TikTok’s conquering songwriter with a cheerful, retro charm
HHaving cut his teeth playing keys in The Orielles and Trudy & The Romance, Liverpool-based solo artist Alex Stephens (aka Strawberry Guy) recently caused a stir on TikTok when the 2019 track “Mrs Magic” ended up with be used on 70,000 videos, gaining millions of views.
Inspired by this newfound popularity – as well as an unusual moodboard of 19th century classical music, as well as animated films and video game music – Stephens embarked on a standalone mission to write and record his first album. His creative process left him with the question: how do you maximize bedroom pop without ever leaving the bedroom?
The results are emphatic. ‘Sun Outside My Window’, released via Melodic this Friday (October 29), mixes the chirping piano melodies of ballads like John Lennon with the languid rhythms and dreamy basslines of psych-pop heroes The War On Drugs and Tame Impala. . Strings and flowery horns, meanwhile, bring grandeur to these 10 atmospheric and wonderful songs, while Stephens’ introspective lyrics reflect the shared anxieties of Gen Z, having been forced to stay indoors for a long time. year.
Strawberry Guy Caught Up NME to explore his TikTok success, his myriad of musical influences and the inspiration he drew from… well, the things outside his window.
You moved to Liverpool as a music student and have stayed there ever since. How to come?
“I’m a great extrovert – I get all of my energy from other people. So when I moved here, I started hanging out with people from the music scene, like Her’s – [Stephen Fitzpatrick and Audun Laading, who died while on tour in the US in 2018] – and this feminist punk band called Pink Kink, plus Hannah’s Little Sister and Brad Stank. There was a house where most of our friends lived on Roscoe Street where we always went to parties, and a pub called The Grapes, which is sometimes crazy, but great. I became quite attached to them all, which is why I stayed.
How did you react when “Mrs Magic” exploded on TikTok?
“I didn’t know for ages. I was completely unconscious. But I saw that it entered the Spotify streaming charts in America and I just didn’t understand why. About two weeks later someone texted me and said, ‘By the way, Alex, your song is in like… every video!’. And I was like, ‘What? I don’t even know what TikTok is! ‘
“It took me a while to get comfortable with it, really. But now it has made my will to succeed even greater. It made me realize that I can deal [music] like a real career now which is the best thing ever. I am so grateful. “
You released ‘Mrs Magic’ two years ago. WWhy do you think he logged in like he only recently did?
“I think the lockdown helped him. I think people must have felt the urge to listen to calm music, or music that would have made them feel better, in a way.
“It’s weird because the song is actually about a time when I was on a trip with magic mushrooms – I had a horrible experience! I had never done a psychedelic before, and I was expecting this kind of really big, awe-inspiring spectacle, like a hallucinogenic festival in my head. But instead, I felt like everything that made me ‘me’ was gone. This is the subject of the whole song; I’m the one saying ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here’ when I have no idea where I am. It was terrifying! “
Your first album is very introspective, sweet and dreamlike – almost the opposite of what you just described. Where did you find the inspiration for this?
“It all started with the first track, ‘Sun Outside My Window’. I wrote it a few years ago in the summer, and I just remember feeling a little depressed. I am artistically nourished by my emotions, so I will only write when I am weak enough or really happy. It was a typical low day, it was cloudy, and I remember walking into my room and the sun literally came out and shone through my window. It was like that magical moment, and my mood completely changed.
The whole album was written and recorded in this room, right? Can you tell us a little more about this space?
“It’s a long rectangular room, and I just got my office, which overlooks two very long windows, facing the main road and a row of Georgian-style buildings opposite. There are people filming in one of the streets because it looks very old fashioned and almost Victorian – I think some The Batman  was filmed here recently.
“Inside there are old photos of friends on my wardrobe. Some from Stephen and Audun. The concerts I attended – you know, great memories. I have a cute Monet print that I found in a charity shop and a photo of my childhood cat, who has sadly passed away now. He was a good boy, Victor.
The music itself on the album is much more orchestral than anything you’ve done before with bands like The Orielles…
“I really wanted to test the limits of bedroom pop to see how well I could make it sound completely. I always wanted to work with an orchestra, so I had the idea of squeezing this full orchestra in my room …
“I would have loved to have a real orchestra in my room, but I was actually just layering stuff myself, all those violin sounds I had.”
You were inspired by classical music, which isn’t the most obvious point of contact for a bedroom pop artist – or TikTok users, for that matter. Where do these interests come from?
“I started playing the piano at the age of four and I remember hearing Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ for the first time, and I was just amazed when I was a child. It’s nice. If you ever get into classical music like that, it’s never going to go away.
“But another piece of music that really inspired me was ‘The Planets’ by Gustav Holst. It starts with “Mars, The Bringer of War”, and it’s bloody intensity, like “Oh my God, death is upon us!”. And then “Venus, the carrier of peace” comes out, and it’s so peaceful. It almost looks like spring… in space. I imagine flowers blooming on Venus and seeing this beautiful alien planet. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard in my life.
“What I love is that he made music without lyrics that sound like all these emotions, like war and peace. And I’ve always found it really fascinating, that people can create that emotion just through music. I wanted to make music that was like, but more accessible to people [today].
What about the more contemporary influences on the album?
“I really like music that carries you away and sounds from another world. I remember going to watch Coraline when I was about 12 – and I remember thinking, “This soundtrack is phenomenal.” It’s just the most beautifully weird music.
“The ‘The Legend Of Zelda’ games have been another great source of inspiration. ‘Twilight Princess’ on the Nintendo Wii was that one. There is a song on my album, ‘As We Bloom’ – and I completely ignored it – but a friend of mine told me it sounded a bit like [the Koji Kondo-penned track] ‘Fountain of the Great Fairy’. And I was like, ‘Shit. Is it?’. So yes, it’s the geekiest album of all time!
There is this real feeling of desire that can be felt through the album. How have you changed as a person over the past few years?
“‘Society’ [is significant] because that’s about when I realized during lockdown that as a big extrovert, I’m dependent on people, and I don’t really like my own business. So I had to really learn to be comfortable with my own business and think about the things that I have.
“I really feel, as I’ve reflected on the album and my life over the last few months, that I’ve reached another stage of emotional maturity in a way. But a release can also be a little sad sometimes because you let go of something that is so close to you – it’s almost like I’m sending my baby to college!