ALEXA RAY JOEL: Q&A
Like Sean Lennon and Jakob Dylan, Alexa Ray Joel has some big shoes to fill. As Billy Joel’s daughter, the 21-year- old’s pop-and-soul-fused music is a magnet for both the curious and the snarky. Thankfully, she’s got the talent to back it up. With an EP, Sketches, out in stores, and a full-length album in the works, Joel lets us in on her creative process.
So, did you write any songs today?
Today?!? Uh, no, I was trying to finish and idea in the shower actually, but it didn’t work [laughs]. I haven’t written in a couple weeks, but I wrote four or five songs at the end of last year, so maybe it’s just a break for now.
Were those the songs that were on the EP, Sketches?
No, that EP to me is so old now, I actually recorded the EP in May. So those songs are written early on the year, last year.
These new songs, do you think you’ll be using them?
Oh, definitely, I have eight songs that I’m pretty pleased with enough to record, and it’s just really good to have them on file for the band to be able to hear back and everything, and to distribute to record people and all of that. And I’d like to put those songs on my final full-length album, which I hope to work on soon this year.
Are they much different from what you’ve written before?
Some of them are. I’ve been all over the place with my writing because I have really eclectic tastes in music. I’m influenced by a lot of different genres, so I think that a lot of the songs I wrote last year are somewhat more idealistic, and maybe a little more poppy, and some of these go a little deeper. And I definitely focused more on the lyrics. There’s a jazz song in there that’s very Billie Holliday, and there’s a country song, so it’s really all over the place. It’s not all on that vein of pop/soul/blues, which is the mostly the genre of my EP.
When did you first start writing and what was the impetus to do so?
It’s hard to pinpoint when I first started writing – even when I was as young as five or six I had ideas in my head that I would sing out loud. The art of finishing a song didn’t really come until I was 15 or 16. That’s when I started to get more serious with the piano and I was still taking classical piano lessons and had gotten fairly good at it, somewhat intermediate level at that point, and that really shed a new light for me on writing songs. But there wasn’t any really definitive point where I really started writing, because I grew up with my Dad and was constantly surrounded by music, and we were always singing together, so there was always creative energy around the house.
Those early songs, can you describe one or two?
They were much more, it’s funny, I actually think I was a better piano player back then; I stopped taking lessons a couple of years ago, so definitely, the piano accompaniment is a lot more complex. It’s much more theater influenced. When I was 18, I was at the Musical Theater program at NYU, so my music took on a musical theater tone to it. It was in some ways more complex, but not necessarily as edgy, and a bit more dreamy and idealistic in the romantic scenes that I used to use for lyrics, because I didn’t really have a boyfriend at that point, or know as much, so it was more idealistic. And just younger in general, I sounded younger on them. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t like and value those ideas, because they got me to the point I am now.
Do you imagine that in five years the songs you write will go through a change?
Yeah, I think that every couple of months, it definitely, I saw a huge change, I’ve never written as many songs as I did last year, and it makes perfect sense to me, because I was touring and a lot really happened for me both personally and professionally. It was a very prolific year. So I hope to be that prolific in the future, but no, I definitely think that every couple of months…my songwriting is…every song is derivative of what I’m listening to at the moment. For example, my country song, I had just gotten sort of bored of doing the same old style, and I had just finished writing a jazz song, and I wanted to do something completely different. I think it’s important to always push yourself as a songwriter and if you do that, then your songwriting will evolve on a regular basis.
Would you say songs come easily to you, or is there a part you have to work on more than others?
I’ve been really lucky, the end of last year again, it was really easy for me, I had been through so much, and I had just finished a two month tour, being in a different city every day, touring the west coast where they didn’t know me as well, every day was a challenge, and I think that that really inspired a lot of songs during and after that period. And it was really easy, I was just inspired by what I was going through and everything just kind of poured out. So for me, it seems the pattern is that songs are easiest for me when I’m really in the throes of things. I don’t think I write as well when a lot of time has gone back and I look back and reflect because I like to write when I’m feeling it in the moment. But everyone’s different. Some times are harder than others, but I enjoy writing when it’s easier, I’m not going to lie!
Do you get your lyrics in a subconscious fashion or do you do a lot of work on them?
I write lyrics usually. It’s really weird, I usually have the melody first, and the lyrics, if I’m really feeling what I want to write about in the moment, it really does come pouring out. I think it’s sometimes, you don’t want it to sound dorky, but you want to use what you think would sing well, so that’s something that I often struggle with. So no, usually it does come pretty naturally. I don’t like to push things too hard when I’m writing with music or lyrics, because I have done that in the past, and it usually doesn’t end up working! I just get frustrated and nothing much comes out of it. I think that when you’re in that mode you sort of have to shut yourself away from other people and get in your own space and do it. Most of my songs that I’m the most pleased with, one of them I wrote in an hour and a half, another one took me all night and I was up til 5. As long as you’re in that mode and in that space, anything can happen.
With your own songs or somebody else’s, how do you recognize that this is a well-written song?
