Interview with Alexx Calise: Turning up the AC

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The website for the artist we’re spotlighting this time has been selling a “Turn up the AC” t-shirt.  Where I live in Florida, I hear that phrase almost all the time, but this is definitely not about air conditioning.  This is about Alexx Calise, whose music is the kind that’s worth turning up and enjoying.

Based in Los Angeles, by way of New York City’s Staten Island, where she was born, and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where she was raised, Alexx grew up in a musically-inclined family.  Over the years, she has developed a hard-rocking style, while proving herself to be quite an independent artist.  So independent that she’s turned down suggestions from industry types that she not be as much of a guitarist as she herself was meant to be.

Alexx has also proven herself to be quite versatile by delivering ballads that, in addition to her rocking material, have won her some soundtrack time on various TV shows as well as a few motion pictures.  And, as she explained in this interview I recently conducted with her, Alexx has also extended that versatility into the acting realm by appearing in a few commercials and documentaries.

I also asked Alexx about what inspired her guitar-playing and songwriting, as well as her independence in dealing with not just the music industry, plus other topics like how a hit reality TV show featured some of her songs, and the advantages that such TV play offers.

GGM:  First, Alexx, what artists influenced what you play, and how supportive were your parents of you wanting to be a singer and musician?

Alexx:  I’ve always been a lover of grunge and rock music, like Silverchair, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, Aerosmith, Buckcherry, and Nine Inch Nails. Anything emotive, distorted, pained, and raw really. You don’t hear as much of that today unfortunately. A lot of contemporary music is banged out and devoid of substance.

My parents turned me on to all different kinds of music; jazz, rock, New Age, classical, you name it. In the afternoons, we’d jam out on the Stones, and later on during dinner, we’d listen to Stravinsky or Debussy.

I had a love affair with the blues at age 15–everything from Dinah Washington to Kenny Wayne Shepherd–and locked myself in my room for hours listening to records and playing guitar. I was hooked. The blues made their way into my soul and have never, ever made their way out.

My parents thankfully were very supportive of my career, and continue to be my biggest cheerleaders. Without their support and blessing, I wouldn’t be the musician or person I am today.

GGM:  What was the first concert you ever attended?

Alexx:  I think the first concert I ever attended was probably The Beach Boys. They were absolutely amazing, and the harmonies were dead on. Talk about amazing musicianship.

GGM:  When did you learn to play the guitar, and when was your first professional performance?

Alexx:  I learned to play when I was about 11. My father was really the catalyst for that; I always wanted to be just like him. My first performance as a guitar player/singer was at my 7th grade talent show. I played “Suicidal Dream” by Silverchair and left everyone sitting there with their jaws hanging open. I think I succeeded in scaring the crap out of everyone and making them think I needed professional help.

GGM:  Of the guitars you have played, or are currently playing, which one or more stand out as your favorites?

Alexx:  My favorite is undoubtedly my white Gibson Les Paul. It’s become a signature of sorts and it even made it on the cover of my “AC3” EP. Nothing quite has the sustain and crunch of a Les Paul. My Gibson SG is a close second.

GGM:  According to the bio on your website, you were told to “pursue a ‘more proven’ musical direction” rather than play your guitar.  Was that typical of how the music business perceives female artists?

Alexx:  I’ve found that, in general, you have to know what you want and assert yourself from day one. If you don’t put your foot down and say, “Hey, this is what I want to do,” then people will try to tell you what to do and how to do it. Now that I’m older, more experienced, and more comfortable in my own skin, I have no problem telling people what I want. You know what? They listen to me now.

Some people have tried in the past to sway me in a more “pop” direction because they didn’t take the time to really get to know me and ask me what I wanted. I’ve always been pretty easy going, and I was a little naive about the biz when I was first starting out, so I figured, “Okay, these people know what they’re talking about.” On a few occasions, I was told to put down the guitar because I was apparently “easier to sell” that way, which I think is BS and completely misinformed. Seriously, how many female musicians can you name that actually play the guitar and play it well? I think it’s a great sell!

