Growing up in New York City, Alexa Ray Joel had more than her parents to look to for inspiration. Now 28, she’s grown more comfortable with herself and her music, landing a residency at the Carlyle. FLATT editor Jessica Almon had the opportunity to meet with the young star and talk about her experiences growing up and what’s next for Joel.
JESSICA ALMON: Congratulations on your residency at the Carlyle!
ALEXA RAY JOEL: Thank you so much!
JESSICA ALMON: What can people expect from the show?
ALEXA RAY JOEL: It’s going to be extrem-ely eclectic. I’m doing everything from blues to jazz, and it’s going to be extra-soulful because I have that little husky thing in my voice now, which can sometimes work. [laughs] I tend to add a little bit of R&B/Soul into my vocals because I’m so influenced by [artists like] Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack. But then I have this whole Billie Holiday-esque jazz component that’s there as well. It’s going to be half originals and half covers. I’m going to talk very clearly and pay homage to all of these musicians whom I’m covering and whom I was influenced by but it’s all reinterpreted in a really fresh way.
JESSICA ALMON: And what about your own songs?
ALEXA RAY JOEL: For my own songs, I’m doing a song called “Song of Yesterday,” which is on my first EP, Sketches. I was kind of thinking of Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” when I wrote it. It just has that classic, soulful sound. I was trying to have it sound like an old blues or jazz standard. Same with the song “Till it Goes Away,” which is kind of more Billie Holiday, “On the Sunny Side of the Street” style. You gotta throw that stuff in—it’s the Carlyle. It’s gotta have those classic, iconic moments intertwined. But the main thing that I want to bring to the table is to weave together these completely different genres and tell a story.
JESSICA ALMON: Is there a cover that you wanted to do, but for some reason, didn’t?
ALEXA RAY JOEL: Unless I can make a cover really fresh, I don’t do it. Which is why I usually end up covering male artists. That being said, to do a Ray Charles or a Stevie Wonder cover is just as intimidating because they’re so brilliant and iconic and prolific, but I somehow feel like, “Okay, I can work with this. I can reinterpret this in my own way.”
JESSICA ALMON: You mention feminizing these songs – when you talk about using the cello to make it softer and romantic – it can really add something to these songs written by men and performed by men.
ALEXA RAY JOEL: Same thing with [my cover of] “Just the Way You Are.” That’s what I did.
JESSICA ALMON: Right, and it almost sounds like a different song in a lot of ways…
ALEXA RAY JOEL: Good! That’s what I wanted. [laughs]
JESSICA ALMON: …because it’s coming from a different place when you sing it. It’s coming from a female place. With your own writing, do you think about representing a female voice when you write, or is it coming from a place of pure inspiration?
ALEXA RAY JOEL: I do always think of representing a female voice. I feel that we as women are finding our way. Not to say that we’re not more empowered now than ever. I think we are, but I think there’s a lot of sexism out there, and that women are predominantly judged and stereotyped in a way that men are not. Even just in the media, when they mention an actress, they always mention her age, and whom she’s been linked to romantically, and there’s always something about her appearance—whether it’s what she’s wearing or her weight… But with a credible male actor, they don’t do that – there’s still an injustice with that. So as a woman, as someone who’s been a late-bloomer, who’s been painfully shy for so much of my life, and I feel like I’m coming out of my shell now, I’m cognizant of having a mature female perspective. I think it’s still an uphill battle for women everywhere, not just in Hollywood.
JESSICA ALMON: I love the song “Beg You to Stay.” On the one hand, it’s so vulnerable, but on the other there’s something tongue-and-cheek about it that makes me feel like you’re speaking to women, not a guy.
ALEXA RAY JOEL: “I’m a doll / You can mold me / Just take me apart and glue me back.” It’s a little play on how women can find themselves in very masochistic roles in relationships, where you are controlled and manipulated by a man.
JESSICA ALMON: It felt subversive.
ALEXA RAY JOEL: I was trying to be really subversive and irreverent. I was really emotional when I wrote it. I was getting over a bad breakup—my first boyfriend. You know, first heartbreak is always intense. I remember crying when I was writing it but then almost laughing at some of the ironic themes of the song. It was really cathartic, and when I put it out, I was hoping it would be cathartic for other women because it is really revealing lyrics, and not necessarily so flattering to admit that you’re in this position where you’re begging somebody to stay and don’t care what you have to do to get them to stay. It’s not something I was proud of, to be in that place. But I think a lot of women are in that place. They do feel powerless, and they do feel controlled against their will, and there’s such a fear of being alone. There’s a profound fear of not having male acceptance in general or a specific guy. I was addressing that, and it felt like one of the braver things I’d written, because I was pouring my guts out.
