Scott Feinberg Hollywood Reporter 10/14/14
The frontman of the 1990s band behind the hit single ‘You Get What You Give’ was lured back into the business, after a long self-imposed exile, to write the songs for ‘Begin Again,’ including best original song Oscar contender ‘Lost Stars’
It couldn’t have been scripted more poignantly. Last week, as I waited in the lobby of a New York hotel to meet Gregg Alexander — the frontman of the 1990s band The New Radicals who, shortly after releasing their smash-hit “You Get What You Give” (“You’ve Got the Music in You”), disbanded the group and turned his back on fame and fortune — for his first interview in 15 years, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry bounded past me, out the doors and into a throng of fans who mobbed him, clamoring for autographs, selfies and a chance to touch greatness, or at least celebrity. Past this scene strolled Alexander, a rail-thin 6’4″ bald man whom none of those fans noticed, despite the fact that his own music was side-by-side with Aerosmith’s on the Billboard charts in the late nineties. “Did you see that?” he asked me with childlike wonder — and not a hint of envy
As we made our way up to the room in which this interview would take place and took our seats, Alexander struck me as the furthest thing one could be from the stereotypical rock star — perhaps because it’s been so long since he was one. He was sweet, sensitive, self-effacing and effusively appreciative of my interest in talking to him. Was he putting me on? He, after all, had provided me with an integral and cherished portion of the soundtrack of my youth — I don’t think there was a party during my high school years at which “You Get What You Give” wasn’t played. I still listen to and love it. And, until recently, I periodically wondered what had happened to the guy who sang it.
Alexander, through an intermediary, had offered me his first interview because I have been a vocal fan of John Carney’s Begin Again — for which he came out of his self-imposed exile to write/co-write some wonderful songs, including best original song Oscar contender “Lost Stars” — since it premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival under the title Can a Song Save Your Life?. Few, if any, creative endeavors have ever meant as much to him as this low-budget indie about the power of music, as well as the perils of the music industry — the things that drove him to walk away from it, in a sense, all those years ago, and which he feels are even worse today.
But before we get into all of that, we have to go back to where it all started for Alexander: in Motown. “Me and my mom would get in the car, drive around and listen to A.M. radio in the metropolitan Detroit area,” he tells me. Raised a Jehovah’s Witness and with a diverse group of friends, all of his favorite music was soul and rock and roll. He remembers listening to “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney, the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown,” George Clinton, and the like; fooling around on the family piano, “just instinctively writing my own melodies because I couldn’t really learn other people’s”; and then later focusing on the guitar and drums. “But the game-changer for me was seeing Prince in Purple Rain at 13 or 14,” he says, noting that he snuck into the R-rated movie. “‘Let’s Go Crazy’ knocked me over my head, but then when I heard ‘The Beautiful Ones’ it was all over. At that point I knew I was gonna be running away to California.”
His initial trip to Los Angeles was with his mother — ostensibly out of a desire to visit his aunt, but really as “a covert research and development trip,” he says with a laugh. There, he felt “that post-sixties spirit that was still alive in the mid-eighties,” visited an open-mic night and “literally snuck into the Grammys,” where he saw “all of my heroes” and “everything seemed within reach.” He knew he was home. That summer, while back in Detroit, he recalls, “I said to my parents, ‘I’m running away to California to be a rock star.’ My mom knew I was serious, but my dad said, ‘Well, make sure you’re back home in September for school if it hasn’t come together.”
His summer in L.A. could be the focus of a movie itself. He lived in Compton, Studio City and North Hollywood — “It was the black community that really took me in,” he says, “and thank God for that or else I would have been sleeping on the streets” — and he would regularly lug his raw demo tapes — “me pounding out in a some crappy studios in Detroit, howling at the top of my lungs” — down to Sunset Blvd., where he received a lot of encouragement. “Not everybody was like, ‘We’ll give you a record deal, kid,’ but it felt, in a strange way, that there was some angel looking over my shoulder a bit.”
It’s hard to doubt that was the case: by September, he had met record producer Jimmy Iovine, who had a production deal with A&M Records, and who offered him a record deal. He was just 16, and would not be permitted to sign it until he was 18, but he was given an “allowance,” of sorts, in the meantime. There would be no going back to Detroit.
