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Turning A Fantasy Into A Promising Career
Alexa Ray Joel
I think sometimes artists feel the need to confine their music into one specific genre, which is a mistake, because there are so many styles of music to be influenced by. - Alexa Ray Joel
by Matt Mrowicki
 [Chorus and Verse] June 2006 Feature: Alexa Ray Joel
Alexa Ray Joel
Alexa Ray Joel

Most musicians starting out struggle to get noticed. The effort to establish themselves while developing their sound and musical identify becomes their greatest challenge.  It becomes a question of how to not only make great music, but to have it heard by as many people as possible.

In the case of promising singer and songwriter Alexa Ray Joel, she's dealing with the similar problem of getting her music noticed and appreciated as she begins her career, but she's approaching the challenge from a different angle than most aspiring talents. The New York-based pianist is the daughter of one of the most famous piano players of the past thirty years, Billy Joel, and supermodel Christy Brinkley. And while, like most proud parents, they want the best for their child and want to encourage her to be successful in her chosen field, they have purposely avoided using their influence to push Joel's career beyond where it is evolving naturally.

Alexa Ray, her middle name is a tribute to the great Ray Charles, has been starting to establish herself by performing around the tri-state area's most notable venues.  Her debut live show was at Maxwell's in Hoboken and she recently made her first appearance at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park. The venues show part of the unusual complexity in Joel's sound.  She's performing at venues best known for rock and alternative music, yet she's a classically-trained pianist and her voice is clearly jazz-influenced. As she starts to expand her songwriting chops and melds the various sounds into something new and cohesive of her own, her early demos and live shows display a tremendous potential that should be realized over time.

Now building a regular touring schedule along with her full band, Jimmy Riot on bass and vocals, Demian Sims on guitar and vocals and Scottie Garapolo on drums, Joel should continue to expand her audience.  Fans should download her track, "The Revolution Song," from her Myspace site to experience a great track that shows how she's managed to use all of her influences without being beholden to any of them.  The song rocks, it swings and it's got a great groove pulsating underneath a smooth vocal. As Joel says, it's something that you can grab on to until you get it, and that's the mark of a great song.

Chorus and Verse interviewed Joel after a whirlwind local tour and touched on the progress with her demo and the work she's doing now to prepare for entering the studio and hopefully releasing a debut album at some point in the near future. Watch for her on the road, or as she adds more of New York City's hippest venues to her itinerary, and get a preview of what could be one of the more anticipated debut albums of 2007.

You developed your love of music starting from age two when your father would play nursery rhymes for you on the piano. Do you think that a career in music was fated for you right from the beginning? Did you ever think of yourself pursuing a career other than music and how early do you recall thinking that music would become more for you than just a pastime?

I definitely believe that music is something that is in my blood, something that I was born to do, simply because it's the one thing that has come the most naturally to me for as long as I can remember. I grew up listening to my dad write songs at the piano for hours, and watching him put the pieces of his ideas together for so many years gave me an unique inside-peek into the songwriting process. It's no wonder I write music in the same way he does: melody first, and lyrics second! Throughout my high-school years, I lightly entertained other career options and have always taken an interest in philosophy, psychology, literature, and journalism, but nothing ever replaced my main interest in writing songs. I used to be very shy, so although I always had dreams of pursuing music, I simply thought of it as this grandiose thing that would one day just naturally happen, but I didn't want to even consider the fact that as a musician I would have to perform in front of thousands of people! It wasn't up until last summer, when I started working with my own band and preparing for my first show in New York, that I realized that this was the start of my career, and that I was actually going to be pursuing it, instead of just fantasizing about it!

How did you pursue your initial piano instruction? Did your father teach you to play, did you get lessons elsewhere or did you develop parts of your style on your own? Do you continue any formal lessons or training today?

My mother had always encouraged me to take classical piano training, so I took a few lessons here and there since I was about four, but I was way too stubborn to stick with it! My poor mom had to fight me until I was eleven, when I agreed to commit to taking piano lessons with a local teacher in Long Island: the incredibly patient Christine Glennon. I studied with her for about five years, until I moved to New York City. I am so glad that I studied classical piano first, as opposed to another musical genre, because I believe that classical music is the foundation of all music as well as the most "musical" type of music. My dad helps me more with general songwriting ideas, and advises me on which piano "riffs" are cool, and I ALWAYS take his advice! Although I don't take lessons anymore, I'd love to study jazz composition, since a lot of my recent ideas have been kind of bluesy and I'm extremely influenced by the piano sounds of Ray Charles and Norah Jones.

