Alex Woodard and others perform at the 2013 "For the Sender" show.
Though he’s still up onstage, Alex Woodard isn’t at the center. Not physically, anyhow. He stands to the side of a band he’s sourced, guitar in hands, to tell others’ stories. It’s a first for the musician, whose career took him to every corner of the nation before the Long Beach native settled in San Diego some 15 years ago. It was here that he became the nucleus of something much larger than his own story, here that he found the makings of For the Sender.
It started with a fan letter from a widow, which Woodard answered by way of song. Two years later, Woodard finds his way through five more letters in a second book/record installment released last month, For the Sender Love Is (Not a Feeling). On Friday, New Found Glory frontman Jordan Pundik, singer/songwriter Jack Tempchin (of Eagles fame) and others will join Woodard at the Star Theatre in Oceanside for a benefit show to celebrate the letters, their writers and the stories therein, including that of recently deceased broadcaster Loren Nancarrow.
For a man who claims to have struggled connecting with people, Woodard can talk. But more than that, the man can relate. Here, he hits on how he let go of his own pride, how he ended up collaborating with Nancarrow’s son, who’s on Friday’s bill, too, and why this couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz: Can you give me some background on the For the Sender project for those who aren’t familiar?
Alex Woodard: Sure. I had been kind of going through a low point, and I had received this letter from a fan that was just beautiful. She said she felt like my songs were pieces of myself that I was putting out there in the world, and she wanted to give me a piece of herself in return. Along with it, she included a letter that she had written to her soulmate. She writes him every year since he passed away and leaves it for him somewhere special. And this year, instead of leaving it for him, she sent it to me. And it was just so beautiful. It wasn’t really about loss so much as it was appreciation. I showed that letter to Sean Watkins [of Nickel Creek], who was living in my back house here at the time. We wrote a song about it called "For the Sender," about how this letter in particular was like a prayer. It was more for the sender than the receiver. That was kind of the genesis for the whole project. And once my radar was up for these letters, they just started coming in, and before I knew it, I had an album’s worth of songs and a group of letters. I wrapped my story through that -- my story of having a go at the music business and having some success, and things kind of falling apart, and then a rebirth of sorts that this project gave me.
HLS: There’s a line in the book that says you’ve "woven [your] own journey" through these letters and songs. What do you mean?
AW: In the new book, all these letters and songs had the same thread of love as an action, something you do and not as a feeling. That’s why I ended up calling the book For the Sender of Love Is (Not a Feeling). Right around when those first shows [to promote For the Sender] ended, I got a horse. I thought I knew what I was doing with her. The first time I rode her on my own, she threw me, and I broke a couple discs in my back. I remember lying there in the dirt, looking at her, and she was looking at me like, "What happened?" And I was thinking, "What happened?!?" And the story of learning what happened and why she started to behave that way and rebuilding trust is the story that wraps through the letters and the songs. It was a pretty amazing discovery for me, of how these small things that we do for each other really end up mattering. It reminded me of these letters, because that’s what they’re about -- they’re about people doing really extraordinary things in what seem to be really ordinary moments. It’s what you do that ends up mattering. It’s not what you feel -- you know: Emotions come and go, right? With all of us, they’re always changing. What ends up mattering is what you do for each other.
HLS: You’ve been in North County for about 15 years now. How has this landscape informed your compositions?
AW: The most obvious way is that this area has given me these people to collaborate with. It was very organic the way this whole thing happened. That "For the Sender" song was the first time I had ever been involved in the writing of a song that I didn’t sing. Sean Watkins ended up singing it. It was kind of this whole crazy process for me of letting go of my own attachment. You know, in this business, that’s what you do, right? You go out and tour, and it’s your name, and it’s my name on the album -- I’m the one pushing everything and singing my stories -- and for once it wasn’t about me anymore. And that was really liberating. It was quite a transformational moment for me as an artist. This area, it’s given me these people to write with, and I feel like that wouldn’t have happened anywhere else. It happened here.
HLS: Can you take me through the songwriting process for this album?
