When Alex Vaughn dropped The Hurtbook last October, it felt like one of those special moments in r&b. Although the DMV native’s sophomore project may not have made quite that big of a splash (yet), it played out as one of those timeless works – one full of excellent songwriting and passionate bars about relationships, self-doubt, personal growth and vulnerability relayed very succinctly.
Then in March, Vaughn dropped a deluxe album with The Hurtbook (Homegirl Pack), featuring remixes with some of r&b’s top artists going toe-to-toe with her. Summer Walker hopped on the remix of “So Be It,” her biggest song to date, while Ari Lennox and Muni Long lent their voices to “Demon Time” and “IYKYK” respectively. It was a massive moment for Vaughn, who admittedly had been singing for years as therapy for the things she was going through.
In 2023, Alex Vaughn cleared some incredible hurdles professionally, and it feels like it’s only the beginning for her. Signing with LVRN in 2021, touring with both Summer and Ari over the past year, being featured on CBS Mornings as an artist pick by co-anchor Nate Burleson, dropping The Hurtbook and its star-studded deluxe version, and now touring for a stint with Kali Uchis, the singer’s stock is rising faster than just about anyone in her field.
BET recently spoke with Alex Vaughn about touring with Kali Uchis, which just wrapped up, her LP The Hurtbook, incorporating emotions into songwriting, the story behind “Mirage,” and finding her voice. Read below.
BET: You’re from the DMV. What was it like growing up there and how did the city specifically inspire you to do music, if it did?
Alex Vaughn: So I'm from [Prince George] County, Maryland, which is part of the DMV, And you know, the DMV is D.C., Maryland and Virginia, but when people think of the DMV, they'll either automatically assume D.C., or they'll automatically assume you're from Baltimore. I just make it a point to say that I'm from PG County because it has its own specific vibe. It was predominantly Black, there was a lot of just Black excellence, Black doctors, Black teachers, your neighbors, and just a lot of community. Everybody knew how to code switch from getting the job done, having a sense of humor, and being witty.
We have Go-go, which is live percussion bass music, which always brought everybody from all three regions of the DMV together and just made every occasion feel like a big cookout. With that upbringing, it just makes me want to make every engagement that I have feel like a big party where everybody can be celebrated. Most importantly, it's light-hearted. It's safe. It's always created a safe space for people to be creative and to be together and just have a good time and make every day feel like summertime the best way we can.
BET: The piano was your first love for music or being involved in creating it. But you also heard a lot of music your parents used to play like Jill Scott and Stevie Wonder. How did that set you up for a pivot into singing for you?
Alex: I've always been a singer, someone who just loves to hum or follow the radio when someone's singing. My grandmother had a piano in her house, so I would always climb on to it – that combined with being in the car with my parents and knowing that Stevie Wonder played piano and Jill Scott was a person who put great emphasis on instruments. Then as I grew a little bit older, discovering Alicia Keys, it was just like, why not? This is something I'm passionate about, I'm super curious about and I just think that curiosity kind of helped massage it to being what it is now.
BET: The Hurtbook is fantastic. I mean, honestly, it was one of those strong R&B album drops we’re going to remember for a long, long time. How do you feel you grew between making that and your debut Voice Notes?
Alex: So Voice Notes was literally just voice notes – straight out of my phone. They added a little bit of glitter and sauce and mixing and just put those out to show people that I'm not afraid to share my rawest works and to be vulnerable, even though there are levels to being vulnerable and I'm learning to peel the new layers every single time I dropped music. But for The Hurtbook, I wanted the project to be something that shows it's okay to be vulnerable and it's okay to go back and forth with your emotions and hurt is not always from romance and it's not always from death. It can come from friendship breakups or a breakup with yourself or just the way that you view the world.
The project was originally about myself and an old lover and just kind of like our situationships, but every time I will present where I was at with the project to my team, they were like, “I don't know Alex, you can do a little bit deeper.” And I think with that, I started experiencing things in real time. One day, I will be really sad about it and the other day I will be upset and the other moment I will miss them. And the other day, I forgot that I said all those things. Sometimes you can make yourself feel a little crazy for having such a change of emotions, but that's just human emotion. So I wanted to make a product that highlighted all the ups and downs of human emotion as you're going through this adult puberty phase because I didn't realize that changes were happening drastically until I started making conscious changes or decisions for myself and my future. So I wanted to let people know that it's okay to hurt. It's okay to feel it's a reminder that you're human and these are all parts of your story to get you to where you want to be.
BET: How do you translate those emotions into songwriting and structure?
Alex: When I get the feedback that I could possibly dig a little deeper, it is slightly – I'm not gonna say frustrating – it's just more of a challenge, because it's like, Alright, what am I trying to say in this song? What is the conversation, and what's a better way that I can go about it? Maybe I could just take some of my own personal time with the song because I don't want to force a product. But really just being honest with myself and not trying to make what I think people want to hear. You think about a project and how you want it to sound – everybody's kind of like, not everybody, but it feels like lots of people are talking about the same subject matter, catchy approach, or who can be the most bar heavy.
Just being true to myself and figuring out what I want to say and try it and not being afraid of getting personal. One of the strengths of The Hurtbook was taking power of all of your stories because you had experienced them, they've happened, and you can let this tear you down or you can use it as a superpower. I wanted to keep that in mind when I was creating all of these songs and not getting in my way, like I can do sometimes.
BET: I’ve heard that “Mirage” almost wasn’t even supposed to be a thing? Thank god that didn’t happen [laughs]. What is the story behind that song in particular?
