With three albums to her credit — Morning Pill (2007), In Avanti (2010), and AC3 (2011) — Alexx Calise has more than proven herself as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Still, when the time came to return to the studio, she both wanted and needed to take her creativity to the next level. Partnering with producer Warren Huart, she wrote and tracked her new album, Addition by Subtraction, with Huart and his team at Spitfire Studio. The ten resulting songs present Alexx Calise in a new light — still the rock musician that her longtime fan base knows and loves, still the balladeer whose hit song “Cry” brought her a whole new audience via the television shows Dance Moms and Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition, but now with the edge and maturity that come with life, experience, and the mentoring touch of an A-list producer.
Calise is an admitted lifelong workaholic and her efforts have proven fruitful, as 2015 has been a productive, albeit chaotic, year. In addition to recording her new album, she released The Catalyst: B-Sides, secured endorsements with MAC Cosmetics and Dirtbag Clothing, modeled for Jinx Clothing and Geeky Jerseys, and continues to own and manage her children’s party company, Inkabink Kids Party Entertainment.
Addition by Subtraction will be released in January 2016 (a crowd-funding effort is still in progress at http://fundrazr.com/campaigns/dtyr1/ab/14E8Yf). In advance of that date, Alexx Calise discussed the making of the album, working with Warren Huart, and the work ethic that carries her through the challenges of the music industry.
Addition by Subtraction is your first full-length recording since AC3 in 2011. Where do you see the most growth in your songwriting and guitar playing, and what role did Warren Huart play in that growth?
It’s a game-changer going into the studio with someone like Warren, because he has so much experience. He pushed me and pulled things out of me that other producers couldn’t. What I like about him is that he really tries to push the melody. That’s always been my thing, the melody and lyrics are my signature, and he helped me take it a step further. You can never have too much melody, and we have a lot in common in that regard. We both agree on that. I think this album is the next step for me just because I’m getting older and more experienced. I’ve lived more life, and I feel it’s reflective of that. I’m coming into my own. I finally feel comfortable in my own skin for the first time. I can’t say enough good things about Warren and this album. I love the lyrical content, the melodies are fantastic, the music is fantastic, and a lot of that has to do with Warren helping to push me and discover things within myself that I didn’t even know were there. As a guitarist, definitely I have grown a lot, especially watching Warren, because he’s such a phenomenal guitar player. It was like going to school every time I was in the studio with him. It forced me to go home every night and hone in on my skills even more, so he pushed me as a guitar player for sure. In fact, I’m now taking guitar lessons to learn theory a little bit more than I already know. I’ve had a little trouble sometimes communicating with other musicians because I don’t know the language as well as someone like Warren, and it’s so important if you want to jam with other musicians or communicate in general. Warren is patient. If I have an idea and I communicate it to him in the way that I can, he is very understanding of that, and I appreciate it. Being in the studio with him pushes me as a guitar player and as a songwriter because he’s the best of both worlds.
What were your goals for this album and what was the process for achieving them?
What I really wanted to do was follow up the success of “Cry,” which did so well. I wanted to keep this new record within that vein, but I didn’t want to necessarily write another “Cry.” I wanted it to be an organic thing, but I wanted to go in that direction, because like it or not, ballads like “Cry” and “Home Again” are what the kids are buying these days. I really tried to do the rock thing with my last EP, but I think the rock crowd has always eaten me alive because I have the pop sensibility in my melodies. So I wanted to do something that everyone could enjoy, most importantly myself. I wanted to do something that I wanted to do. It’s been so much fun with Warren. He’s become a really good friend and it was fun being in the studio with him. He’s awesome. We wrote an album that I think is best suited for licensing. It has a cohesive sound, but every song stands on its own and almost all of them would be well suited for commercials and films and things of that nature. It was a really fun, interesting process. One thing that I have to say about Warren and the Spitfire music crew is they’re extraordinarily efficient. They work so fast it’s unbelievable. I’ve never been in a situation like that. We usually did hour-long sessions, and when we were writing, we would crank out full songs in that amount of time. It was so productive.
RELATED STORY: Interview with Alexx Calise: Turning up the AC
Your last album was recorded in your home studio. This time, you tracked at Spitfire with Warren and his team of session players [Gregory D’Angelo, Matt Starr, Adam Beck, Daniel Coe, Steve Maggiora, and Matt Emonson]. What was that experience like for you?
It was a bit of a different beast. I felt like I was being schooled in a good way. It put me in the presence of some phenomenally talented musicians, and you can hear the difference in the actual recording. That’s not to say that when you do something at home it’s not going to be great quality, but this is someone who has a state-of-the-art facility and access to amazing players. You get what you pay for, and it shows in the quality of the production and the overall content.
You stated that the songs are “best suited for licensing.” Do you write with that in mind?
I have the ability as a singer-songwriter to write specifically for licensing. What I do in that regard is try to channel a particular emotion. With this record, Warren would start playing a part on guitar, and whatever the song said to me, that’s what I wrote lyrically. It worked out that a lot of the songs have that licensing vibe to them. It’s a happy accident and I’m glad. Worse things can happen!
You are signed with a number of agencies. What is your advice to musicians interested in doing the same? How does one find good, reputable licensing agencies?
Sometimes it’s a little bit difficult to find good ones. That being said, it’s good to speak to other musicians who have had placements and ask them for their two cents. Initially, I did it blindly, but the work speaks for itself. One of the agencies that pretty aggressively places my music is called Jinglepunks. I can’t even tell you how many of my songs they’ve placed. A lot of the other agencies don’t have the same kind of connections, but every once in a while I get a decent placement, so it can take a while for things to percolate. Most of my money doesn’t come from licensing agencies because, for example, network television doesn’t pay out that well. It’s more if I get a decent-size placement and the song is played long enough. When Jinglepunks got me the Dance Moms placement, they’re doing entire numbers to a song, so the entire length of the song is sometimes played. That show has been my bread and butter because they really showcase the material.
