Alex Henry Foster

Photo by Damour

Alex Henry Foster’s Standing Under Bright Lights captures a life-changing concert

“That night was the first time in my whole career where I was actually at peace, and that concert and the live album offers me an opportunity to talk about those issues and what I went through.”

Alex Henry Foster may still be best known as the singer for Montreal band Your Favorite Enemies, but his reputation as a solo artist is soaring on the wings of his recently released live album Standing Under Bright Lights. The record captures the first performance of material from his debut solo album, 2018’s Windows in the Sky. Foster played the album in its entirety with an 11-piece band as part of the Montreal Jazz Fest in 2019, a concert that was meant to be a one-off but eventually led to performances in New York City and across Europe.

Foster initially didn’t want to perform the songs from Windows in the Sky due to their extremely personal nature. They were written as he was emerging from a depression, brought about by the death of his father and by a longtime struggle with anxiety that tainted his time with Your Favorite Enemies. The album was conceived at the end of a stay in Tangier, Morocco, where Foster fled band life to deal with the issues that had been plaguing him — he was supposed to be there for three months, and wound up staying for two years.

The singer-songwriter now looks at promoting his solo work, written and performed partly for therapeutic purposes, as a platform for shining a light on mental illness. Earlier this year, the former social worker and activist raised money for Suicide Action Montreal with the sale of masks bearing the words “Alive.Never Alone.” The endeavour was undertaken in the wake of the suicide of a friend in France, which further inspired Foster to share his own story about how he spiralled and how he healed.

“The Son of Hannah” from Standing Under Bright Lights

Foster spoke to me by phone from his home in West Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where he’s lived for over two years, since his return from Tangier.

Lorraine Carpenter: Before we get to discussing the album, I read that your music career was deeply inspired by your working class upbringing and your past in social work. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

Alex Henry Foster: I grew up (partly) in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, close to the Olympic Stadium, but we moved so many times. My father was an alcoholic so I was raised in that kind of environment, and it was very difficult because I was always the new kid in school, and I was always ostracized because I didn’t wear the right brands and it was clear that I came from the wrong side of the tracks. But at the same time, my parents made sure that I would be able to travel through art, like literature and music. I was surrounded by so much violence and crime and insecurity due to my father’s work, or lack thereof, so when I started in social work, I had that sensitivity towards others who were living the same things.

I studied social work at the University of Montreal and I worked with new immigrants and kids, and this is really where music helped. I’ve always been in bands, but I was also using music as a way to reach out to those kids and to connect in a place where people didn’t want to mix too much or they didn’t trust the system. Art helped to make them realize that the sensation, the feelings they had were a connection between them rather than focus on all the differences they had.

That’s really the seed that started this whole creative journey that came a little bit later for me.

LC: Sometimes when an artist does a solo project it’s to do something they couldn’t really do with their band, but it seems like circumstances were different for you.

Alex Henry Foster: Yeah, I wasn’t really thinking about going solo to do a different thing. When I left for Tangier, it was because I was in a deep depression and things kept going and going and going with the band I was in. My father passed and I was still on the road. All those things kind of got on me in a way where if I kept going, I didn’t know if I would ever be able to face those issues. It was way overdue for me to leave and take a moment to reflect on where I was in my life, and about my father‘s passing and why I wasn’t able to feel anything about it, why I was so disconnected from all the emotions that make you who you are.

I wasn’t really looking to make a record, but it came naturally at the end of the process, when everything was a bit more clear. I didn’t want to hide myself within the context of a band because I needed to take ownership of those emotions. I was talking about grief, I was talking about trying to find hope in moments of great despair. It was free of any ambition and I think that’s why I was able to express myself. The only thing that mattered to me was being honest. I wasn’t even expecting to release that record.

I didn’t really do any promo (for Windows in the Sky). With the band, it was really something else, a commercial outfit for lack of a better word. We were playing on the radio, we won awards, we were touring. For my project, it was too personal to even consider going that way. The rest of the band supported me because they knew it wasn’t about them; it wasn’t about rejecting anyone so I could express myself. It was really something about me and where I was at the point of my life.