For the next two years, he rode the buses to the beach and wrote songs all day. When I ask him what sort of a future he envisioned for himself upon turning 18 in 1988 — a solo career, being part of a band or perhaps something else — he is overcome with emotion. “That’s a sad question,” he says, wiping away tears. He says that he believed, at the time, “that a song and a sentiment would be able to right the wrongs of the world and make people actually love each other.” But his sense of idealism and optimism would soon be threatened by the business side of his art form.
For the next nine years, he had “a consummate blast, in a lot of ways,” much of it spent traveling around Europe while writing songs and honing his craft. But his career unfolded like a rollercoaster. The A&M deal lasted for a while, but his first record came out just after Polygram bought A&M for a half-billion dollars — “right around when the business started becoming, sadly, big money” — and his record got totally lost. He was soon a free agent again but, two years later, against great odds, he landed another record deal, this time with Epic Records. His second record, however, came out at the height of grunge — “and died because I refused to sound like that because it wasn’t me. I couldn’t fake that. I had to follow my heart creatively.” Then he lost that record deal, too. At 27, he had already experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and he says now, “I already felt like an old soul.”
By this point he was “used to making records that never got heard,” so, as he set about writing new songs, he “completely ripped up” the “few rules that applied to my first two records” and produced the third one himself. He recalls, “Most of that record was me pulling favors with studios or musicians that had played on earlier records and were like, ‘Oh, Gregg’s down on his luck — let’s go play on his demo for the hell of it, we’ll have a good laugh, have a couple of beers and maybe smoke a jay or whatever.'”
In the end, though, the album was impressive. He reflects, “We captured something that I thought that the music business, even at that time, had become too big-business and corporate to acknowledge. But, to my pleasant surprise, somebody wanted to sign me [again]. I couldn’t believe it.” That somebody was Michael Rosenblatt, who had signed Madonna, and who was sent Alexander’s demo tape by a friend. It was all but unheard of for an artist to get a third record deal after “failing” with the first two; usually you’re lucky if you get one shot. But, not for the last time, Alexander proved the exception to the rule.
The album was titled “Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too” and released in 1998 as a work of “The New Radicals.” Almost immediately, one single on it, “You Get What You Give,” catapulted into the top 40 on the Billboard charts. Alexander smiles and recalls, “I was on Sunset Blvd. walking down the street shortly after the record came out and I heard the song blasting out of someone’s car — and my immediate instinct was, ‘Oh, my God, someone stole my demo tape!’ I was really serious, too. And then I heard it coming from another car like a minute later and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, how did all these people get my demo tape?!” He howls with laughter at the memory. (In the ensuing years, U2’s The Edge would name “You Get What You Give” as the song he’s the most “jealous of,” Joni Mitchell would assert that it rose “from the swamp of ‘McMusic’ like a flower of hope” and VH1 would choose it as one of the “100 Greatest Songs of the ’90s.”)
Alexander was now a full-fledged rock star, with all that came with it. He remembers, “Touring was fun. Playing live was exciting. I just wish there would have been an off-button, you know? If modern pop-culture was just about the work and performing and creating some sort of euphoria for those who are inclined to like what you do, if there was a way to turn it off when you’re offstage, it would be the greatest job on the planet.” Alas, it involves much more.
“My favorite writers and artists had a human-politics aspect to their work, and that was something that drove me, as well,” he says. But, he laments, “I felt — perhaps too early on — that it was going to be a challenge to get even a portion of that sentiment across.” He elaborates, “As an experiment on the song ‘You Get What You Give,’ I had what at the time was one of the more political lyrics in a long, long, long time, to the point where some of the people I was working with were horrified: in a pop song, I was going after health insurance companies and corruption — ‘Health insurance rip off lying'; the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the hypocrisy of the war on drugs, which was not real; ‘big bankers’ and Wall Street. To allude to all that stuff in a pop song was, in retrospect, a naively crazy proposition.” Immediately after that political riff in his song, he inserted, “almost as a joke,” lyrics knocking Courtney Love and other pop-cultural figures of the time. “But to put them next to each other, and then to notice that everybody focused on the so-called “celebrity-bashing” lyric instead of this lyric that was talking about the powers-that-be that are holding everybody down—” He trails off. “That was something that I was kind of disillusioned by.”
