Fort Worth’s Abraham Alexander pours his growing pains into new album for a stunning debut
Some of the sweetest soul music is born from childhoods scarred with pain.
It’s the story of Aretha Franklin and James Brown, of Ray Charles and Etta James. It’s also the tale of Fort Worth’s Abraham Alexander.
The singer-guitarist is out with his debut album, SEA/SONS. It’s a stunning work, not just because of his strong dusky voice and unique phrasing or the cameos by Mavis Staples and Gary Clark Jr.
What makes the album really stand out is how honestly he writes about his agony. In a world where musicians rarely reveal their darkest secrets — afraid of exposing a weakness that might damage their brand — Alexander, 31, tackles his suffering head-on.
The album’s title refers to the famous biblical passage about the seasons. There are seasons for being born and dying, for breaking down and building up, for laughing and for crying.
“Sometimes we try to skip one because it feels horrible, or it’s too hot,” he says. “But every season is so important to the next one. It’s integral for our growth.”
His songs bear the imprint of classic R&B artists like Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield. Yet his influences are all over the map. He owes a debt to the production style of Kanye West as well as to Chris Isaak, whose hit “Wicked Game” he sometimes turns into a show-stopper onstage.
SEA/SONS is drenched in melancholia but streaked with moments of love and joy. In fact, the album’s cover art and title capture one of Abraham’s happiest childhood memories: a sunny day at the beach in Greece spent frolicking in the sea with his two brothers and their friends.
Before he was born, his parents moved to Athens from Nigeria. They were part of a wave of West Africans emigrating to Greece, including the family of future NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, a childhood acquaintance of Alexander’s.
“My parents came to Greece looking for opportunity and an escape, but they left one entrapment for another because of all the economic and racial tension,” Alexander says. “I knew I was being treated differently. I just didn’t know why.”
When Alexander was 11, his dad convinced his mom the family should seek a better life in the U.S. They moved to Texas in 2001, settling in Arlington, where his mom continued her career as a pharmacist while his dad worked at a convenience store.
But months after they arrived, their dream became a nightmare when a drunken driver killed Alexander’s mom in a head-on collision as she was driving alone to work.
He sings about her in “Today,” a gospel ballad about advice she gave to her sons and premonitions she had of her death. As a child, he was too young and grief-stricken to process the tragedy.
“I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone,” he says softly, barely audible over the hum of conversation from patrons inside Fort Worth’s Cherry Coffee. The setting for our interview, it’s one of his favorite hangouts in the Magnolia neighborhood.
“For a split second, it seemed like we’d escaped the boiling pot [of Greece]. But now things were more tumultuous than they were before … I just sunk into a black hole.”
Unable to speak English, he struggled at school. As a willful pre-teen mourning the loss of his mom, he battled with his father, who beat him, as he’d been doing for years.
“My first memory as a kid is being kicked around … I still have scars on my body,” he says. “For a long time, when I’d look in the mirror, there was hatred toward him for putting those scars on me. Now I look at it in a triumphant way of surviving that abuse.”
He writes about the beatings in “Heart of Gold” and “Blood Under the Bridge,” with its refrain “You have to dance in the fire to know that it burns.”
Today, he looks back at his father’s violent side with forgiveness. He knows his dad grew up in a family where physical punishment was typical. He realizes his dad also had a traumatic childhood, losing his father at age 6.
During the writing and recording of SEA/SONS, Alexander and his dad finally ended their estrangement.
“He’s apologized and he’s extremely remorseful,” the singer says. “That healing process is probably the greatest gift I received from this record.”
As a teen, in wake of his mom’s death and his father’s abuse, Alexander was placed in foster care and later adopted by a loving Fort Worth family. The stability “felt like magic,” he recalls.
He flourished in high school and at Texas Wesleyan University, where he arrived in 2011. A lightning-fast forward on the soccer field, Alexander earned a spot on the Texas Outlaws, the short-lived North Texas pro team.
But an ACL injury ended his soccer career and left him in a deep funk. To help him snap out of it, his then-girlfriend handed him a guitar — an instrument he’d piddled around with as a child to try to bond with his father, a guitarist who once played with Afrobeat stars Fela and Femi Kuti.
This time, he and the guitar clicked.
“Leaving soccer was a crushing blow, like I’d lost my identity, but when I held the guitar in my hands, I could finally express myself,” he says. “I could finally cry.”
He taught himself to play by watching YouTube guitar maestro Marty Schwartz, then fell under the spell of B.B. King and Gary Clark Jr. While working as a bank teller in Fort Worth in 2015, Alexander met a musician who introduced him to fast-rising R&B singer Leon Bridges. They became friends, and Bridges nudged him into playing open-mike nights in Fort Worth.
He started writing and recording songs, too, including “America,” a seething protest of police violence against Black citizens. The tune caught the ear of Mahogany Records, which flew him to London to record a four-song EP at Abbey Road Studios. It led to his current contract with Dualtone Records, a Grammy-winning Nashville label.
But as his career was lifting off, tragedy struck again. In 2017, his 18-year-old adoptive brother, Xavier, was shot to death in Fort Worth by assailants trying to rob him, Alexander says.
As soon as the singer heard the news, he jumped in his car and drove 90 mph down the highway to comfort his parents, who were standing near their son’s body. He writes about the scene in “Xavier,” the leadoff track on SEA/SONS.
“I was numb, I didn’t know how to feel or what to say. But this song was a way to share exactly what I was feeling with my parents,” he says. “I didn’t want him to become just another statistic of a young black man being killed. I wanted to immortalize him.”
One of the album’s most moving tracks is “Déjà Vu,” a song inspired by Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old boy from the Bronx who was imprisoned at Rikers Island for three years without a trial.
Browder, who later died by suicide, was the subject of an acclaimed 2017 documentary film. Mavis Staples, a fan of Alexander’s after he opened for her in Austin, read the song’s lyrics and quickly agreed to sing on it.
“This is my mission as an artist, to help people wake up and see what’s really going on,” he says. “These stories need to be told.”
People are beginning to listen. In 2021, he made thousands of new fans as the opening act for Leon Bridges’ U.S. tour. On the heels of SEA/SONS, he’ll perform for huge crowds at Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival this summer. Closer to home, he plays May 6 at Echo Music Hall & Lounge and June 1-3 at the Kessler Theater.
At the coffee house in Fort Worth, the singer is already semi-famous. When the interview ends, a fan quickly approaches and asks for a selfie. Alexander obliges, smiling and chatting with his new friend.
Later, he turns serious about the precarious nature of fame and “chasing the dream.” He’s witnessed the cons as well as the pros of stardom while spending time with Bridges.
“He’s pulled in so many directions. He’s just trying to have a meal and people are disturbing his downtime … it’s taxing,” Alexander says.
“If I get to where he’s at, by God’s grace, I hope I can figure out how to protect my mental health and take care of myself.”
He pauses and mulls it over for a few seconds.
“I’m afraid to get lost. What’s the use of gaining the whole world if you wind up losing yourself?”