This is a very personal album that will find its way to some very young fans. Do you exercise caution with that in mind?
Absolutely. Whenever I write now, I really consider that. I know not a lot of artists do that, but it’s very important to me. I see the age group of the dances that these little girls do to my music and I feel a social responsibility. There’s always a way to say things without being explicit. There’s always a way to state something ambiguously so that everyone can be a part of it. I don’t think it should be exclusionary. You don’t want to limit your audience.
You often note that your father is your biggest inspiration. Are there plans to ever work together, aside from that Christmas video of the two of you singing the Chipmunks song?
I sincerely hope so! We have a little thing that’s on our bucket list: we want to play Madison Square Garden together one day. I dream big and I’d like to think that it could happen. I would love to do that for my father. He and my mom have been so amazing throughout the years. They’ve always supported me as a musician. Even when I decided to quit school and move to L.A., they were behind it. I would be so jazzed if my dad and I could do something together. I would love it. It would make my life complete.
Inkabink is still going strong. Does your music career sometimes carry over into your company?
I try to keep the music and the kids party company separate. Maybe that’s a mistake, but it’s more the “day thing” that I do. It’s not that I’m not proud of it, but music is my main thing that I want to concentrate on wholly, and I don’t know if there are parallels that go along with that. More often than not, I’m just “Alexx who answers the phone” at Inkabink, and I don’t think people know the difference. That’s cool. There are a lot of people in my position that manage companies or have other jobs that they go to, and they like to keep it on the DL.
What is going on with Sound of Cancer?
I’m really excited to start back with that again. That project was with my now ex-boyfriend, Dennis Morehouse. We were together when we put out the first record [No Vampires in Gilroy – 2011], we had a big breakup, and we took a hiatus for a time, but now we’re best friends again. We were on a game show called Chain Reaction as Sound of Cancer! It aired in September on the Game Show Network and it was pretty hilarious. We’re going to put out an EP soon and hopefully tour as soon as that’s done. We like to keep busy. That project is drastically different. It’s just Dennis and I. We do everything ourselves in terms of production and songwriting, and the music is along the lines of Portishead, The Cure, early Marilyn Manson, and Nine Inch Nails, so it’s got a cinematic quality about it and an esoteric, ominous sound at times.
What is the Rocktronica project?
That’s something I do with Luigie Gonzalez, who produced “Cry.” Whenever we get together, we get kind of crazy. We do this rock/EDM thing and we have a few songs that are done. Maybe we’ll put out an EP soon. That’s on hold at the moment because so much is going on with this new record with Warren.
You are also involved with the Wear Your Music Foundation and Brain Trauma Foundation. Why are those two organizations important to you?
Wear Your Music I happened upon when I was doing some research on the Internet. I saw what they were all about and I thought it was wonderful. Basically, the sales of my used guitar strings bracelets go to the organization of my choice, which was the Brain Trauma Foundation. My brother sustained a head injury several years ago and he passed away. So little was known about his injury. So little is known about the human brain. My father is a neurologist, and he was the acting neurologist on the case when my brother sustained his injury. It’s going to take so much finding to even scratch the surface because so little is known about head injuries. Anything I can do to contribute to the cause, no matter what amount it is, anything — it’s a cause that’s very close to my heart. I’m trying to bring about some awareness to it because people who have brain injuries are very misunderstood. It’s not always something that you can physically see, and they have a lot of issues. My brother, for example, was functioning at probably a sixth or seventh grade level, and he was 24 when he passed. There is a lot that he struggled with internally, and that is often the case with frontal lobe damage and people who have brain injuries.
You arrived in Los Angeles with $200, you were unemployed, homeless, couch-surfed at Luigie Gonzalez’s house, then worked temp and part-time jobs. How did you avoid becoming a casualty?
I have been extremely lucky with the people that I have been surrounded by. I credit Luigie as the person who gave me my start here in L.A., and he was kind enough to let me sleep on his couch for six months. He is an extraordinarily wonderful person and he helped me to keep my head above water. I was in touch almost every day with my mother and father, who were my guiding lights and my best friends in my life now. They really got me through it. My father went to the American medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico, and he remembered calling his mom because he didn’t know the language and he didn’t know if he could survive, if he could do it. He had a wonderful mother who encouraged him to stick it out and keep going, and I have to say the same about my parents. You can either roll over and die or you can rise above. What are you going to do? I wasn’t going to retreat back home with my tail between my legs. I was here to make something happen.
Based on your experiences, what is your advice for young women navigating shark-infested waters of the music industry?
My words of wisdom … I would say, more than anything, you have to stand your ground. You have to know what you want. Maybe it takes a while to know exactly, but have a pretty good idea. Surround yourself with people who are like-minded, who are going to build you up as opposed to tearing you down, and just steer clear of those piranhas out there. I like to think that I have a pretty good sense of that, but a lot of people need more intuition. Trust your instincts. Trust your intuition. If you think there’s a bad vibe, you don’t have to do it. There are plenty of promoters here in L.A. that are wonderful people. There are venues that will work with you. There are producers and managers and entertainment industry folk who are good people. It’s like life in general — surround yourself with likeminded, successful people. You will fall prey if you don’t trust your instincts and yourself.
— Alison Richter
2007 Gibson Les Paul Studio
2012 Gibson SG Standard
Both have standard 57 Classic pickups
I use a combination of GHS Boomers — 11 gauge and GHS Zakk Wylde Signature Series Boomers — 10 gauge
Girls Rock picks (mediums) from Hot Picks USA and Jim Dunlop mediums
Cover Photo Credit: Chad Elder