Published in the San Diego Union Tribune January 2012
Leucadia singer-songwriter and all-star pals team for moving album & book
By George Varga
Leucadia singer-songwriter Alex Woodard's new book and album, "FOR THE SENDER," haven't been made into a movie, but the tale they tell seems worthy of a film treatment.
Writing a book and making an accompanying album with an all-star lineup were the last things on Alex Woodard’s mind after the 2008 death of his beloved dog, Kona, and his concurrent frustration that his music career had stalled.
But mourning and dismay can be great sources of artistic inspiration, even if that realization often only occurs in hindsight. And for Woodard, a Leucadia singer-songwriter who started off as a child actor on “The Love Boat,” hindsight is, well, everything.
“I needed a change and didn’t know what way I was going to go,” he said. “I was looking for something that had nothing to do with me and didn’t have my face or voice. The project didn’t take shape until later. It was a process where I had to let it be what it would be and couldn’t steer it too much. Three quarters of the way through, I got the idea this could be something, something you could hold in your hand..."
The result, four years later, is Woodard's first book, “FOR THE SENDER — Four Letters. Twelve Songs. One Story,” which he published himself and for which he is now seeking a national distributor.
A poignant and handsomely crafted book, it includes an accompanying CD that features four sets of three heartfelt songs. Each set of songs was inspired by one of four letters that were sent to Woodard by four people he had never met, or been in contact with, previously.
The first letter was from Connecticut resident Emily Jackson, who came across Woodard’s MySpace page while surging the web. "His page had mention on it of an expired promotion Alex had previously offered," Jackson recalled. "If you pre-ordered his latest CD and sent him your story, he would in turn sit down at his kitchen table and write you a song. I read the postings of the letters people had sent and the songs that resulted and was touched by what Alex had done, so I sent him a letter to say just that. I listened to Alex's songs and those he wrote for others and felt how much of himself he put into them all and just wanted him to know someone was listening and someone was grateful for his sound."
Jackson, who was then grieving the death of her boyfriend, also sent Woodard a copy of a posthumous love letter she had written to her boyfriend. Woodard then got together with fellow singer-songwriter Sean Watkins (of Nickel Creek fame) and shared Jackson's letter. The song “FOR THE SENDER” was born soon thereafter — and, with it, the book of the same name, which Woodard is publishing himself in a limited edition of only a few hundred copies.
“I didn't expect a reply and in truth I didn't think I needed one," Jackson explained. "I just needed to be able to physically send my letter to someone. In my mind, I was writing to Alex to let him know he was heard and to thank him for sharing his amazing talent. But I think, somewhere in my heart, I was also writing, because I needed to be heard.
"When Alex responded that he had gotten my letter and it had connected with him, everything changed for me. The music and lyrics reflected my memories back to me, but since they were only a reflection, it gave me a filter of sorts and allowed me to remember with less sadness.”
Letters from three other people -- a young relief worker in earthquake-devastated Haiti, the director of a San Diego homeless shelter and the widow of a slain North County police officer -- inspired the album’s other songs. Woodard, 39, wrote five songs on his own and co-wrote the others with Sean and Sara Watkins, Jack Tempchin, Nena Anderson and Switchfoot leader Jon Foreman (who also contributed the song “Unbroken”). Other musicians contributed to the recording of the album.
Woodard and all the artists featured on the album perform two concerts tonight at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas. The first show sold out several weeks ago and only a few dozen tickets remain for the second. The concerts will feature all of the songs from the album, which includes a bonus cut that Woodard wrote. The focus of the album's songs on other people also proved inspirational to Woodard's musical collaborators.
“Working together with friends to tell a story from someone else’s life, with a unified focus, is unique to anything I’ve been a part of before,” Sara Watkins said. “I’m grateful to the people who wrote Alex those letters and shared a bit of their lives with us.”
That gratitude is shared by Jackson, who is flying in from Connecticut to attend tonight's performances at la Paloma. “These songs tell my story, but -- if you listen closely -- you can hear yours, too," Jackson said. "I owe so much to Alex and all the artists involved, they heard me when I most needed to be heard. I honestly don't know if I can truly describe the feeling that being part of this project has given me, but I can tell you the soundtrack of my life will never be the same.”
For Woodard, the unplanned book and album have provided new insights into life and into the sense of community that music can inspire and nurture. Many of the songs on the album trace their genesis to potluck dinners with other North County musicians, including Foreman and Watkins. After sharing the letters he'd received with them, Woodard began co-writing some of the songs that appear on "FOR THE SENDER" with some of the musicians from the dinners.
"Writing these songs about these letters took me out of where I was (emotionally), which I needed," he said. "It was no longer my story or voice, it was somebody else's, which I liked. As these letters came into my world, I'd share them with Jon or whoever was around. We’re a close-knit community."
So close-knit that Sean Watkins and Jensen flew with Woodard to Connecticut, where the three surprised Jackson -- "FOR THE SENDER's" first letter-writer -- by performing the songs she had inspired for her.
"Emily was the genesis of this whole thing," Woodard said. "She met me in an airport hotel lobby, thinking I was on the road and we were meeting for lunch. Instead, I took her to a room and Sean, Molly and I played for her."
Woodard even flew to Haiti to sing for the aid worker. "It wasn't a surprise," he said. "I let her know I was coming."
Videos of the performances for each of the four letter-writers can be viewed on the web site Woodard created to document the journeys that resulted in "FOR THE SENDER." For Woodard, it is a journey that has been cathartic for him as much as for the people who inspired the book and album.
"I haven't talked with anybody about this, but -- to me -- it feels like (I've found) my life’s work, kind of," he said. "All the different experiences I've had, lessons I've learned and skills I've developed came together at a point here. This project everything I'd been working on for the past 12-15 years.
"Regardless of what happens -- whether one person reads and hears this, or a million -- I've kind of let my mark, which is ironic, because this project isn't about me, it's about other people."