Name: Alex Toth aka Tōth'
Occupation: Singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist
Current release: Tōth's You And Me And Everything is available now on Northern Spy.
Recommendations: When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodran is a great great book for moving through grief.
If you enjoyed this interview with Tōth, visit his official website for information about his work and current updates. He is also on Facebook.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I first started making up melodies on the trumpet in 5th grade. And I was always kind of interacting with sounds in my immediate environment. I have a distinct memory of tapping like crazy to make music around my parent’s turn signal click in the car and my sister getting upset.
There was a sense early on in my unending urge to ‘play’ as some sort of calling. I got fully pulled in when I got into jazz around the age of 15 or 16. I went from listening to Beck, Oasis, Cake, The Beatles and lots of psychedelic rock to Don Ellis Orchestra, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Then I was full on practicing my trumpet all the time. Playing with air and sound and musical patterns brought solace to my anxiety and intensity. And it also slowed down self-destructive patterns with drugs and alcohol in my life at the time.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I do feel like there is an urge to create and an expression of self that can precede any formal learning phase and I think the seed of “personality” or “originality” is already there at that point. Maybe that dictates how and what we learn. The unfolding and development process to some extent, if that makes sense. My preferences and directions, my ease or difficulty at following “rules”, my access or lack of access to different resources.
For me I didn’t have much formal training on the trumpet but I started listening to some psych-rock/blues and then jazz and learning solos of musicians i loved: Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Sonny Rollins, Jorma Kaukonen.
Early on I felt an important connection to the body and music. Once I was comfortable dancing with my friends -- I became much more confident on stage and with my voice as an improviser. Dancing helped me through some insecurities with my body and my person.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
For the sake of this question I’m going to call the beginning: once I stopped being in school and entered the “work-force” as a musician; an adult (laughs). It was hard to know how to best divide time between trying to get paying work and trying to make new original work.
As a “jazz trumpet player” my process for writing music, especially songs, was so undeveloped. While improvising over chord changes, writing stream of conscious poetry, and crafting songs and beats are all connected, they’re definitely not the same craft. It took me a long time to find a more structured way to approach songwriting. One of the obstacles was my alcoholic drinking. Once I got sober in 2013 and began a ‘song-a-day’ process my songwriting quickly developed and I found more and more momentum in my creative process by showing up so regularly. I found all sorts of ways to make a it a game, an exercise, a way to procrastinate other things. Songwriting became my number one love and joy.
I think its important to find a path of enthusiasm and joy for what you do -- versus a fear or obligation -- though that can certainly enter the room too. I guess really whatever gets you to show up--as long as joy and enthusiasm take over some of the time! (laughs)
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I don’t have a fixed schedule. But a typical day involves, waking up, making my bed, coffee, meditation, small amount of journaling, talking to people, exercise and music making. Music blends fairly seamlessly with other aspects of my life.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
My punk record -- Alexander F -- came to me on a 10 day silent meditation retreat. It was my first silent retreat and I was there because I wanted to be a happier person. The retreat and the record let me be a singer for the first time and paved the way for my first Tōth record, Practice Magic and Seek Professional Help When Necessary. Which was really a vulnerable space -- also written off the heels of a silent meditation retreat. And through a major breakup of a long long term partner.
The interesting thing about the Tōth record is I really had no idea i was writing a record. Very organically was just writing though pain and the body of work emerged. It formed into a project-- Tōth-- in the summer of 2016 when I broke my foot on stage with my punk band and was stuck in my apartment. In both cases i wanted buddhist principles to imbue the songs and for the songs to somewhat hold up on that level. So I didn’t let spite in for the sake of lyrical emotional hook. Instead I forced myself to go deeper.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Play play play play play. Best if it's fun. But also structure is so helpful. Small goals. 15 second songs, birthday songs, song-a-days, tone-poems, drones, groove-aday, poem-a-day. It’s like show up and do it. But also PLAY.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I think this is an incredibly complex field of inquiry and also an incredibly important one. I recently read this bell hooks essay called “eating the other” that shed some light for me on this as far as making distinctions. I won’t be able to do it justice here. I highly recommend reading it though.
There’s the quote “good artists borrow, great artists steal”, there’s the actual legal side if you’re actually stealing, and then there’s appropriation. I don’t know what the limits are but as a white cis male I think its important for me to know that I have blind spots and so asking myself “is this appropriation (or somehow offensive)?” is a start and then asking other trusted collaborators/peers for feedback. Not saying to censor yourself if something is offensive or stolen-- but to at least be aware and consider the impact of the choice. And then be able to make an informed “artistic” choice to do it or not do it from there.