Home Artist Interview Anthony Alvarado – The Story of “Proper Place”

Anthony Alvarado – The Story of “Proper Place”

by Jon Anderson

There’s so much pain in the world.

I’m so grateful for the music that enters into it with grace.

Specifically, I’m grateful for Anthony Alvarado’s music. Anthony reached out to me after reading our piece on Corey Kilgannon – his newest EP, To Stutter, to Yell was actually produced by Corey, and the pair collaborate on delicate vocal harmonies for the record’s title track. Like Corey, Anthony’s a poet with the gift of melody and a tendency toward achingly honest acoustic music.

He’s also gifted with an absolutely golden voice and an abundance of grace.

Interestingly, it doesn’t seem like Anthony starts with a lot of grace for himself. By his measure, most of his songs are written about things he’s “bummed out about,” more from a sense of desperation than anything else – and he’s hard on himself for that. Like most people, he struggles with his own struggling.

But one of the amazing things about music is the way it reveals beauty in brokenness, even when beauty should be really hard to find.

“Proper Place,” the second song on the EP, is a prime example of that. It’s around the topic of immigration: an obvious place of pain and a lighting rod for anger on a lot of fronts. And yet, despite that – despite Anthony’s being the son of two Peruvian immigrants, the friend of people at risk of being deported, and a firsthand witness to the brokenness of it all – the song is anything but angry.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think anger is bad. Sometimes, it’s good. But anger’s only ever a starting point. It can’t be the place you end up. This song goes further. It’s a desperate plea for belonging, but it’s also an invitation to belong.

Come to my table instead

Eat with me

Most of Anthony’s music takes the form of desperate pleading. Amazingly, most of those pleas end in grace.

That’s an incredibly difficult journey to walk through in the midst of all the pain in the world. Grace isn’t easy to get to. That’s why I’m so thankful for poets like Anthony who help us find the proper place.

So go listen to  the track and the rest of To Stutter, to Yell, and then come back to find out how the journey toward grace happens in Anthony’s music – and maybe even take the first steps yourself.


When did you start writing songs? How’d you get into it?

I actually started writing before I learned guitar – I wasn’t a very gifted student but had a fascination with words and wrote poems in middle school. I didn’t get into playing music until high school after I didn’t make the school basketball team. My ma said I had to do something that winter, so I picked up the guitar and just went on YouTube/Myspace and followed the fingers of the artists I liked.

I applied my joy of writing poetry into writing songs and just fell in love with it.

How have your life experiences shaped you as a writer?

Heavily – they’ve been the blood in my music. My first record was a direct account of a period in my that I fell in/out of love, my dad got cancer, and how I reckoned with that. Most of the songs I’ve written since have been either governed by a life experience I had or the life experience of someone else that captivated me in some sort of way.

I’m interested in writing things outside of my life experiences, though. Whether virtue or fiction, I think there’s value in seeking out other things to write about. We only live so much life – the things I live can’t always be interesting, I don’t think at least.

What is your favorite thing about songwriting?

I love the breadth and intimacy of songwriting. It is something different to so many different people, what they value within it. I think the things that we value most (or don’t) about songwriting are intimate details about how we engage with art. That tension is really exciting to me as a songwriter.

What’s your goal when you write a song?

I don’t think i have a distinct goal when I write a song. For me, it’s an act usually done out of desperation – the kind that we feel in anxiety and longing. Of course I try to push my creative boundaries and write something I’d give a damn about, but I think I’m really trying to discover what I find to be most sincere about myself.

What’s the hardest thing about writing for you?

Well, consistency and being hard on myself. I don’t write as often as I should, I’m not very regimented with it. I also tend to write about things that I’m bummed out about, or things that I do that bum me out about me, then get bummed out because I’m being so hard on myself – it’s a strange lil cycle to weave through.

How do you think current listening formats (streaming, etc.) impact songwriting?

At a groundwork level, it’s weird that an art is hilariously monetized yet also gradually devalued. I think it’s a strange thing to maneuver in this era because we’re just so saturated with music, whenever we want. The cycle for musical longing is shortening, which is fine, but I’m a slow writer lol.

What is your favorite song of all time, and why?

“When Finally Set Free” by Copeland – it makes me feel closer to others.

Feel the pain teaching us how much more we can take

Reminding us how far we’ve come

That sentiment is so uniquely human, the notion that we are all scraping to figure out how to engage with hardship. I love that song so dearly.

Also, my dad passed when I was 18 and this song reminded me to really sit and engage with my pain and I’m very grateful for that experience.

What makes music or a song good?

I wish I had an in depth answer for this – I think it’s related baggage though. I feel music or a song is good when I forget about myself, the things I can carry, or I feel the weight of those things so heavily. But it’s different for everyone.

I’m pretty particular about my taste in music – my family makes fun of me for it. Maybe I’m not the one to answer this.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned as a songwriter?

My producer on my first record, Jesse Barrera, told me that I was a good lyric writer, but I needed work as a songwriter. I think the distinction between a lyric writer and a songwriter is so important – makes me think about what I’m really trying to make: a line or a moment.

I try to value moments more now.

How do you write? Do you start with lyrics or melody? Chorus or verse?

A lot of notes and voice memos. I have pretty good long-term memory, but my short-term memory could be better. I forget a lot of things, so there’s an urgency to getting words down. The convenience of having an immediate journal/vault in my pocket has really enhanced my songwriting. It may not be the most efficient way to do it, but it’s something that works for me, especially if I’m having writer’s block. There are tons of notes on my phone with miscellaneous unfinished songs/verses that I will look to if I’m having trouble finishing a song.

