Standing Under Bright Lights: A Conversation with Alex Henry Foster

Alex Henry Foster Interview

Every now and then, a project is released that captures something bigger than the scope of the songs it contains– that captures a snapshot of what it means to be human. Standing Under Bright Lights is one such project.

The album is the brainchild of Alex Henry Foster, an artist with a decade of experience fronting rock band Your Favorite Enemies. A personal journey into his own soul gave him new perspective on what it is to be human, and ultimately what it means to be a musician as well. The result was the album Windows in the Sky, an album that grew when he played it live. That live performance became his latest release, Standing Under Bright Lights.

I was honored to have a conversation with Alex about the project, the way these songs have become woven through the living tapestry of his life– and the lives of so many others. The result was a deep dive into what it means to be a musician, and what it means to be human.

Give us some background on Windows in the Sky, those songs, that album, how it came from experience with your dad and your family. Could you set the stage for what that album was?

I was fronting an alternative rock band for 10 years before that called Your Favorite Enemies. We were touring worldwide, releasing albums, we had awards and everything. At the end of that journey, my dad passed away. It was a very strange situation for me, because the way I dealt with it was just by coping. I wasn’t able to feel much.

Four days after he passed, I was on stage. We were headlining a festival in Taiwan in front of 90,000 people. It felt so weird and so wrong on so many levels. But I kept going for a few years like that, as if nothing had really happened, as if I wasn’t questioning myself, my life, my faith, everything.

At one point, I really reached bottom and decided to take some time on my own. We’d been living together as a band, and we were living in a community. So taking time for myself was very strange, but it was needed.

I left for Tangier in North Africa, and what was supposed to be a few weeks turned into a few months. I ultimately spent 2 years in Tangier, where slowly I was restored in my heart and was able to address things that I had pushed aside that were following me. I had to address them to keep growing as a person. Not only to be functional in the context of a band or a community, because it’s very easy to be able to just function in a system when you only have a part. But when you’re at the center stage of your own life, you need to face the shadows that keep following you.

This is where I started to write. I wasn’t really looking to write a record, I didn’t really have any ambition to start a solo career. I was really broken inside. I felt like I had only two paths ahead of me: either keep denying what I was feeling in order to keep going and being operational, or just to face myself. To say “OK, the mirror is blurry, but I need to clean that up to look at myself and decide if that’s the person I want to be? To be completely disconnected from my feelings? To not be fulfilled, emotionally, spiritually?”

“When you’re at the center stage of your own life, you need to face the shadows that keep following you.”

That was an emotional detox for me, which led to the creation of Windows in the Sky. It was a happy accident in a way, because at one point I invited my bandmates to join me. I had a little studio set up in Tangier at the end of my trip. I was starting to do music scores for independent movies. That’s what I wanted to do, rather than getting back on the rock and roll bandwagon. But slowly, I felt like it was very liberating for me not only to write about my experience, but to express myself in such a free environment rather than thinking about the commercial success, radio, all those things. It was really an act of liberation and pure expression towards my father, but also towards what I kept denying all those years.

I didn’t even want to release the record, because there was no ambition behind it. But finally I did. I didn’t do any promotion, I didn’t want to do any interviews. I wanted to keep it as under the radar as possible, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to face questions about the songs, about my journey, especially since we were at some level high profile.

So I just really kept it under the radar, as a safe way to say “well I did it!” It was only released in Canada, I didn’t want to go into all the different markets. I wasn’t intending to tour whatsoever. But in Canada, it became a top 3 album, and it stayed in the top 20 for almost half of the year. It freaked me out, because suddenly I wasn’t the guy who was in a niche genre like I used to be. I was mainstream. 

I had to regroup to really understand what that record meant to people, to make peace with it. It wasn’t mine anymore, and that was OK because it was the very beginning of the real healing process. The feedback from people who said the record was really important to them, it was through our connection that I was able to make peace with this whole circus that I wanted to avoid at all costs.

It was very people-driven. I gave a few interviews to media that I really liked and respected, and it wasn’t out of wanting to be special or acting like a rockstar. I needed a safe environment where I knew I could express my story without having the stress of getting press clips and finding words for clickbait.

