FOR THE SENDER – AN INTERVIEW WITH ALEX WOODARD

For The Sender

Imagine getting a letter from a stranger. And in the letter, the sender exposes a side of themselves that not many, if any, get to see. Be it from a director of a homeless shelter or the wife of a police officer who was slain; or an Aussie medic serving victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti; or from a woman who lost her soul mate and wrote him letters every autumn to commemorate his passing.

These were the letters singer-songwriter Alex Woodard received when, to help promote an album, he promised to write a song to anyone who pre-ordered it. The letters, full of pain, tragedy, strength and love, inspired him to get through some of his own personal loss and partner with local musicians (Eagles songwriter Jack Tempchin, Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins and Sara Watkins, Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman, New Found Glory’s Jordan Pundik, Nena Anderson, and Molly Jenson) to craft songs based on the letters. That led to For The Sender— a book and CD project where a handful of songs that were inspired from those correspondences are collected.

As he prepared for another sold out For The Sender show, Alex took a few minutes via phone and shared with me about the project.

When you first started writing these songs, did you feel at all uncomfortable because of the deep personal subject matter?

There was a certain amount of respect I had to have, because I am already exposing these people with the letters. It’s a vulnerable position I am putting them in and so I really wanted to respect that. I really wanted to honor them. I had them read the letters so I could have audio of it. Kim, the director of the homeless shelter for kids, read her letter in the basement of my house, and I was making this woman re-live this. She had to read it three times just to get through it, and you have to show a certain amount respect for that, which I made sure I did.

Was it challenging writing a song using another person’s story, trying to get in touch with their emotions?

It was actually kind of liberating. All you can really do is speak with your own voice and your own experience. I had to visualize myself in those situations. I had to also put myself in their shoes. That’s what they have gone through and it’s not like you want to change anything for dramatic purposes. And a lot of these were co-writes with a lot of other people, so it was nice to bounce it back and forth.

Did you wonder if an audience would like this, and if this would sell, or did you just get caught up by the emotion of the subject matter?

 Yeah, I definitely got caught up in it and honestly, when it first started out, I didn’t really know what it would look like. I just started it up by the seat of my pants, and it took a couple of years before I started saying this could definitely be something. I really enjoyed the process though, because as a musician, you’re trying to get your name out there all the time. And it’s always about me, me, me. You get your music out there and the joke is always “Hey, buy my shit.” You play a show and it’s “Hey! Buy my shit.” It was so awesome not to do that, to not really think how I would be selling this and just be about the process.

Was there a letter that affected you the most?

 The first letter I received—I got that when I was letting go of a lot of things. My best friend, my Labrador, just died and with the music thing, the grind was catching up to me. And then I got this letter from Emily about her loss. She shared a letter she writes to her soul mate every year who passed away. It’s hard to say which one, but because it was the first, and because of my experience at the time, and it was the first song I wrote for the project, I would have to say it was that one. And with that song, it was the first time I have ever wrote a song and had someone else sing it. There were a lot of firsts there.

 Was there a song that was harder to write than others?

Some were harder than others but it was nice not to just have to rely on myself anymore. It wasn’t all about me. It was a huge letting go. A lot of this I wrote but didn’t sing on and that’s a whole new experience for me.

You actually went to the house of Katelyn (the woman whose husband was an Oceanside police officer who was shot and killed) and played the song you wrote from her letter. What was that experience like?

 It was pretty heavy having that person there. I had to keep my head down the whole time when I was playing. It’s a very deep and emotional thing so I just had to separate myself and just play and sing. It was heavy, but all of us have done this for so long—we have played to five people and to thousands of people—so you just end up having another place you go to.

What type of relationship do you have with the Senders now? Do you still keep in touch? Do they still write you?

Yes, I still talk to them. I get emails and texts from them all the time. I recently presented them with a check from money made at the La Paloma show. They are so encouraging.

It’s hard to imagine, but in this electronic age, some people have never written a letter and actually sent it in the mail. What is that you enjoy about a hand written letter that you receive in the mail?

It’s just a more personal approach to communicating. What I like with some of the letters I get is that you can see where they cross stuff out. And some of the most interesting, beautiful things are what they crossed out. It just seems like people are more deliberate, more careful, with their thoughts when writing a letter. It seems like a lot more personality comes out in a letter.

Not only did Alex Woodard take a brave step going forward with this project, but the senders also placed themselves in vulnerable positions. To allow someone, a stranger at that, into your life so deeply, requires a tremendous amount of trust. I admire the passion that Alex and the artists are giving to these stories and these senders, and the magic that can come from reaching out and sharing a part of yourself with others.

Purchase a copy of For The Sender book and CD here.

Proceeds generated by the songs from each letter go to a cause of the sender’s choice. To learn more about the project, visit www.forthesender.com

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