JBL Emerging Interview: Alex Warren on turning tragedy into TikToks

Overcoming unimaginable personal tragedies and then being made homeless, California-born singer-songwriter Alex Warren has overcome the odds to build an online community of 26M followers. In this Emerging Headliner interview powered by JBL, he reveals that no one cared about his music until he filmed himself singing on the toilet from a burner account. Allow him to explain…

“There was no plan B in my life. It was always: do something in entertainment. I was obsessed with singing and making music, but I never found success in it, funnily enough,” says an immediately candid Warren from his home in L.A, where he shares that he’s in full on music promo mode – “which is posting a tonne of TikToks. It's definitely been an interesting challenge to go from making TikToks that make people laugh, to getting them to like my music.”

Considering his intimidating social media following today, it’s hard to imagine a time when every video he posts didn’t go viral, and that’s not even factoring in the hardships he’s had to overcome to get to where he is today. Not that he wallows in self pity for even a second during the interview. He’s open and pragmatic about his struggles, weaponising the telltale dark humor of someone who’s lost one, or in his case, both parents.

“When I became homeless, I was sleeping in cars with my girlfriend [and now fiance] and we would film these random videos,” he recalls. “I thought she was one of the funniest people I've ever met. I posted a singing video and I got five views, and then I posted a cute video of me and her messing around in a car right before we went to bed and I woke up and that had around 6 million views. So I kept filming us when we had funny moments, I would post them and they did really well. 

"I stayed away from music for a little bit when that happened because I was like, ‘No one wants to hear me sing. No one cares about that’. Maybe two years later, I was singing on the toilet and I filmed myself. I posted it on some random spam account that no one knew about and I woke up and that had 10 million views. I don't know what's up with me and waking up to a tonne of views, but it happened and it's the best feeling in the world,” he laughs, shaking his head at the absurd nature of the internet. 

“That's the craziest part. I was like, ‘I'll post it because no one's gonna ever see it’. So when that went viral, I was stoked because I'm like, ‘People actually want to hear me sing?’ This was at the time when TikTokers were becoming musicians, so I waited a whole year before I started doing music because I didn't want to fall into that category. But there's part of me in the back of my head where I'm like, ‘Why did that one have to blow up?’”

I stayed away from music because I was like: No one wants to hear me sing. No one cares.

Despite not trying to make it as a TikTok artist, music has always been a constant for Warren, guiding him through the most difficult times of his life. Diagnosed with terminal cancer twice, his father knew he would not see his young son grow up, and spent every minute he could with his family. Warren remembers his father fitting in daily trips to the skate park before leaving for work, and when he was six, being gifted with a Fender guitar and being introduced to Coldplay, Linkin Park and Train.

“It was definitely Coldplay, although I don't remember the record. I wish I did,” he says regretfully. “I just remember every morning my dad would throw in that CD and we would listen to that all the time in the car. That was the coolest thing, just being able to appreciate that type of music at a really young age. Then I got this red little baby Fender guitar and it was my absolute dream. I would walk around with it everywhere I went and for some reason I could never be clothed when I had this guitar,” he laughs. 

“I think that was because I was obsessed with The Naked Brothers Band and that rock star vibe. As I grew older, I fell in love with playing piano. There's something super sad and beautiful about playing the piano.”

His father passed away when Warren was nine, and the stress of raising four children and managing multiple investment properties in the midst of the market crash of 2008 weighed heavily on his mother, who descended into violent alcoholism, taking out her frustrations on Warren in a cycle of physical and mental abuse. 

Tensions boiled over to the point where she kicked him out at the age of 17, which led to him living in friends’ cars for almost half a year. “The reason I’m so grounded is because I had a few friends who genuinely helped me at the time,” he says. “It’s a gesture I will never take for granted.”

It's been a challenge to go from making TikToks that make people laugh, to getting them to like my music.

Warren tried therapy at a young age, but shares that the experience wasn’t right for him. Instead, he turned to music to express how he was feeling, finding the beauty in melodically making something beautiful out of something so tragic.

