She wrote the best album you probably missed last year.
Alex Winston’s King Con should have been the biggest album of 2012.
It should have been a darling among music critics, topping Best of the Year lists, generating all kinds of buzz, and making her tons of new fans. And Winston should have been the hot new breakout artist, headlining national tours and playing summer festivals like Coachella.
All of these things should’ve happened but they didn’t. It’s a shame too because King Con is armed with everything a good indie pop album should have. It’s well-produced, yet still a bit raggedy and raw; universally enjoyable, yet idiosyncratic and weird; instantly catchy and uplifting, yet incredibly dark in spots. The album also defiantly refuses to be pigeonholed into any sort of genre and Winston’s distinct voice makes comparisons difficult. At times, she sounds like a professionally trained singer, at others, it sounds as if she's never heard music before and she's completely invented her own concept of singing. Musically, King Con easily holds its own among the notable pop records released last year, like Beach House's Bloom or Frank Ocean's channel ORANGE.
As a performer, Winston is just as unassuming as her album. Her stage performance is less choreographed and more frenetic than might be expected from her poppy sound. If you were to watch her show with your ears covered, you’d think she was fronting a hardcore band, as she frequently sings while precariously balancing in four-inch platform heels on top of the bass drum or wrapping the mic cord around her fist and taking the show into the crowd. Winston isn’t bad on the eyes either. The petite songstress is bashfully pretty, hiding her face behind dark red lipstick and an impossibly thick mane of long, jet-black hair that nearly outweighs her entire body.
But for all of Winston and King Con’s positive qualities, there was something preventing her from breaking out last year. Actually, there were several things. The album was met with a clusterfuck of problems. A perfect storm of bad timing, poor management, and shit luck.
The Detroit-bred Winston’s first mistake was initially releasing the album in the UK, where interest seemed to be highest. Many there were hopeful she would be the next Ellie Goulding or Lily Allen, which she isn’t. While quirky and charismatic, Winston’s personality and style are distinctly her own, which seemed difficult for British critics to wrap their brains around.
“The BBC shat on it pretty hard,” recalls Winston while picking at a plate of diner fries. Indeed they did, calling it a “joyless album… flimsily constructed and devoid of imagination” and comparing her, unfavorably, to Lily Allen. Another UK review, King Con’s first one, suggested the album would “induce a Travis Bickle in the listener,” presumably a reference to the whole going-criminally-insane-and-trying-to-assassinate-a-presidential-candidate aspect of the movie and not the feel-good-and-rescue-a-child-prostitute-Jodie-Foster element.
When Winston finally did put out King Con in the US in April of 2012, it was released with less of a roar and more of a “meh.” This was mostly due to some poorly timed internal shuffling. The month the album was scheduled to come out via Island Records, it was abruptly punted over to CoOp and got lost in the mix. “It was a lot of fuckery and confusion and disorganization,” says Winston. “It came out and just nothing happened. I couldn’t get on a tour and it was just really disappointing because I worked my ass off, but the infrastructure and the team around it, there was so much transition going on.”
While King Con fared better among American critics than the Brits, receiving a 7.4 from Pitchfork and SPIN calling it “a wellspring of implacable melody and seismic quirk,” its commercial success was stunted by a lack of a US tour. “I was in this catch-22 where my label was saying, ‘We can’t promote your record unless you’re on tour.’ And the booking agent was saying, ‘If they’re not promoting your record, I can’t get you a tour.’ It was this weird, fucked up situation,” Winston says.
One of Winston’s biggest faults, from a marketing standpoint anyway, is that she is devoid of a gimmick, which unfortunately seems to be a necessity among most commercial pop stars. “I don’t have a ‘thing’ and that’s always been it,” she says. “When I was on Island, they were always desperate to figure out what they could market me as. I remember they came to the studio and they were like, ‘Well, what do you like?’ And I was like, ‘I like documentaries and I’m writing this weird song about falling in love with inanimate objects.’ And they were just like, ‘Fuck.’”
Winston recalls someone from her label once observing that she is a fan of whiskey. “They noticed I was drinking whiskey a lot and they were like, ‘Let’s have her write about whiskey! Let’s have her start a whiskey blog!’ And I was just like, ‘I’m never gonna do that,’” laughs Winston. When talking about her relationship with her handlers, she almost sounds as though she is quoting from her song “Locomotive,” which starts off with the lyric, “I wish I cared about the things you care about but I don’t.”
Her label made a video for her single, “Sister Wife” which was framed as a take off of the incredibly bizarre Japanese horror movie House and featured a giant snake crawling on Winston’s head and a cat puking blood on her face. While she liked the finished product, Winston felt the video didn’t exactly suit her and was too focused on her being sexy, an area she doesn’t seem comfortable with. As mentioned, she’s a documentaries gal.
So without a clear direction on how to be marketed or a national tour supporting it, King Con largely fell flat in the US. But in case it sounds like Winston is wallowing in self-pity, she’s not. She already spent a year doing that, going through the classic stages of a failed album: grief, depression, firing her manager, and for some reason, recording a western EP loosely based on the movie Sling Blade.
But going forward, the 26-year-old Brooklynite seems a little less naive and more intent on learning from her rookie mistakes. “Everyone’s on fucking drugs,” she laughs. “I don’t understand how this business works. It never makes sense.” She recently released a new song, “101 Vultures” on her own label, Rat Rizzo (her father’s nickname for her), and is toying with the idea of releasing her next album independently.
Even if her next album fails, Winston does not seem like she’ll ever stop making music. She has a one-track mind in that regard. Call it determination, call it stubbornness, or just chalk it up to the fact that music is the only thing she considers herself interested in doing. “I’ve had a lot of rejection. But I’m never gonna stop making music. I’m just like a horse with blinders on. I’m gonna keep doing it.”
After getting her gripes about major labels and the music industry off her chest, Winston shifts gears to return to talking about her other favorite subject: documentaries. While she can quote line-for-line from Heavy Metal Parking Lot, her all-time favorite is one called American Movie. The film follows the lifelong pursuit of a blue-collar Midwesterner as he struggles through debt, naysayers, and repeated crushing failures to chase his dream of making a famous horror movie. There’s something about it that Winston absolutely loves, even though she can’t place exactly what.
“You have to watch it, it’s so good,” she says. “Please tell me you’ll watch this movie.”
Dan Ozzi gives 'King Con' all of the thumbs up. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi