After a two-year high thanks his "Too Close" single, the Uk bred soul star prepares for his second run.
Words and Interview by Laura Smith. Photo by Dirty Souf Yankee.
One can argue that commercials carry a lot of clout when it comes to making a music career, but it takes genuine musical chops to keep the buzz going after an ad gets dropped from rotation. The dubstep driven and ear-wormy power ballad of Alex Clare’s “Too Close” was the perfect vehicle to drive the flashy commercial for the Microsoft’s new Internet Explorer — grabbing the ear of every American teenager, twenty-something and probably even your mom. While Clare is certainly not the first white soul singer to come out of the UK, it’s the humanity in his voice that effortlessly blends with the heavy bass lines and driving synths of dubstep and subverts it into something new. After releasing his Major Lazer and Switch-produced debut album, The Lateness of the Hour in 2011, Clare experienced the pendulum swing of success: being dropped by his label five months before the Microsoft deal and then resigning after becoming an international star. Now with a little more spring in his step, I caught up with this London lad fresh off his Brit Awards nomination and world tour to talk shop about his new album dropping this June and how he tries stay kosher.
I hear you’re going to be playing Coachella, will this be the first time you’re playing an American music festival of this scale?
I played Summer Camp festival last summer in Seattle, but on the scale like Coachella this is a first.
As one ginger to another, be sure to bring your sunscreen or else you’re gonna die out there.
[Laughs] I will!
Since touring all over Europe and the States, how do you keep the material fresh every night? Do you tailor it to fit the different places you’re performing?
When you play shows in smaller towns you get a much more powerful vibe, it’s a given, you can expect a really fun show. The bigger city shows, people tend to be more reserved which is really weird. When you get to a place like New York, it’s not so much of a come down, but you definitely have to put in more work because the people tend to be more cynical.
Yeah, New York audiences sort of have that reputation of standing with our arms folded and nodding. I will say this though; the crowd at your Irving Plaza show was singing along and dancing. I saw a girl on someone’s shoulders holding an Israeli flag, so you had a lot of support.
Wow, yeah I saw that, that was kind of weird [Laughs]
Your religious background is often highlighted in the press, being a spiritual person and following certain practices, have there ever been times when you found is difficult to practice your faith as an Orthodox Jew while maintaining the lifestyle of a modern touring musician?
Not really, obviously the biggest challenge for me is having to turn down shows on Friday nights. I lost my original record deal because of that. But once you start getting a little bit of success, people start listening to you and you get to call the shots a bit more. It’s pretty easy though, there are people having a much harder time in the world. It’s usually a minor thing but some people are taken aback, like seeing someone wearing his heritage on his sleeve to an extent.
Have you always wanted to be a musician?
My whole life I’ve been a musician. I started playing the trumpet at seven, then started playing the drums at 11 and from 16 until now I’ve been playing in bands and writing, so it’s all I ever wanted to do.
Since working with Major Lazer and being influenced by their dubstep driven, experimental style, do you think you would have gone in that direction had you not collaborated with them? Would you have gone the more traditional soul-singer route?
I was making that kind of music before I even got involved with them, very bass-heavy and beat heavy. I grew up in a part of London where dubstep and electronic music really became what it is now, so I was constantly exposed to it. I wanted to marry that background to more traditional songwriting style, which I think I did.
So you’re working with them again on your upcoming record, what major shifts in sound and songwriting can we expect this time around?
Wow, that’s a big question. Songwriting wise, I’ve got a lot more to be happy about now. On The Lateness of the Hour, I was basically complaining about how rough life is, but right now life is pretty good. In terms of themes, I’m much more optimistic and musically I’m coming from a better place. I’m just writing, we haven’t started production yet. At the moment, it’s more up-tempo; most of the last album was slower, with the exception of a few tracks.
You’ve also mentioned adding more live orchestration for the next album, what is it that live instruments bring to a record?
I’m a sucker for a violin. I love strings. The only time we had string accompaniment on the last album was on “Relax my Beloved” and “Caroline.” I definitely want to focus on the melody lines so I can get a lot more string action going on for this one.
Yes, it’s all about “the string action.” But I do find the violin to be such an emotional instrument.
It’s such a beautiful, beautiful sound.
Usually UK artists have a hard time breaking into the States, do you feel like it would have been a much more difficult process had you not been featured in the now famous Microsoft ad?
Totally, it would have taken much longer. Actually I think I’m now bigger in America than I am in the UK. Which is funny, all thanks to Bill Gates I guess. Breaking in the UK is hard enough to be honest. When you listen to the radio stations in the UK, it’s much more trend based with much faster shifts than in America. In America, if you’re into songwriting, and ballads and proper music, they [artists] tend to have a bit more longevity. Whereas in the UK, if you’re not on a scene, you’re kind of stuck. People really want to pigeonhole [you]. In America, I don’t think you have that problem, it’s a little more open-minded and just like good music as opposed to what’s trendy.
Well, it’s such a larger market. Although I will say, even though mainstream music isn’t as trend based, the indie, EDM and those scenes are constantly shifting as far as blogger’s taste and such.
The whole scene in the UK is kind of independent, underground music is what dominates in the pop scene. The pop scene on the radio is all based on what’s going on in the clubs.
Yes, but that also means you don’t have to listen to “Call Me Maybe” 15 times a day.
Oh don’t worry; they play “Call Me Maybe” loads of times here too [Laughs].
You’ve dabbled with a few covers, from Etta James to Prince, what artist would you love to cover one of your songs?
I would be honored if anyone covered one of my songs, like “Thanks, cheers mate.”
Outside of teenagers on Youtube, any professional artists?
I really don’t know, I’d be flattered if anyone did. Maybe one day someone really famous will, and then I can call you up and gush about it.
Your current album touches on love and lost, what is the ultimate break-up song— something you listen to— that’s cathartically helped you in the past?
Hmm, well I know the ultimate “pre-break-up” songs is, “I’ll Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” by Donny Hathaway. I think the first time I heard it I just cried [Laughs]. That happens quite a lot to me unfortunately. I always give a bit of a cry when I hear a good song.
So the last album was dealing with a bit darker themes, and with this new album things are going better for you. Do you think it’s harder to write when you’re actually happy and feeling good about things?
Not exactly, I mean you write songs all the time, each reflects a bit of your personality and state of mind. It’s very easy to write a song and make it negative and blame somebody for what has gone wrong, but there are always two sides to every story. No one is every really blameless in a relationship. My philosophy now has kind of shifted from “I’m going to get this off my chest” when things go wrong, to “it’s probably equally my fault.” I’m starting to write more positively and optimistically. It is a bit more of a challenge, but it’s a challenge I’d like to rise to. Even when it’s really, really hard, there’s a lot to be grateful for.
What do you see for yourself in 2013?
This year I finish my new album and will be touring for the rest of year. So yeah, having another massive single would be quite nice [Laughs]. I wouldn’t mind that, that would be quite helpful. More of the same: onwards and upwards.
Want more music from the UK? How about some soul? Deep dive with MTV Iggy, here.