Alexandra Stréliski on Dallas Buyers Club & her musical ancestry: “I thought I was the weirdo in the family for doing music”

Montreal-born Alexandra Stréliski’s debut album Pianoscope, originally just a passion project intended for friends and family, saw its opening track Prélude placed in the Academy Award-winning Dallas Buyers Club and played at the Oscars ceremony in 2013. But it wasn’t until her 2018 sophomore album that her career started to finally take off, and she builds on her success with new album Néo-Romance, also her first major-label release with Sony Music. She chats to Headliner about the importance of not rushing a record, how a deep dive into her European and Jewish roots influenced the album, and why the album title places itself in a genre of its own.

With Stréliski now signed to Sony Music, her music being streamed millions of times around the world, and seeing her involved in such projects as the Amy Adams-starring Sharp Objects from HBO, it feels almost outlandish to say that her debut album, Pianoscope, was only intended to be heard by a handful of friends and family. Her mother diligently mailed out copies of the album from her basement in Montreal, Quebec.

She did do the full classical training in her youth and her teachers even hoped she’d pursue becoming a concert pianist, but she says she found the idea “Too stressful. It’s like you can’t play a wrong note. I needed to be more free.” But after delving into learning filmmaking and German [she is also fluent in French as a French Canadian], she explains that music found its way back to her.

“I was about 21 years old and composing music for ads,” Stréliski says, speaking from Montreal, although she is mostly based in the Netherlands these days. “I had an opportunity to do that and ended up becoming very active in that industry. But I had a voice in my head that said I needed to do something more artistic and free. 

"Also, I was moving out of my parent’s house, and I thought they’d miss me playing the piano! So instead I recorded a few songs for them. I’d also always wanted to write music for film, and I had this idea of just putting music out into the universe and hopefully, it would attract the right people. Because these songs were my most sincere work.”

I had a big burnout and an existential crisis from working too much.

Those songs would come together as her debut album, Pianoscope, which she uploaded to Bandcamp as a free download in 2010. She describes it as, “the most meaningful thing I’d ever done, but also the most normal. I wasn’t ready to live this as a full-time thing, so I just did it with no expectations whatsoever.” The trajectory this little project went on is quite staggering. Her mother went from mailing copies to just within their circle, to sending the album out to people in China.

And it was the power of Bandcamp that saw the album completely transcend the Stréliski family basement: an actor working with Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée discovered Prélude, the album’s opening piece, and put it in a playlist which Vallée heard. Instantly loving the track, the late director decided to use the song in his film Dallas Buyers Club, released three years after Stréliski’s homemade release of her record.

Starring Matthew McConaughey, it scooped a number of Oscars, including Best Actor for McConaughey and Best Supporting Actor for his co-star Jared Leto. When Best Actor was announced, Prélude’s fame rose even more as it was played while McConaughey walked up to the stage to make his now-famous acceptance speech.

You might think this was a pretty sure-fire sign that there was a fairly insatiable demand for Stréliski’s music, but she remained sceptical, and her sophomore album Inscape didn’t materialise until 2018. “For a while, I kept working in the advertising industry, but I kept getting all these signals that the music wanted to travel and do its own thing. Then I had a big burnout and an existential crisis from working too much — so I was finally clear and thought: ‘No more bullshit. This is what I need to do.’”

Inscape picked up where Pianoscope left off wonderfully; another pure piano album characterised by stunningly unassuming minimalist pieces which stand on their own feet without needing ambient synth pads or any extra instrumentation. As with opener Prélude on her first record, Plus tôt also sets a gorgeously whimsical tone for the LP. It went on to become Apple Music’s number-one classical album at the end of that year.

when Hildur Guðnadóttir won her Oscar, I was screaming in front of my screen.

So, despite the big success her debut album eventually found its way into, Stréliski nonetheless lives by her values of making sure she gives each of her albums the exact amount of time and love she deems necessary for its completion. She likens it to simmering a stew for several hours. Meanwhile, many other artists might be influenced by Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, who has been quoted as saying musicians should release music as quickly and often as possible in this streaming era.

“Maybe this is better for the Spotify model. But I'm never going to rush my music. I'm not going to change who I am as an artist and force anything. I mean, I think putting out music that isn’t fully ready just to get into this industry game — it's not my thing. 

"I love to make albums, I love to tell stories. And that takes time. If you're gonna make a stew, you have to let it simmer for three hours. If you take it out after 30 minutes, it's gonna taste chewy and bad. It doesn't mean that I won't release some stuff in between records, like collaborations or individual songs. But, for me, albums take three years minimum.”

It was around this time Stréliski collaborated once more with Jean-Marc Vallée, this time on the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects, starring Amy Adams. In the series, all the music used is diegetic (meaning it is also heard by the characters via a radio or other source), and Stréliski’s Plus tôt is heard, as well as new music for the show, including her rework of Concerto In D Minor by Alessandro Marcello.

As if each of these album releases weren’t fascinating enough already, third LP Néo-Romance adds yet another twist to the Stréliski tale; having moved to Rotterdam with her Dutch girlfriend, her relocation to Europe prompted her to explore her roots in the continent, to become closer to her ancestry and musical romanticism. Before long, tracing her family line revealed to her a long line of directors, violinists, actresses and theatre managers, all wrapped up in her French, Polish and Jewish roots.

“Just as a circumstantial thing, I remembered I had some ancestors who’d lived in Rotterdam also. A lot, it turns out! They were all Jewish musicians, making a living from their music and quite successfully. It put me on this identity quest; I always thought I was the weirdo in the family for doing music, but it was a big reveal to me that I wasn’t at all. My family line is originally Russian, then they moved to Poland, the Netherlands, and France. Jewish people moved around a lot because they were persecuted everywhere.”

I always thought I was the weirdo in the family for doing music, but it was a big reveal to me that I wasn’t at all.

This led Stréliski to seek out musicians to record the album with whom she shared similar roots. She found a group called “The Karski Quartet, based in Brussels — three of the girls are Polish. We connected so easily on a musical level, and I’m about to go on tour with them. When we play, I don’t want it to feel like the pianist and her accompanying musicians. I want it to feel more like a band. It absolutely feels that way with them and it’s so lovely.”

The results really are astonishing. Néo-Romance’s opener Ad Libre, like Prélude and Plus tôt before it, ensures that each of her three albums all start beguilingly. Dans les bois is another huge highlight of the record, equal parts mysterious and spellbinding. (ouverture) is a moment where the Karski Quartet really shine on the record, as the piano pauses briefly.

It’s been said several times now that Néo-Romance fully solidifies Stréliski’s place as one of the stars of the neoclassical scene that she is loosely a part of (although she points out the name of the album is deliberately designed to slightly distance herself from the neoclassical label). 

Not only is it richly deserved, but it thankfully means this modern classical scene is becoming increasingly diverse — at one point all its most famous names were men such as Nils Frahm, Ólafur Arnalds and Max Richter. Now, Stréliski and the likes of Hania Rani, Sophie Hutchings and Poppy Ackroyd ensure much-needed female (piano) voices bolster the scene.

“Cheers to that!”, she says. “Also, when Hildur Guðnadóttir won her Oscar [for her score for Joker] and said in her speech, ‘To the girls who hear the music bubbling within, please speak up. We need to hear your voices’ — I was screaming in front of my screen. Because the girls have so much music within them. It’s so great if we can inspire them.” 

Néo-Romance is out now. Whether it inspires you musically or even to do a deep dive on, it’s the kind of peaceful piano music the world could really do with right now.