Interview: Strawberry Guy

by Kieran Macadie

Strawberry Guy talks debut album, TikTok fame and his memories of old friends, Her’s

Deep within the foliage of Liverpool’s city parks, you might come across Strawberry Guy (Alex Stephens), contemplating his next chord progression for an impressionist masterpiece. The Welsh born and Liverpool based DIY songwriter has recently released his debut album, Sun Outside My Window – a romantic inspired, impressionist, lo-fi sensation all constructed within his humble abode. 

After the record was met with rave reviews and a return to live shows for the first time in almost two years, exposure to Stephens’ brilliance is only increasing. Exposure for his music was mostly spawned from a sudden viral hit. His track, Mrs Magic, from his 2019 EP, Taking My Time To Be, became widespread after thousands used the track as a sound for videos on TikTok earlier this year. At the time of writing, Mrs Magic has almost 60 million Spotify streams and is the backing track for almost 75 thousand TikToks. 

Strawberry Guy’s rise over the past year is nothing short of astonishing, but his musical persona is something he’s built from a young age. ‘I can never remember my first piano lesson,’ says Stephens as we talk over a beer in a Liverpool bar, ‘because it was when I was four.’ Since writing his first song in his early teens, Stephens hasn’t stopped. Inspired by the romantic era of classical music from the late 18th century, unique and powerful soundscapes are created as they’re merged with his lifelong piano skills. ‘I was always drawn to the romantic period because it was a time where composers were being a bit more free. Religion was still about, but there were things you could do in music that didn’t have to just be revolved around that. Chords got weirder, and you can hear the start of jazz and stuff. But I also love contemporary stuff – I guess like Gustav Holst and film soundtracks from the 70s. Never anything before the 1800s though; I don’t like Mozart and I hate Beethoven!’

Stephens translates classical influences into something new for the modern day – a seemingly challenging task that he can do with ease. ‘I think I do it through harmony and chords, for example, the track I’ll Be There, which goes off into a big orchestral thing at the end, it’s to create a sense of emotion just through music and chords rather than just lyrics. That’s what I find so powerful about composers. The emotion comes from me. I’m quite a sensitive being really, and I feel like I’m good at addressing my own emotions. I only write music when I have these heightened senses of emotions – say if I’m really low or really happy.’ With the emotional lyrics, combined with hard-hitting harmony and blissful 70s songwriter-esque melodies that Stephens can conjure easily (he came up with the melody for the track, Company in the shower, for example), it creates a solidified and powerful body of work.

In the age of streaming and laptop producing, DIY music is becoming increasingly mainstream. Strawberry Guy prides himself on being a pure DIY artist: writing, recording and producing all his tracks in the comfort of his own home. As he’s hit with strong and heightened emotions, he begins to write a track in his head as the lyrics come naturally – priding himself on never having written down a lyric. He then records the track and all the instruments completely solo. ‘With recording and writing on your own, there’s no one there to judge anything,’ explains Stephens. ‘You can be as open as you like, until it’s out, which is the weird thing about music suddenly getting released. That’s the best thing about recording on your own. Timing is another thing – you’re not restricted. In a studio, every bit of time you spend there is money, but on your own you can record when you like and there’s nobody there to hinder you or change what you’re doing. It’s completely you and your art.’

The minimalist approach Stephens has towards the production of his music is astounding when hearing the divine finished product. He records his instruments such as his Nord keyboard using Logic Pro and gets down his vocals with a cheap microphone he’s owned for years. The drums are produced from simple samples taken from the internet that he can modify with his keyboard. Alongside the barebones, yet creative technical aspect of making his music, Stephens manipulates and modifies his voice to create unique instrumentation. One example is on the album’s title track, where the instrumental fills contain a clicking sound that I mistook for a wooden agogo. Stephens demonstrated that it was really his own voice making a loud clicking sound which subsequently turned heads in the bar we were sat in. He’d soaked the sound in reverb to give it a unique instrumental feel that floats alongside the piano on the track. 