When I released the record, I kind of freaked out, to be honest with you. I wanted to keep it very under the radar, but a lot of people embraced the record and suddenly I was in the mainstream. I really shut down, and I faced another phase of that journey where I had to really look at (my music career) and say either it’s time to embrace it or call it a day and move on to something else.

Alex Henry Foster and an 11-piece band live at the Jazz Fest, 2019

LC: So why did you choose to basically re-release that material as Standing Under Bright Lights. Was there something particularly significant about that Jazz Fest show?

Alex Henry Foster: It was the moment that became the foundation for everything that came after. I wasn’t feeling comfortable being on the stage, particularly with that project. Your Favorite Enemies that was a different beast, it was a very physical alternative rock band, where it was, like, jumping from the second floor balcony. It was entertainment. But this project was so personal and intimate, I didn’t know if I would be able to perform it at all. I didn’t know if I would be emotionally disposed to share a moment without starting to cry at or making a fool of myself.

Laurent Saulnier, who is the VP at Spectra, he was really into the record. You know sometimes there’s people in the shadow of the music industry who are really genuine and authentic? He, in my opinion, is one of those guys. I told him I didn’t want to do any concerts, especially as part of something like the Jazz Fest — I said “No way,” and that I couldn’t even perform the songs ever again. He was so supportive, in his own language — he’s quite a character. But I realized that maybe I needed to look within and ask myself why. I discovered that the real struggle I had wasn’t necessarily the idea of being on stage, it was the fear of losing the essence of the songs. We would have to rehearse over and over and over again, and possibly lose the purity of those songs because it was about my father. For me, it could have been like losing him another time, and then forever, in a way. It was so precious to me, and I was very concerned about that. But then, it was almost the fifth anniversary of my father‘s passing, and I said yes.

It was very cool. (The Jazz Fest) really allowed me to do whatever I wanted. The way I approached it was based on improvisation and conducting the band rather than re-creating the songs as close as possible to the record. The musicians were so generous, they had never played those songs before so they were asking me for sheets and I was telling them, “No forget about that, we’re going to go with the feel.” I wanted to make it so real and so dangerous. At the time I was thinking of it as a one-off thing, that’s why the concert is very special. I think it’s going to be the purest form of those songs ever played. I wasn’t thinking about selling the concert or going on tour, it was a moment to share with my family, my friends. And I haven’t played much in Montreal.

That moment was liberating and I think I’ve been emancipated from so many fears and insecurities. Most of my journey with the band — and we’ve been all over the world, we’ve been privileged, the stories we have are just phenomenal — but I was so stuck inside dealing with anxiety and depression and panic attacks and the fear of failure and the fear of being rejected that I never really appreciated what we lived together. That night was the first time in my whole career where I was actually at peace, and from that little moment, after that I was able to envision doing different things.

The integrity of the songs was not only protected, but (the songs) were growing way beyond the emotions that they were born from. Instead of fearing to lose what was very dear to me — that I was holding so tight that I was basically choking on those emotions — I was releasing it all and just letting it go.

“Winter Is Coming In” from Standing Under Bright Lights

I was asked if a recording of the whole concert was available anywhere, because there were just a few clips online. I realized we had the whole concert on multi-cam and the guy at the board recorded the whole thing with multi tracks. I was honestly concerned that maybe it wouldn’t be as magical as I thought it was (laughs) — I hoped that I wasn’t trying to convince myself of something. I gave it a chance, I watched it, and the feelings I had had about the concert — the reality was even deeper. It was real enough for me to see that it was a good opportunity to share that moment. That concert and the live album offers me an opportunity to talk about those issues and what I went through.

For me, it was like a new beginning because I was able to face those demons. I could say, ‘Yes I’m confused, yes I’m broken, but am I too damaged to be repaired or feel whole again?’ That concert was like going back to the surface in a way. The person that I was came back. ■

For more about Alex Henry Foster and Standing Under Bright Lights, please visit his website.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.