Where I feel I excel is my songwriting. That’s what I think will set me apart and allow me to have a longstanding career. The ultra pop market is here today, gone tomorrow, and I don’t want to compete in that market. It’s a losing battle. At 28, I’m already too old for it, I can’t dance worth a sh*t, and I look and feel really uncomfortable in revealing clothing. I suppose I could do it for a photo shoot or event, but I’m at home in a t-shirt and jeans.

GGM:  Many songwriters have been known to compose lyrics based on their own life experiences.  Are such experiences how you usually base your lyrics?

Alexx:  Absolutely. My lyrics are usually of the existential, self-loathing, introspective variety, ha ha. Lyrical content isn’t usually dictated by me, the song kind of just writes itself. I hear the melody a certain way in my head, and then the words come out pretty organically. Breakups, loss, low moments, and moments of self reflection have always been great fuel for me. Songwriting is a great way to turn all of that negative energy into a positive; it’s cathartic.

GGM:  You recorded your most recent EP at home instead of in a studio.  Besides being cost-effective, do you, as a musician, think the quality of recording at home, versus the studio, is just as good?

Alexx:  It really just depends on what you’re working with. If you have a great rig at home and you’re a proficient engineer, then go for it. I’ve heard some amazing records that were recorded entirely on a laptop, and you’d never know it. My former band, Sound of Cancer’s album was recorded entirely on Logic. We made it sound huge.

We got away with tracking the guitars, bass and vocals for “AC3” at home, and then we tracked the drums at a professional studio. What I do like about being in a studio is that you have to make the most of your time. Usually you’re on the clock. A studio environment also forces productivity. If you choose to record at home, you can do it whenever you feel like it. That’s why things don’t get done as quickly as they could be.

GGM:  You mentioned Sound of Cancer.  How did that come about, and what was the end result?

Alexx:  Sound of Cancer was a project that I had with my former songwriting partner, Dennis Morehouse. We didn’t have the intention of starting a band together, necessarily; Dennis had just asked me a few years ago if I wanted to co-write a song for an indie film called “In My Pocket.” We found that we had really good chemistry and it kind of just blossomed from there. The end result was Sound of Cancer, and we wrote a really awesome album called “No Vampires in Gilroy” over 2 or 3 years.

It’s definitely for fans of Pink Floyd, Massive Attack, Nine Inch Nails and Portishead because of its dark, ethereal nature. Almost immediately after we put out the record, it started getting licensed, and it still continues to be used pretty often in TV shows.

Unfortunately though, some of the things that bring people together, tears them apart; and like the saying goes, nothing lasts forever. It was a chapter in my life that I will always, always be grateful for, and it was a pretty amazing time in my life. I wish Dennis the very best of luck in all that he does; he’s a great man, and I will always love and respect him despite everything that has gone on between us.

GGM:  As someone who has toured independently, do you still run into those shows in which you’d have to pay to play?

Alexx:  I’ve never played a pay-to-play show, and I refuse to do it. Recently, a promoter tried to make us pay after a performance, but my band (and even some of my fans!) really got in his face about it. Needless to say, he backed down pretty quickly. That’s been the only time in my entire experience that anything of that nature has happened to me, and I was pretty disgusted by it.

I really think it’s BS that some of these promoters and venues try to charge the people who are providing them with (usually) free entertainment. They typically don’t promote their shows as well, and then they expect the bands to bring in all the people. It’s very short-sighted on their part, and it’s obviously very unfair to artists.

There are a few clubs out here in L.A. however that really play it smart. We’ve played one particular place in Hollywood called Boardner’s where they have a well-promoted “rock night,” and they give each band an unlimited free guest list. They almost always have really great, ultra- professional bands at that venue, too. It makes you want to keep coming back as an artist and also as a patron. Some of these other venues should take notes. They’re usually dead while Boardner’s is always bumping.

GGM:  You were featured a few times on Lifetime’s Dance Moms, as well as its spinoffs, Dance Moms: Miami, and Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition.  I thought I’d ask a couple of questions about that.  First, how did the producers of Dance Moms find out about you? 

