NME Radar: Breakout

Strawberry Guy: TikTok-conquering songwriter with joyful, retro charm

The Liverpool artist is getting used to viral success, thanks to his fun, floaty psych-pop tracks that draw from the natural world

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

Having cut his teeth playing keys in The Orielles and Trudy & The Romance, Liverpool-based solo artist Alex Stephens (aka Strawberry Guy) recently found himself a TikTok sensation when 2019 track ‘Mrs Magic’ ended up being used on 70k videos, gaining millions of views.

Inspired by this newfound popularity — as well as an unusual mood board of 19th century classical music, plus animated films and video game scores — Stephens committed to a self-driven mission to write and record his debut album. His creative process left him with the question: How do you maximise bedroom pop without ever leaving the bedroom?

The results are emphatic. ’Sun Outside My Window’, released via Melodic this Friday (October 29), blends the chiming piano melodies of balladeers like John Lennon with the languid rhythms and dreamy basslines of psych-pop heroes The War On Drugs and Tame Impala. Flowering strings and horns, meanwhile, bring grandeur to these 10 atmospheric and wondrous songs, as Stephens’ introspective lyrics mirror Gen Z’s shared anxieties, having been forced to stay inside for a year.

Strawberry Guy caught up with NME to explore his TikTok success, his myriad musical influences and the inspiration he has drawn from… well, the things outside his window.

You moved to Liverpool as a music student, and you’ve stayed ever since. How come?

“I’m a big extrovert – I get all my energy from other people. So when I moved here, I started to mix with people in the music scene, such as Her’s — [Stephen Fitzpatrick and Audun Laading, who died while on tour in the US in 2018] — and this feminist punk band called Pink Kink, plus Hannah’s Little Sister and Brad Stank. There was a house where most of our friends lived at on Roscoe Street where we’d always go to parties, and a pub called The Grapes, which is crazy at times, but brilliant. I became quite attached to them all, which is why I’ve stayed.”

How did you react when ‘Mrs Magic’ blew up on TikTok?

“I didn’t know for ages. I was blissfully unaware. But I saw that it had entered the Spotify streaming charts in America and I just didn’t understand why. About two weeks later, someone sent me a message and said, ‘By the way Alex, your song is in like… every single video!’. And I was like, ’What? I don’t even know what TikTok is!’

“It took me a while to be comfortable with it, really. But now, it’s made my drive for success even greater. It’s made me realise that I can treat [music] as a proper career now, which is the best thing ever. I’m so grateful.”

You released ‘Mrs Magic’ two years ago. Why do you think it has connected like it has only recently?

“I think that lockdown helped it. I think people must have felt the need to listen to calm music, or music that would have made them feel better, in a way.

“It’s weird because the song is actually about a time when I was on a magic mushroom trip — I had a horrific experience! I’d never done any psychedelics before, and I was expecting this really big, grand sort of show, like a hallucinogenic festival in my mind. But instead, I felt like everything that made me ‘me’ was gone. That’s what the whole song’s about; it’s me saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here’, while I have no idea where the fuck I am. It was terrifying!”

strawberry guy TikTok singer
Credit: Emma Lavelle

Your debut album is very introspective, gentle and dream-like – almost the opposite of what you’ve just described. Where did you find inspiration for it?

“It all started with the first track, ‘Sun Outside My Window’. I wrote it a couple of years ago in the summer, and I just remember feeling a bit down. I’m fuelled artistically by my emotions, so I’ll only write when I’m either quite low or really happy. It was a typical low day, it was cloudy, and I remember I went into my room and the sun just literally appeared and beamed through my window. It was like this magical moment, and my mood just completely changed.”

The whole album was written and recorded in that bedroom, right? Can you tell us a bit more about that space? 

“It’s a long, rectangular room, and I’ve just got my desk that looks out two very long windows, facing the main road and a row of Georgian-style buildings opposite. There are people filming down one of the streets because it looks very old-fashioned and almost Victorian — I think some of The Batman [2022] has been filmed around here recently.

“Inside, there’s old pictures of friends on my wardrobe. Some of Stephen and Audun. Gigs that I’ve been to — you know, nice memories. I’ve got a nice Monet print that I found in a charity shop and a picture of my childhood cat, who’s unfortunately passed away now. He was a good boy, Victor.”

The music itself on the album is much more orchestral than anything you’ve previously done with bands like The Orielles…

“I really wanted to test the boundaries of bedroom pop to see how big I could make it sound altogether. I’ve always wanted to work with an orchestra, so I had this idea to squeeze this full orchestra into my room…

“I would have loved to have had an actual orchestra in my room, but I was actually just layering stuff myself, all these violin sounds I had.”

strawberry guy TikTok singer
Credit: Emma Lavelle

You were inspired by classical music, which is not the most obvious touchpoint for a bedroom pop artist — or TikTok users, for that matter. Where did those interests come from?

“I started playing piano when I was four, and I remember hearing ‘Clair de Lune’ by Debussy for the first time, and I was just in absolute awe as a child. It’s beautiful. If you ever get into classical music like that, it’ll never go away.

“But another piece of music that really inspired me was ‘The Planets’ by Gustav Holst. It starts off with ‘Mars, The Bringer of War,’ and it’s bloody intense, like, ‘Oh my God, death is upon us!’. And then ‘Venus, The Bringer of Peace’ comes out, and it’s just so peaceful. It almost sounds like springtime… in space. I picture flowers blossoming on Venus, and seeing this beautiful alien planet. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard in my life.

“What I love about it is that he’s made music with no lyrics that sound like all these emotions, like war and peace. And I’ve always found that really fascinating, that people can create this emotion just through music. I wanted to make music that was like, but more accessible to people [today].

What about some of the more contemporary influences on the album?

“I really like music that takes you away and sounds otherworldly. I remember going to watch Coraline when I was about 12 – and I remember just thinking, ‘That soundtrack is phenomenal’. It’s just the most beautifully eerie music.

‘The Legend Of Zelda’ games were another big inspiration. ‘Twilight Princess’ on the Nintendo Wii was the one. There is one song on my album, ‘As We Bloom’ — and I was completely unaware of it — but a friend of mine said it sounds a little bit like [the Koji Kondo-penned track] ’Great Fairy’s Fountain’. And I was like, ‘Shit. Does it?’. So yeah, this is the geekiest album ever!”

There’s this real sense of yearning that can be felt across the album. How have you changed as a person over the past few years?

“‘Company’ [is significant] because it’s about when I realised during lockdown that, as a big extrovert, I am dependent on people, and that I didn’t really like my own company. So I had to really learn to be comfortable with my own company and reflect on the things that I have got.

“I definitely feel, as I’ve reflected on the album and my life in recent months, that I’ve hit another stage of emotional maturity in a way. But a release can also be a bit sad sometimes because you’re letting go of something that’s so close to you – it’s almost like I’m sending my baby off to uni!”


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