Strings can fit in most any kind of music, Alex Guy says, which might account for all the music she plays.
"They belong on so many different musical worlds," the Seattle violist said in a phone interview. "You can find a way to make strings a good thing in any kind of music. They can also be a bad thing, depending on how you use them. But I feel like I'm lucky in that way because I'd chosen a different instrument it might have been harder for me to do so many different things."
With her solo project, Led to Sea, her bright and nimble voice takes the center stage over dramatic chamber pop with a cinematic feel to the arrangements and storytelling.
Musicians of all types want strings on occasion, too, so she's played with jazz and modern composers like Wayne Horvitz, indie-rock bands like Xiu Xiu, and songwriters like Sera Cahoone and Laura Veirs.
Guy, who studied at Oberlin Conservatory before leaving school to play in bands, still hears the influence of classical training in her writing. She likes unexpected structures and the unpredictable drama of the genre, which doesn't use repetition in the way that pop and rock songs do.
"You're always moving forward. Even if things come back, they're different," she said. She thinks of it like a journey.
"I think pretty cinematically when I write. I'm thinking about images and landscapes," she said. The Seattle Weekly wrote that on the song "Facing South," she uses the viola — the album’s spotlight instrument — "to conjure up ocean tempests and plucky waves, backed by jazzy crashing drums that mimic the hull of a ship being tossed about by a storm."
Guy is coming to Missoula to perform as part of the Lakebottom Sound Series. She and the founder, trombonist-composer Naomi Siegel, played together in Seattle before Siegel moved to Missoula. The concert series is designed to showcase creative musicians of all genres in "intentional listening environments," i.e., venues outside of a typical bar setting, such as St. Anthony Church, the Roxy Theater, Shakespeare & Co., and more.
Guy said she likes alternative venues where people come to listen, especially since "about half my songs are more quiet and they won't always go over in a noisy environment." (That said, she does like playing with some bands in bars that have the right atmosphere and feel. And it's fun if she has the chance to win over people who didn't necessarily know there was going to be music. "If you can quiet down a bar, that feels really good," she said.)
While she typically plays with a drummer and cellist, she'll be working solo for the Missoula concert, running her instrument though a pedalboard that allows her to record and loop short sections. For instance, on her song "I Never Listen to Them," she uses an octave pedal to imitate the lower tones of the cello to make a loop. Then she makes some percussive sounds to take the place of the drums in another loop, and plays the viola melody on top of that while singing.
While she's started to write songs for another record, she's been working on a variety of projects. With Cahoone, a Seattle songwriter, she produced the arrangements for "The Flora String Sessions."
Cahoone told the Fretboard Journal that "it was pretty out of my comfort zone. But, once I heard what Alex wrote I was in awe. Especially ‘Worry All Your Life,’ it just turned out so beautiful.”
She and Horvitz are working an EP of covers, including P.J. Harvey's "Down by the Water," and the Velvet Underground's "I'll Be Your Mirror." She's going to tour more with Veirs, the acclaimed singer-songwriter, and a longtime collaborator. She and Siegel recently played together on a film project called "Now I'm Fine," an autobiographical theater piece by Ahamefule Oluo, a trumpet player, composer and comedian who's written for "This American Life."
As she said, strings can fit in most any genre, which has led her to a stable career, assisted by private lessons, that she didn't know was possible when she was younger. She thinks it's likely easier now for younger musicians to see ways to make a living — when she was young, the options for "making it" seemed to exist at two poles: professional string orchestras or pop stars.
"I was completely unaware that this whole world of people who work as musicians who are like not either of those things, who are gigging, writing, making up their own opportunities, and maybe will never be famous in that way but have figured out how to cultivate their own career," she said.