AW: The way that I work by myself -- if I read one of these letters, a line usually pops out at me, and I’ll have a guitar in my hand, and I’ll just start. Everything will come at once, both the lyric and actual music. With other people, it’s different. You have to adjust. Jack Tempchin kind of works that way. We’ll sit on the couch and just start trading things back and forth. But Jordan’s more of a -- you know, he’s a pop-punk guy, right? -- so he runs around the room screaming [laughs]. So when we started doing stuff together, he would just kind of walk around my living room, and I’d be playing and trying to keep up with what he was hearing, basically.
HLS: One of the letters in your book and corresponding songs on your album tells the story of San Diego’s Loren Nancarrow. How did that relationship transpire?
AW: Loren heard about this first For the Sender book, and he wanted to cover it. And we just struck up a friendship while he was trying to develop this story -- and right in the middle of that, he was diagnosed. He sent me an e-mail soon after he found out, and I had the idea that maybe he could move from doing a story on it to being a story in it. His kid, Graham -- he’s a singer/songwriter who’s kind of starting out now -- he happened to be opening for me at a show down in San Diego that same week that I heard. So Loren was there, and I talked to him. By that time, he couldn’t really write, so his daughter Hannah typed [the letter] out for him. I invited Graham over here, and we did it. We wrote the song and then we recorded here too. There’s this video on YouTube of us recording the song -- ’cause we did it live with my band and Graham -- and Loren showed up. So it’s really a pretty touching video of this father seeing his son follow his dream. It’s pretty cool.
HLS: It sounds like a very heavy experience. How has your songwriting been affected by that?
AW: It’s definitely expanded it, because I’m writing with other people because they’re challenging me, and I’m challenging myself. And the subject matter, they are heavy, and it’s emotional, but there’s always this kernel of hope in there, right? In these letters, there’s this idea that something beautiful is going to come up from loss. So I don’t get too bogged down, I guess, in the weight of how emotive it is, because when you hear these songs and look in the book, they’re not about loss as much as they are about what’s coming next and the healing process. If anything, writing about these kinds of subjects has just grounded me more in the idea that we’re all part of this same conversation and the same story, because everybody’s got something -- you do, I do, we’ve all got something. We just call it by a different name.
HLS: It's pretty incredible, for those who can relate. Out of it comes this relationship you may not have had otherwise. For you, it seems it's given you this chance to explore this other side of humanity that you didn’t have before.
AW: That’s it. Growing up, I didn’t really connect to a lot of people, and it wasn’t really for lack of trying. I wasn’t exactly an introvert, but I was a shy kid, and I was quiet. So when I started doing music and writing songs, it was a huge relief for me because I could put all this stuff out there and realize that other people felt the same way, so there’s a connection. And then with this project and writing about these stories, it even further drives the point home with me that we’re all connected and we all have different roles, and however you are is all right -- everyone has a different place at the table. I feel like paying those dues [as a singer/songwriter] prepared me for what we’re doing now. I was with Graham today. He’s a talented kid, and we were talking about that exact thing -- how he’s just starting out on this journey and how you gotta do it, man, you gotta get your feet on the ground and get out there and see what happens, don’t get too married to goals or outcomes.
HLS: That’s gotta be cool to see where you’ve been through him as he’s going through it.
AW: Yeah, absolutely. You feel like you got somewhere [laughs].
HLS: So what can the audience expect for the show on Friday?
AW: You know, I have to tell you, I’ve never been involved in anything like it. And it’s going to be special on Friday because all the letter writers -- except the woman who lost her kid at [the mass shooting at the school in Newtown, Conn.] -- will be there at the show. So each letter writer will read their letter set against a video presentation. As part of this project, I went to everyone and surprised them with their songs. We have guerrilla footage of all that on our iPhones, so I edited all that together. And then immediately after, we will play the songs about the letter. That’s how the evening will unfold. And we’re gonna have a couple surprises that people will be stoked about.
Alex Woodard and guests perform at the Star Theatre in Oceanside on Friday at 7 p.m.; $25; all ages.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz, a San Diego native, recently moved back to the area after working the magazine-publishing scene in Boston. Now she’s straight trolling SD for all the music she missed while away. Want to help? Hit her up with just about anything at all over on Twitter, where -- though not always work-appropriate -- she means well.