Earlier this summer, Adam Alexander, the singer-songwriter who records as Demo Taped, spent some time in New York. By day, the 19-year-old Atlanta native had been reworking a gospel-tinged sample by the producer Frank Dukes; when he returned to his hotel room one night, he began texting lyrics and voice memos to the musician Ben Abraham, with whom he was co-writing a track. And by the end of the night, they had a song: “Insecure,” the most recent Demo Taped single, and the video for which premieres exclusively here on W. He returned to Atlanta to record the track with his father, a bassist, at Antioch Baptist Church, the church where his grandfather, a Civil Rights activist who marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., is still pastor. Then, in September, he came back to New York to shoot the video for “Insecure,” depicting a heady cab ride in Brooklyn and an accompanying flux of memories set against the city lights.
Thematically, “Insecure” mines familiar territory for Alexander: “Can I be candid? I worry sometimes, the terror, the panic plays out in my mind,” he sings in the lead-up to the chorus. “I know you care for me, but baby, sometimes, I feel so uneasy.” The sentiment—several shades darker than your garden-variety insecurity—echoes releases like “Pack of Gum,” an allusion to his tendency to chain-chew when his anxiety was at its peak, and “Game On,” which Alexander told me last year is “about facing depression and anxiety head-on.” Both songs, like “Insecure,” plumb the depths of Alexander’s own struggles with mental illness, about which he has been outspoken, even writing an essay earlier this year entitled “We Need to Make It OK for Black Men to Talk About Their Mental Illness.”
But sonically, “Insecure” also explores new frontiers adjacent to the synth sounds that have marked Demo Taped releases since his debut EP, Heart, came out in early 2015. It features the unmistakable trill of an organ choir and backing vocals by a gospel choir, Alexander’s own voice dancing over the top of a track that pays homage to his earliest encounters with music—in that same church over which his grandfather, Rev. Cameron Madison Alexander, has presided for more than six decades.
Though Alexander, at 19, has yet to release a full-length record, he’s been playing music since his parents enrolled him in piano lessons as a toddler, and singing ever since a piano teacher discovered he could carry a tune shortly after. He performed a cover of Whitney Houston’s “Who Would Imagine a King” as part of a piano recital; his grandfather was in the audience, and then, at church, called on Alexander to perform the track in front of the congregation. (His father, also a musician, is the church’s bandleader.)
“I’m half-paying attention,” Alexander recalled recently, speaking over the phone, “so my first thing was, ‘Oh, maybe they won’t know the song and maybe I’ll get out of it’—but no, they all knew it.” Alexander started writing his own music, largely folk and rock tunes, in middle school, and briefly toyed with filmmaking before beginning to put out his songs as Demo Taped. With just a handful of tracks recorded in his bedroom and posted to his Soundcloud, he nabbed a deal with Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment, where his labelmates include Young Thug.
Alexander has played Demo Taped music for his grandfather, who “enjoyed it, but he was very curious about it.” At the senior Alexander’s request, he began working on a Demo Taped cover of “Amazing Grace” before he received the gospel-tinged Frank Dukes sample that would form the backbone of “Insecure.”
“I was like, ‘Okay, this is perfect,’” Alexander said. “I wanted to make a song that he could understand musically, but also, the subject matter is something that is me, something that I’m going through.”
Alexander’s music addresses romance and mental health alike, often at the same time, and his grandfather has been a confidant when it comes to the latter. One night, when Alexander was in middle school, things came to a head and he told his parents he thought he was depressed—and, in fact, he was struggling with suicidal thoughts. It was late, and they did not hesitate to drive him to the hospital. On the way, they stopped at his grandfather’s house, and Rev. Alexander told the a fable about a traveling man who had lost his bearings; he approached a stranger for help, and the stranger told him, “You’re not lost—you just don’t know where you are right now.”
“That talk really brought us together,” Alexander recalled. “That was the most comforting talk I’ve ever had.”
“Insecure” is an early preview of an upcoming EP, slated for release next year, that began with the young musician writing down a list of questions he hoped to answer. “What causes me to back away from a sure thing, relationship-wise?” was one, which led to “Insecure.” Some were more global, more existential, with political resonance: “What can I do?” was another.
“We can’t get too surprised at what happens anymore, because it just keeps happening,” Alexander told me. (His grandfather, after all, had “lived through all that pain and heartache and physical violence and mental anguish” of the civil rights era already.) “Black people know racism still exists. Black people know hatred exists. Every minority knows hatred exists, every person of color. … When all these weird, terrible things happen, when violence happens or racists march in today’s time, some people are like, ‘Oh, it’s 2017, racism is over, Obama did that, he handled that for us.’ No. It’s a thing that’s going to keep going—and we’ve done better.”
So: “What can I do?” Alexander asks. He has looked to role models like Bob Marley, who used music as a form of resistance. “Art brings people together. It starts a conversation; it starts a discussion,” he said.