Sarah Ruth Alexander is a second-generation child of the Dust Bowl. Born to a family of cotton farmers outside the tiny Texas town of Lakeview, she grew up listening to her parents’ stories about the devastation the dust storms wrought. Much like the dust that engulfed homes in the 1930s, Alexander’s suburban Denton home is completely submerged in art. Packed bookshelves strain under their load, photographs and paintings cover the walls, and various recordings and potted plants rest on every available surface.
At 5-feet-11-inches and clad in all black, Alexander exudes a commanding presence. With jet-black hair and deep brown eyes, she holds direct eye contact and makes broad gestures to emphasize important points.
Alexander’s intensity is perfectly matched by her music. Her most recent album, The Shape of Blood to Come, is dedicated to her friend, musician Nevada Hill, who died from cancer in 2016. In it, Alexander mines her grief and distills it into song. Beautiful operatic singing morphs into controlled guttural screaming. Her eerie dulcimer and foreboding harmonium transport you to a world of pure black nothing.
“It was therapy to get through a thing that I really didn’t discuss with anybody,” she said of the songwriting process.
The Shape of Blood to Come features a seasoned cast of local musicians, including Daron Beck (Pinkish Black), Frank Cervantez (Sub Oslo), Beth Dodds (Bukkake Moms), Will Kapinos (Dim Locator), Paul Slavens (Ten Hands), and Jon Teague (Pinkish Black).
She’s known Fort Worthians Beck, Cervantez, and Teague — the first of whom was also her roommate for several years — from time spent in the North Texas music scene. You can hear Beck’s colossal keyboard timbre, Cervantez’ guitar serrations, and Teague’s punishing drums throughout the album.
But “album” is an unfair classification — “opus” might be more accurate. Alexander created a running theme, a heartbreakingly beautiful melody that reinforces the album’s compositional structure after it spins into chaotic improvisation.
Alexander shies away from writing lyrics because she thinks they’re too subjective. Her main goal is to affect her listener viscerally, she said, and she doesn’t need language to do that. There are no lyrics on the album save for one spoken word excerpt on “A Theme and Variations (Blastoff).” The sole stanza shines.
“In regards to magic, magic is real and beautiful,” Alexander says, her voice cloaked in distortion. “But the chemistry, the chemistry can be quite volatile / Explosive at times, calming at others / Basking in the passionate confines of such extremes / We reap our poetry.”
She’s educated, and it shows. As a student at UNT, Alexander had to pass a piano proficiency, analyze a sonata, and write an exposition to a fugue to obtain her music degree. Even still, she said some people don’t take her seriously as a musician because she’s a woman.
Over the course of her lifelong career and many concerts in many cities, the married scene veteran had to brush off slimy concertgoers who yell vulgarities at her while she’s performing. Some sound guys dismiss her and instead ask her male bandmates how to mic her instruments. One sound guy ignored her completely, speaking only to her husband about her upcoming set even though he wasn’t in the band.
But Alexander isn’t fazed.
“Women have to work extra hard because we’re under more scrutiny,” she said. “Men can be mediocre, but women can’t, which I take as a good thing.”
Alexander does work extra hard. On top of gigging frequently, she also co-owns her family’s cotton farm, works part-time at an aquatic plant farm, dee-jays on Denton radio station 92.9-FM/KUZU, and freelances as a music teacher.
On Friday, she’ll play at Division Brewing in Arlington to benefit the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a nonprofit dedicated to providing migrants with legal assistance.
Last Saturday, she flexed her improvisation chops at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in conjunction with the Laurie Simmons exhibit. Taking cues from the avant-garde Feminist Improvising Group, Alexander’s ensemble used hairdryers, kitchen timers, pans, and other domestic appliances as instruments.
Whether it’s solo or with a band, the atoms in the room galvanize into lightning when Alexander performs. She loses herself to trance, she said, as soon as she hits the stage. She lives for the moments when her performance strikes someone, when it moves them in an unexpected way. Using her platform to connect with her audience emotionally, Alexander specializes in conjuring catharsis.
“I want people to feel cleansed of something,” she said. “Something that was maybe hard to communicate. Maybe there’s a release, like I could be a vessel for that.”
7:30pm Fri w/Mirrorbox and Polystarra at Division Brewing, 506 E Main St, Arlington. $5. 682-276-1276.