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London-born singer, songwriter and producer Alex Clare is one of those lucky people who will never be short of something startling to tell when the lights dim and true conversation really begins.
“Where do you even start with a story like mine?” he laughs, down the line from his home in Jerusalem – and he makes a good point. Alex signed a major label deal with Island in 2010, released a single and an album then got unceremoniously dropped. When, in 2012, a song called ‘Too Close’ was pulled from the album and placed on an Internet Explorer 9 advert it prompted millions of sales and, lo and behold, he got re-signed. Eighteen months later he made a new album that the label failed to get behind and, as you might expect, it sold, in his own words, “nothing.” He got married, toured the US, Russia and Europe and started a family.
In the summer of 2015 he removed himself to a narrow boat on the River Lea (his debut was also recorded afloat, “I love boats,” he says. “The one thing that I miss about the UK, is that Jerusalem, is on top of a mountain. No boats!”) with his friend, bass-player and founder member of Submotion Orchestra, Chris Hargreaves and the pair began to record again. What they came up with is a remarkable work called ‘Tail of Lions’. Written and recorded in a few short weeks, Alex would spend months with Chris working on exactly the right mix for this new collection, a place where soul, rock and funk meet steel-sharp electronica and iced-out drum and bass.
For production, Alex holds true to lifelong loves like Radiohead’s OK Computer and Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. For vibe he’s all about that breezy, liquid funky blues of Donny Hathaway’s Magnificent Sanctuary Band and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, in particular, the brilliant Have a Talk With God; not forgetting his beloved iconic New Orleans street singer Snooks Eaglin – “he’s the greatest cover band of all time,” Alex enthuses, “and all in the one person!”
The title comes from a Jewish expression – as Alex explains. “It’s better to be the tail of a lion than the head of a fox,” he says. “we live in a society where the focus on success and celebrity seem too far out way the focus on ability and effort – all the money, limited talent.
The emotion behind the record is something else entirely. When Alex had his massive worldwide hit with ‘Too Close’ it exposed him to millions of new fans, but, as with so many others, it threatened to overshadow and derail his career. “Happily,” he says, “a big part of my faith is acknowledging something that’s good. So even if someone does you a kindness even for their own self-centered gains, even they deserve credit. How much more so when something comes from a place of true altruism.”
For Alex, ‘Too Close’ took him to another level, it paid for his family home, elevated the attendance at his shows and increased his touring base. “It was an amazing thing to happen,” he says, “and I still reap the benefits now. When I lived in London kids would walk down the street and sing it to me and I loved that.”
‘Tail of Lions’ is a very different record from his two previous examples. Alex’s perspective has changed so much, on life and love and fatherhood – he has two young children now and much of his time is devoted to them. The realities of his own life have changed. “I’ve had to step up” he says. “So many big things are happening in Europe and the US and, of course, just over the border from where we are in Syria.”
For all the problems, talking to Alex impresses on you a very particular kind of positivity – you can hear his smile from 3000 miles away. The first song the pair started on was ‘Get Real’. Alex says he tries to understand himself as much as we can – “although human beings are pretty complicated” – and ‘Get Real’ is a look at trying to rectify some bad habits and traits. “We only have a short time here, so it’s important to work on yourself.” “What are my bad habits?” he laughs. “Well, I’m a human being and a man, so it’s a fairly wide field. There are always areas to grow and work on…”
‘Tell Me What You Need’ looks at how some things in relationships are good and some things are confusing, frustrating and sometimes difficult. Alex comes from a family where you shout and scream to make your point while his wife is little more reserved. “You have to learn to ride the bumps,” he says. “I talk with my hands, raise my voice and put all my cards on the table, while my wife tends to close up and wait for the storm to pass.”
‘Bring Me Down’ looks at those suffering from an attack of self-righteousness. “There’s nothing more aggravating than someone who knows they are right,” he says. “It’s the tyranny of certitude. The height of arrogance is not to be able to see another person’s point of view.”
Basic tells the story of a friend of Alex’s who suffered a nervous breakdown. “He lost his flat and job,” Alex says, “meanwhile people were calling him a wasteman as he was having this psychotic episode. Basic is a tribute to him and what he went through…”
Then there’s ‘Tired From The Fire’, a love song, but one that’s decidedly esoteric. The lyrics draw on The Song of Songs, a parable describing the relationship between God and the Jewish people, where God is the husband and the Jewish people are the wife. The literal translation, Alex says, reads like a deep song of yearning for the one your heart desires. A real romantic drama. “It’s a powerful and provocative piece of writing and ‘Tired By The Fire’ takes on that idea of doing right by love.”
On ‘Love Can Heal’ Alex looks at different types of love. “There is infatuation,” Alex says. “It’s passionate and intense, but it’s blown apart by insecurity and paranoia, it’s very immature. I had those relationships, all though I’m reluctant call them relationships, before I met my wife. It’s much more important to really feel like you can depend on each other, emotionally, intellectually and physically and then make a family together – and that’s where I am now.
The gorgeous ‘You’ll Be Fine’ looks at the famous thoughts of Reb Nachman of Breslov who said, “There is really no such thing as despair”. But, of course, there is despair and so Alex felt very frustrated. He was thinking about people who’ve just lost someone, or just suffered some trauma and who can’t feel these words. People who do despair, people who feel the world is as bad as it can possibly be. “When your emotions are driving you insane it can be a huge battle to develop self-control,” he says. “Especially if, like me, you’re impulsive and emotional. So in trying to overcome my own thoughts and feelings – in my own despair – it’s been hard to see the woods from the trees. People get stuck in what they can see, if that’s all there is. To say there is no such thing as despair means that there’s nothing really to despair about. You will learn things from pain and trauma – terrible situations drive solutions from within. When it’s nighttime one has to be aware that there’s just a few hours till morning.”
‘Open My Eyes’ “It’s about people wanting a change,” Alex says. “But how we sometimes look to people who might not have our best interests in mind.” Alex says Western democracy has looked like “a farce” in the last few years, the song is about frustration, and how whenever there is a revolution, within a couple of years everything’s back to exactly how it was. “I was into leftist politics, as a teenager” he says, “but I was very quickly disillusioned with it when I saw how the people organizing, say, the Anti-Sweatshop demos I went on, wore Nike trainers and tracksuits.”
When he tried to raise the point he was always told, “the model for living now isn’t the model for how we’ll live in the future. It’s ridiculous – people want to make a noise, but they’re not actually willing to do anything.”
‘Tail of Lions’ was A&R’d by the two men on their boat. “We’re not trying to make hit records,” Alex says. “We’re only interested in making nasty sounding music to play live.” Alex now revels in a complete creative control he’s never had before. “My last two albums were bank-rolled and A&R’d which was great – major labels have the logistics and the admin nailed – but when it comes to creative input, A&Rs often don’t know much music and they certainly don’t know about my music. I’m trying to get my craziest ideas out there and that’s not always easy. There were songs on both my last albums that I didn’t like, but the label wanted them on and that meant songs I really liked got left off – and that’s crazy.”
Of course, the interplay between commerce and art can produce the most amazing things. “The Renaissance happened because of private sponsorship,” Alex smiles, “but I like having creative freedom. I want to make music that people dance to. I want to build up that energy so people can really let go and that’s my whole focus. Ultimately, I don’t need anyone to A&R that.”