BWW Interview: Alexa Ray Joel at Cafe Carlyle
Chris Struck caught up with Alexa Ray Joel ahead of her latest run of performances at the Café Carlyle to discuss what we can expect to hear and what are some of Joel's inspirations. To get tickets, check out Café Carlyle's calendar here: Cafe Carlyle.
CHRIS: Great to hear from you Alexa. I know our readers will be excited to learn more about you. Before we get into specifics about your show, can you tell us a little bit about what makes Café Carlyle one of the best venues to perform at?
ALEXA: It's unbelievable. It feels like, not to give myself to much credit I'm 33, but I feel like I'm one of the few younger artists that gets to play there. I feel like it's such heavyweights. It's iconic. Anyone that knows me and hopefully you'll come to the show. It fits my style so well, not just musically, but everything about it is timeless and old school and classic.
CHRIS: Is this a new show that you're bringing to the Carlyle?
ALEXA: It is. It's pretty much, I mean, there are songs that I've sang there before, but it's my 7th go around (at Café Carlyle), not my first rodeo. It's my first time that I'm really kind of pushing myself to do a very very streamlined set. It's a lot of new material. I've got an amazing pianist that I work with. I'm going to be doing one or two solo keyboard songs. But I really, for the style of the Carlyle, I just want to be a torch singer. Sing the Blues and just stand in the middle of the stage. So, I have an amazing pianist, Carmine Giglio, and I've literally like trained him. I "brag" that I've trained him into an amazing back up vocalist, so hopefully he is. We do a lot of 4 seasons style: Doo-wop, backup vocals. And because it's just me and him, and right now I've been wanting to keep that intimacy, I do my lead part, but I also sing the back up vocals with him. So, it's really playful and fun.
CHRIS: So, I guess you've started to answer my question on what we could expect to hear from you. At this point, you've performed a lot, I'm sure you've developed your own personal style, and you gravitate more to that classy, jazzy musical style, would you say that anything is going to be original or is this going to be like jazz standards?
ALEXA: There is a lot of original material actually, and it's kind of amazing, because I try to keep it in the same vein, stylistically, so a lot of people don't know. They're like, "Oh I thought that was an old Ray Charles (song)." So basically, you know, there's some surprises thrown in there, but there is original material. A lot of people who remember my first EP sketches, might remember, "Song of Yesterday," and that is something that has just stuck with people and we've kept it as part of every Carlyle run. It speaks for itself in the title, it's just like longing for that old school sound. This show overall is big tribute to, of course I do one of my father's songs, but stylistically it's like Ray Charles. He's a huge influence for me vocally. So, "Song of Yesterday" is mine, and I've got, oh God, I have four or five songs in the set that are mine. I've got one that is very kind of Billie Holiday sounding. I'm kind of leaning in more, I used to try to be a bit poppier when I was younger, but I just kind of feel like I'm leaning more toward that fully retro vintage torch singer. There's a lot of torch, there's a lot of Carmine on the whirlwind, so doing the bump, bump, bump, bump, so kind of old school. There's an Irma Thomas song called "Ruler of my Heart" that we're doing that I love. Really kind of salty, Bluesy, Jazzy. But of course, because you want to give people the upbeat, I've got a lot of upbeat numbers. And one of my favorite upbeat ones is actually, I'm doing a song of my father's that a lot of people don't know about, because I feel like it's obvious with "New York State of Mind." Sometimes you just want to get a little more creative. I don't know if you'll know, but Oliver and Company, he played the artful dodger. It was a Disney movie.
CHRIS: Great movie, I remember watching that a lot as a kid.
ALEXA: I was just crazy about it. I think it's a really underrated Disney movie, and dad was amazing in it. I don't think he realizes that he is also an actor. So, he played the artful dodger, and he did this great song that he covered, that he sang for, where kind of the street-smart dog was basically singing a serenade in honor of New York City, and it's called "Why should I worry?" So, we're doing that one, and I love to do that one, because it sort of comes in as a surprise. People go "Oh, that's a great tribute to the city, but they don't know where it's from." And they are always shocked when they find out it's from dad. And of course, there's a couple of tributes to Ray Charles. I don't want to give the whole set list away.
