crystalline voice carving out a path to speak unequivocally to the listener. “I’m an empath,” she explains. “I feel everything 100 times more than I should. I wrote because I felt so alone in the way I felt. We get loads of messages now from people all around the world saying that they too relate to the way I feel. Though my experiences are personal and unique, I’ve truly realized that so many other people relate.”

As it turns out, the track that fans have connected with the most has been the song that was the most difficult for the duo to write. The achingly honest single, titled “Cain”, vividly illustrates the aftermath of a virtual relationship in which the other person passed away. “It’s unfortunate, because that song is about losing a loved one,” Allie says. “But I think there’s something really beautiful in people connecting from something as heartbreaking as loss. A big lyrical theme of ours is distance. Personally, I’ve only dated long-distance, and with it easier today to reach people all over the world, I’ve noticed a lot of fans relating to the longing and space that goes hand in hand with long-distance relationships. I love hearing the stories. I love that I will write a song to heal my heart when I’m feeling particularly low and somebody somewhere will hear the song and possibly feel a little less lonely too.”

However, there’s a fine line when creating such personal, sometimes painfully so, material. “Now that my job has become expressing my personal feelings on the regular, it can be draining. I’m trying to learn how to reach into that dark place only temporarily. Also, I’m finally getting better at not getting into wrong relationships for more writing material – I’m so guilty of that.”

Songwriting has always come naturally to Allie, having even begun her musical journey when she was young by posting videos of herself singing original songs on Youtube. Would she ever resurrect a song from her early days? “I’ve actually thought about this,” she answers. “It’s quite possible. There are a few songs on there that I could work on. I think my voice has definitely gotten better – some of those videos are from when I was 16 and definitely didn’t know how to sing. It’s sort of wild, but I think my songwriting has sort of evolved back to when I was just a kid writing about love in my bedroom. I wasn’t afraid to break the rules of songwriting because I didn’t know them.”

“For a long time in my early 20s I became so fixed on writing the perfect pop song,” she continues. “It almost took songwriting away from me – it was no longer my own personal diary. I didn’t have as much freedom. Recently, however, I’ve been trying to circle back to that mentality. We’re self-managed and independent – we literally call the shots. So I definitely want to have fun with my songwriting while I have the freedom and creativity to do so.”

The band particularly enjoys kicking off every body of work in a unique way. “We create songs that can exist on their own with the exception of intro songs. We absolutely love writing intro tracks. I think it’s because you’re allowed to break the rules with intro tracks, and we’re just a couple of rule breakers.” Openers from their previous EPs generate swirling feedback to establish the lowest lows, and then explode with the unexpected, highest of highs, before trailing off into the ensuing tracks like an unfinished thought.

We’re sure that their upcoming EP, ‘Once More, With Feeling’, set to release on November 15, will be no exception to their experimental approach. Allie is especially looking forward to releasing a track called “With Fire”, which was somewhat of a creative revelation. “I actually wrote the song while the movie ‘Her’ was playing in the background,” she reveals. “You can actually hear it in the voice memos. Inspiration sort of hit me at a random moment. [We’ve just] put on the finishing touches, including a session we had with my uncle who is an extremely talented violinist.”

Already, from tracks such as “Burnout”, it’s apparent that the duo have ventured into new territory in more ways than one, utilizing space more purposefully and speaking in richer metaphors. “We wrote [that song] with our friend Danny Parra,” Allie details. “Sessions with Danny are always exciting. They’re pretty fast-paced and we all find ourselves disappearing into the soundscape of a song we’re writing together. It was July, and outside the studio there’s this tree with pink flowers and a clock hanging. I guess I wanted the song to be easy and sweet like the image of that clock. I love ‘Burnout’ for the simple fact that it’s a love song. We don’t write too many happy love songs, and I suppose this one does dance the line between happy and sad with the theme of a love eventually burning out and fizzling away.”

The band’s incorporation of imagery seems to be present not only in lyrics, but in thematic artwork as well – specifically, the presence of flowers scattered across many of the covers. “Just wait until you see this next EP cover,” Allie tells us. “I don’t want to give anything away, but yes, we’re definitely inspired by nature. I feel like a lot of our new music uses organic instruments mixed with computer-manipulated sounds. I also feel like, with all these new songs, we’re almost planting a little sound garden. This process can be a bit like gardening. It definitely takes a ton of patience to get to that final mix.”

After wrapping up their first real tour as an opening act for Yoke Lore, the duo released what might be their favorite song of all at the end of October, a swaying contemplation titled “Daughter”. With previous tracks mainly living in the past, it’s the first time they’ve written about the future. Going forward, Allie hopes to continue to reinvent the themes that are brought to light in their songs.

“I tend to write about love often,” she shares. “The older I get, the less I feel this strong urge to do so. I guess I’d want to write more about being alone. I’ve gone through a lot recently – moving across the country, being alone but not lonely. I’ve had a lot of time to hang out with myself. There’s definitely a song in there.”

But for now, let EXES introduce you to a new era – with feeling.

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