An Interview with Alex Young by Joey Nolfi
Since when did being the cool kid on the radio become so…well…cool? Scoping out contemporary radio consists of nothing more than sifting through a carefully crafted menagerie of pop stars helplessly clinging to their “humble” beginnings playing at “pubs” and “clubs” in a desperate effort to maintain some spot of credibility with the increasingly-influential hipster crowd. And if you’re at all familiar with the hipster crowd, you’re definitely aware of doling out labels as classifiers for things you know little about, lumping anything similar into such a category, and tossing such things aside because you’re too cool to possibly care about anything other than your own narrow-minded (and bitterly intershared) taste. Thankfully, one thing legitimately amazing underground pop artists have never really been about is playing into a specific label or genre, which makes sense considering the words “underground” and “pop music” as genre signifiers tend to offset one another’s meaning. But there’s one artist who manages to combine the swagger of a mainstream pop star with the “underground” flair of the local club singer tearing her set up like it’s the third sold-out night in a row at Madison Square Garden; the ever-fabulous Alex Young.
If you’re asking yourself where you’ve seen (or heard) her before and are drawing a few blanks, don’t feel alone. While Young hasn’t exactly catapulted to the precipice of commercial fame just yet, her incredible talent was enough to secure the chance to release a fiercely amazing debut album aptly titled, well, Amazing in 2009. With the release of her new single “Government Name” earlier this summer and its accompanying music video just unleashed today, Alex Young’s presence in the music industry is poised (and overdue) for a massive explosion.
On the road to achieving her dreams, this stunningly beautiful up-and-coming singer based in New York City planted roots in the entertainment industry longer than (as well as long before) most contemporary pop stars have even seen the light of the public’s eye. Ms. Young’s list of accomplishments range from paying her child-star dues on “Sesame Street” to helming a tribute song to the 9/11 rescue workers that New York City’s famous Z100 radio station broadcasted to countless listeners for three consecutive years on the tragedy’s anniversary…all before she was legally allowed to drive. But Young says (in a candidly pretention-free and genuinely artistic fashion) that she doesn’t aim to become a profit-hungry product of the pop music scene. “I am very passionate about what I do and love the medium in which I’m working. If I were on a completely different path, I would still be singing and performing music that I feel connected to” Young says, “but I do want to share my music on the highest level with as many people as possible. Inspiration is so powerful. It would be lovely to share that with the world.”
As truly refreshing as it is to see an artist on the rise who seems so concerned with only sharing her passion with those who will listen, it comes as no surprise that Young’s early life was filled with artistic immersion and musical gratification as far back as she can remember. “For me, family has basically been the center of orbit for most of what I’ve been able to express musically” the singer says of her childhood, “there was a constant flow of music playing at all times in my home growing up. At times there were more than two completely different genres of music playing from different rooms of the house simultaneously. It gave me the confidence and exposure to pursue a path of music at an early age.”
Young’s talent certainly suggests what she confirms about her early life, but in actually listening to her music and exploring the influences Young cites as motivating her craft is when things really start to get interesting. The songstress’ music has often been described as urban-influenced electronic pop; clunky signifiers, I know, but a quick listen to one of her dazzlingly structured songs such as “Cold” or “Heart Stop” (and many more of which recall late 90s experimental electronic bliss infused with club-banging basslines and tints of dainty pop) really assure the appropriate labels. Having said all of that, Young’s primary inspirations in music actually include artists as far removed from contemporary electronic experimentation as one can get; the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and even Frank Sinatra are consistently of reference and interest to Young while crafting music. Young says “I really do always find inspiration around me. Just walking down the street can open my eyes to a new concept, rhythm, or visual for my music. But I feel many of the “greats” had a real sense of truth that they applied to their art. I look to them, hoping I can absorb some of that artistic truth from their portfolio.” And get this; Young also claims that bossa nova music is a constant driving force behind her art, citing Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto as some of her favorites. A word to any and all interviewers out there; Try to get Ke$ha to name just one bossa nova act let alone see such a genre reflected in what she produces. That takes creative bravado right there, people. And as much praise we who eat up amazing music have given to Young’s sonic perfection, she says that she really dislikes being shoved into a compartmentalized category or genre. “I feel that people really feel the need to place boxes around items, concepts or people in order to better understand whatever it is that’s in question. I’ve been influenced by so many different styles I always hope a bit of each style comes through my music” she says. Are you listening, indie-pop-hamburger-phone-owning-urban-outfitter-shopping hipsters? You should be.