But I didn’t want to do any live shows. With the other band, we were always on the road. So I kept being pressured to go back, but it wasn’t what I wanted. That was really changed by one guy that’s in charge of the Montreal Jazz Festival International. It’s one of the biggest festivals in the world, and very prestigious. They kept asking me, “Alex, we really want you. It’s going to be one night. You don’t have to worry. It’s going to be no media, no nothing. It’s just going to be you playing. Can you come and play the record for us?”

It took time, but he kept asking. And eventually I said OK, I think I’ll give it a try. And that became Standing Under Bright Lights, that record. But that was very strange for me, because it was about the songs. It wasn’t about the entertainment, or me jumping from the second floor balcony like I used to do in the other band. It was very much about the songs and the meaning of the songs. I was playing more instruments, we were ten on stage, I was directing the musicians. There were a lot of improvisations. So it was a different spirit, and I needed that spirit to be free so that I would know it was honest.

The concert took place almost five years to the day after my father’s passing, so it was also a way for me to honor him. My dad was a special character. He helped a lot of people. So there were a lot of people that came for that show. We also had people coming from all over the world that used to be fans of the other band because they knew that it might be the only gig I would do for that record, and maybe ever.

It was a very communal thing, very based on human connections. Even though the concert was really crazy in terms of the environment, the musicians, the lights, it was very humble in a way. It was only about that fragile emotion that is lived and shared. It was very pure, in a way.

After that, I kept being asked to go back on the road. I still didn’t want to. But that moment that I shared with the people was so significant, to realize that people came from Japan, from Australia, from Europe, all over the States, just to have that moment. For me, it was so humbling. I felt like “I’m just a guy singing.” But I realized that it’s not about me, it’s about the songs, and about what it meant for them. That was very beautiful, and it really offered me a way to keep emancipating myself from that tortured mind.

I didn’t want the songs to lose their nature, to become formulaic. That’s why even to this day, it’s all about improv. It’s really a free incarnation of those songs. 

After that I was invited to a big conference in Germany. We had an amazing time, and I was able to realize that there was a way to express those songs without losing their essence. To even see them grow, because I didn’t want to lose my father every night until suddenly he was gone forever because I wasn’t able to feel the nature of those songs anymore.

I was seeing people crying in the crowd, so still it was very humbling. I knew it wasn’t me, it was the songs, that connection. It was creating something very unique every night.

After that, I said OK, I will only do moments like that. I’m willing to not exactly tour, but go to specific places in Tokyo, and places like that. I had a three day residency in New York. Again, it felt natural, it wasn’t ambitious whatsoever. The songs kept growing, showing me that I was so wrong to be scared that they’d lose their essence. 

That’s what kept me going, to the point where when I was invited to tour again, I said “OK, that’ll be the final test, to see if I can do that night after night.” Then I toured from early February to mid-March, right before COVID. And it was the same emotion every night. 

I’m still learning, because I used to be in a very energy-driven band. And we were relying on that high-level energy. And now it’s more about trusting my instinct, letting go into the moment, into the spirit. So it’s a completely different vibe.

People kept asking me if I wanted to release that very first show, Standing Under Bright Lights. Because the record Windows in the Sky was an hour, but the live version is almost two and a half hours. I think it’s finally the right time to release it, especially with everything going on in the world. It felt like it was natural and respectful to do that, to share rather than sell stuff. It was really about the community, and to keep that in motion.

How powerful that sharing those songs could ultimately be part of your own process of moving through the grief! That’s such a testament to the power of music. I was just wondering, as I was hearing you talk, if there were specific songs as you’ve been playing them live that people really tend to resonate with?

Honestly, it’s very different every night. It depends on the mood. On the record, there’re two more driven songs that resonate a bit more because they’re more uptempo. Their structure is kind of different, and musically it’s very powerful. In terms of the emotions, the fragility of the moment, I think that “Shadows of our Evening Tides” is one that really resonates. When I’m able to really let go in the song rather than trying to play the song, if you will, then I can see how significant the song is for people. Because the thing is, for me it’s a communion. Rather than inviting people to see me perform, now it’s more of an exchange. We’re creating a moment together. That song is a very significant one.

I don’t always play the same songs when I’m touring, at least the last tour that I did. There’s no actual setlist, so I’m really calling the songs to the musicians, and we go from what I feel like makes sense. So that’s also something that’s avoiding repetition and formula. I will just call different sections, and it will be like free for maybe half an hour sometimes.

