Halfway through writing and recording her new album, ‘How To Grow A Sunflower Underwater’, Alex the Astronaut (real name Alexandra Lynn) learned something about herself. Years of troubled sleep patterns, childhood psychologist appointments, obsessive behaviours and sensory reactions had led her into a labyrinth of doctors and specialists. But now she had an answer – she was diagnosed with Level 1 ASD, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum that causes a person’s brain to develop differently to a non-autistic person, and also with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“After all this time waiting for the diagnosis, I was like, ‘this is going to be fantastic. This is going to explain everything. I’m really excited’,” Lynn tells NME. “And then I got the diagnosis and I went the other way. I was so embarrassed. I was really worried about what people saw in me that I didn’t see in myself, that I was missing parts of conversations, or that my friends were just my friends because they felt sorry for me.”
Once those feelings passed, though, her diagnosis opened up a new level of self-acceptance for Lynn. Her obsessions – ranging from Lego as a kid, to her music and her current fascination with crafting animation – made more sense. It also helped her understand her sensory triggers and how to deal with them using tools like noise-cancelling headphones or iPad apps like Sensory Magma (which generates calming, lava-like images) for when she’s travelling, as well as the importance of monitoring her physical health, diet and sleep patterns.
“[Previously] I thought, if I went into that obsessive side, I’d just fall off the cliff and sit in my room for 19,000 hours and never get anywhere with anything. But that wasn’t true”
“The diagnosis helped me not be self-conscious about certain aspects of myself, and especially the obsessive side,” says Lynn. “I’ve kind of gotten to the point where I’ve gone ‘it’s a part of who I am’. There are aspects of myself that are going to be a little bit different than other people, but mostly, I think of it as just a part of me.”
On ‘Octopus’, a song inspired by her snorkelling expeditions, Lynn compares herself to the tentacled creature. Its camouflaging abilities may inspire awe and even envy, but in her lyrics Lynn draws out the implications of hiding: “I think I’m like an octopus sometimes / Trying so hard to fit in / I forgot that I have something I could give.”
“The thing that I was trying to get across is in ‘Octopus’ is – and obviously, there’s people with all different experiences of autism – I wouldn’t want to be neurotypical, I get to see the world a little bit differently,” Lynn says. “I might need help from you. For a few things I might need a few bits of your personality that I don’t have, like you also need mine. And I feel like that’s the piece of autism that we’ve missed.”
Autism is often spoken about as being separate from someone’s personality rather than an integral part of their personhood, Lynn thinks. “When we talk about it, we’re like, oh, this kid can draw this photorealistic thing and they’re autistic. [But] they do that, partly because their autism is a part of them. It’s not separate. You can’t separate these people into these little bits.”
Previously, Lynn had scared that fully indulging her obsessive tendencies would send her too far down the rabbit hole. She says that on earlier recordings, like her 2020 album ‘The Theory of Absolutely Nothing’, she would focus on the songwriting and often defer to her collaborators, Sam Cromack and Daniel Hanson from Ball Park Music, when it came to the production.
But on ‘How to Grow a Sunflower Underwater’ Lynn decided to assert and articulate her vision. “[Previously] I thought, if I went into that obsessive side, I’d just fall off the cliff and sit in my room for 19,000 hours and never get anywhere with anything. But that wasn’t true. It kind of meant that the music got to a level that it hadn’t before.”
“To see the world get sick was traumatic [when] I was already really, really traumatised”
While Lynn’s previous recordings were far from spartan, ‘How to Grow a Sunflower Underwater’ is defined by a contrast between micro and macro textures. Playful bubble effects open ‘Octopus’, while the second half of ‘Airport’ swells with euphoric orchestration. On this point the album often heads into widescreen awe, from ‘South London’ to ‘Ride My Bike’. Lynn points to the song ‘Northern Lights’ as a moment she leant, sometimes against the advice of her collaborators, into her new confidence to go for broke. The song starts with a simple snare and new pieces of instrumentation drop in before it lets rip halfway through.
Looking back on her life pre-diagnosis, Lynn can see how some of the personality traits associated with her autism helped her through an intensely trying time of her life. From age 22, over the two years leading up to the pandemic, Lynn found herself thrust into the role of primary caregiver for someone she describes as a “close person to me”. She says that unwittingly it was some of her obsessive tendencies that helped her push through the confusion and frustration of caring for someone with an undiagnosed chronic illness.
“If I didn’t have [those traits] I don’t think I would have been able to get her better,” says Lynn. “I didn’t realise that about my personality at the time, that I was very determined … there was no other way, I was in survival mode.”
Those two years have left their mark on Lynn, whose role as a primary carer involved managing strict dietary requirements, physical labour and desensitising herself to the visceral realities produced by bodies under duress. She had to learn to cope during emergency medical situations, and says she’s experienced lasting trauma from the weight of responsibility placed on her young shoulders.
“It’s like being hit by a bus. You go into another world and everyone’s just going on around you. The person I was caring for got better, I moved and then three weeks later the pandemic started. To see the world get sick was traumatic [when] I was already really, really traumatised,” says Lynn. “Trying to avoid getting sick and then worrying about getting sick and worrying about friends getting sick. It was very complex to go through that.”
It would be easy but inaccurate to assign triumphant, binary “before and after” narratives around Lynn’s experiences, be it her autism diagnosis or role as a carer. Every life has depths and challenges, intersecting moments of joy, growth, trauma and resilience – often these things happen all at once, and will continue to do so.
“These individual topics that we write a lot about, like autism or gender, are much better when they’re incorporated into a story because that’s when people start to understand them. ‘Alex was diagnosed with autism last year’ – that was a thing. But we also went to the beach this week and we really liked that we saw this fish,” says Lynn.
Many of the album’s songs, she points out, are linked through shared imagery. ‘Octopus’ describes lonely disconnection from neurotypical shoppers in a supermarket, which is a site of stress related to her caring in ‘Sick’. The leaping fish that distracts Alex and her friend from pain in ‘Growing Up’ is the same fish in ‘Haunted’, where its colours soothe her during a dive. ‘Haircut’ is about how cutting off her hair for charity encouraged Lynn to explore her gender identity, but is also linked to ‘Airport’ through shared themes of friendship and growing up.
“What I want is for people to be able to see [these topics] in context… the dimensionality of people,” says Lynn. “These things that have happened to me could happen to anyone else. They’ve happened to you and they’ve happened to the people living in that house next door in different ways. What I wanted to go for is: how do we make it easier to talk about these really, really tricky things that we have going on and make them more accessible?”
It’s a big question, and Lynn’s not pretending to have all the answers. “I haven’t reached an endpoint of understanding, if that makes sense. I’ve written songs but it’s not a scientific conclusion. The hundreds of words in the songs, they tie up, and they make sense,” she says. “But yeah, I guess for the human being behind the songs, it’s a lot more complex.”