I usually start with melody then move into lyrics, probably to a verse or pre-chorus. I’ll hum a tune into my phone while I drive sometimes, maybe add some gibberish lyrics in there as a placeholder, and I’ll revisit later. I take what I write in my lyrics seriously, so those go through a lot of edits to make sure I’m saying what I intend.

Your bio says you take a “Dallas Green” approach to lyric writing. What exactly does that mean, and how do you write lyrics?

City and Colour/Dallas Green was really formative for me. I learned guitar by following his fingers on his Myspace Transmissions live session videos lol. I don’t think I necessarily take his literal approach, but I’m deeply inspired by the emotional residue (for lack of a better word) that I felt hearing his lyrics.

It was my first real experience with storytelling in music. He writes remarkably familiar stories in such profound ways, something I long to do in my own writing.

Would you rather write on personal experiences or general themes, and which approach comes more easily?

Personal experiences comes more easily but I do like engaging general themes. I think it’s important to seek out other means of songwriting besides one’s own lived experiences.

On my latest record, there’s a track called “Honey” that is kind of a hybrid. I wrote the first draft of that song by meditating on the kind of love I wanted to give in a relationship, an uneasy, laboring love.

Do you put more emphasis on lyrics or sound? And which would you consider more important?

Lyrics for both, probably. I really value sound, but those things just amplify the things I’m saying, give them a bigger room.

What emotions, thoughts, feelings do you want your music to inspire?

I guess empathy and consideration, but I don’t aim to bring those things out of someone. I’m grateful if they come, of course, but I’m not bummed if they don’t.

Do you carve out intentional time to write, or do ideas come to you spontaneously?

My writing process definitely tethers closer to the spontaneous, sporadic end of that spectrum. I wish I could be more regulated in my songwriting, but when I’ve attempted to do that, I felt my songs lacking a particular sincerity that I always wanted to preserve.

Do you tend to start a song with a main goal or idea and write to that, or ad lib and shape the main idea along the way?

Definitely the latter most times. There’s an excitement I like about not knowing where a song is going to go.

Do you ever co-write? If so, what’s it like?

No, not really. I have asked for some structure advice from people, but I usually create the lyrics on my own.

What was the first part of “Proper Place” to be written? Lyrics, melody, riff?

Lyrics and melody were kind of written at the same time. I was driving somewhere in like January 2017 and I just wailed some things into my voice memos. I was in a tough spot emotionally and needed to get something out.

I know this song is about immigrants – what events or experiences instigated the ideas?

I started writing that song a few weeks after Trump winning the presidency. I wept the night of the election thinking of all the people I know directly impacted by the rhetoric he’s chosen to clothe the topic of immigration. Being the son of two Peruvian immigrants, I kept having to negotiate my genesis to someone who had no interest in valuing the humanity of an immigrant.

Specifically for “Proper Place,” one of my dear friends is a DACA recipient and came to this country as a kid with his parents. His mom and dad had another child in the states and that kid is a citizen. So, as he’s described to me, if my friend or his parents were to be deported, the kid would be required to stay because he’s a citizen here and put into foster care.

I’ve known that for years but the weight of that possible reality overwhelmed me. I was so angry. I was so fucking sad and scared for my friend and my family.

How would you articulate the main theme of the song?

The whole record is a compilation of different pleas – this one is pleading for belonging.

The end is a question – “What if I’m like you?” How do you hope the listener would answer?

I think I hope the listener would ask the question rather than answer it – see how deeply that binds human experience. We all long for an answer to that question.

Did you write this for another person, for yourself, or for an audience?

I wrote this song for my friend, the bigot, the indifferent, the passionate, the exhausted. I wrote this for whoever  is willing to engage with it – I find this situation to be the moral endeavor of our time.

You mentioned Corey Kilgannon produced the EP – what was the production process like, and what was it like working with Corey?

Oh man – I love Corey. I’ve been a fan of his for a few years so working with him was incredible. The production process was pretty quick; I met him in August 2017 and we started working on the record this past January. He was such an encouraging and helpful person to bounce ideas off of. We had a Google Drive preparation thing going on and would FaceTime whenever we had any thoughts on one of the songs or something.

We recorded the record in Brooklyn with William Smith and it was so much fun. I also brought my man Drew Kid with me to help with some arrangements and keys. The four of of just holed ourselves up in the studio for a week, labored over these songs, and it was so fun. Corey is such a tremendously talented and kind dude – it was such a joy working with him on this record

What’s your favorite part of the song (lyrically or musically)?

Lyrically, “I sneeze like you.” I was super unsure of that line when I wrote it because it is kind of silly but it felt true to the message I was trying to get across.

Judd Apatow wrote about Kumail Nanjiani for TIME and described his comedy in a way that sums up my approach to this line pretty well. He talked about the “ridiculousness of intolerance,” how it fundamentally doesn’t make sense. I think the comedy, ridiculousness inherent to a line like “I sneeze like you” is how I decided to capture that tension.

Musically, probably the entrance of the strings in the verse. Andrew Velez wrote those parts and I cried when I heard it for the first time.

What do you want listeners to take away from this song?

Wanting to belong is not foreign, we’ve all longed for it. It isn’t particular to the immigrant.

When did you know the song was finished?

When I saw the anger the song began with evolve into longing to be understood. I didn’t want to just yell at people, I wanted someone to consider sitting with me, eating with me. Maybe consider that we’re not that different.

What’s next for you in terms of upcoming music / shows?

Not a whole lot – I want to keep writing songs, hopefully record some new project in the future. I’m playing some shows here and there but that stuff will be up on my website.

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