Floating Away: The Cumulus Interview

Words by Matthew Vanatta

Seattle has long been known for its iconic music scene. Maybe it’s the eight months of dreary weather, but the city by the sea has been producing some of the most prominent musicians for decades. While Seattle is best known for producing the most renowned guitar player in rock and roll history and the 90’s grunge scene, the Seattle music scene continues to evolve and inspire a new generation of rock and rollers.

Alexandra Niedzialkowski’s band Cumulus is a direct lineage of these iconic bands, their music has been described as indie-pop. And though the melodies are catchy and dreamy, Cumulus’ sound is multidimensional, it’s fuzz and distortion, it’s melancholy and joyous, it’s Northwest without being too Northwest.

While Cumulus shouldn’t be pigeonholed as a regional band or as fitting into one specific genre, the band’s sound feels at home amongst the craggy peaks and the immense natural beauty of the lead singer and songwriters home state, there is something otherworldly about Cumulus’ music, as you listen to the melodic vocals and driving guitar it’s easy to get carried away as if one might be floating on a cloud.

We caught up with Alex on the tail end of Timber Festival to talk about growing up in the Northwest, creative process, and what is next for Cumulus.

Lead Image – Adrian Centoni

Did you grow up in the Northwest?

I did! I grew up in Oak Harbor, Washington, which is on Whidbey Island. You cross the Deception Pass Bridge and that is where my hometown starts.

It seems like the Northwest had this heavy grunge scene in the 90’s and since then has been more of a folk-rock town, I feel some elements of both in your music. Are you inspired by either of those Seattle legacy sounds?

Strangely enough, I never really got into the grunge scene. I was pretty influenced by commercial radio/ adult contemporary music as a kid. I mainly listened to 103.7 the Mountain (RIP) and Sheryl Crow and Jewel were my queens. As I became a teenager I started booking local shows in my hometown and attending shows in Seattle, and became really wrapped up in emo and pop-punk, but it was hard to find other women to look up to in that “Hot Topic” era. I eventually started making friends who lived in Anacortes and attended shows at the Department of Safety, which was a DIY venue in an old fire department. That venue changed everything for me. Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie and Karl Blau were the hometown heroes, and from there I started discovering artists like Mirah, Kimya Dawson, Laura Veirs, Racetrack, Visqueen, and The Blow. Those artists helped me realize that music wasn’t just made by people that were already mysteriously famous and on the radio, music was being made by my neighbors. Seeing so many women on stage also helped me see a space for myself and my own voice. Long story short, my history is very entrenched in Northwest music, but not the pocket that everyone seems to jump to immediately.

Image – Morgen Schuler

I’ve heard your band described as indie pop, but it feels a bit more rock to me, how do you describe the band to someone who has never heard your music?

(Laughs) I definitely struggle with this, but I have started to tell people that I write pop songs and play them with a rock band. Some people hate when I say something like so and so indie/rock band writes great pop songs, but to me, “pop” is a type of music that puts a large emphasis on hooks and melodies. I’m probably totally wrong, but if you write a song that can’t get out of my head because your hook is out of this world, I’d say you just wrote a pop song!

I like being louder, I prefer the sounds of a distorted guitar (even when I’m playing by myself), but besides being honest, I’d say making sure some element of every song is getting stuck in someone’s head is my top priority. It’s my favorite puzzle to solve.

Did you grow up in a creative environment, how did you get into playing guitar and writing songs?

I grew up with a dad that was obsessed with music, and he passed that love on to me at a very young age. I was attending blues festivals with my dad at 5 years old, and we attended every single Bumbershoot from about 1996 until 2014 (when my band played!). In high school, my dad would let me play “hooky” and drive me from Oak Harbor to Seattle with my friends to see my favorite bands. I’d be that kid who waited in line for 8 hours to be in the front row because I was so short. My first instrument was a drum set that my dad bought for me when I was 16. I never actually played drums with anyone but just played along to my favorite records in the living room.

I started writing songs after attending a boys and girls rock and roll type camp at the Vera Project, the summer before my senior year of high school. I planned on learning the drums at this camp, but I got put into a group where everyone was too scared to sing so I volunteered. I ended up in a singing class where the teacher told me, “you know you are good at this, right?” I had no idea! We wrote an original song during the camp and performed it at the Vera. Rachel Flotard from Visqueen was my band coach. (She’s become a good friend now, later in my life as an adult, and I still look up to her so much.) I remember leaving that camp with a whole new vision of what I could do, and I went into college writing songs for my friends and playing house shows and doing all that I could to make writing songs and performing a part of my life.

Image- Sarah Cass

Were you always interested in the collaboration elements of a band, or were you initially interested in being a solo artist?

I think I was initially interested in being a solo musician, if only because my actual technical music knowledge has always made it a little more difficult to communicate my ideas with other musicians. Once I had an album worth of songs that I had written on my own, it became easier to collaborate and turn my solo songs into more filled out arrangements.

I still prefer to come up with the basics on my own (foundational chords, melody, lyrics, structure) and then bring that idea to my producer or to my band. This last record I recorded taught me a lot about letting the song lead the way, and that means trying out different ideas and being okay with stepping back and letting go of control.

Songwriting can be an intensely personal process, is it something that is cathartic for you?

One hundred percent. Songwriting has become the way that I process the world. At the end of a tough day, I’ll sing into my phone about my day. When I’m depressed, I try to describe it as accurately as possible. I try to describe myself getting out of it. I try to write the love letters to myself that I need to see the bright side. I don’t know who I would be if I didn’t have this beautiful tool to help me navigate life.

Are there any particular themes in your writing that seem to come up frequently or that you’re hoping to explore as you continue to create?

I think I write a lot about hope. When I am in my saddest state, I go to sad songs to feel less alone, so really I think that’s my number one goal when writing a song. I want to make anyone who is listening feel less alone, but I’m also doing that for myself in the process. I’m not sure about themes I want to explore, but there are definitely different songwriting styles and genres I’m wanting to get into more. I’ve been listening to a lot of Americana in the last few years, and also a lot of Paramore? So I’m interested in seeing the way that really slick pop production and lo-fi folk leanings will intertwine in the sound of my next record…

Image- Morgen Schuler

I know you just played Timber, what does the rest of the summer look like for you and the band?

The rest of the Summer is mainly just preparing for touring! We are playing Mercer x Summit Block Party on August 18th, and then immediately after heading out for a tour with Bad Bad Hats. BBH is one of my favorite bands of the last 5 years. I seriously listen to them constantly, and I feel honored to call them friends. I’m really excited to a) see them play every night for a month, and b) get to know them more as humans! By the time we come home at the end of September, we will be releasing the 2nd Cumulus album, Comfort World…and from there it is yet to be written.

Any big projects coming up that we should be on the lookout for?

I see a lot of touring in the near future, so just keep an eye out for when we are playing in your town!

Check out Cumulus’new single Comfort World here

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