Alex Clare has quite a story, from putting out his debut album, The Lateness of the Hour, in 2011, then being dropped by his label, only to be re-signed after his single was used in a Microsoft commercial and shot to the top of the charts. Then putting out a second album, Three Hearts, only to be unceremoniously dropped again.
You were in high school when you dropped out?
Now, a year after moving to Israel from his native England, Clare just released his third album, Tail of Lions, on his own label, ETC. He sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss dropping out of school, being a religious Jew and a successful musician at the same time, and the winding road that led to where he is now.
How did you first encounter music?
I grew up in a very musical house. My dad was born in 1936, so there was a lot of bee-bop and cool jazz. In my mom’s car, she played a lot of Gloria Estefan and the Eurythmics. I loved music as a kid. When I was seven, they started offering music classes at school. I learned to play trumpet, which is useless to me now. Then around 11, I started playing drums. I played in different bands until I was a teenager, then I dropped out of school to pursue music.
It’s different in England. When you reach 16, you have the choice of A levels, or doing vocational qualifications. I chose vocational qualifications in catering, then dropped out to be a rock star. Being in a band seemed much cooler than being a chef. I started taking guitar more seriously.
I always wrote lyrics, but I needed a way of writing melodies. In the environment I was in, everyone played instruments, mostly guitars. Being a drummer was a huge labor of love because you have to schlep your drum kit everywhere. Playing guitar was a much better option.
What happened from being a starry eyed 17-year-old, to seriously pursuing music? I left home and went to Camden Town, which was the hub of creative and alternative arts in London. So that was a good place to be. Once I made that commitment, I knew I was sticking with it. When you’re a young musician, you’re sleeping on people’s couches with no money. I knew that was what I was signing up for. It was great.
It was a real vagabond lifestyle. I lived on pennies, toured all over Europe.Were you raised religious?
No, not even traditional, very secular. My dad is a massive Zionist though.So what came first, musical success or teshuva?
They came at about the same time actually.
Musical success didn’t really kick off, in terms of selling music on a global level, until I was 25. I became frum when I was 22. At 21, I started asking big questions, but it took awhile after that. Things got a bit wild after I dropped out – I was a crazy kid. I was living with a bunch of very successful musicians, who didn’t have an ounce of altruism in them. I needed to feel a little bit of happiness. I had always loved Shabbat, and would frequently go to friends who were more religious than I was to spend Shabbat. I walked into a shul one week in Stamford Hill, which is like the Mea She’arim of London, in my jeans and t-shirt, and I didn’t leave. That was the beginning of the end, or the beginning of the beginning, depending on how you look at it.Did you ever worry that there would be a conflict between living a religious life and being a successful musician?
There are always conflicts in life. The obvious one is Shabbat. I got dropped from my first label because I keep Shabbat. In 2011, they asked me to do a gig on Passover with Adele. It was a two-week tour with Shabbat in the middle and Hol Hamoed.
They were already mad at me because at the end of the summer, I told them there was Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Motzei Yom Kippur, they called me up and said that they had a really good gig for me with the BBC on a Thursday, which was amazing because usually these things seem to come in on Friday nights. But it just so happened that Thursday night was the second night of Sukkot. So that was challenging and I got dropped. Two months later, my song Too Close was used in a Microsoft campaign and went on to sell about six million copies.
Then I got re-signed for considerably more than I was originally signed for.So you put out your debut album, which was fairly successful. Then you get dropped. ‘Too Close’ becomes larger than life, and you’re re-signed?
Yeah, my debut did well in Europe and on the Indie charts. It wasn’t so successful, but I was playing shows for four or five hundred people. For a new artist, it was great, but I wasn’t selling records. My record label said that I wasn’t selling enough because I wasn’t doing enough radio appearances and shows on Friday nights. It was frustrating because at the end of that summer, I was playing 700-capacity venues and my live shows were great. I was definitely gathering momentum when my label dropped me. It was a big surprise when Microsoft decided to use my song. Too Close was No.
1 on the American airplay charts for a few weeks, and No. 1 on the Billboard Indie chart for a while. It was No. 1 in Germany for like a month. The album sold a couple million copies. I went on tour for about two years after that, and got married. This was in 2012. It was the busiest year of my life, and a lot of fun. Then I made another album. The label didn’t get behind it, and I got dropped for the second time. I carried on touring and doing my own thing, and eventually started my own label, which is where I am now.It seems like such a hasty decision that they dropped you again.
Labels have priorities. They re-signed me because they felt they had to. There were offers being made by other labels. I think they resented that. I know I resented them.
Island Records at one stage was a label that was very much based on artistic integrity, creativity, and nurturing artists, but it became a cash cow. They’re not supportive of emerging artists anymore.
What was it like after the Microsoft commercial to have all that success so suddenly? It was awesome, but there is disillusionment involved, not with music or with the job of being a musician, but with the music industry. I have the best job in the world – I get paid to do what I love. That’s the dream.
But the music industry is ridiculous. It’s the stupidest business in the world. Nowadays, you can access a fan base and a core group of followers without a major label. When I started out, you needed a major deal for logistical reasons. Now you can have complete creative and business control.Can you talk about ‘Tail of Lions?’
I completed it a year ago, and then spent a year mixing and mastering it. I wrote a whole bunch of songs. Then my bass player, Chris Hargreaves, and I sat on a boat in East London for two months and recorded an album. I wrote my first album on a boat also.
I like water. The only frustration of living in Jerusalem is that I can’t live on the water, but I wouldn’t change it. Water represents everything to me. We’re totally dependent on it. I find being on the water very calming.
I like the things that are under the water. I like drinking it, swimming in it.What inspires you?
My kids are pretty inspirational, and my wife. The emotional roller coaster of life that you have when you become a husband and a father is inspiring. I also find my frustrations very inspiring. If I’m frustrated, then I want to do something about it. It gives me the impetus to change something. That’s very good for the creative process and learning to deal with things on an emotional level.
After I write a song about something that’s bothering me, the problem is still there, I just articulated it. Maybe that’s the first step toward dealing with it.Why don’t you overtly incorporate Judaism into your music?
If you dig deep, you’ll hear it. I’m not trying to proselytize. There’s a lot of really good Jewish music out there, and there’s a lot of really awful Jewish music too. I have a religious Jewish outlook on life. Learning Torah has a lot to do with how I subjectify the world around me. There’s a song from my first album called Tight Rope, which is based on an allegory from a Chabad Hassid.
It’s not overt, but it’s there.What’s next for you?
I’m touring like a crazy person. It’s at least two months on the road and away from home in America and Europe. I’m not sure about Israel yet; I like to stay incognito.