With orange hair, a voice made for balladry, and an affinity for profanity, Begonia, a.k.a. Alexa Dirks, is frank about the times we live in. At 35, she is unquestionably millennial, but when I spoke to her one morning this February, I was convinced she was a Gen Z-er: she’s honest, anxiety-ridden but working on it, and exuberant. She, too, went to therapy during quarantine, and, according to her songs, did something in the back of a car. She reads the writing on the wall, allowing happenstance to take meaning, like the stars or a random page from a book. People of different generations sometimes feel as though they live in a different era, but I feel sure that Begonia and I have shared a world.
In her new album Powder Blue, her pop-R&B-gospel affinities shine, as well as some experimentation (think artpop autotune). The stereotype of pop-adjacent genres, that they tend to be narrowly focused on emotion disembodied from contemporaneity, might linger in about half the songs, but the upside is that they provide a wholly listenable catchiness. Alexa herself is unambiguous, and it shows in some of her lyrics: “Was it contextual, or am I bisexual?” If I had to guess, I would classify her as an Aries.
Nostalgia and matters of the heart are emotional categories she ruminates over at length in Powder Blue and in real life. But she also makes jokes about Amazon Alexa and turning off her Google Alerts. In our conversation, she tells me about the album, herself, anxiety, religion, love, and more.
These conversations have been edited for clarity.
What kind of music did you grow up with?
I was growing up with Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child. I was also growing up with the most misogynistic fucking movies, like American Pie, where women are there to shake their booties around. Like Girls Gone Wild, that MTV era. That era of aggro white dudes at the forefront of pop culture.
I also grew up listening to so much Christian music. Amy Grant was my girl. Then I veered into the pop music sphere and my idol was Fiona Apple (angsty).
What inspired this album?
I grew up really religious, like pretty evangelical of my own volition. I just went that way, and had a strong fear of the Lord in me, and that impacted me in a huge way. Then, when I started touring, when I was 19 or 20, my brain completely changed. I just changed my mind on the world. I’ve been in a constant state of motion since then, so my brain was changing, but I wasn’t necessarily sitting down to process it appropriately. So it was a lot of processing things that I would not have thought about had the pandemic not hit.
What takeaways from your first album did you bring or not bring into this one?
The first one, I was a complete freak on a leash and was so anxious about everything, every decision. Like, am I sending the right email at the right time of day to make the perfect impact? I was losing sleep over spelling mistakes. My attention to detail was not serving me, and I had no reference point because I’d never done it before. And with this one, I had a reference point for some of that stuff. So I’m still a freak, there’s still a hamster carnival in my brain from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed, but I’m more acquainted with the hamsters now.
And I’m a singer, a musician, an artist, and it defines me in so many ways. It’s really hard to separate my life from my career, like, this is everything. It can really fuck you up. I was just, every day, looking in the mirror being like, it’s not going to fuck you up this time, you let it do that last time, and I didn’t enjoy myself, I burnt out so quickly. I’m prioritizing rest in a new way. I want to experience joy, I want to be present. I don’t want to be looking at good things and finding the holes, because that’s what I used to do.
The album feels centered around the experience of being a woman. Do you want to say more, if that was an intent?
I’ve always known, especially when I was more in the Evangelical world, that there was a lot of ways of being desirable as a woman, of your lot in life as a woman, the trajectory of what I thought my life would be as a woman. Which was getting married at 21 and having babies and taking care of the home. And all that cliché stuff, for me, just kept not happening as the years went by. So like, then what? Who am I then, what am I as a woman? I broke free of those ideals, and it’s not a big deal, but I think they’re still working through in my mind and working through my sexuality. I know I’m not straight, but I’m not conclusive about that either. My pronouns are she/her, I would introduce myself as a woman, but I’m not sitting here thinking I am the embodiment of what it means to be feminine. But also, what the fuck does that even mean?
Where does the name Begonia come from?
My partner at the time was reading this old-school plant book, and there was a plant with a beautiful portrait photo in it called the Rex begonia, and all my good friends at home call me Rex. It was like something was calling me to this plant. Finding a project name can sometimes feel really impossible. Once you find something that feels good, you just commit to it and you don’t think twice about it, you don’t look back.
Some songs in the album had very tapered beginnings, like “Chasing Every Sunrise” and “Bleeding Heart.” Can you tell me about that choice?
For “Chasing Every Sunrise,” the acapella beginning was not the original intent. The song was written, and I was, like, ugh, that just doesn’t feel right, the opening. And I was walking outside, at night in silence, literally what the lyrics say. I was like, I want to try this again. I wanted a soft, ushering into the album, and it just felt appropriate. For something like “Bleeding Heart,” it was the same thing, where the song just cut right in, and we were like, we just want a bit of softness, a bit of ethereal quality to the beginning before it just slams right into the groove. It felt like that was what the song wanted.
What is your biggest goal right now as an artist?
For me, this is my life. I’m going to do this for the rest of my life, God willing or whoever willing. I want to keep creating, to keep having meaningful experiences. I want to be able to show up to any city and know that people are going to be at a show. But I’m going to be making art no matter what. There isn’t one thing, like oh, I want to play Madison Square Garden. I mean that would be fucking cool. But I just want to do this as long as I can with my friends and keep sight of who I am and what’s important to me, and keep growing. Continual growth— that’s what I want.
CONNECT WITH BEGONIA:
Story / JoAnn Zhang
Photos / Calvin Lee Joseph
Makeup / Rachel Lynne Jones
Hair / Kitty Bernes
Set / Seth Woodyard