Interview by Arthi Selvan
Seattle-based band Cumulus has been Alex Niedzialkowski’s songwriting project for the past ten years. Niedzialkowski writes the songs she needs to hear. She says, “If I’m sad, I write about that sadness or I write something that is optimistic about that sadness because I need that to get through it.” She writes songs that are relatable, and she says the biggest function of music, for her, is “to make people feel less alone.” In her newest album Comfort World, her lofty guitar riffs and glimmering vocals make you feel right at home, with Niedzialkowski as your best friend. In the song “Light & Sound”, the song starts with the lyrics “it’s okay to let the sad songs / sing you to sleep / if I didn’t have Molina / I wouldn’t make it through the week.”
I asked Alex what the biggest difference between this album and her first album, I Never Meant It To Be Like This, was. She said that this time she had a producer to help her with her process. Cumulus was signed by Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla’s record label Trans-Records. Through them, she met her producer Mike Vernon Davis. Her and Davis spent seven months, on and off, creating it.
For each of the songs, she and Davis would isolate that song from the rest of the album and just, “find the universe for [that] song.” They would question “what is the world that this song exists in?” and create that sound for the song. At the end of the process, they realized that all the worlds of those songs connected really well and that they all lived in the same galaxy. On this record, Niedzialkowski says that “the music guided me on this record more than me guiding the music.”
While I have heard people categorize the catchy, upbeat band as indie rock, Niedzialkowski prefers to call it pop, which holds a very dear place in her heart. She says that she defines pop differently than most people -- it doesn’t have to be on Billboard’s top 40 to be considered pop. For her, anything that is catchy is pop. But being catchy serves its purpose. After she had finished recording Comfort World, she wrote and released a single called “Retreat” about dealing with sexual harassment and assault. She wrote this song because she was “fed up with [her] boundaries constantly being ignored by men while [she] was working in the service industry and in the music industry as a performer.” In the back of her head, she also thought, “if I write a really catchy song about consent, maybe people will think about that and not fuck things up.” In the refrain of the song, she sings, “If I don’t say yes, I’m asking you to leave / When I say No, you better retreat retreat retreat” on top of dynamic guitars and bright keys. Niedzialkowski has people come up to her and say how they can’t stop singing it, or that it’s their anthem, or “I’m going to sing this to anyone who messes with me!” Niedzialkowski firmly believes that pop music can change the world - and if you are someone, like her, who believes in the power of pop music, you are a “poptimist.”
While on the topic of pop and working in the service industry, I asked her if there was anything besides music that she was passionate about. Her answer was exact: “I am passionate about social issues and community development.” She’s involved in a couple of music-based nonprofits including teaching songwriting at a nonprofit and volunteering at a local girls rock camp called Rain City Rock. While she is passionate about youth empowerment, feminism, and social justice, she most strongly believes in being an active member of her community, no matter what community that is. “Music is really how I’ve found myself being able to connect to multiple causes at once. You can play benefit shows, you can get involved in the radio station, you can support local nonprofits. It’s been cool to use music to connect all the things I’m passionate about” she says.
We talked about working in nonprofits and how fulfilling they feel, as opposed to jobs that feel like they suck the life from you. I shared how switching from a money-driven career path to one that made me happier made me feel more whole. Niedzialkowski used to have a stable career in her 20’s, and spent a lot of time working there and being unhappy. She reminisced about when she was younger she believed in the ‘you have to do what you have to do to get the paycheck’ mantra. She realized as she left that job and started making music, her main objective was happiness.
Niedzialkowski talks about the difference between how she once felt and how she feels now. She said, “when I was younger, I thought that relationships were supposed to hurt and take a lot of hard work ... I had it in my mind that if a relationship isn’t working, I should fix it, I should work on it… Dating applies to life. You find yourself miserable at points in your life. There’s a point where I took pride in that pain. I was like, ‘yeah, I work a job that I hate but that’s just part of the deal... I had it in my mind that jobs were not meant to be what you liked - that’s why you call it work. Now, in my 30’s, I’m like, ‘damn, I spent so much time trying to fix things and make things work that just were not meant to work.”
I asked her, as someone in my 20’s who feels like they are where Niedzialkowski was in her 20’s, what her advice would be to her younger self. Her answer encompassed both love and ambition:
“The older I’ve gotten, [I’ve] become more self-aware… you don’t want to spend the majority of [time] doing things you don't like, you don’t want to hang out with people who don’t love you for who you are and make you a better person. You don’t want to spend time at a job that drives you crazy and makes you want to cry. At the end of the day, there’s not enough time in the world to be doing things that don’t make you happy.”
Alex Niedzialkowski and Cumulus can be found touring in March and playing at South by Southwest and Tree Fort Festival. You can check out her new music video for the song, “Sing to Me” and her new album Comfort World on all streaming platforms.