We were in Berlin, and we only played one song for about an hour or so, because it was just the moment. Everybody, we were able to feel, wanted that moment to last for as long as possible. 

It’s very humbling, because sometimes in my very insecure nature, after 20 minutes playing the same song, I’m like “it’s wrong, it’s weird.” But everybody is really into it, and I don’t want to project my insecurities onto them, to say it’s strange. 

It’s interesting that you brought up the musical side of things too, because the music sounds very cinematic. What in your history led you to go that direction versus the punk rock direction? I was wondering where that came from, how that fits into your history?

I went back to what got me into music in the first place. What got me into music as a kid was Glenn Branca and new wave, experimental music. When you take every single piece, it’s noise, it doesn’t make sense. But when you put everything together, you’re creating something that is very, very special.

That’s what got me into the music. That’s why even though I was in a punk band before, I never really felt fulfilled. I always wanted to touch something that was invisible.

That’s my background with Glenn and those crazy creators who also wanted to touch something. They didn’t know what they wanted to touch. They knew there was something that was greater than themselves, no matter how spiritual they were or not. It was really important to go back there, to not to overthink all the parts, to make sure it would be real and honest.

I’m not a trained musician. I think that was to my advantage, in a way, because I wasn’t really concerned about “OK, if I’m adding a trumpet with distortion pedals, does it make sense?” It doesn’t have to make sense.

That’s how I constructed the songs in a very natural way. When we recorded Windows in the Sky, most of the record was live and very natural. That was the same thing for the concert, but even more so.

What I’m doing is all about the opposites. You can have a lot of distortion and saturations, and all sorts of elements. Suddenly, you’re adding cello, and trumpet. It gives a completely different vibe. And again, it always needed to remain organic, and to remain free from any kind of ambition.

It’s very difficult for me to describe that! Even with that concert, we had some pre-production. But the musicians that came with me, they are trained musicians. So they were like “oh, do you have all the sheets?” And I was like “no, I’m just going to make this clear, I don’t. And everything you’re going to learn today, tomorrow you’re probably not going to play the same way, the same sections in the same order. So you really need to let go.”

That was fun for them as well, I think, because they had to forget what they’d learned about expressing emotions through music. And most of the band that I’m touring with, they’re friends from that former band. I love them to death, and they’re my best friends. But I said “you need to unlearn everything.” And we switched instruments– some of those guys don’t even play the same instruments they were playing in the other band.

I wasn’t able to hide in the context of a band anymore, so I really had to take my place, to say “this is how I see it. Everybody’s welcome to share, but this is really the direction I’m going. I’m calling different sections, and we rely on so many live signs. So you need to be ready for that, because there’s no safety net.” 

That’s what I want. I felt trapped for too long.

How does it feel now when you play the songs? Do you feel like you have a different perspective from when you were first playing them? I’m curious where you’ve landed after going through this process of bringing it out for other people to participate in.

My biggest concern at the beginning, when I started this thing, was losing control of my emotions. My biggest fear was “if I cry and I’m not able to stop, I don’t want it to become some sort of pity show where I’m inviting people to a funeral night after night.” I needed to be able to look at myself and say “OK, if it happens, it’s not the end of the world. It’s OK. You need to be honest with yourself. Also, are you ready to do that?”

That was my biggest challenge at the beginning: how can I interact with people, talk about these issues, without being like “well, here comes a downer.” Because it’s a very intense subject.

I realized that the way I wanted to share that was to celebrate life. Yeah, I’m reflecting on grief, and what it means to face “I lost my dad.” And he was a big hero for so many people. And I had a very complex relationship with him as well, because he didn’t always understand what I was doing. Those waves were coming back every time. But now, I think it’s really about celebrating life, to embody what it means to be alive. 

Some people were responding, just desperate. I want to be aware of that, not being too self-centered, but at the same time saying “well, I do exist also in the process.” That’s why I’m able to commune every night.

What I’ve learned from that moment to where I am now, is sometimes it doesn’t have to be special. It needs to be real. I talk with people, and they say “this is so true.” I say well, it needs to be honest rather than true.

For a long time, I thought I was right. I realized that by being in that position, I wasn’t allowing myself to grow. I was using absolutes to hide myself. And now it’s about being honest. It implies that you can evolve, that you’re open to other peoples’ perspectives and feelings, that you’re able to reflect on that and to bridge between yourself and them. In a world where everything is so fractured, maybe that’s what people appreciated in the way that I was approaching these subjects. They felt not only invited, but welcome.