When did you start songwriting and when did you start to think that you had talent as a lyricist to complement your performing?

I had always sung ideas in my head since I was about three or four, but I never started committing to finishing songs, and complementing these songs with piano accompaniment, until I was about fifteen. When I first started this process, it was all about the melody for me. Lyrics were kind of like "fillers" until I was about sixteen or seventeen, when they started taking on a bit more depth. I think this is because I was writing more poetry at that time and so my lyrics were a bit more metaphorical.  I used more alliteration and I wasn't always rhyming with the most obvious words anymore.

 In which ways would you say that developing your skills as a songwriter is different than as a performer?

In order to evolve as a songwriter, I think you have to continue to be open to all external influences, such as listening to all kinds of music, exploring various styles of singing, and finding new ways to "channel" your separate ideas into one, cohesive work. In order to be a good performer, you have to be open to different ways of doing things as well. Sometimes, before I play a song at a show, I introduce a song by explaining what I personally was feeling when I wrote the song at the time. Other times, I introduce a song by dedicating it to a certain societal "type" of person in the audience, as a means of connecting to the crowd a little more, so they can feel involved in the music. I always try to vary each show a little bit, so that myself, my band, and my audience, some of whom might catch more than one show, doesn't get bored!

Alexa Ray Joel
Alexa Ray Joel

Would you say that you enjoy one aspect of making music over the other?

I love writing music just as much as I love performing it, for the most part. Sometimes, when I'm playing a venue where the sound is terrible and I can hardly hear myself, and there aren't a lot of people there, I'm not as "in the moment" and I'm just trying to get through the show. Other times, when the sound is clear and I'm playing a great venue on a packed night, there's nowhere else I'd rather be! This "hit-or-miss" scenario applies to the songwriting process as well, in the sense that I often enjoy writing songs when the ideas are flowing freely and I'm more in the zone, but when I'm having trouble working through an idea, or bringing the whole song together, it can be extremely tedious and more of an obligatory task than a pleasurable experience. Of course, the outcome of a good, finished song is well worth all the good and the bad.

What do you think is the mark of a great song? When you're writing, is there something special that you're looking to achieve? When you speak about music with your dad, or have an opportunity to perform with songwriters like Bruce Hornsby, do you find yourself interested in why their music has managed to ensure for much longer than the typical musician's?

I think what makes a good song is that is has it's own distinctive style and the audience can grab hold of that style and "get it". I love all different styles of music, but the songs I'm most attracted to are all very melodic, and they all have some theme that continues throughout the entire song.  [For example], the bass line in "Every Little Thing She Does" by The Police.  This, to me, is what makes the song catchy. I don't even attempt to write a song unless I have one solid, strong "hook" somewhere in the song. It doesn't have to be the chorus, it doesn't even have to be the verse, it could even just be a piano part, but it has to present somewhere throughout the song. If there's anybody that's taught me that, it's my dad. You can hear him apply this philosophy in every single one of his songs.

My dad and Bruce Hornsby approach songwriting as an art, and they treat it as such. Throughout the course of their careers, you get a sense of their musicianship.  Both are extremely skilled piano players and their songs have variety. They take risks in the sense that no two songs sound alike. I think sometimes artists feel the need to confine their music into one specific genre, which is a mistake, because there are so many styles of music to be influenced by.

You briefly attended NYU's Musical Theatre Program, but have been on leave from the program to pursue your performing career. Do you feel that being part of a formal education program is somehow limiting for your development as a musician, or are there simply other opportunities that you feel unable to pass up at this point in your career?

I definitely want to take full advantage of how well things seem to be going in terms of my career at this point. I would love to go back to school in a couple of years, and maybe study something different like art history or philosophy. Still, I hope to be pursuing music for a while. It's the only thing that I think I could be happy doing for a living, so I've got to take a shot at it while I can! It just feels too right to pass up right now.

You performed your first show at Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ. What are your memories of that evening and do you find that you're comfortable on stage in front of an audience? Do you have any routines that you go through before a show to calm nerves and get yourself ready to perform?

