The Chatham Arts Council is investing in artists through our Meet This Artist series, introducing you to 12 Chatham County artists each year in a big way. The fine folks at Hobbs Architects in downtown Pittsboro are powering our Meet This Artist series this year. Architecture is art, and the Hobbs crew values art in our community. So, take a look. Meet your very inspiring neighbors. Meet mandolinist Alex Meredith.
Raised in a musical household in Siler City, 23-year-old mandolinist Alex Meredith found himself immersed in the vibrant sounds of North Carolina’s roots music scene from an early age. In this interview, Alex takes us through the evolution of his love for the mandolin and talks about the influential artists shaping his musical path. Having recently graduated in applied mathematics from UNC, he explores the intriguing connection between math and music. Alex also candidly discusses his experience with hearing loss and how he built an online audience during the pandemic. Join us as Alex provides a glimpse into his musical realm, where each note resonates with passion and dedication.
Let’s talk about your journey with music. When did you get started?
I started when I was seven or eight-ish. I don’t remember the year exactly. I picked up guitar to participate in a school program, but I wasn’t really into it at that age. I wasn’t focused on wanting to improve. Basically, I was doing it because my parents wanted me to do it. So I stopped after a couple of years.
By the time I was 14, I had picked up the mandolin at a music camp. I really enjoyed it, but I didn’t start playing regularly until about three-ish years later when I went to another music camp. I was inspired by that experience, and since then I’ve been playing a lot more, every day, just trying to learn new things.
Do you remember, when you first picked up the mandolin, how it was different from your experience with other stringed instruments, like the guitar? What is it about the mandolin that felt right?
I had tried a lot of instruments. I tried guitar, I tried violin, piano, you name it. I finally settled on the mandolin. I don’t really know what was different about it. I think it was mainly the fact that I was older and a bit more mature, so I was like, “Oh, this is actually kind of cool.” And I did it of my own volition. Maybe that had something to do with it as well. Honestly, I didn’t even really know exactly what a mandolin was until I picked one up. And then I just fell in love with the instrument, its sound and its playability.
What artists have inspired you? When you listen to music, who do you listen to?
Well, it was Chris Thile for many years.
Fair! Yes. I went through that phase too, believe it or not.
He’s ridiculous! And just every single time you think, “I’ve got him figured out,” he does something crazy! I guess that’s part of what I like about him.
But yeah, I don’t know. He’s kind of fallen out of favor with me in recent years, just because he’s gotten a bit too experimental and crazy. I feel like perhaps he’s gotten a little bored with music that he knows sounds good, so he’s trying to make music that’s more improvisational. Sometimes it’s tasteful and sometimes not.
I was a big fan back in his Nickel Creek days.
Yeah, that’s my favorite era of his–like, 1996 to 2006. I love pretty much everything he did from that decade. I still love a lot of the stuff he does now, just not all of it.
I discovered Sierra Hull, too, early in my playing. She’s another one: a young virtuoso, I guess. Similar to Chris Thile in a lot of ways. Very energetic. More recently, in the last two or three years, my number one influence is Sam Bush. I’ve eaten up every single one of his recordings and tried to, I guess, learn his rhythmic style. (And his lead style as well as, but mainly his rhythmic style.) I’ve been focusing a lot on rhythm in the last few years. I think it’s much more important to music than I had originally considered. As far as lead playing goes, I really enjoy the style and taste of players like Alan Bibey and Ashby Frank. They’re two really big influences. I steal a lot of what they do.
Picasso said, “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.” Okay, so do you play with a group or are you mostly making music by yourself right now?
Mostly working by myself. I did play with a group for the last year [The Bathtub of the South], which I left recently. Before that, I played with another group for about two years during the pandemic, but that’s mostly it, outside of Carolina Bluegrass Band.
Are you still in school at UNC?
I graduated last May.
Congrats! What did you study?
Haha. Well, I definitely had more fun in my Tuesday night band rehearsals than I did in my math classes.
Fair enough. Although, music is very mathematical.
That’s another thing I like about it. I’ve definitely gotten a lot more into music theory over the last few years and am trying to understand how it all works. I don’t have a minor in music or anything. I just ended up taking music classes for fun. The classes that I took, most of them, were pretty difficult. Surprisingly, I thought I was going to go in and be like, “Oh, well, I’ve been playing for six years at this point. I know a lot of this stuff is going to be easy.” It was not.
I’m always trying to learn something new. Recently, I’ve been into transcribing solos by ear. It’s really helped me to pick up stuff on the fly in jam sessions and just learn a lot quicker in general.
So you learn by ear. Do you also read music?
No. I mean, I could, but it would take me 10 minutes to go through a line. I understand how to do it. I’m just really slow.
I place a lot of emphasis on learning by ear, and whenever people ask me for advice on learning music, I always tell them I think it’s best to learn by ear because then you have it engraved in your memory. You don’t have to look at a piece of paper every time you want to play something. There are wicked good classical musicians that can’t play a lick of anything improvised or even familiar songs without the sheet music. They may have played that particular piece hundreds of times, but they need the sheet music. If you learn something by ear, then it’s engraved in your mind. It may be harder to pick up at first, but as you play it more and more, it gets easier and easier. Eventually you’ve got it, and you can just play it in the future. It’s always there.
In 2022, you spoke with Chatham Magazine about your hearing loss journey. How have things progressed since that article was written?
Since that particular interview and article was written, really not much at all. I still have total hearing loss in one ear. I’ll probably always have total hearing loss without advanced medical assistance, but that wouldn’t really change how I perceive or tackle music.
I’ve listened to your album The Friends I Made Along the Way. It doesn’t seem to hold you back at all from making great music.
It really only affects me if someone talks directly into my ear. It doesn’t affect how I hear music. Well, most of the time. Sometimes if the mix is stereo, then I can’t hear certain instruments just because of how it’s panned.
Does it affect staging when you’re playing with a group?
If I’m playing on stage, I’m usually on the right side so I can hear without having to fully rely on monitors. I haven’t used in-ear monitors, so I don’t know how that might affect me.
Do you make use of visual cues, like the physicality of your bandmates?
Yeah, for sure. What people don’t get sometimes is that a big part of music is reading the other person or the other people you’re playing with. Whenever I’m playing with other people, I’m watching and listening to what they’re doing and trying to play off of them to create something together.
You’re 23 now, so you were 19 or 20 at the time of the pandemic. How did that event affect your music? Were you able to find a community online? Did you find an audience online?
I definitely found an audience in my friends and followers on social media. They’re always supportive. I did this thing for a while called Fiddle Tune Fridays. I think I started when I was 18 or 19. It’s been a few years now. I was nowhere near as good then. I listen to some of those older videos, and I’m like, “Wow, I kind of sucked.”
That’s how you learn though, having to prepare something once a week and perform it for an online audience.
Yes, that’s kind of why I did it, so I could discipline myself into learning more music. I had found myself kind of noodling around and not really focusing on learning anything new. So I was like, “Okay, well, I’ll take this as an opportunity to prepare something every week.” That’s still how I approach posting music on social media, but I’ve found that having a deadline makes it anxiety inducing. For the last couple of years, I’ve just been posting stuff whenever I feel like learning a new song. I go and learn it, I post it, and then I move on to something else, not on a schedule. I have to make sure that I’ve learned it and can play it well enough to put it out on the internet. There’s a lot of very talented people out there.