That’s a really hard question! I’m very similar to my dad in my taste, which makes sense, growing up with him and listening to the music that he likes, and I think everybody has their own ideas of what a well written song is. It’s something that everybody has really strong opinions about, and yet it’s so subjective, what makes a good song. I look to my dad as the ultimate role model, as someone who knows how to write a good, well-written song. It might not be your favorite song, but it’s going to be well-written. I think it’s because he really focuses on the melody, and his technique seems to work. You have to find a technique that works. He focuses on the melody first, and then, the lyrics are always very fitting, like what he’s singing, you never say “oh, that sounds awkward.” Like the pieces of a puzzle, everything just fits together. If you have that message, then, and it works. Elton John, for instance, he doesn’t write his own lyrics, but he has an understanding with Bernie, and every song just seems to fit-his lyrics always fit with Elton’s melodies.
So I don’t quite know what makes a great song, but I think it needs to fit together well, and if there’s a bridge, it can’t be…my favorite songs are simple songs. Paul McCartney was a genius at writing simple songs, like “Yesterday.” There isn’t a bridge that just seems like “where is this going,” which is why I can’t wrap my head around a lot of alternative music and jam band music-it doesn’t seem to fit like a song should, it isn’t cohesive enough for me. But then again, that’s just my opinion, so…
What do you think makes for bad songwriting?
Hmmm. I have to say, I’m kind of a purist, in that I really don’t believe in being too strung out when you’re writing. I don’t believe in like, taking pills or drugs or whatever and then writing. And I think that a lot of people will hear a song on the radio and go, “Wow, they were really drugged out when they wrote that,” you know? And sometimes it works, Sgt. Pepper, I’m sure they were doing whatever, and those songs are great. But sometimes, it makes things the opposite of what I was saying before – things come way out of left field and your trying to match it up with a verse, and it’s not cohesive. I think can sometimes lead to bad songwriting [laughs<].
And also, I’m not really a big fan or repeating too much at the end, like repeating a chorus over and over, or something, I get bored easily so I don’t like when things are so repetitive that it’s only two chords…but at the same time I don’t like it when a song is too complicated that the parts are all over the place, so either side of that medium, that can sometimes make for not the best song.
Do you ever listen to Regina Spektor?
Yeah, I do, I’ve actually been listening to her quite a bit lately. My boyfriend really likes her. She seems to be doing really really well. It’s funny because the issue of Rolling Stone I was in, I have to admit it was the first issue of Rolling Stone I read from front to back, and they seemed to really like her, so she’s definitely got the credibility, which I think is really hard for female artists to get.
I think her music is great, but she repeats the verses a lot. It seems to take something away, in my opinion.
I have to be honest, it’s one of those things, I’m trying to be more open minded about music, being with my dad, who has very strong opinions, but he can be kind of brutal almost, but he has a right to be [laughs]. But when I first listened I thought, mmm, I don’t know, it might be a little too Tori Amos-y for me, but I listened again, I like it more and more the more I listen to it. That’s the style that really works for her, but if I tried to do that style, with my voice and my sense of melody, it would be a disaster, just like I feel like if she tried to do my thing, it would sound weird [laughs]. So it’s all about what works for the particular artist. But her form is definitely different; I’m influenced by really traditional forms. Even right now, I’ve been listening to a lot of Dolly Parton. I’m very, very old school, and every time I try to listen to more contemporary stuff, sometimes I do like it, but it doesn’t seem to resonate with me as much as the older stuff did, for whatever reason. I really think I like songs that sound like…classics. There are songs that might be cooler or have better production, but I like songs that sound like they’re timeless. I’m always trying to emulate that with my songs.
You have a song “The Revolution Song” which talks about having trouble with authority. What’s the problem?
Well, I wrote that when I was in my freshman year at NYU. I was 18, I’m 21 now. That was a couple years ago, and I was very angry and frustrated at that point in my life, because I felt a little directionless and isolated. I wasn’t really fitting in at the theatre program. I’m certainly not shy anymore, but I was certainly quite introverted at that time in my life, and here I was with all these theatre people who are so outgoing. They were very competitive about their parts, getting the lead part in the play…I just didn’t understand that, so I found myself retreating more and more to the practice rooms – I was kind of going through that self-pitying phase that every teenager has to go through [laughs]. But I’m really glad that I went through it and I’m glad the anger was so strong at that point, because it inspired a lot of songs. Towards the end of freshman year I wrote so many songs, and that song was one of the easiest for me to write. I remember the chorus just came in a second, and I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea for the bridge, so that was really liberating, one of the most liberating songs for me to write, and I think that for my own mental well being, I needed to get that song out there.
It’s funny, I was in college at the time, but I’ve played for so many different audiences and different age groups, that the college kids, that song really resonates with them and how they’re feeling.
Music critics often get things wrong, and some of the strangest reviews I’ve ever seen are of Billy Joel albums, classic records where they put it down for whatever reason. Do you think music critics are incapable of understanding good songwriting?
