Magic Al: Good Grief | Sleepy Cat Records; Nov. 10

Alex Bingham has endured a lot these last few years. But, as the Hillsborough-based musician is quick to point out, haven’t we all?

In 2022, Bingham lost three people close to him: a beloved aunt, a college roommate, and a childhood friend. Two succumbed to cancer—Angie, quickly, and John, more slowly—while, wedged in between those two deaths, Will died by suicide.

Grief engulfed Bingham. But it also birthed something: Good Grief, his debut solo album as Magic Al, released November 10 on Sleepy Cat Records.

The album’s nine songs intercut joy and sadness, mixing melancholic regret with misty-eyed love. Danceable bangers are backed by skittering synthesizers, hazy acoustic guitars, crisp MPC samples, and Bingham’s trademark bass grooves. They also represent Bingham’s diverse musical friendships: to make Good Grief, he invited Amelia Meath, Libby Rodenbough, Joseph Terrell, Molly Sarlé, Chris Frisina, Vivian Leva, Riley Calcagno, Rosali, and Taylor Meier to cowrite the album, turning it into what Bingham calls a “producer’s record.”

And since death is universal, the artists that play with Bingham on Good Grief also brought their own experiences of loss to recording sessions for the album at his lakefront Bedtown Studios in rural Virginia.

“Death used to be my biggest fear,” he tells me over lunch in Hillsborough. “I couldn’t talk about it. And losing three people close to me in one year broke that all up and redefined how I feel about death.” Now, he says, “it’s OK to write about it! There’s no longer a fear.”

Bingham has never been afraid to work hard. He’s busy—touring with Hiss Golden Messenger, producing and engineering for a growing circle of Triangle friends, and maintaining his circa-1800 Hillsborough homestead and home studio with his wife, Carley, and their two boisterous dogs. As he said last year when he launched Magic Al, the new artist name and production project, is “a place to finally call my own—keeping the joy afloat while holding space for the harder things.”

That ethos is evident on album opener “Cryin’ at the Party,” in which handclaps and disco beats meld with heartfelt lyrics (“We all feel you around / Your distant company drifts with me”). Released as Good Grief’s final single, accompanied by a photo montage of John, the best friend, Bingham calls it the most direct song on the record.

It was also the last to make the cut. Bingham didn’t intend to sing lead on the song; initially, he laid down a scratch vocal and circulated it among collaborators. His good friend Chris Frisina, who performs as Lou Hazel, stepped in. Bingham adopts Frisina’s New York accent to tell the story: “Chris called me and said, ‘No frickin’ way! Your scratch vocal is it.’ Then [Chris] called everybody else and said, ‘Nobody but Al is singing on this!’ I think of producing as fishing, and Chris is my biggest, dumbest fish. When his eyebrow goes up, I know he’ll bite. He’s the creative lubricant that gets the energy going.”

Frisina wrote and sang lead on “Party for One,” drawing on memories of a lackluster high school prom. The dual party songs pull listeners in opposite directions, mixing elation with sadness, a juxtaposition that also extends to “Hello,” in which Bingham nails a blend of Petty-esque guitar riffs, Dilla-style beats, and folksy vocals from frequent collaborators Vivian Leva (of Viv & Riley) and Taylor Meier (of CAAMP).

“I’ve always felt this spiritual connection between old-time music and beat-making,” Bingham says. “There’s deep emotional value in both of them.”

He juxtaposed Leva’s ethereal voice with a jaunty beat that “always feels like it’s falling backward.” The result? “Magical,” Bingham says. “On ‘Party for One’ and ‘Hello,’ we found that duality I often search for.”

Both songs, Bingham adds, were fostered by what became perhaps the album’s most critical component: an inflatable Coleman hot tub at the Bedtown Studios lakehouse.

“It turned out to be the most important piece of gear,” he laughs. “It’s a social gathering space, a place to get inspired, and a place to celebrate when the songs were done. So many of them clicked right after getting out of this little plastic hot tub.”

It’s where he and Molly Sarlé watched a moon rise over the lake before writing the tenderly haunting “There Was a Moon.” The duo talked for hours before transforming an initial idea for a big, danceable song with a slapping beat into a gentle lament.

“Molly is not afraid of tackling heavy subjects,” Bingham says. “She really met me where I was emotionally, and her voice led us to this heavier, more subdued place.”

True to Good Grief’s caterwauling form, the next two songs after “There Was a Moon” carom in sonically wild directions. “2003 Suburban, 2021 Wedding” connects the dots between carefree teenage memories of John with “This Must Be the Place,” the Talking Heads song that served as John and his wife Emily’s first dance when they married two years ago.

Alex Bingham. Photo by Chris Frisina.

“The bass line on ‘2003 Suburban’ is very derivative of that,” Bingham admits. “I’m obsessed with Tina Weymouth and have been mimicking her for years.”

Libby Rodenbough was the only collaborator to bring a previously written song—“6am”— to the Good Grief sessions. But over pizza (and yes, the hot tub), the duo molded it into something new. “There’s so much tension in Libby’s song,” he says. “She wrote it about struggling through a morning with your partner, but after we finished it, it feels more like a song about lying awake and grappling with grief.”

“Libby lost her mom while we were recording her album [Between the Blades] at Bedtown,” Bingham continues. “She’s my best friend. And she trusted me with a song she’d written! Like, ‘Yes, this is a Magic Al thing now.’ I feel so honored by that trust.”

Good Grief floats into the ether on final track “Live Forever,” just 99 seconds of haunting vocals from Hillsborough musician Rosali over a gentle guitar strum. Bingham says it was a surefire closer. “When Rosali sings, ‘Do you wanna / Live forever?’ I know what my answer is now: no. John was ready to go. My aunt was ready to go. But when Will died, I didn’t have the tools to deal with that.”

In that sense, Good Grief represents a purposeful exercise in devoting time to remembrance—roughly one day per song spent immersed in creation with friends.

 “It’s really important to make that time,” Bingham says. “That was one of my first big lessons from grief counseling. I think about it every day.”

The morning of my interview with Bingham, I was preparing my notes when I found out my oldest friend had unexpectedly died the night before. I briefly considered canceling, but here I was, crafting questions about the grief Bingham faced and the way music offered him a path through it. Perhaps our conversation would be illuminating—even cathartic.

Naturally, Bingham was empathetic. He listened as I described how “There Was a Moon” had made me cry on the drive to Hillsborough and how “2003 Suburban” flooded me with memories of my own friend. I finished our interview still mired in grief—but also buoyed by the joy Bingham brought to Good Grief. A week later, he followed up by mailing me a copy of Iris Gottlieb’s book Everything Is Temporary: Illustrated Contemplations on How Death Shapes Our Lives.

For our second interview, Bingham welcomed me into his organized home studio. Synthesizers, MPCs, pedals, and meticulously looped cords lined one wall. Speakers and mixing consoles stood guard around his computer workstation, while handwritten notes, Polaroid grids, and potted plants dotted the in-between spaces.

“Following my interests has always served me best,” he says, reminiscing on the limitations he experienced studying classical music in high school and jazz at UNC Greensboro. “Every rub I’ve come up against has led me to this point—to this studio we’re in, to this life.”

He smiles, bright-eyed below his shaggy red hair. He previews a few new beats, fluidly bouncing between keyboard and sampler even as he corrals his dogs and shows off funky bric-a-brac like a Bootsy Collins action figure and the pale yellow “Life Is Good” mug he drinks out of to channel Aunt Angie’s spirit.

“I try to produce by re-creating these kinds of feelings,” he finishes. “If I can make emotions happen through sound, that’s my job.”

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