It’s too bad that the first thing that comes to mind when hearing the soulful croon behind the dubstep-rubbed chorus of Alex Clare’s “Too Close” is a TV commercial. Microsoft picked up on the London-based singer’s single almost a year after it came out (and months after Island Records dropped Clare from their roster), right when it seemed that he might give up on this whole music thing for a while. Produced by Major Lazer, the single immediately relaunched as a stateside hit, charting in the Billboard Top 10, and pushing Clare’s album The Lateness of the Hour into the growing indie-meets-EDM limelight. And while he may embrace his musical melting pot, Clare is quick to remind that, beneath all that bass, he’s still just a sentimental singer-songwriter with a guitar and a notepad.
We talked to Clare about finding fame, working with Major Lazer, and the darker side of his music. He tours behind the U.S. release of Lateness of the Hour through the end of the month.
What did you do with the time between when Lateness of the Hour originally came out and when “Too Close” became big in the States?
For the first six months I was touring behind the record. Then I wasn’t doing very much at all. I went to Israel to hang out and go to school for a bit. I lost my record deal [with Island Records] when that happened. About a month after I lost my record deal Microsoft picked up my song for their campaign and things got really crazy.
How did the song get picked up by Microsoft?
I don’t know! I guess someone at Microsoft likes me. The guy who was making the commercial just really liked Lateness of the Hour and he was looking for a song for the campaign. It just kind of worked out and ended up being amazing.
“Too Close” and “Up All Night” are these big-sounding pop songs people most frequently associate with you. But from YouTube it seems like you’re this low-key guy who prefers a singer-songwriter approach to performing. There’s a ton of videos of you doing acoustic versions of love songs.
Yeah, that is something I do. To write songs you kind of have to love love or have lost love. I mean that with any kind of love. That’s what writing music really all about. There are songs on the record which are telling-a-story songs like “Up All Night” and “Tightrope” but there are others that go deeper than that. To be a musician, I think at least, you have to be intimately in touch with your emotions. To write music or to be a songwriter I think you have to be romantic. If you’re not, it’s going to be hard to write songs.
Have you been contacted by any past loves in the light of your recent fame? Or are you hoping that they would?
No! Weirdly not! They mostly leave me alone which is cool. [Laughs.] But, yeah, the person I wrote “Won’t Let You Down” about I’m married to now! So that worked out for me. [Laughs.] I wrote the song initially just after meeting them and then I sent it to them and was like, “Hey, I just wrote this song. What do you think?” And she seemed to get the message. Fast-forward to a bit later and we’re married, which is cool. It’s been a few months now.
I actually first heard of you because of the Nadastrom remix of “Up All Night.”
It’s freaking amazing. Every time I hear it, I smile from ear to ear. I wish that radio stations would play it.
“Too Close” has that dubstep edge on the hook too. What’s your relationship with dance music?
Well, I grew up in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. I grew up in South London which is where a lot of dubstep came into the fall. I was into drum-n-bass and garage and while I was writing music on my guitar when I was young. I was also making a lot of beats and hanging out with electronic music producers. If you were to listen to a lot of my early demos that’s exactly what you would find; I was really into making different beats and experimenting with basslines.
But, yeah, always wanted to make an album that incorporated classic singer-songwriter elements with electronic production. After four months of working on the record I met Diplo and Switch and they ended up producing the line share of the album. Though, I’d be lying if I said that working with electronic producers effects how I write my songs. Usually my songs come to be with just my guitar and a notepad.
How did you get involved with Major Lazer? Did you find it difficult to balance your singer-songwriter style with their production style?
So my A&R man is a man called Nick Huggett. Nick Huggett signed M.I.A. a couple years ago. When he made the M.I.A. record he got hooked up with Diplo. I really, really liked the Major Lazer EP and then they got ahold of my demos and asked about them. It ended up being a happy, happy marriage.
It actually wasn’t difficult to work with them at all. If there was a tug-of-war, it was not because of the technology but because if you’re working with dance producers, they’re always a DJ as well. So there were a lot of late nights involved in making Lateness of the Hour.
A couple of your songs sound like party anthems on the surface but have a darker conceptual edge behind them…
Yeah exactly. “Up All Night,” for sure. The video is about somnambulism. Or sleepwalkers basically. I’m not actually in the video, which is really weird. I’m in it for a second walking a dog at the end. I have a cameo in my own video! Yeah the concept is kind of dark. The whole premise is about these guys who sort of fall asleep and then wake up in random places because they throw themselves to the wind while sleepwalking.
I was thinking the artwork for the “Too Close” single – the bear and wolf ready to attack each other – too…
Yeah, I’m kind of into the minimal side of art on that end. I kind of thought, look, you want this song to depict conflict, you don’t want to go with the kind of day-glo, electronic feel. You want to go with something that had some thought and love go into it.
Is your sudden popularity or being embraced by that “day-glo” electronic scene something that you’ve had to think about with making music going further? Has it changed what you’re working on now?
Oh definitely. I have a couple of songs that are about summing up this time. They kind of express what I’ve been feeling and the sense of vindication. It’s all good now, I have a good record deal, but Island Records dropped me and then asked to sign me again. [Laughs.] I’m much better off now career-wise and with what my state of mind is. It’s a bit of confidence boost when you do well and get a little bit of recognition. If you’re an artist you’re sensitive to what people will say about you and there’s no bigger boost than to hear that people are buying and enjoying your record. I’ve had jetlag for like six months. I wake up in a different time-zone every other day. It’s alright between traveling between America, Germany, and England. But it’s worth it.
Alex Clare plays New York’s Irving Plaza tonight, December 11, and Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg December 12. Get tickets here.