When you hear Alex Clare singing Why Don’t Ya, you wonder why he ever went away. You listen to this startling piece of music – a raw and wracked soul song, timeless in its construction and in the power of Clare’s voice, but given the deftest and most sympathetic digital production – and ponder the madness of a music industry that didn’t fight to keep a talent like this at work.
It’s nine years since Clare had a huge global hit with Too Close, one of those songs so inescapable it seems to define its year – the kind of song you hear in motorway service stations and in cafes and in shops for months on end; the kind that burns itself indelibly into your consciousness – and five since he last released an album of new songs, Tail of Lions. It’s not that he stopped writing music at that time; he wrote plenty. It was just that he wasn’t writing with hits in mind. He was writing snippets of songs and recording them in his home studio. He was recording what was on his mind, not what he expected the world to want.
“I was writing not for pleasure, but for expression,” he says. “Sometimes it can be quite painful. Performing songs you have written can be painful. A lot of the songs I have written come from a very personal place, and when you perform them it’s not a cathartic experience – you just relive the mindset you were in when you created that piece.”
He had been doing some writing for others, too, and recording the occasionally featured vocal – when you have a voice as bruised and beautiful as that, people are always going to want it on their tracks – but he had been in the shadows. What changed was a major pop star – we’ll keep his identity secret for a little longer – telling him to get back in the game.
Clare has been writing and recording his new music since Covid swept the world, working with copper-bottomed hit writers such as Jamie Hartman (Rag’n’Bone Man, Celeste, Lewis Capaldi). “During the lockdown, I really started going hammer and tongs at it,” he says. “I worked on them at home, then when we needed to do more vocals and instruments, we used a little studio near to me. All the backing vocals on these tracks were done in London by a friend of mine, Olu Sodeinde, who organizes gospel choirs and vocal arrangements. He would send me back a thousand tracks of backing vocals, and it would give us a few days’ works to go through and edit them and put them together.”
With a bunch of tracks completed, Why Don’t Ya was the obvious lead single. “It’s the one that is the most personal. When it comes down to it, I’ve had my own struggles with depression and anxiety and wrote that song after a, particularly bad bout. And trying to find that connection with somebody or fix another person, which is almost impossible. The success I have had in music is when people can relate to what I am saying. I think they said Too Close was the ultimate friend zone song. And I feel with Why Don’t Ya that it captures the numbness that a lot of people get from not being able to express themselves or feel properly because everything is just such a mess. That frustration is something a lot of people can relate to at the moment. I hope so.”
So why has he been away? The first explanation is that while he enjoyed writing and playing, Clare did not enjoy the music industry. He had been signed to Island, then dropped after one album. “It was really rough,” he says. “It was a very hard time in my life. It definitely caused a reevaluation. The reason they gave was that I wasn’t recouping the advance they gave me, but people can be a bit myopic in the music industry. They don’t necessarily think of a long-term plan. Even though organically things were building up really nicely with the live following I was getting, especially in Europe.”
Then – “a massive miracle” – Too Close was featured in a Microsoft ad and became a global hit, and Island and Universal were keen to pick up again the man they had already let go. “I was out of the door. I had basically left the music industry at that point; I had kind of given up. Universal were suddenly interested in me again, but I could never trust them again. In hindsight, I should have signed with someone else, because there was quite a lot of bad blood there with Island. It wasn’t easy to maintain a relationship with them.”
It didn’t help, either, that the label and Clare did not share the same vision for his music. They wanted him to be the big hitmaker and draped his songs with production ornaments. “I love those songs. But there was a lot of production I was not happy with. On the Lateness of the Hour album, on some of the tracks, I was really happy with working with Switch. He’s awesome. It was a humbling process to work with him. But then they bring in the big production guns. Which is a way of doing things. But it’s not a subtle approach to music. I liked them, they were nice people, but it was more of a move on the label’s part to make some hits.”
But there was something else in Clare’s life that mattered more to him than music: his faith. He had never been an atheist, and his faith had been growing during those major label years, but in 2015 he made the decision to take it seriously, and he moved to Israel to go to yeshiva – a religious college – to learn about the Talmud and Torah within the framework of orthodox Judaism.
It needs to be noted here that Clare is not a zealot, not a proselytizer. He laughs loudly and frequently. He points out that neither his faith nor he is ascetic. He simply had the need many of us feel: to search for meaning. “And I found that within the framework of Judaism, the philosophical and spiritual side of Judaism – a lot of meaning. It started a search, and I kept searching and exploring and digging and delving, and you get deeper and deeper into it. And as long as you find the right mentors and the right frameworks to grow spiritually, it’s very rewarding. So it has been a journey. It’s not arriving at a destination, it is growing and understanding and figuring out what resonates.” That said, he notes with a giggle, there was an awful lot of studying law and protocols. “It’s a legal code that you’re learning, which I wish someone had explained to me before I started because I was expecting it to be much more spiritual.” That makes him laugh at himself, long and loud.
For three and a half years he studied intensely, and the rest of the time he spent with his young family – he has three kids. He wasn’t listening to music (“which is mental for somebody who loves music so much”), and that part of his life seemed to be behind him. Then the studying eased off, and the music began creeping back into his life. He found the motivation to write again – to write for the sake of writing, rather than because someone wanted a hit – and then that pop star came to tell him to knuckle down.
“There’s a musician in Israel called Ishay Ribo, who is religious but has crossed over into the mainstream in the Middle East because he writes beautiful music. Really, really special songs. He came and found me and said, ‘What are you doing? You have to get out there again.’ He really motivated me to get back into the studio properly. I decided for my own peace of mind and satisfaction with life I needed to be creating music and playing live again. It’s something I feel very connected to, and it felt like the right time to get back on it.”
This time around, he was in control, and though he had help with production, he could make the songs sound the way he wanted. “There are no bells and whistles. I had a much bigger role in the production of these songs than I ever had, which has been great. To have that creative control means you can’t blame anybody else or be disappointed. You can just keep hacking away at the coalface to get something out which you’re happy with.”
He has not been making “Jewish music”. He hasn’t been making religious music. Yes, there are elements of spirituality in there, but then faith has been one of the cornerstones of popular music; you don’t get to Springsteen without Catholicism; you don’t get to Nick Cave without the Old Testament; you don’t get to Dylan without Judaism. But you do not listen to Alex Clare’s music and feel you are being lectured, because these are not those kinds of songs.
“Lots of the songs are about the ups and downs of relationships, and the frustrations, and the good bits and the bad bits, and the ups and downs, and the rollercoaster of life that you embark on with somebody,” he says. “My relationship with my wife has always been my biggest muse. We’ve both had our struggles and things that we’ve had to deal with, individually and together, and that’s been a big source of creativity. When you’re dealing with your emotions and your feelings, it can lead to a really good creative process. It’s a way of getting it out.”
Back in the first decade of this century, Clare was part of a booming London scene. He shared stages with artists as diverse as Florence and the Machine, Magnetic Man and Mumford & Sons, and plenty more who went on to notable careers. He was also infamously Amy Winehouse’s boyfriend (“When I first heard her play me Back to Black when she wrote it, I didn’t pick up a guitar for weeks. I was just like, ‘What’s the point? I’ll never create something like that.’ It was so powerful). He’s no longer part of that London scene; he’s a different person entirely these days. But listen to his new music and you’ll hear that one thing hasn’t changed: Alex Clare is still brilliant.