“My mum always said, ‘You can’t do music because it’s not possible,’” he recalls. “However, you couldn’t take singing away from me. I always had a negative connotation with therapy growing up, but when I sit in front of a piano and write melodies about the things I’m going through, it's almost as if you're speaking them out loud. I had so much going on that I would just keep it bottled up. I wouldn't tell anyone about it. I didn't want anyone to know. I didn't think anyone cared; it wasn't their issue to deal with. It was mine. 

"When I started playing piano and singing about these things, I was worried that no one would relate to it. I always thought I was alone. I saw the response to people listening to my songs about the trauma I went through, and they were like, ‘I lost my parents and they're not going to be my wedding,’ and they would start telling their personal stories, almost like I was their therapist and they were unloading to me. It's like a group of people who need therapy, but talk to each other. I think it's really powerful.”

No matter what life has thrown at him, Warren has steadied himself with a piano and a pen. He began sharing renditions of popular tunes on social media – his cover of Electric Love by BØRNS racked up tens of millions of views. Preserving the memory of his father, he released his own song, One More I Love You in 2021, generating over 24.2 million Spotify streams and 4.4 million YouTube views. On its heels, Screaming Under Water exceeded 5.9 million Spotify streams, while Remember me Happy raked in 4.1 million Spotify streams. He wrote the latter on the day his mother died, lost to her addiction.

How does one begin to cope with such hardships? In Warren’s case, he makes jokes. 

His social media is a blend of promoting his music and self deprecating black humor – one TikTok video called ‘unboxing my mom’ sees him react to the bizarre nature of having his mother’s ashes mailed to him in a ziplock bag, whereby he introduces his mother’s ashes, to his father’s. One fan asks if his siblings also get some, to which he replies, “Yes, sharing is caring”. Meanwhile, his Twitter bio reads: ‘I make music about dead people’.

“I like the way it throws people off,” he says. “If you've ever lost someone, especially a parent, the comedy is not the part that's the most shocking. A lot of people who haven't lost anyone, to hear those type of jokes, it throws them so off guard because they're like, ‘How the f*ck can you say that?’ It's almost like we have a club – it's a club of f*cked up humour that you can cope with. Once you lose someone like that, you get to join the club. I think it's a coping mechanism, if anything,” he muses. 

“I always beat people to the punch; when I do shows I say a lot of messed up things like that. I think the reason I do it is because I’m talking about sad stuff, and a lot of my songs are sad, so you don't want to spend two hours just being sad. You want to have moments of highs and lows. I'm actually laughing at a time where I should be sad; I think there’s something so powerful about dancing when you're supposed to be crying. At a funeral, instead of it being mourning time, it's a celebration of loss. What’s perfect is having that balance of emotions.”

My story is something that a lot of people magnetise to. Everyone on the internet tries to be perfect.

Aside from videos that make people nervous-laugh, his music is undeniably a big hit on TikTok. Recent track, Yard Sale doesn't break that streak, having amassed over 4M global streams and counting, while the TikTok sound has over 151M views and 32K creates. Warren is baffled by the continuous hit posts.

“I could not tell you,” he remarks as to how he accounts for his online success. “Although I've noticed the more I am myself and the more I tell my story…” he trails off. “I think my story is something that a lot of people magnetise to. Everyone on the internet tries to be perfect and I do things differently. I think people like that. I don't try to be perfect, I don't think I'm perfect. I don't have a perfect life. I've gone through a lot of traumatic things and I write all my music about all the traumatic things I've gone through. 

"There's influencers or musicians you can watch if you want to see someone live a perfect lifestyle that you wish you could live. When you want to listen to something that applies to you, or something that puts words to a feeling you have, I think that's where I excel.”

Yard Sale is an upbeat breakup anthem, which is accompanied by a music video which shows the reality of having to part with the physical things belonging to someone else. The idea came to Warren when doing an estate sale to get rid of his late mother’s belongings.