His own growing celebrity was also increasingly troubling to him. “Artists are supposed to observe life,” he says, noting that it became harder to do that without people observing him. Moreover, people wanted to know about his personal life more than his art. “My favorite artists — Prince, [David Lee] Roth-era Van Halen, even Madonna when she was doing cutting-edge work — they were mysteries to me and my friends,” he emphasizes. “That was part of what made their work compelling, was that we didn’t have their opinions tweeted and Facebooked every 30 seconds. I didn’t know what Prince was having for dinner, thank God. So that was some of what I idealized and thought would be more present in my life as an artist” — only, that era had already begun to pass.
But perhaps most intolerable to him was the insistence by the industry itself — “the big business that run these corporations and multinationals that own the record companies and all of the conduits through which artists get their music out there” — that he and other artists “whore out” themselves in order to continue to make art. An example? “Things like doing station P.A.s, you know, where you have to go, ‘You’re hangin’ with The Party Pig!’ [The Party Pig was the mascot for the LA area's now-defunct KQLZ 100.3 AM.] You know? ‘This is Gregg from The New Radicals and you’re hangin’ with The Party Pig!’ ‘Hangin’ with the Party Pig’ is a metaphor for all the sort of stuff that artists, to this day, have to do, and as bad as it seemed back then, it has multiplied a thousand times. It seems like a sad trade-off for artists. It’s the deal with the devil: if you want your work to be seen, it’s unfortunately not just about the work. And when it becomes less about the art, then the art suffers.”
“I simply missed feeling like an artist everyday and being able to write songs everyday and not feel like my time was being controlled and managed to answer to corporate shareholders,” Alexander says. Moreover, he adds, “I missed my old life.” So in 1999, just one year after “You Get What You Give” neared the top of the Billboard charts, he disbanded The New Radicals, turned his back on fame and fortune and simply walked away.
15 years later, I ask him if he ever feels like he pulled the plug too soon on his life in the limelight. “I have a lot of fantastic memories and there were a lot of amazing things about it,” he says, citing heartfelt fan interactions as a particular highlight. “As they say, hindsight is 20-20. In retrospect, maybe I could have and should have doubled-down and just kept the blinders on and the foot on the accelerator. But at 28, when my life was all about making music, all of a sudden it started morphing into supporting the machine and things that felt like the antithesis of creativity.”
At that point, Alexander moved to London, where he aimed to find a way to remain musically creative but also anonymous. “Thank God for the British record business and ‘Uncle Lucian,'” he says in reference to the Universal Music Group’s chief Lucian Grainge, who gave him “an open door policy” to write and produce songs for UMG artists while using pseudonyms. “I wanted people to either like or not like a song on its own volition,” he explains. “It gave me something to do and it gave me a feeling that my music was being heard in my absence of being the person out there doing the dog-and-pony show.”
In short order, he had penned about a half-dozen pan-European hits, including “Murder on the Dance Floor” for Sophie Ellis-Bextor and “Life Is a Rollercoaster” for Ronan Keating. And then Clive Davis, chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment, paired “The Game of Love,” a song that Alexander and Rick Nowels had co-written, with the artist Santana — “It was such an unlikely song for Santana to record,” he marvels — and the result was a smash hit for which Alexander won a Grammy. “I used another name, and did that for about five years.” But even from a distance, he continued to feel that the music business “was morphing and becoming even more corporate,” and “I kind of took a step back [again] at that point.” He began splitting time between Europe, New York and Los Angeles, and took on work completely unrelated to music, such as advocating on behalf of clean water projects, poverty alleviation and the Robin Hood Tax to promote the taxation of offshore accounts and derivatives.
Then, about two years ago, Alexander got a phone call from the writer-director-musician John Carney. Carney had been given Alexander’s contact info by fellow Irishman Bono, who had always been supportive of Alexander’s work and felt that he could be a great help on Can a Song Save Your Life?, Carney’s music-centric follow up to his 2007 Oscar-winning indie Once (which Alexander, a “cinephile,” had seen and loved). “We were on the phone for about 90 minutes, just talking about film and music, and it became evident rather early on that he is definitely a genius,” Alexander recalls.