CHRIS: Well don't give the whole set list away, but...
ALEXA: We've got a couple of Ray Charles songs that I've completely redone. And ah, some people that have heard it have said that it kind of sounds kind of like an Amy Winehouse track, and she's a singer that I very much admire. There's a lot of different influences. There's a Nina Simone Song. There's some classic Motown with "Dancing in the Street." We do a cover of that, but nothing is sort of done the way that it was done as the originals.
CHRIS: Always have to have your own arrangements. The hallmark of a great singer. It appears that you've worked on at least a couple of CDs over the years. Given you have a few originals, do you have another in the works, or are CDs kind of behind you at this point?
ALEXA: You know, I really want to do an album. I'm just dying to do an album, but I sort of get caught up in perfecting these Carlyle runs, which I'm basically doing twice a year. I would absolutely love it. That's next up on my list of goals. Once this run is done. I'm not the best multi-tasker, so I tend to take one project at a time and obsess over it madly.
CHRIS: Sometimes that's what it takes to get good at something.
ALEXA: I totally agree. My father and a lot of people say a song is never finished. You can always expound upon and perfect. For me, I'm a perfectionist. I'm not happy until every song is sculpted like a diamond; dramatic dynamics and crescendos. I go over every chord, with my amazing pianist, Carmine. So yeah, I would love nothing more than doing a very vintage style. I even played with the idea of releasing in record form. I think people are really nostalgic for that throwback. I don't know one person that doesn't love those vintage, retro old Hollywood vibes. I do believe there is a craving for it and a market for it out there. People went nuts for Amy Winehouse, or if you can remember people went over the moon for Norah Jones when she came out with her album, Come Away with Me. And it was just absolutely gorgeous, and it sort of hearkened to that time of really well-crafted music. When you had a verse and a pre-chorus, and a chorus, and a bridge, and dynamics and it was melodic, and it was really a song. I don't mean to be Debbie downer, but you hear a lot of the stuff on the radio now and it's sort of the same beat overproduced or one provocative line overdone. To me that is not really a song. To me a song is something that you can just sit -of course being my father's daughter. I mean my father knows how to write a well-crafted song-He can sit there, and it sounds damn good, just him and the piano. And that is a skill that to me I fear is being largely lost in pop culture. I think there's such an opening, such a craving, and it's so important to continue to nurture and cultivate artistry that really cares about making a great song.
CHRIS: I understand that. I mean I love live performances, and it's not just standing in front of crowd flipping through tracks on a computer.
ALEXA: Don't get me started. I just want to mention one thing, since we're talking about well-crafted songs. This is the first time, in this run when I'm not covering Randy Newman. He's one of my favorite artists. I'm very inspired by him arrangement wise. He is so musical. Everything from his movie soundtracks. When I sit down to the piano to write, he is one of the first people that comes into my head as just an amazing song writer. He reminds me of my dad. You know he's not pretentious. He's salt of the earth. He just wants to sit there with a baseball cap and craft a great song, you know? And he's big on suspended chords, which I'm super obsessed with.
CHRIS: What is it about performing live that keeps you motivated? To put in all the work to do the arrangements and prepare the show.
ALEXA: You know, I guess, like I said, I'm a perfectionist and I'm a dreamer. I think that every artist is a little bit fantastical in their vision. They want to reach for the stars. My father always says that when you're working on a song, and you really put everything into it, it's like you split your stomach open. Figuratively speaking, you've got to spill your guts out on the table, and then in order to deal with the daily, menial stuff in society, you have to sew yourself back up and function. And, I know that for me that's how I...Sometimes it breaks me down, because for me, I want every song to just be perfect. My accompanist, Carmine, teases me, because every note, every dynamic; we go over everything until it's perfect. To me, maybe it's a little bit of a self-indulgent fantasy of mine in that I want to hear. I have a vision in my head, and I can't rest until it's cultivated to perfection. I guess I just want to share that with people. I think thirty years and being a late bloomer, and the daughter of a celebrity, I feel I've been misrepresented over the years. There's been a lot of nonsense and rumors and stuff, and really, I just want to show who I am as an artist. That is what interests me. All the other nonsense and all the other tabloid stuff, I just love music, and so for me, if I can show who I am as: "you know I'm really not that girl. I'm not riding off of my parent's coattails." I don't have a big shot producer cultivating this show. I could probably lean on dad more, but he says, "Don't ask me, you know better, because he wants it to be my instincts and my vision." It's literally me, pretty much, pouring my heart out and my soul out onto the stage and finally feeling like, "now this is an accurate representation of me." This is my chance to really show who I am.
