I wrote, recorded and shot my first single virtually during the pandemic: Here’s what it was like

Phew! It feels like I’ve been away for a while. It has been a few weeks (yikes!) since my last blog post, but my absence isn’t without reason. For the past few weeks, I’ve been preparing for an important milestone in my life. Read on to find out how I wrote, recorded, shot and released my first single! (Listen to “Room to Breathe” on all major platforms here.)

It was the tail end of 2019 — that time of year that forces everyone to think about what the next one will bring. The things they want to change. The milestones they want to accomplish. The mistakes they want to correct. After my birthday in November and Christmas in December, I was left with a stack of gift cards from friends and family. I remember holding them in my hands and wondering what on earth I was going to do or more likely, buy. Several wish-list items floated to the forefront of my mind, but none of them seemed appealing enough to add to my fantasy cart. 

Then, it hit me. I was going to round up all of my gifts and pour them into a song. That’s right. You might know me as a writer through this blog, as a lover of architecture, history, art and of course, fashion. But there’s another compartment to my cabinet of passions — and that’s music. I’ve been singing ever since I was a tot. I come from a family of musicians. My late grandfather was an incredible crooner, my mom’s got a serious set of pipes, and my aunt’s a classical pianist. Together, the lot of them form a family band. At every dinner party in Tbilisi, my hometown and place of birth, after everyone had enough to drink, my mom would manifest a guitar out of thin air, my aunt would sidle up by a piano and my grandpa would start them off with a throaty, deeply rich rendition of a Georgian folk song. 

Throughout middle and high school (mostly high), I found my voice, too. We lived in Egypt back then, and I’d rarely let an opportunity go to hop on stage and sing in front of an audience. In 2011, I was selected to represent the Middle East in Avon Voices, an international singing competition for women. My entry — an acapella cover of “Unbreak My Heart” — was chosen out of 7,000 videos, and I was whisked away to Paris for a video shoot and a makeover. It was the best thing that had ever happened to me as a teenager.

My passion for singing was put on the back burner when I immigrated to the United States and navigated college. It was on hold when I got my first job, packed up and moved to Arkansas. It was a low priority when I, once again, had to move to California. Making it as a freelancer? Finding a job in a tough market? Not easy. It took several years of flailing, of juggling multiple gigs and of fighting for financial freedom until I could find my footing. Which brings me back to 2019. New Year’s Eve. The day I made the decision to start working on music — my music.

So, I took the first step. I reached out to a talented producer I’d been following for quite a while on Instagram. I’d been a fan of his work and his knack for stringing together melodies that immediately reeled you in. What’s more, Nathan is also a Billboard-charting music producer, songwriter, and film and TV composer with 20-plus years of music experience under his belt. (He was a member of Plus One, a pop boy band that rose to popularity in the late 90s/early 2000s.) 

I reached out to Nathan, sharing that I was interested in working with him on a song. A couple of days later, we had a signed contract and a date for our first songwriting session. Through Skype — Nathan had moved to Nashville from Los Angeles — we began writing. During the first few sessions, I shared my influences, background and aesthetic with Nathan. I explained that I grew up around classical music, that I loved opera, and that I had an ever-present connection with Europe. I showed him Carla Bruni and described a ballad to him that was big, slow-building and chock-full of string instruments. I told him that I didn’t necessarily want this to be a love song. The next session, he’d dreamed up a piano track that felt exactly right. 

We got to building the melody. I wrote the lyrics. It wasn’t a love song, but it certainly didn’t brush past the emotion. The words coalesced into a ballad about communication, about not feeling heard by someone you love, whether that’s a partner, a spouse, a friend or even a family. The song became about two people caught in this cycle of going all in and pulling back, of having doubts, but staying in the relationship anyway. The way the song was written reflects the cadence and rhythm of being doubtful and then brushing those feelings away (“Well, maybe I was wrong”). We all have that one person we convince ourselves to stay in a relationship with, firmly believing that a resolution is around the corner. 

Halfway through the writing process, the pandemic started. Originally, we’d planned to record the project on one of Nathan’s trips to Los Angeles. Of course, that never happened. Covid-19 put a damper on my — and everyone else’s — plans. For several months, the song was on hold. Most businesses had either closed down temporarily or shuttered forever, including recording studios. For a long time, the song sat in creative limbo. 

It was Dec. 19 of 2020. I walked up the stairs to the studio, anxiety swelling inside of me like a hunger pang. It was one of the first times I’d ever stepped into an indoor business (aside from the grocery store), and I was clueless about how to act around other people. I’d been shelving my social skills for so long that they’d gathered a few layers of dust at this point. Add to that pandemic-related fears and the fact that I hadn’t been in a studio in years. My mind surfed over endless concerns. 

In the control room, audio engineer Ira Grylack sat behind the sound mixing console, chatting with Nathan via Zoom. I greeted them from a distance, and gave Ira a few minutes to set things up. The plan? Nathan would listen in on my session and guide me through it, all thanks to a convenient remote production software by tech start-up Audiomovers. I wasn’t sure how it would all work, if our little geographically dispersed group would be able to productively work through this session sans any hitches. But I was hopeful, and I trusted Nathan. 