Alex: It’s so funny because when I wrote “Mirage,” it was years ago – definitely before the conversation of a record label completely. It was originally a voice note, it was just two notes on the piano and just me singing and just doing the lines over and over again. I was just super hurt, dealing with this little boy who was just playing with my time, my emotions, and to a point that I knew that it was me that was kind of allowing it to keep going. I played it for a couple of people after I created the voice note and it's pretty bare, so I don't expect many people to get it, but no one got it. I played it for my manager DJ Money and he was like, “Nah, this is something.” And so we put a pin in it. Usually the songs I create in my voice notes, if I haven't created production for it immediately that means I don't really want it to go anywhere. I think that'll stay on my notes, I just wanted to get it out my system so I can just move on with my life.
Then fast forward to 2020, the beginning of the pandemic, I was working on a live album with instrumentation and he was like, “Yo bring ‘Mirage’ back up into the forefront.” So I started singing it and playing a little chord and then we just built the whole experience around it. Fast forward a couple more months, I had come out to L.A. because flights were like $30 due to the pandemic. I was just continuing to work. I've never created music with hopes of like this is the song it's gonna get me out of here. You're just creating to figure out how to better articulate yourself and just how you feel and where you are in a moment. Some more time passed and Money was playing my music for different labels and different people he knew and he played “Mirage” for a member of LDRN and that was the song that kind of got me to where I am right now.
BET: You’re opening up for Kali Uchis for a leg of her Red Moon In Venus Tour. How excited are you for that and how do you prepare for something like this?
Alex: I am super excited to go on tour with Kali Uchis. For starters, she's from the DMV as well. She's not from PG County, but she is from Virginia, if I'm not mistaken. We've had dialogue some years ago when I first started putting out music and to see her just soar and do what she's doing is so incredible and inspiring. Just getting off the tour with Ari Lennox was also fabulous. Shout out to Ari. I've now become curious like what kind of crowds do I fit, what audiences receive me well. So when I got the offer for Kali Uchis, I was like, Oh, my god, her crowd is into a little bit of weirdness, which is my alley and it's a larger market. So I'm really excited to tap into that.
The biggest way to prepare is one, mentally preparing. I know the songs, I've written them. I know the set, I've performed it. So it’s just honing in that I’m in this position for a reason, I know what I'm doing. I'm in this. We're here, so it’s mainly keeping myself mentally focused.
BET: You mentioned Ari, but you’ve also previously done this tour leg opening for Summer Walker. What has both of those stints taught you because they’re your peers and are amazingly talented like you are?
Alex: Absolutely, both Ari and Summer are R&B queens. It is an honor to rub shoulders with them and be sitting at the same table with them in any capacity. They have such great big markets who are super serious about R&B and they're super protective over R&B and super protective of the artists that they came to see. So they want to ensure everything still coincides with one another and the vibes are glowing well. I'm glad I passed the vibe check with both audiences. They're super sweet. Since performing for Summer and doing artists proud, I have created a lot of like my own fans, so that is always super awesome.
BET: Both Summer and Ari were featured on the remixes of “So Be It” and “Demon Time” from The Homegirl Pack. Muni Long is on there as well. What did it mean to you to have all of them, not just hop on it but also bring their A-games for it?
Alex: When I got the thumbs up that I'd be getting the features from these three ladies, I was like, Lord. You have those slight feelings, but for real, for real, it's really just kind of like women just feeding off of each other. It's almost like a relay race with creating these songs and doing features, which really takes all of that anxiety out of the process. I wanted the project to show that women can be together and feel the same fields. We can accomplish and conquer things together in the music scene. It's like a stigma that we're not supposed to be cool with each other, that there's not any unity and just day by day, moment by moment, song by song lyric we just want to break that down. For Summer to be on “So Be It” and Muni on “IYKYK” and Ari on “Demon Time,” I feel like it really does speak to just their evolution as women in their careers and just where they're going.
BET: You said previously in an interview that you had to sacrifice your old self to move to the next level. There's an opportunity for growth while learning all new things too. Can you elaborate on that?
Alex: I want to unlock different levels of myself, I feel like I'm on a journey of enlightenment. I feel like every time I try to make another step forward, I get faced with some sort of challenge, and it's always with my initial response versus a potential new response, and it's very painful. I feel like the more committed I am to learning more and becoming better and evolving, the more I get faced with those challenges and those buddings of the heads. I feel like I'm constantly in a fight with myself, but I feel myself growing a lot. I just had a conversation with my sister about how I feel myself taking the higher road or choosing a different approach versus my usual reflexes. It's really painful in the moment, but then I blink my eyes, and it's all over. If me making these changes or trying different approaches is getting the job done, and is making all the responses and everybody happier, and the only price I pay is a slight headache at the end of the night, then I'll take it. I'm conditioning myself and working myself into new routines and I'm committed to just being better. I want to set the example for anybody who comes across me, who listens to me that it's never too late to unlearn and relearn.
BET: What was it like for you and “So Be It” being featured on CBS Mornings?
Alex: It was super cool. We have weekly calls and they're like, “Alex, you're gonna have a segment on CBS.” And you're just like, Okay, wait, what? CBS, national television? It's really wild because I've been making music for a long time in the privacy of my own home and in school. It still takes time to register that people are really listening to me and I’m making this music for myself and the people. I'm making it for people more than I'm making it for myself. First, it used to be for me to get my thoughts out, but once I write the song, it no longer belongs to me. So to know that people hear me and people want to hear me, people are yearning for these words and haven't heard them before, that my music can be on a platform as big as the national news, it means a lot. It's just another sign of confirmation that I have to stop playing in and faking myself and continue to follow my steps.