By Damian Fanelli | Photo: Shaun Thomas
Aleks Sever is a different kind of guitar player.
There’s a soulfulness and commitment in her playing that grabs your attention and holds it from the first note to the last—and what happens in between makes her one of the most exciting and original composer-guitarists to come along in a long time.
Aleks captured the attention of the guitar press worldwide with the release of her debut CD, 2012’s Danger Girl. Her playing style defies comparison; it’s aggressive, sophisticated, funky, complex yet simple, and it’s difficult to categorize her. Her sound has become the envy of tone freaks around the world.
The one thing her rapidly growing audience seems to agree on is that she can blow!
Aleks has just released her new CD, Extravagant. It’s a high-energy blend of jazz, funk/rock and hip-hop that showcases her compositional skills, guitar playing—and the support of some incredible musicians.
How did you develop your intense playing style?
Rhythm is the most important element in music for me. That’s defined my style more than anything else. It’s first about the feel and the groove, not just the actual rhythm parts; the solos and melodies also have to groove. There’s a lot of effort that goes into that and I think that’s helped develop the style. I’m also always trying something new. If I hear something I like, I push myself to learn it.
The style evolves as I add things, trying to be original, thinking outside the lines and avoiding cliches. Above all, the main principle is commitment. Playing with as much focus and intensity as possible every time I play has become my rule. If I’m distracted or have low energy, I wait until I can give it 100 percent before I pick up the instrument.
How did you approach the songwriting for Extravagant?
There’s a thread that seems to run through all the songs. I actually had a concept in mind when I started writing for the record and needed songs that would help me express different styles. I was listening to a lot of funk/rock, jazz and hip-hop and started combining those genres. Jazz influences lead me to experiment with different modes; exploring alternate chord progressions and different harmonic approaches. Hip-hop inspired a more aggressive rhythmic approach, with off-beat phrasing and use of space. Incorporating these new combinations into my basic funk/rock style opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
“Red Moon” and “Freak” sound more jazz oriented, and the solos are really interesting harmonically. Can you tell us more about that?
With “Red Moon,” I wanted a song that would capture the sense of adventure Miles [Davis] had. Randy Brecker played the trumpet solo. He has that wild spirit in his playing, and it really lifted the song to another level. Randy is a legend in the jazz world. He’s played with almost every major jazz artist.
On “Freak,” I was looking for a combination of a hip-hop groove with a jazz-based, modal/chromatic approach to the melodies and solos and a more extreme rhythmic approach to the rhythm guitar. The challenge was to make the song sound strong and appealing, without sounding intellectual.
“V.I.P.” and “2 Cool” are really funky. How did you approach those songs?
For, “V.I.P.” I wanted a song that had a medium-tempo funk groove with a different harmonic approach. I wanted to use more extreme bends on the melodies and solos for this song, which was new territory for me. By bending up to the note instead of attacking it straight on, it allowed me to tell the story with more attitude and made it more expressive. I also used Keith Anderson, a great sax player who played with Kanye West and Erykah Badu. He added a really funky vibe to the song.
Who are some of the artists that inspired and influenced you for this record?
Some of the jazz artists who really caught my imagination were Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew were played constantly for a while, and those records changed the way I think, especially about solos. The harmonic depth and sense of freedom are awesome. Maceo Parker, Prince and James Brown are also some of my favorite artists.
James Brown’s guitar players totally changed the way I approach funk. They’re not afraid to play simple and really support the groove by leaving space in the right places. Hip-hop and rap have taught me a lot about fearless commitment. I love the complex but subtle rhythmic phrasing, the confidence and the “all or nothing” attitude those artists have. I learned a lot from artists like Tupac, 50 Cent and Eminem.
What gear did you use making Extravagant? The guitar sounds are awesome.
I spent a lot of time finding the right sounds for this record. The sound has to fit the song when I’m recording, and it has to be inspiring when I’m writing. I like Telecasters. They’re the perfect shape for me, and I love the way they sound. I use an American Standard, a Deluxe Tele, and I have two Blacktops.
I use a Fender Super-Sonic amp. It’s great for clean sounds, with a lot of attack to the note. The overdrive comes from the DigiTech RP500 multi-effects pedal. I don’t use the channel switching, but the amp reacts really well to the RP500. The combination has a really great edge and sounds warm, compressed and natural. I also used a TC Electronic Flashback pedal and Hall of Fame reverb, a Boss DD-7 digital delay, and a Boss PS-6 pitch shifter. For pickups, I use DiMarzio Air Classics. I’ve been using D’Addario strings since I started playing, and I wouldn’t use anything else.
How did you choose the players for the record?
I feel very lucky to have these musicians on this record. I wanted Extravagant to sound fresh and wild but intense, and these musicians absolutely killed it. Drummer John Blackwell just lifted the music up to another level from the first beat. Josh Dunham’s bass parts also brought a totally natural feel to the music and gave the project a great anchor. The bass parts have to compliment the rhythm guitar, and Josh knew what to do with the songs instinctively.
Bobby Sparks was really creative and had so many incredible part ideas, which gave the project a lot of energy and enthusiasm right from the start. When I first sent him the project, he was on the road, staying in hotels. He had a synth with him in the room and would send me a lot of different ideas by email. It was great to have that kind of positive support right from the beginning.
What was your most exciting moment making Extravagant?
There were a lot of exciting moments during the writing and arranging process, but hearing the songs with the full band was probably the high point. The energy that comes from the unexpected is very powerful and often sparks a new vision or concept. I always try to find a reason or breakthrough in a project, and making Extravagant opened up so many ideas and new inspiration for future projects.
For more about Sever (and for more Extravagant videos), visit alekssever.com.