CHRIS: Wow, that's a noble goal. And of course, it's probably impossible to go a week without hearing mention of your parents, obviously both superstars, but I'm trying to honestly avoid talking about them. The focus is on you here, and you've been able to build a pretty impressive following. Social media wise and being able to perform at Café Carlyle is a tremendous feat. I'm definitely going to be there and am really excited to see the show, especially after hearing a little more about it. So, what are some of the things that you do to connect to your fans that have made you successful, or is it really just putting on a great show that really translates to the respect you get from your audiences?
ALEXA: Basically, for me, again talking about being able to sort of show who I am and represent myself accurately. I love Instagram. For me, it's a warm, wonderful, personal space. I really can't complain. I have such an amazing following, and they are so devoted. We have some of the same people come back every time. People might think, does she have a big publicity machine? I have a great publicist. Claire is amazing. Though it's really just us. There are no other people pushing me out there, and I handle my own Instagram. I do it every day. I get out of rehearsal and go "oh, let me respond to some people." I don't think of it as work, because it's connecting with people who appreciate music. Those are the people that matter to me. I'm caring about the people that are loving and supportive and so encouraging, and I have an overwhelming amount of that. They do appreciate something that's more interactive. I try to put up a lot of music clips. I think it is important if you are an artist and you think you have something bigger, deeper to say, I think it is important to translate that. I put up the way I'm feeling. I've put up poems. I've been open about my own personal struggles with anxiety and depression, because I think it is important to show people that you're not perfect. I think Instagram can be too much of a highlight reel and that people just want you to be real. They want to see that they can relate to this person. To me, I'm big on honesty and showing who I am. I try to respond to everybody. Some people say that you're too vulnerable, but that's just who I am. People love when you are yourself. If people love it, great, hope they come to a show.
CHRIS: It's difficult to step out of anybody's shadow, but it's impressive. You've also performed at Madison Square Garden, and you've done some really cool stuff.
ALEXA: It's a rush like no other.
CHRIS: Are there any dream venues where you haven't performed that you'd like to, or are you looking to get out of New York for a tour?
ALEXA: I mean the truth, a really big dream of mine is to do Broadway. Dreaming big, I'd love to play Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy one day, or that something in that type of role. Les Misérables would have to come back to Broadway for me to play Éponine. I did audition for Beautiful, the Carole King musical, and they called me back, but not for the right role. I think it's all about the right role.
CHRIS: Coming to the end, only a couple questions left, where can we find more information about you and your upcoming show?
ALEXA: I didn't want to be self-pluggy, but since you asked, you can find out everything on my Instagram. My handle is @AlexaRayJoel - Ray, like Ray Charles. A lot of people don't know that I was named after him, which is why we tribute to him. In the bio, there is the direct link. The show is every evening from Tuesday to Saturday, October 1st through 5th. I play for a little over an hour, though I guess this new showcase is a little bit longer. I'll be on for about an hour and a half. It's just a trip down, old school, nostalgic lane. For more information, people can also contact the Carlyle Hotel.
CHRIS: It's very obvious that you're very devoted to your work. What are some of the other things that you have coming up that you want people to know about and look out for?
ALEXA: I would like to do more of the singer-songwriter stuff, and I have that in the works with my team, probably downtown at City Winery. I haven't played downtown in a while. I have a couple more gritty, angsty type ballads that I do with a keyboard. To me that would be fitting to do at something like City Winery. So that is something that I'm planning. And really an album, or potentially a single, which will be available on my Instagram.
CHRIS: Sounds great. Well thank you Alexa for your time, and I appreciate your taking the time for this call. Looking forward to your show.
ALEXA: Thank you. I look forward to seeing you opening night!