How's this for a challenge? We dare you - double, triple, and quadruple dog - to open up the "about" section of singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's website page and try not to emit an audible "awwww." The photograph that accompanies Wren's biography shows him, age five or so, standing in his stocking feet in front of a suburban fireplace, holding a guitar. The OshKosh shirt and Winnie the Pooh pants add to the adorable quality of the picture, as do the baskets of toys flanking him, but it's the intense look in his eye that hints at what the future held for the Fort Wayne native and graduate of Carroll High School.
Since time immemorial, kids have been striking the rock star "just got my first guitar" pose for Mom and Dad's Kodak, but only a few of those kids grow up to accomplish what Wren - born Alex Renbarger - can boast at the tender age of 23: not only a strong showing on the notoriously competitive program American Idol but a debut EP of original songs produced by a much sought after Nashville name-maker.
Wren will be performing songs from the EP, The Good in Goodbye, at C2G Music Hall Friday, December 30. Sunny Taylor Berry, whom he grew up listening to at Come2Go and Sweetwater open mic nights, will open.
"I can't tell you how excited I am to be performing for a hometown crowd at C2G," Wren said in a recent phone interview from his home in Nashville. "And to have Sunny there, too - she's always been one of my idols - I know it's going to be an amazing experience."
Wren came by his first guitar courtesy of his mother, who sang when her sons (Wren has a brother, Justin, who works for an artist management company) were young, and his eclectic taste in music thanks to his father, a lover of Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Blind Willie Johnson and Billie Holiday. Having taken voice lessons in middle school, he made regular trips to Nashville as a high schooler to record his own work.
His intention was to attend Belmont University after graduating from Carroll, but there's a saying about best-laid plans: sometimes they have to be postponed because someone has landed a coveted spot on a national television show. Just a week before he was scheduled to begin classes, Wren auditioned for American Idol and was one of the few candidates chosen to perform on the show. The audition, in effect, changed the course of his life. Instead of going off to college as so many of his friends did, he decided to pursue a career as a professional musician. It was not a decision he made lightly.
"I only have good things to say about American Idol," Wren told me. "It forced me to grow as an artist and to find my place in the music world. It also forced me to put in the hours of practice needed to become better. Being in front of the judges, playing in Hollywood, it helped me all around. It helped me discover my strengths and what I needed to work on, and it was really affirming. It gave me the confidence necessary to make a hard decision and know what I needed to do to move forward."
And what he needed to do, he discovered, was record. The Good in Goodbye EP actually began with a song entitled "Morning Light," which Wren co-wrote with his friend, Rebecca Daniel. The song came together quickly, and it also convinced Nashville producer Micah Tawlks that he wanted to be a part of Wren's new project.
"'Morning Light' resembles the very first part of a romantic relationship when you just feel infatuated with someone," Wren said. "It has, I think, the potential to connect with a lot of younger listeners, but really it has something to say to everyone, because we've all been at that point in a relationship when you're head over heels for a person and it causes you to do crazy things."
If writing and recording "Morning Light" was a breeze, the title track on the EP proved a little more challenging, mostly because Wren started writing the melancholy "The Good in Goodbye" when he was still a sophomore in high school. He'd never been able to finish the song, which delves into the bittersweet experience of heartbreak, of letting go. Looking back, Wren said that's probably because he hadn't lived enough yet.
"I was ready to give up on it, to scrap it and maybe just use a verse or two, but last November I locked myself in my house for a couple days, thinking 'I am going to finish this song. If, that is, it's worth finishing."
He realized, much to his surprise and relief, that it was worth it. And soon, having shut himself away from all distractions, he had a finished product he was proud of. He'd also learned something valuable about what life as an artist is all about.
"It taught me the power of persevering and believing in a song's power," he said. "I would have never thought I'd ever record that song, let alone finish it, and now I'm really happy with how it turned out. I'm going to think twice before I give up on something in the future. Sometimes it just takes hard work and determination to get it right."
Wren wrote the third song on the EP, "Days Like This" when he was living in a two-bedroom apartment with five other young men. He'd been eliminated from American Idol and was, for the first time in his life, on his own. It's the most country-influenced song on the EP, and represents to Wren his own coming-of-age, his maturation process set to music.
"It's a song about trying to wrestle with big questions," he said. "I grew up listening to my dad's favorite stuff, which tended to be classical country, and I hated it. I hated steel guitar, I hated what I considered twangy voices, I hated it all. But then I moved to Nashville and I began to study songwriting, and traditional country just started to sneak into my work. Traditional country is all about the song, the writing. It's not about production value. I had to learn that on my own, but now that I know it I'm excited when someone tells me they hate country music. I'm like, 'Let me play you some stuff and I bet you'll change your mind.'"
Wren knows that, as a man in his early 20s, he still has a lot to learn about the art of songwriting, about the music business, about himself, and he's wide open to what other artists and life in general have to teach him. He said he hopes that those lessons, that the growth he experiences as he continues to hone his craft, is evident in the songs themselves.
"I see so many 12- and 13-year-olds in this town making a go of it, and the age limit just seems to get younger every year, which in a way is super cool. I'm glad they have those opportunities, but there is something to be said for life experience and the authority it gives you to write believable songs. I'm learning a lot as I go, and this is the first time in my life I've been able to be real with myself and say, all things considered, I do think I'm finally stepping into my mature voice. It takes time. It just takes time, and the years you spent pursuing your dream are an important part of helping you discover what it is you have to say."