Sun Outside My Window was in the works for nearly two years. Stephens began working on the project shortly after the release of his 2019 EP, and carried on throughout lockdown, using the extra time to polish his work and make it the stunning impressionist masterpiece it eventually became. ‘It wasn’t completely a lockdown project,’ Stephens explains, ‘there were songs that I’d had for a while and ideas I’d had for a long time that were waiting to develop. About 65% of the album was done in lockdown, but I think it’s also relatable outside of that context. I had a very strong idea on what I was going for from the start; I wanted it to be pretty, orchestral and ethereal. The rest of the UK had gone post-punk, so I wanted to go in a completely different direction. I’m a big fan of post-punk, don’t get me wrong, but I just wanted to make a pretty album. I wanted to move people, and lockdown gave me the time to perfect that.’

Towards the end of 2020, as the world continued to suffer through miserable lockdowns, something strange happened for Stephens on the now world-dominating video app, TikTok. His track, Mrs Magic, from his 2019 EP, Taking My Time To Be, went viral, as users warmed to the ethereal and blissful vibes of the track and subsequently used it as a sound on videos. ‘I didn’t have TikTok for ages,’ states Stephens about the viral hit, ‘I didn’t really know what it was, I didn’t understand it, and it just made me feel old. I was unaware of this for quite some time, and I noticed on Spotify, the streams for the track suddenly skyrocketed. The streams went up by over 100% and I had no idea why – it was really weird. I then realised in the week before Christmas I was at number 13 on the US viral charts, and I still didn’t know what TikTok was. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when a friend texted me explaining that I was viral on TikTok that I became aware of what was going on.’

‘To be honest, I still don’t get TikTok. I only recently got it because my manager told me to! My first video absolutely blew up and that’s when I realised TikTok is crazy. The whole idea of being viral at first was scary, overwhelming, and something I couldn’t get used to for a very long time. I’ve never really cared about fame – I just really like making music. It was overwhelming at first, but I was really thankful – I thought it was amazing, but at the same time it felt so weird. It didn’t feel real, because at the time we couldn’t see people and gig, and I couldn’t feel that realness. Now, I’ve definitely sunk into it and I’m a lot more relaxed about things, and very grateful for it!’

Stephens has lived in Liverpool since his days at university – attending the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts doing music. During his time studying, he became friends with the brilliant and dreamy jangle-pop duo Her’s, Stephen Fitzpatrick and Audun Laading, who both tragically passed away in 2019. ‘Stephen and Audun inspired me,’ says Stephens, ‘not specifically through their music but from their attitude. They didn’t care about being cool. They were just themselves and they were loose and free. I only ever saw Stephen annoyed once – the rest of the time they were both on top of the world. They were so modest, and nothing ever went to their heads.’

Stephens’ music is a testament to the memory of the missed duo as Her’s came up with the name Strawberry Guy. ‘It was Audun actually. We were walking back from a festival all quite drunk and we were talking about drinks for some reason. Audun asked me, “If you could have any drink right now that wasn’t alcohol, what would you have?” and I replied with “strawberry milkshake”. He then went “Ah, you’re a strawberry guy!”, and I thought it was a good artist name. He then went “Yeah, you’re Strawberry Guy now.” I knew then when I released music it would be under that name. I thought it was sweet, soft and smooth like my music hopefully.’

On the night Stephens had heard the news of their tragic passing, he was preparing to play a gig. ‘One of my best friends rang me about 10-20 minutes before I was supposed to go on, and I just broke down in the street, but I still played the gig. It was probably the worst gig I’ve ever played in my life, but I did it for them. I wrote F Song with Stephen in the room, and my friend rang me before I played because she didn’t want me to go and have the night of my life and come back to see it on social media when I was pissed.’ It’s admirable that from the moment of their loss, Stephens has continued to keep their memory alive though the inspiration Her’s had given him.

Many say that an artist’s debut record is an embodiment of their entire career so far – the point they’ve been building up to from the start. Now Strawberry Guy is there, what’s next for the impressionist musician? ‘If you want my honest answer, I have no idea. I don’t plan, I don’t know what’s going to come. I’ll carry on writing songs because I always do. I started writing a song this week. I don’t know what it’s about yet, but it’s an idea. It’s all still ideas, I haven’t recorded anything new yet – but the ideas are there. I don’t know what direction it’ll all go in from now, but I just know I’ll never stop writing. I don’t think I’ll do anything too surprising though, I won’t suddenly come out with a grunge album.’ Whatever sweet surprises Strawberry Guy plans to gift us with next, it’s sure to be a great.

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