“I was super distraught because she spent all this time saving the money to buy these things and now I'm selling them for a fraction of the cost because she's gone now, and I don't need them. I think there’s something kind of messed up about the fact that my mum worked so hard for these items and I don't need them, so I'm getting rid of them. I was thinking about that and I was like, ‘How do I depict this in a song?’ It's not that relatable – not many people do estate sales – even if they’ve lost someone. Then I thought about when you go through a breakup, you have to give something back, and if they don't want it, you have to get rid of this thing that you guys had. It made me think of a relationship. 

"I was a hopeless romantic growing up, and there was something so powerful about the fact that I worked so hard in a relationship; I was always the one doing more. I always came off as clingy, and I probably was, but I worked so hard for a relationship just to have it thrown away by one bad decision. Yard Sale was inspired by the fact that you work so hard to just get rid of something.

Being a self confessed hopeless romantic growing up also feeds into new single, Before You Leave Me. “It's another depressing song that's quick,” he deadpans. 

“It's about if you've ever lost someone you love. Growing up, when I felt like there was a girl breaking up with me, I would compensate for it. I'd bike to their house and I'd be throwing rocks at their windows trying to have a special, cute moment in the rain. Then they would just break up with me then, and that kind of sped it up,” he shrugs. “This song is about how a girl wanted to break up with me and we had one more night, so I said, ‘Let's make the best of this night so we remember the good and not the bad.’”

I thought things like this didn't happen to people who went through things like I did.

Warren cites songwriter and producer Finneas as someone he looks up to in terms of self-production. “He's a huge inspiration when it comes down to how he makes music, production-wise. It's really inspirational.” When it comes to his own production, in his home studio Warren shares he is using an AKG P220 mic, K240 MKII headphones and a pair of JBL 305P MKII powered studio monitors.

“I have two studios in my house for some reason,” he reveals. “I have my JBL monitors downstairs in my studio, and I really like the way they sound. They are very nice-sounding and crispy. Monitors are a hyper specific thing that you have with music creation, because it's a reflection of what you just made. I just got a master back for Before You Leave Me and I listened on those – you can really hear a lot of the things that you wouldn't typically hear using headphones. 

"It’s as if I have extra access to things that I wouldn't have – you can hear a lot of the things that are happening on the record. Say you've been listening to the same record five to 10 times over and over, but then if you listen to it on studio monitors, you're going to hear stuff that you didn't hear before. That's really cool because it's almost like you unlock special features. I could never go back now that I've heard them.”

His AKG mic is one he likes to pair with a guitar in particular. “It's a very warm mic,” he points out. “It's something that gives my guitars a very airy vibe. I have some vintage guitars so it gives it more of an 'I'm in the room with you' vibe. My vocal tone is very warm, so when I record vocals with it, it's almost like a doubling down. Whenever I cut a vocal I always think ‘I want warm tones,’ and this did that, which was a very pleasant surprise.”

His professional over-ear, semi-open headphones deliver a wide dynamic range, increased sensitivity and high sound levels. Warren shares that these come in handy when showing consideration to his roommates. 

“The biggest thing is the ease of access; being able to just throw them on,” he says. “I have a whole studio up here, so being able to throw my headphones on when my roommates are yelling at me because I'm blasting my monitors helps me out a lot.”

It's almost like you unlock special features. I could never go back now that I've heard JBL monitors.

From being homeless and sleeping in friends’ cars to now, Warren has shared his life with the internet for more than 11 years. Looking back, could he have ever foreseen what his life would go on to become?

“I thought this wasn't possible,” he says after a pause. “I thought things like this didn't happen to people who went through things like I did. I didn't think it was in my cards, or I was meant to be some lawyer or real estate agent like every other kid in my hometown. 

"Whenever I attempted to do stuff like this, I ran into a roadblock or bad things would happen in my life. I looked up at God like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I blamed everything but myself and I think that was one of the bigger problems. I think the younger me would be in disbelief. I think that's the most honest answer I can give. I can give some bullsh*t answer like, ‘I always knew,’ but genuinely, I think if you told a 12 year old me I’d be here, he'd be like, ‘You're full of sh*t ,’” he laughs wickedly.