Carney then sent Alexander a draft of his script about a young couple, Gretta (who Scarlett Johansson was originally attached to play, but who was ultimately played by “incredibly brave” singing novice Keira Knightley) and Dave (pop star Adam Levine), who grow apart after he becomes a star and she gets left behind — only to be discovered by a down-on-his-luck record exec Dan (Mark Ruffalo). Alexander recalls, “When I read the screenplay, it completely threw me for six.” He acknowledges, “I saw myself, to some degree,” in all of the principal characters — Gretta’s pure love for music, Dave’s jarring experience with stardom and Dan’s disillusionment with the state of the business today — and couldn’t resist the chance to be a part of the project. “It gave me the impetus to walk away from my break,” he says, and once he decided to do so, “I was all guns blazing; I started writing songs immediately.”
Now no longer a kid in his late twenties, but a man in his early forties, he was back — not in front of the mic himself anymore, but aiming to provide those who were with the best possible product to perform. And he felt great pressure to nail one song, in particular, around which Carney had constructed much of his film, and which was tacitly the inspiration for the film’s then-title: the one that Gretta would write — and sing as a soulful, “innocent” tune — as a Christmas gift for Dave; Dave would then cover as “a more superfluous, up-tempo dance version” and turn into a hit; and that would ultimately be performed a third and final time in a way that would determine the fate of their relationship. It was a song that would need to sound good in each of these different incarnations and that he saw as the film’s “Purple Rain,” in “the humblest sense” of being “the song at the end of the film that hopefully ties everything together.”
Alexander and co-writers Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley and Nick Southwood worked furiously on the number, which they called “Lost Stars.” He recalls, “The goal was for each lyric and sentiment to be a story and a thought unto itself, but also to the greater mystery of life, which is that we are all just coming and going in this life. We are just a lost star. We are a spark on the horizon.” He continues, “The song was probably the saddest songs that I’ve ever written in my life, to the point where I had to morph the melodies and the chords to try to make it uplifting.” It worked. Carney loved it. “When I gave ‘Lost Stars’ to John I got back the most beautiful email saying that he had been crying on his keyboard. That was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had as a collaborator.”
When Alexander first saw the finished film, which revolves so much around his music, he found himself in tears, and, since the film’s theatrical release over the summer under the new title Begin Again, he has been deeply touched by how many people have indicated that “Lost Stars” was meaningful to them. “The fact that some people hear the song and feel tears of joy instead of tears of sadness? That’s the most satisfying part of it.” It has also made him want to continue to find outlets for music in films, since he believes that films are now the ideal vehicle through which artists can put out meaningful music. “Independent films and studio films that have an important message and are willing to fight the power are the new rock and roll,” he insists.
So… is he “back” now from what he termed his “extended hiatus and sabbatical”?
Well, the concerns that drove him away from the business in the first place certainly aren’t gone. “Rock and roll has, sadly, flat-lined, it has dissipated,” he says mournfully. “It’s heartbreaking to see lyrics playing second-fiddle to beats and sounds, which there’s always a place for, but my favorite artists brought it all together.” Moreover, he still can’t get over “the corporatization and the celebrity-centric dumbing-down of music — signing artists based on what they look like, or how many YouTube plays their ego-centric, quirky videos get, instead of trying to find the next Dylan or Prince — the bedroom weirdos, the people that are making music in their bedrooms, the outcasts and the eccentrics. That was always the job of the music business.” And the celebrity obsession of the culture has only gotten worse: “For artists the dream is to touch people with your art. Now it seems like artists are props for selfies.”
And he doesn’t exactly miss being the guy out front — “Only walking on stage and feeling that electric energy,” he says, adding, “That was so beyond me. It was almost like this mysterious alternative universe that I didn’t really belong in — but it was fun.”
Still, he says, “I’m back in so much as I want to keep writing the best music I’ve ever done and hopefully find a way to say things that may not otherwise get said in the arts,” and also “to find the right voices or the right projects that can hopefully takes those songs to the world.”
Is there any chance that his might once again be one of those voices? “Oh, gosh,” he says with a laugh. “Let me get back to you!”