A lot of times I think they are. But everybody has their own tastes. I personally don’t really like hip hop. I’ll dance to it maybe, but it’s not something I’d listen to and go, “oh, genius.” But a lot of critics, particularly Entertainment Weekly, they’re always giving [hip hop albums] great reviews. They kind of put me down a little bit, saying that my voice was too nasally, and that I was too much like my Dad. I told my Dad, kind of complaining to him, I said “this is my first not-good review” and he laughed and said, “are you kidding me, you’re so lucky if that’s not a good review. They used to put me down all the time.” And that to me is just, of course I’m biased, but it’s just crazy to me to write a bad review of my dad because I can’t wrap my head around how someone can’t think that that’s brilliant, but everyone has their own idea of what’s brilliant. But I do think a lot of the times that they could write better reviews in that they could discuss the music more. And I do think a lot of reviews these days aren’t really music reviews, they’re presumptuous, like, oh, I know what this person was thinking. Or this person is trying to be that person. My dad would get upset, “Why do they think I’m trying to be Elton John, I was never trying to be Elton John. I wanted to be Paul McCartney!” They should not try to get inside the artist’s head so much, just discuss the music and the melody, and where they went with the bridge there, stuff like that. That to me would be more productive for them. But I really can’t complain too much because they’ve been really nice to me [laughs]! So I don’t want to get on their bad side too much because a lot of people do read reviews, especially the New York Times and all of that. My dad always says “you’ve got to get a thicker skin” because they critiqued one little thing in Entertainment Weekly amongst a lot of great reviews and here I am getting sensitive about it, but I definitely need to get a thicker skin. Or just plain not read them anymore, like my Dad, he doesn’t read them, but I do, I always peek at what they’re saying.
Has your Dad ever given you any songwriting advice?
Well, he always says to treat your songs like they’re your babies, and to not let anyone mess with them, to be protective of them. I think that’s a huge part of why he’s the legend that he is, he always had creative control over, not just the ideas but the production of his ideas, the distribution of his music, and he was so involved on every aspect, not just strictly musically. For career advice, that’s really good advice.
Have you ever started writing a song and thought, oh, this sounds like my Dad’s melody, I can’t do that?
[Laughs]I’m sure I have. I do that all the time, I’m like my dad, I’m not afraid of being derivative, I like to copy styles that like! [laughs], as long as you do a good job of it, because all music’s derivative. I have this idea in my head right now actually, it’s like a, oh what’s that band, it’s like a Steve Miller band style song mixed with like, the Eagles, and I’m trying to get that kind of country rock theme down, and I have the verses and the B section, and whenever I get to the chorus, I just wanna sing “take it easy” by the Eagles. I keep wanting to sing that for the chorus. And I laugh with my dad about that, I say “does that ever happen to you?” and he says, “oh my god, all the time.” So sometimes when you’re influenced by an artist it’s hard to get away because they’re ideas that you really love, from them, really resonate in your mind and your subconscious and you don’t really realize ‘til afterwards that you’re singing somebody else’s idea.
That’s something that happens all the time, but I think the challenge of songwriting is taking that style, and really making it your own. Even if it’s just changing it a little bit. There’s certain chord changes and melodies that tons of people use, but they find a way to make it fresh, even if it’s changing one note, or one chord.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that…
Do you have a favorite song or album by your dad?
Um…I can’t really pick an album, cause I really think that they’re all good. The Stranger I love, Nylon Curtain, Turnstiles, River of Dreams I really, really love, because I was older when he came out with that. So I really got to sit down and listen to that, and I knew a lot of what he was talking about, because that was at the time my parents were getting divorced. He wrote about that, so I could relate to a lot of the themes from that album. And of course “Lullabye,” the song he wrote from me was on that, so that might have to be my favorite album, and that would be my favorite song of his. But “And So it Goes” is a really really beautiful melody, because it’s like a hymn, and it’s so simple, and yet it’s very haunting. And, I think he would agree with me, the best melodies are really pure. That’s why both my dad and I love old musical theater so much, because some of the best melodies came from that. But he really has too many good songs for me to pick a favorite, but definitely “Lullabye” is up there, especially when I’m in a sad or reflective mood.
Is there anybody you’d like to write a song with?
I would love to, if he were around, I would have loved to be around to write a song with Ray Charles, to collaborate with him. He’s a real hero of mine – Ray’s my middle name, you know – so his music, I really grew up with and was influenced by from when I was as young as five, on.
Would you like to have a Top 40 hit, is that the kind of career you’re hoping for?
I’m pretty ambitious, I kind of want it all [laughs] First of all, it’s really important for me to have credibility, I want to be taken seriously, and I have to be, otherwise I’ll just be Billy Joel’s daughter, forever. I mean, I am, and I’m proud to be it, but I want to have my own name, and my own style of music. And having longevity, having a long fruitful career is really important. I’d really like to be a cross-over artist. I’d like to have a pop song of mine on a pop station, while at the same time having my country song on the Top 40 country station. That would be the ultimate dream – that would be the icing on the cake for me.