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On debut album, Abraham Alexander finds solace in vulnerability

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Let's spend some time getting to know singer-songwriter Abraham Alexander. He's just released his debut album, titled "Sea/Sons."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYE CAN SEE")

ABRAHAM ALEXANDER: (Singing) Mama said I will always be (ph) - faith is strong, but my love is weak.

BLOCK: Abraham Alexander was born in Greece, the son of Nigerian immigrants. The family moved to Texas when he was 11, and that's where he stayed. Alexander never planned on a career in music. A random encounter with musician Leon Bridges set him on that path. Now he's on tour around the country and headed to play Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYE CAN SEE")

ALEXANDER: (Singing) As my eyes can see, ooh, as my eyes can see.

BLOCK: On the cover of his album, we see a photo of Alexander as a young boy wading knee-deep in the sea with his brother and friends. It's a picture he recently rediscovered.

ALEXANDER: That photo brought so much emotion for me. That is the last time that we are in Greece. I remember my mom telling us that, hey; you needed to get out of the water. But we were so lost in the vastness of the ocean, and we were so lost in the vastness of childhood, you know, in the best way. And that was what was coming back to me when I saw the photo again. And my thought was, gosh, I wish I could go back to that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABRAHAM ALEXANDER SONG, "BELLA DAWN")

BLOCK: And that was a turning point, right? That was right before your family came to the States.

ALEXANDER: That was right before. That was the last time. Yeah. I think a few weeks later, like, we were on a plane to come to the States.

BLOCK: What was the trigger for that? Why did your family decide to leave Greece?

ALEXANDER: You know, they're - they wanted better for their children. We were poor. I mean, like, poor is even a kind word for that. We absolutely had nothing. And there was a lot of racial tension that was going on in Greece as well. And just to get certain jobs, you know, was difficult. So they applied for a lottery visa. We got accepted by the States, and they thought Texas was the best place to raise a family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABRAHAM ALEXANDER SONG, "KNEE DEEP")

BLOCK: You have a song that I think is clearly spinning off of that image called "Knee Deep."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNEE DEEP")

ALEXANDER: (Singing) Knee deep in the unknown - 10 years old, but he's still grown. Feet cold - still bold. He told me so. I know.

Yeah. That song is sort of a nod to my mom because of that day she told us that we needed to get out of the water, and I could see her crying. And now, looking back in hindsight, I see that she was talking to herself. And she was crying because she needed to get out of the water and go knee deep in the unknown and to embrace the possibility of going to a new country, striving for a better life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNEE DEEP")

ALEXANDER: (Singing) Well, she said, hurry up. Hurry up. Dry them off. Dry them off. We've got places to go. We've got places to go.

BLOCK: You know, I think we hear your mother's presence through a lot of these songs. After you came to the U.S. with your family, pretty soon after you moved, your mom was killed in a car accident.

ALEXANDER: Yeah, she was killed by a drunk driver going the opposite way of the highway. And I would say that's the first time as a kid that I have felt like the world did me wrong. You know, and the last few years, I've been trying to understand why. And in a way, writing this record was cathartic in that I could express those feelings again. And my mother was and is my rock, and she's still an inspiration to me. And so when I close my eyes to write a song, like, I can't help but think about my mom.

BLOCK: Let's listen to some of your song "Heart Of Gold," which is, I think, a lot about what we've just been talking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART OF GOLD")

ALEXANDER: (Singing) In my mother's eyes, I can feel the love. And from my father's hands, a battle rages on my skin.

BLOCK: Abraham, there's, you know, obviously your mom's love in the first line of that song. And then the second line - from my father's hands, a battle rages on my skin.

ALEXANDER: Yeah.

BLOCK: What's going on there?

ALEXANDER: So my dad was abusive. And one of the first memories that I had was being being kicked on the floor. And, you know, it was difficult because I'm trying - even as a kid, like, you're trying to see, what are the dynamics between your father and your mother? And who's protecting you, and who's not? And as I get older and I look at the scars that's on my body, it's conflicting. And so writing that - the battleground being on my skin, the elements of my brain trying to understand, was it love; was it not, and trying to also piece in my mom - and, you know, a lot of times when I would get beat, like, I would see her face. And she would be crying, or there'd be times where she couldn't show any emotions. And so I'm trying to filter all of these things. And "Heart Of Gold" was the first song that I ever wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART OF GOLD")

ALEXANDER: (Singing) 'Cause it's turning cold. My heart is turning cold.

BLOCK: I'm wondering what it's like to perform that song live, how hard that might be.

ALEXANDER: You know, it used to be extremely difficult, and now it's healing because of - the vulnerability that I went through has now become a strength. You know, when you're vulnerable and you let that out, then it doesn't have power over you anymore. And so I think the more that I sing it, the less power it has over me and the more power I have over it and hoping that whoever listens to it and feels a kindred spirit to what I'm saying can also be freed from what they're feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART OF GOLD")

ALEXANDER: (Singing) And, heart of gold, keep moving on. Just keep pressing on. Oh, my soul, please stay strong.

BLOCK: You - apart from your birth family, you end up with an adoptive family in Texas, yeah?

ALEXANDER: Yes, I did. And "Blood Under The Bridge" is a song that is dedicated to them. And, you know, they say that blood is thicker than water, but that doesn't necessarily apply for me. And that has given me life, and that's been there for me, and that's showed me how to be compassionate and how to love. And I am so, so thankful for them for giving me the courage to really pursue something that I thought was not attainable.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Abraham Alexander. His debut album is "Sea/Sons." Thanks so much for talking to us.

ALEXANDER: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOOD UNDER THE BRIDGE")

ALEXANDER: (Singing) Scars don't blind me. Silver linings - I wear them proudly on my sleeve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.