Despite disliking labels for her own music, Young says she’s really intrigued by taking two established genres of music and mashing them together to create fiercely danceable tracks such as her latest single “Government Name”, which is a blissful cross between airy pop chords and intense urban backbeats; think of it as if Robyn’s delightful pop ecstasy made sweet, sweet sexy time with one of Swizz Beatz’s ultra beat-heavy productions. Yeah, the song is just about as hot as that hook up sounds. “Pop music is generally easy and light and urban tends to be more hard and rough. Opposites attract right?” Young ponders as she discusses the track, adding “I think the combination gives dynamic and uniqueness to songs in general. When total opposites combine, it’s always interesting. It doesn’t necessarily always work, but it’s always interesting.” And that’s something else you don’t always hear musical acts discussing so freely; what works and what doesn’t work. Young’s candid ability to discuss her work, her craft, and her process with interviewers (or even her fans via twitter) reflects the vigor and hunger of a true artist. Young’s roots in the urban music scene are reflected in her choice of collaborators, ranging from featured vocals from rapper Yung Berg on last year’s remix of “Cold” to time in the studio working on her debut album with producers Mysto & Pizzi (whom have worked with Justin Timberlake and R. Kelly). Young says that she is never intimidated by big-name producers, though, and that it only feeds her hunger for artistic perfection to work with others who share the appetite. Add to that a dash of pop production credits from the likes of Jonas Jeberg (Kylie Minogue, The Pussycat Dolls) and Cuttfather (Santana, Ace of Base) and you have a resume (after only one album, to boot) that rivals those of the divas topping the charts at this very moment.
Speaking of those ruling the charts right now, Young also has some pretty strong opinions concerning those she’ll be competing for Grammy Awards for in a few years’ time, commenting on the over abundance and exploitation of overt sexuality in today’s music by saying “[exploiting sexuality] just seems [to lose the] essence of why it has always been so extremely beautiful and powerful. It’s been lost in a series of slightly altered interpretations of the original concept, which has forced it to trend toward the extremely raunchy. To me, at that point, it loses all power and comes across as if the sexual side has overtaken and is controlling you, rather than you it. It always reminds me of a person playing with fire who has no clue how to light a match.” Her words ring true, especially when examining the careers of other artists who experienced popularity slumps when their image went from sensual to slutty (I’m looking at you, Blackout-era Britney Spears). But none of this is to say Young doesn’t exude a unique sexiness about herself; the video for “Government Name” is slick and sexy in its own right without ever crossing into XXXtina (circa 2002) territory.
Young achieves a uniquely sexy look thanks in part to her love of fashion, of which can be seen playfully referenced in songs like “Government Name” where she sings about a “super nice outfit/from a designer name/can’t even pronounce it”. “It was a little bit tongue and cheek in reference to the fashion world” Young says of the line, “I do have a love for fashion and have fun constructing visuals and sometimes even entire songs around the concept I can get from a single runway outfit.” And her passion for fashion is clear to anyone who’s seen pictures of the extravagant pieces she’s been photographed wearing while attending various events around New York City. As for the designer name she supposedly couldn’t pronounce for the song’s sake, Young says names like Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Louboutin inspired it. Fine taste, indeed.
But aside from all the things that make Alex Young an incredible spectacle on the surface, this talented lady’s got some depth to her, too…something that’s becoming increasingly harder to find in the music industry. She takes her art very seriously, after all this is her life we’re talking about. She wears her passion on her sleeve, though, saying “I believe that art is at the core of self-discovery and progress for most of us. It can change the way an individual or group sees the world. It gives perspective, insight and soul into the keyhole we all view the world from. For me, the most important thing is not who you end up looking to for that inspiration and perspective, but rather where you consciously end up once you find it.” Those are some pretty strong, meaningful words for a “pop singer” as some have been quick to label her. But Alex Young wants to be more than that. “Are your ideas contributing to the greater good? Does it give you a sense of social awareness or responsibility? Does it inspire you to give your own message of truth? Does it push your boundaries? Or does it become a vapid idea that takes you no further than you’ve been?” Young says of art in general, “Does it lie stagnant and never really progress? Does it create more inhibition creatively than where you started? Hopefully it takes you to a place of growth and expansion.”
Young says she hopes to never see a phase in which she stops evolving in her art, which currently shows no signs of stopping; she is in the process of crafting her sophomore album sometime in the near future, with “Government Name” being the only confirmed song thus far on the tracklist.
So, after all of this, what makes someone like Alex Young stand out amongst the sea of other dance-pop beauties out there trying to make a name for themselves? Is it her relentless and untiring spirit that vigorously drives her to create her art? Is it her unique take on fashion and visual flair? Or perhaps maybe it’s her genuine willingness to connect with her growing number of fans on a personal basis as often as she can? In defying everything a typical “underground” pop singer on the bring of fame should be, Alex Young undoubtedly has one of the brightest futures of any rising star in the market right now. But instead of trying to put my finger on what exactly makes her so magnetic, I think I’ll let the following quote regarding Ms. Young’s ultimate goals speak for itself; “To be able to spread inspiration and self awareness would be the ultimate goal. Music really is the backbone of life for me. If, through my music, I could, encourage or inspire others to find his or her own backbone, whatever that may be, that would be the greatest achievement for me. My goal is to always continue to find new ways to express and share life through music.” she says. You’re doing a great job already, Ms. Young. Keep it up, the industry could benefit from a few more girls like you helming the reins.