I stepped into the padded room of the studio and stood behind the microphone, drawing a deep breath. I put my headphones on, joined the Zoom session on my phone and voila — I could hear and see both Nathan and Ira perfectly. The software worked beautifully. Nathan, in his own studio in Nashville, was able to hear my voice in high resolution. It was as if he were right there with us. The first piano notes of the song (my song, how surreal was that?) pooled into my headphones, all of my anxieties washed away. 

Fast-forward almost five months, after another pandemic surge and the tightening and loosening of stay-at-home orders. I shuffled awkwardly out of a portable dressing room, and spilled onto the street in my poofy, full-skirted dress. Dreamed up by Israeli designer Adi Karni Vagt, this gorgeous gown — with its feather trims and voluminous layers of tulle — was made for a moment in front of a camera. (I first connected with Adi Karni Vagt on Instagram a few years ago, and I was blown away by the drama of her work. I was extremely lucky, and endlessly grateful, that she was kind enough to coordinate everything with me virtually.) 

It felt like some sort of a miracle — the fact that I could walk out and about with little fear in mind. I’d just gotten my second shot of the vaccine only two weeks prior, and I could still feel the sting in my left arm. Anton and I meandered around the soaring building of the Pasadena City Hall, which was taking in the golden-hour sun so beautifully. I’d always been so far in love with this place and its devouring grandeur. That’s exactly why we picked this place. There’s a strong sense of expansiveness and vastness of space that would easily — and symbolically — drown out a voice. You can get lost here in circuitous search for something or someone. It reflected the song’s state of mind. 

Around the corner of the building, we met up with Yarden Lior, an LA-based (he’s since moved to New York) cinematographer whose reel blew my mind. (I knew right then that we’d be working together on my first music video). We assure each other that we’re vaccinated, and almost immediately jump right into business. Anton blared my song on our bluetooth speaker, and after an awkward run or two, I got into the groove of things, falling into sort of a creative reverie.

You’d think that blasting your music and walking up and down the street in a ballgown in public view would feel endlessly embarrassing (I absolutely despise that kind of attention), but it didn’t. That’s because the Pasadena City Hall area is a place where, to put it simply — no one cares. Everyone here is either taking pictures and videos, or posting for said pictures and videos. Come here on any weekend, and you’ll likely see wedding, quinceanera or graduation photo shoots. Sometimes, you’ll see some incredibly elaborate cosplay costumes. In short, the grounds of the Pasadena City Hall are always buzzing with creative energy, and everyone’s too busy with their own projects to even pay attention to yours. (See below how movie magic made it seem like I was the only person there, even though that was far from the truth!) 

“The Pasadena City Hall is an example of what came out of the City Beautiful Movement. The grand, circular structure — which rises six-stories high and boasts a dome with a lantern topping it off like a wedding cake — was built in the style of Italian architect Andrea Palladio. When it was completed in 1927, the building became an icon in Pasadena.”

Shooting in Malibu, however, was a different story. It was golden hour when we arrived and set up our portable changing tent in the parking lot of Castle Rock Beach just off Pacific Coast Highway. (It was named after a 30-foot rock that used to stand there, which has been demolished since then.) I’ll preface this by saying that the beach made the list of LA Times’ “7 most disgusting LA beaches” in 2012 — and unfortunately, not much has changed since. The staircase down to the beach felt untrustworthy, random abandoned clothing items were scattered all around, and the place smelled like (there isn’t a nice way to say this) well, urine. 

But the beach worked for us for several reasons. It’s somewhat secluded and isolated, and with the right angles, Yarden knew he could make the area look like paradise. And he did. What we didn’t account for, however, was the weather. If you didn’t know this about California, well, I’m here to break it to you: The water here is frigid. Even though you might enjoy some sunshine if you trek to the beach at the right time and on the right day, during and after sunset, the mercury plummets. Now, I also have to add that I’m particularly sensitive to the cold, and I was shaking like a leaf in a gale. Trying to sing with your teeth visibly clattering and jaw muscles locking up wasn’t fun. 

Despite everything, this was an incredible experience. Writing, recording and shooting this project during a crazy time like this drew me out of a creative funk. It pushed me to get a little more comfortable in front of a camera. I shoot a lot of fashion and travel content for fun, but it’s almost always with a close friend or family member behind the lens. And even then, I often feel tense and awkward. It also reminded me of how crucial it is to nurture your passions.

Even more importantly, projects like this are usually a result of collaboration, the coming together of different people and their different talents. I got to meet so many wonderful human beings during this. (For example, I got to know Olena Seregina, who did a fantastic job with my makeup. She really is absolute magic at what she does. ) It also strengthened my existing relationships. My best friend Nada, who was (virtually) with me every step of the way. My family, who had a lot of opinions and are never mingy with words. And of course, Anton, who not only shot the incredible photographs that ended up as cover art for the song, but did everything he could to help out during shooting, which included driving, setting up my changing tent (it was harder than it seems), making sure everyone was well-hydrated and so, so much more. I’m grateful for everyone; I truly am. And I can’t wait for what’s next.

As an Los Angeles-based journalist and fashion writer, Mari Alexander highlights local and global talents through runway reviews, designer interviews, and trend reports.


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