Alexx:  I have to credit the show’s executive producer, John Corella, for finding me. John was searching for some music for “Dance Moms” Season One on my licensing agency’s website (Jingle Punks) and he stumbled upon “Cry.” After it started airing, the song really grew legs and started selling like crazy, so I figured making an official video for the song would be a smart move. My dad took it a step further and suggested I try to get Maddie, the little girl who danced to the song in the show, to dance in the actual video itself. I got a hold of Abby Lee Miller, the choreographer on the show, and two weeks later, Maddie was on a plane to LA to shoot the video with me.

Since then, I’ve become friends with some of the cast and producers, and we’ve maintained a great rapport. They’ve even started asking me to custom tailor some new music for them, which is a big honor and a load of fun for me.

GGM:  On two of the shows I named above, one of the featured dancers, young Maddie Ziegler, did interpretive dances to your songs “Cry” and “Survive.”  Your video for “Cry” also features Maddie dancing, as well.  What reaction, if any, did you get to those from Maddie, her mom Melissa, or from the show’s dance teacher, Abby Lee Miller?

Alexx:  I think it was very well-received. I know it definitely was on our end. When we were filming, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house! In the show, at least when Maddie was dancing to “Cry,” you could tell from Melissa’s reaction that she was so proud of her little girl. Abby looked the same.

Maddie has such a bright future ahead of her, and she dances with so much soul. Like me, I can tell she’s very critical of her performance, but you have to be in order to become a better performer. I think she should be very proud of herself and realize how much of a talent she truly is.

GGM:  Since “Cry” sold well on iTunes due to being on TV, as well having also had songs featured on other TV programs, like The CW’s One Tree Hill and NBC’S The Voice, do you think there’s a certain advantage to that, as opposed to the more traditional method of radio airplay?

Alexx:  Absolutely. It’s a great way to get noticed, and it’s also one of the few money-making avenues left for musicians as well. If you have a beefy enough catalog and hook up with a great licensing agency or publisher, you may be able to completely sustain yourself.

Radio isn’t the be-all, end-all anymore. There are so many different places to hear new music now; Pandora, Spotify, Last.FM, satellite radio, podcasts, you name it. The old model isn’t working anymore. This is how new artists are breaking and carving a niche in the contemporary music market.

GGM:  Just in time for the Christmas shopping season last November, you were featured in a Guitar Center commercial.  How did you land that one?

Alexx:  In addition to being a musician, I also do some acting. I submitted for the role of “guitar player” for the GC commercial, and I was lucky enough to land the gig. I didn’t think I was going to actually because I auditioned sick as a dog! Think I did a pretty decent job of acting like a musician, ha ha!

GGM:  Finally, Alexx, there have been surveys done over the last few years in which many independent artists think a contract with a major recording label would be a great thing to have.  If any of the 3 major label groups still standing–UMG, Sony and WMG–were to offer you a contract tomorrow, would you turn it down, given how you’ve proven yourself as an independent artist?

Alexx:  I’ve been offered deals in the past and have turned them down because it wasn’t enough of a good deal for me to turn over my catalog and run the risk of being shelved. If I’m going to be offered one of the typical 360 deals, or a deal that isn’t necessarily artist friendly, I have to feel like I’ll be adequately promoted and taken care of, and that I won’t be lost in the shuffle. That’s frightening to me, and I have a lot of friends on major labels who are wishing they were in my shoes right now.

If I come across a label that wants to work with me, I’ll definitely work with them. It’s a give and take, and I’m willing to put in the time, effort and hard work if it’s reciprocated.

In addition to her musical and acting versatility, Alexx has also been involved in a charity project in which her guitar strings have been handcrafted into bracelets, available at www.wearyourmusic.org. All of the proceeds from sales of these Alexx Calise Guitar String Bracelets go to the Brain Trauma Foundation.

You can find out more about Alexx on her website, www.alexxcalise.net.  Her music, including the songs mentioned, is available on her website, as well as on iTunes.  Also, you can like Alexx on Facebook at www.facebook.com/alexxcalisemusic, as well as follow her on Twitter @alexxcalise.

Cover Photo Credit: Dan Handa

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