There’s a big difference. You can invite people to convince them of your own perspective. But when you welcome them as well, you welcome them as they are.

“In a world where everything is so fractured, maybe that’s what people appreciated in a way that I was approaching these subjects.”

Just to give you an example, I was in Hamburg, Germany, and I had a father and a son that came to the merch booth. They waited for me, and when they came over, the father started to cry. He just had lost his own father, never had the opportunity to talk with him and to reconcile. 

It was a moment where inside I was freaking out. I was like, “oh, I’m not on stage. I cannot pretend I haven’t seen it. We’re here.” And then I just realized, “hey, just let go. This is what it’s all about.” W just hugged each other, and said well, this is exactly what it is to live, and to let go. 

There were so many moments like that where I was freaking out because I felt like I had to say something, or do something special. But then I realized it wasn’t about me. It’s an invitation to share very deep emotions with strangers. Then suddenly after that, once you cry with someone, it’s very difficult to remain strangers. 

That’s completely new for me, because I used to hide in all the noise and all the music. I didn’t want to be exposed. Suddenly, I’m in the middle of it– but I’m not in the middle of it alone, because I’m sharing it.

When I’m celebrating life instead of having to go through grief every night, it allows other people to let go, and me too.

I love the idea of a project that doesn’t try to fit itself into the normal boxes, but instead tries to dig deep into the human experience. I feel like that’s the kind of art that becomes really transcendent and timeless. Even lyrics aside, words aside, the instrumental– when it can capture a feeling that people have felt but never had echoed back to them, that’s such a powerful moment as a human being.

Even though it’s been difficult for so many people recently, I really hope that it will allow us to go back to the foundation, to connect not only with others, but to realize that “hey, maybe I was overlooking those emotions.” 

For most of my friends in Asia, in Europe, in Canada, it’s lockdown, curfew, they’re not allowed to visit each other. It’s been very, very tough. I know that a lot of my friends were struggling with it, and some of them took their own lives. It was very troubling for me. That’s why we’re so involved with human rights, and mental health, because it’s real. And we cannot always, especially as believers, say “everybody should be happy.” 

We just have to recognize that that equation is not that simple. It’s more complex. It’s always a bit scary to look into those feelings. Because when you don’t understand things, human nature tends to box them in a way that you’re not uncomfortable with anymore. When you’ve got absolutes, everything aligns so it’s all in place, and it’s not scary any more. But reality is so much more complex.

At the beginning, it was conflicting, because I didn’t want to look into it. But it’s the same thing for human emotions. We need to look into it, we need to trust that even though it’s scary, you can find something, and you can walk with someone. You don’t have to understand all the time. It doesn’t have to make sense. What’s very important is to be willing to walk with someone, whenever possible.

It doesn’t have to make sense. What’s very important is to be willing to walk with someone whenever possible.”

That’s why I wanted to release that record, as an invitation for people to feel welcome, to express their feelings, to celebrate life, even if you’re struggling with depression and stress. Even if you’re still grieving, because there are so many reasons to grieve. It’s not only about losing someone that you love. It could be about dreams, promises, the future, things that were very dear to you that suddenly you’re losing. 

Through what people were sharing with me, it felt like it made so much sense to release this. With the pandemic, we were doing a lot of livestreams. It was important to keep that community going, for people to feel like they could express themselves. To release Standing Under Bright Lights goes in the same direction.

Is there any final thing you’d like for people to know?

For me, it’s such an humbling project. Beyond this whole thing, even though people might not even be interested in my music, I’m just happy that we can share something that’s more positive that can be the fuel to embrace life.

Even though it’s a bit cliche, you don’t have to suffer to understand what suffering might be. But you need to live to understand what life is about, because life creates life. That’s why I always encourage my friends and people that are writing to me to give that more positive thing a chance. That’s why the record’s called Standing Under Bright Lights, because at some point, you need to welcome that light. You need to say OK, I’m going to give it a chance. I will keep doing it until I’m in that flow and I’m one with that light.

“…the record’s called Standing Under Bright Lights, because at some point, you need to welcome that light. You need to say OK, I’m going to give it a chance.”

You can find Standing Under Bright Lights on Spotify and Apple Music. You can also find physical copies at alexhenryfoster.com.

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