Much like the music he makes, Alex Clare is not a person you can easily label, classify or define. The British singer-songwriter, who grew up in Southeast London, spent time playing drums and contributing back-up vocals in local bands, trained to become a professional chef, and became a regular on the North London scene where he met (and dated) Amy Winehouse (whose untimely death happened one year ago today) before settling into his current incarnation: a singer-songwriter on the brink of major success who also happens to be a practicing Orthodox Jew (more on that later).
As for the music, it appears that Clare's debut album, The Lateness of the Hour, was influenced by everything from the jungle and garage music he grew up listening to in his youth to soul to dubstep and dancehall (the last of which shouldn't come as a surprise considering that the record was produced by Major Lazer's Diplo and Switch). Released in the UK a year ago, the record largely fell under the radar until Clare got an unexpected call from Microsoft, asking to use the lead single, "Too Close," on an Internet Explorer commercial. While some artists might shy away from associating their music with a brand for fear of the proverbial "selling out" accusations, Clare felt he had nothing to lose. And, sure enough, his instincts were correct. Shortly after the commercial debuted, "Too Close" became a bona fide hit (the official music video has over 14 million views on YouTube and, as of this week, is currently #10 on Billboard's rock charts), prompting the U.S. distribution of the record and a second wind for Clare.
Here, Clare talks to us about the commercial that re-launched his career, living a life of faith in the music industry, and why "brostep" artists are kosher with him.
Can you tell me about your background and how you got started in music?
I'm a nice Jewish boy from Northwest London and have always loved music. I started playing trumpet at seven and started playing drums at eleven. From there, I was playing drums in various bands and I used to do backing vocals as well. I picked up the guitar, which I started learning in earnest at about 17, and then I started writing songs.
At what point did you decided to make music into a serious career?
It was when I was 18 and I was playing drums for a band and I realized I wanted to make music full-time. I guess an opportunity [to do so] arose when I was 22 and working as a chef but also moonlighting at a studio. The guy who ran the studio gave me a publishing contract as a writer.
What kinds of songs were you writing? Were you only writing for other singers or were you also writing for yourself?
I was writing for myself and for a few other people. [I was writing] jazzy songs, really. Quite organic-sounding. I grew up in the nineties and in the UK jungle and garage were huge [then] so I also wanted to use elements of that in my music.
Speaking of UK jungle and garage, your music does seem to tie together lots of different styles. How would you describe its overall sound?
It's eclectic, ambiguous and diverse. As a vocalist, I definitely tip my hat to the soul singers -- that's where my vocal style comes from. But I have a pretty eclectic taste in music and I grew up listening to every type of music there is. When I made the record, I wanted to have that in mind and have a record that covers all of my bases and combines everything I love.
Microsoft Internet Explorer Commercial
Official music video for "Too Close"
How did the Internet Explorer commercial come about?
I was getting e-mails from the guy at Microsoft asking to use my song. He had another song originally that was supposed to play on the commercial and after a friend kept playing "Too Close," he wanted to use that [instead].
What was your reaction after the commercial came out and "Too Close" exploded, especially here in the States?
It was awesome. When I originally released it in the UK, nothing really happened to it. So to see that on every single social media forum that people were going crazy about the song was awesome. You can see your progress as it goes -- it's instantaneous.
Were you always excited about having the song on the Internet Explorer spot or were you ever concerned that people wouldn't take your music seriously if the first time they were exposed to it was on a commercial?
I think nowadays, you need as much exposure as you can get and I wasn't getting it any other way. And that commercial took my career to a new place and put my music in a new place that it wouldn't have gotten to otherwise so I don't begrudge the commercial at all.
Tell me about what it's been like working in the music industry while practicing Orthodox Judaism? I read you had to decline an offer to tour with Adele because the dates were during Passover?
Yeah. I wasn't always Orthodox. I became more religious four and a half/five years ago. Before that point, I was just as hedonistic as everyone else. I never really liked that lifestyle and I avoid that lifestyle as much as I can [now]. I'm back in London almost every Shabbos and I take it a lot easier than most of my peers do. If I kept on working straight through the week, I think my state of mind would be in a bad place. Being an observant Jew and keeping Kosher gives me the strength to keep on going, I feel.
Was your decision to become more observant a reaction at all to the hedonism or excess you saw (or even partook of) in the music industry?
No, I don't think it was a reaction to that. I always had faith and always wanted to structure and focus my life positively and it definitely gave me a vehicle to do that.
Have people been understanding and accommodating of any restrictions?
No, not always. I lost my deal with Island Records because essentially I couldn't work on Fridays or on the High Holidays. But to be fair, I think now they realize that it's a pretty big deal and fortunately now I have enough accolades to my name that it's not really an issue anymore and people are willing to work around it. Starting out it was really hard to get people to understand. People are supportive now but there is a bit of a learning curve and it was really tough.
Shifting gears a little, as a musician who's previously talked about his interest in and incorporation of dubstep, what do you think of the claim that newer dubstep artists -- particularly those in North America -- are bastardizing the sound with "brostep?"
I wouldn't call it bastardization. Realistically, it's fine. Music adapts and evolves constantly and it changes and it's interpreted in different ways by different people. I'm not a purist. If you're a purist, you get stuck in a rut and you can't progress artistically. If rock 'n' roll had never been exported to England from America, it would have still been pretty cheesy. I think it's probably the same with dubstep -- it has to come over [here], have a different set of ears and a different set of interpretations. I think that's the way music [is].
Photo by Jon Baker
The Lateness of the Hour is out now.
The Lateness of the Hour is out now.