I was actually much more comfortable on-stage that night than I thought I would be! I remember that the anxiousness of performing didn't really set in until that very day and I felt pretty shaky up until the gig.  I was way too nervous to eat!  Once I got up there, however, it just felt natural. We had been rehearsing for this show for so long, and this show almost felt like a rehearsal,  just in a different location. Maxwell's is a very low-key place and there weren't too many people there, so it was the perfect place to start out.  Now, I don't get anxious like that, all day before a gig.  I get more nervous now at sound-check because I want to make sure I can hear myself well on stage.

I don't go through any specific routine before a show, but I like to make sure I'm dressed well before show time and I sing a lot before the show to warm up my voice; no one song in particular. I'm also careful not to eat anything two hours before the show, because I sing better on an empty stomach.  That's one of the first things my dad had warned me about when I first started performing!

In December, you made your debut at the Cutting Room in New York City with your mom and dad in attendance. Have your parents been supportive of your career, and it is difficult to balance the goal of making a name for yourself on your own with the fact that they could both clearly pull a lot of stings for you if you wanted them to?

Both of my parents have been like my two cheerleaders lately. They couldn't be more supportive, and at the same time they're really giving me enough space to let me do my own thing and make my own decisions career-wise. I hope to be making a name for myself in the sense that I hope people will recognize that I am a musician in my own right, but it is inevitable that, right now, I will be known as "Billy Joel's daughter: following in his footsteps". But that's okay! I don't really care what gets people interested in me in the first place, as long as they leave one of my shows with a newfound interest in my music.

I know that both of my parents could pull a lot more strings for me than they are pulling at the moment! Doing things on my own is key for me right now, in terms of building a loyal fan base and getting respect from the critics and the music industry in general. That's why I've been touring for a few months since January without having anything to promote. I want to make sure that I have developed my craft as much as I can, and for as long as I can. That way, when it comes time for me to promote my CD, I'll hopefully be ready for anything!

Where do things currently stand as far as the recording of your demo and the process of presenting your music to labels? Do you expect that your first album will be produced and released by a major label and do you have any expectations about when you would be releasing your first album?

I am currently finishing up my demo, which will be done before the end of June. I will be meeting with potential managers in the next few weeks about where to go from there. I'd like to get some merchandise together for upcoming shows, and have an "EP" - CD sample - of about five demo tracks to sell online as well.

You mentioned in one interview that you love exotic jewelry and you're wearing some very cool accessories in your publicity photos. Do you have any favorite places to shop for new pieces to wear and do you ever get time while traveling to check out the local shops?

Yes.  I am a bit lazy when it comes to getting dressed for shows and tend to wear the same outfits over and over again, but I am obsessed with jewelry! I do, however, love the store "Calypso" in New York City. They have such beautiful, exotic, "islandy" pieces there. I loved shopping in South-Side, which is a cute little town in Pittsburgh with lots of boutiques. I found this really cute, vintage torquoise-engraved bracelet that I bought for a friend. My favorite shopping spot by far, however, has been Wicker Park in Chicago. I bought two beautiful dresses there, one of which I wore to my show that night at the Hard Rock Cafe! On show days, however, there usually isn't a lot of downtime for shopping. We get there, do the sound check, play the show, and then leave on the bus, already onto the next location!

What are some of your goals for the year ahead? Where would you like to see your career progress in the short-term and what would you say to fans you might want you to push ahead faster that you have done so far?

I'd like to have a CD out within the year, but I want to wait until the time is right. I'd love to have some of my music in movies, since that would be combining two art forms that I'm very passionate about. I can't wait to play in some of the hipper venues in New York City, such as The Living Room, Piano's, and Arlene's Grocery. As far as things go in the long-term, I'd love to one day play in Madison Square Garden and it's always been a secret dream of mine to do a voice for a Disney movie!

I don't know what to say to fans who are anxious for my CD to come out, because that probably won't be for a while! I can't wait to at least be able to give them CD samples at shows and online, and my MySpace page currently has three song up, one of which is downloadable. They can also check out pictures, newly-updated blogs, and a personal biography. I can't wait to give them more music to check out in the future!

[ Website: www.myspace.com/alexarayjoel ]

Matt Mrowicki
Matt Mrowicki [[email protected]], is an Internet entrepreneur and owner of Chorus and Verse. In 2002, he founded Impression Technologies LLC (www.imprtech.com) a digital design company offering website development, graphic design, online marketing, social media and technology consulting. He has been interviewed on topics ranging from how bands can best use their websites for promoting their music to current trends in social media. He has successfully launched over 100 websites and branding projects for clients and continues to develop new online opportunities and promote effective uses of technology and online media.
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