Mind over matter: Singer-songwriter and Northampton native Stefan Alexander pushes past mysterious illness to perform again

  • Northampton native and singer-songwriter Stefan Alexander, after battling a mysterious illness in recent years, returns to town to play The Parlor Room Dec. 27. Photo by Michael George

  • Stefan Alexander played a number of instruments while growing up and also sang in The Northamptones, the a capela group at Northampton High School. Photo from Facebook

  • Northampton native and singer-songwriter Stefan Alexander, after battling a mysterious illness in recent years, returns to town to play The Parlor Room Dec. 27. Photo by Michael George

  • Stefan Alexander played a number of instruments while growing up and also sang in The Northamptones, the a capela group at Northampton High School. Photo from Facebook

Staff Writer
Published: 12/26/2019 9:07:05 AM

As a teenager growing up in Northampton, Stefan Alexander started an unusual collection: 78 RPM records, the old-fashioned, grooved discs on which most popular music was recorded from the first years of the 20th century up to the 1950s. A musician himself who played cello, guitar, mandolin and piano, Alexander used those records to build up a deep background in, and knowledge of, early popular American music, from jazz and blues to folk and country.

Fast forward about a decade and Alexander, now 28, is still drawing on that musical heritage, but for a different kind of sound that embraces R&B, pop and electro music. That’s partly because of the other music he absorbed over the years — for instance, he was a member of The Northamptones, the a cappella group from Northampton High School, for several years — but also due to a strange illness he had to battle in recent years that left him struggling to find his way.

Alexander, a graduate of New York University who now lives in Brooklyn, developed mysterious symptoms, beginning in 2013, that left him first unable to play guitar and then to sing. It was only after seemingly endless trips to doctors and specialists that he was able to get a diagnosis: “Central Sensitization Syndrome,” a condition in which the brain basically “hardwires” injuries, so it continues to send pain signals even after the body is healed.

But after long rounds of rehabilitation and essentially training his mind and body to deal with his condition, Alexander has jumped back into performing this past year, and he’ll play a solo show on electric guitar at The Parlor Room in Northampton on Friday at 7 p.m. — his first-ever gig at the Masonic Street Club and his first musical performance in the Valley in some years.

During a recent phone call from New York City, Alexander talked about the relief he’s experienced this year as he’s gotten back into performing, both as a solo singer-songwriter and sometimes with a backing band, in New York and some other locations.

Yet Alexander, who describes himself as a “queer pop singer-songwriter,” also said grappling with a strange illness has made him reach deeper into himself as a person and performer, one who’s willing to share that experience and vulnerability with listeners, perhaps helping them to overcome obstacles in their own lives.

“If what I’ve gone through can help others, I think that’s great,” he said. He also called his sexuality and queerness “a big part of the project and the story I’m trying to tell.” Having grown up in a town where he felt there was widespread acceptance of different sexuality and lifestyles, he added, “just makes it that much better to come back here” to perform.

Alexander notes that his interest in old 78 records has continued and that his collection, which numbered about 250 when he was in high school, has now topped 1,000 (stored at the Northampton home of his parents, Tom Weiner and Susan Dudek, whose interest in folk music had been one of his original inspirations for collecting the discs). Those old blues/jazz/folk records, he added, “were really foundational for me … the music was simple and immediate, with great melodies. That’s what’s at the heart of really good music.”

A mysterious illness

A 2009 graduate of Northampton High School, Alexander studied music production, engineering and other parts of the industry at NYU and also formed an indie folk band, Town Hall, that included Phoebe Ryan, today a pop singer and songwriter for other artists. The band, he says, performed across the country, including in Northampton.

He also notes that he’d been interested in some kind of career in music performance from a young age and was poised to pursue that after NYU when, in 2013, he developed tendinitis in both his arms and suddenly could no longer play guitar.

He began a series of visits to doctors and also tried occupational therapy, but nothing seemed to work. To stay involved with music, he concentrated on singing and turned to a more danceable, R&B/pop sound. In 2016, he recorded the track “Skeleton,” which ended up getting over one million streams on Spotify. But then the pain that gripped his arms and other parts of the body began affecting his voice.

“I thought, ‘If I can’t sing, I can’t perform at all,’ ” said Alexander, who notes that some doctors suspected he might have Lyme Disease and tested him for that. But it wasn’t until he visited the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in 2017 that specialists pinpointed Central Sensitization Syndrome. It’s a somewhat newly recognized condition, he says, that essentially sends phantom signals of pain that he had to “retrain his brain” to ignore.

During his stint at the Mayo Clinic, he underwent a three-week rehabilitation program that included singing five minutes the first day, then extending that session by one minute each succeeding day, so that he’d worked himself up to about a half hour of singing by the end of his stay.

Pushing past the discomfort and pain he felt was a real challenge, he notes: “I could look at my arm and see there was nothing wrong with it, but it was harder with my voice — I couldn’t see that ‘black box.’ ”

In a follow-up email, he said he regularly practices deep breathing, meditation and “cognitive behavioral therapy strategies” to deal with pain. A primary goal, he notes, is to respond to pain not with anxiety but with calmness and reasoned thinking. He also regularly sings and practices guitar “to keep the healthy neural pathways functioning.”

Alexander took formal singing lessons as well to improve and strengthen his voice, and in 2018 he began testing the performance waters, singing at open mics in New York. By the end of last year and early this year, he had begun performing more regularly, and he also recorded some new songs, including one, “Thunderclap,” on which he touches on his experience with illness and expresses a determination to move through it: “No one understands what I’m going through / All these aches and pains / What am I to do … I won’t let it defeat me.”

At his Parlor Room gig, he says he’ll mostly be performing original songs, with a few covers thrown in (he arranged songs by Etta James and Sam Cooke for the Northamptones when he performed with the group).

“It’s been a long road over the last several years, but I feel I’m back in a good place,” he said. “Now to come back and play in Northampton, it really is a joy.”

Stefan Alexander will perform at The Parlor Room on Friday. Dec. 27. Doors open at 7 p.m. Chris Marlon Jennings of the Valley band Sun Parade will open the show at 7:30 p.m., and Alexander will play the second set. Tickets can be purchased at signaturesoundspresents.com. Alexander’s website is stefanalxndr.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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