JESSICA ALMON: You grew up in New York, right?
ALEXA RAY JOEL: I was born in New York Hospital. So it doesn’t get any more New York than that! I’ve been vacillating between Manhattan and Long Island – they’re both my homes.
JESSICA ALMON: Has New York shaped you or your music in any ways?
ALEXA RAY JOEL: Oh, definitely. My father’s Mr. “New York State of Mind”! How could it not? I think New Yorkers intellectualize things, and they analyze things in a certain way, and there’s kind of a certain cynicism and ironic humor that comes with growing up here. I think New Yorkers are more straightforward. It’s this humor and honesty. I think that’s shaped me.
JESSICA ALMON: I do love that this is becoming a girl power interview. I promise that wasn’t my intention, but I love it!
ALEXA RAY JOEL: I think it’s great! I always go there with interviews because of my experience writing this advice column for J-14, a teen magazine. Girls would write me these very painfully insecure letters. I can’t even remember specifics but [they detailed] these very miniscule things that they hated about themselves, that every day would make them so self-conscious. There was such a theme of self-hatred with these girls. I realized just how much [young women] need help and need to know: “It’s okay, you don’t have to be perfect. You are beautiful in your own way. Try to practice self-acceptance.” [It’s] so important for this generation coming up.
JESSICA ALMON: Speaking of teen years, you’ve been playing music since you were really little. When did you decide or know that you wanted to do this professionally?
ALEXA RAY JOEL: I think I’ve always known. It’s very scary to want to do [music] with my father being who he is. If I really sit and think about the impact he’s had, it’s very intimidating. He is this iconic legend and he has woven so many stories of our culture and represented the Every Man through his music. I carried [this] on my shoulders when I was younger and more self-conscious and still grappling with my own identity. But as I’m getting older, I’m able to carve out my own aesthetic and opinion musically.
JESSICA ALMON: I really love dreaming—I feel like it’s a form of planning. When you were little, dreaming of doing music, the industry was so different then, and the media was so different then.
ALEXA RAY JOEL: Less invasive.
JESSICA ALMON: Definitely. Even though it was always there, it wasn’t there.
ALEXA RAY JOEL: I blame social media, which is great in some ways. It’s a great promotional vehicle. But it’s also taken a whole other turn where there’s more judgment. People feel safe being mean and beating up on people. It’s created an overly comfortable bullying medium.
JESSICA ALMON: How have you adapted?
ALEXA RAY JOEL: When I was younger, I was very naïve and very sensitive to any external criticism. I was given a hard time about my appearance until I “blossomed” or whatever. It was an uphill battle for me because I was so consumed in what other people thought and in pleasing other people. As I get older and get my feet planted more firmly in the business, I’m realizing you really just have to stay true to your own voice and your own initiative and you cannot be concerned about what other people think. Most of the time, it doesn’t have anything to do with you. It has to do with them.
JESSICA ALMON: What inspires you?
ALEXA RAY JOEL: My boyfriend. His loyalty is really inspiring to me. Anything romantic inspires me. All art inspires me. Music is the first thing. I’m inspired by classical music. I was actually classically trained. I love Chopin. Matisse inspires me. Cats inspire me. I’m a cat fanatic! I’ve grown up with them. I love days like this—fog and rain. I love atmosphere. I think that’s why I love the city so much, especially at night. I love the rain—for me, it’s moody and makes me want to work on my music. A sunny day is nice but it doesn’t inspire me to reflect or be creative like grey weather does. I like certain goth things. I love Elvira. I love black. Anything nocturnal. The moon. Mystical nocturnal stuff.
My parents inspire me. My mom—the way she looks at life. I tend to be more of an analytical pessimist, probably from watching too much Curb Your Enthusiasm and Woody Allen movies. But she is so hopeful. She sees hearts in clouds. She’s always photographing. She can make artwork out of anything. She sees art in everything. That inspires me.
I’m also inspired by great novelists. I love words. I think I love the English language and writing more than anything. More than singing, more than performing. I think we need to get back to using our full realm of words. I’ll text “LOL” and then just…[sighs] I’m trying to practice writing out full sentences and just being articulate. We’re all smart but we don’t push ourselves. It’s a very immediate gratification society. Everything’s so efficiently done, but we’re not as focused on quality. You’ve got a book like Fifty Shades of Gray—look, it’s really well written, I’m not knocking it—but it’s a shock value thing. A book like Catcher in the Rye probably wouldn’t be as prevalent or such a hit in today’s society because it’s not about immediate gratification or shock value. I think those things compromise art.
JESSICA ALMON: You’ve shared a lot of knowledge today, but I wanted to ask if you have any advice or wisdom that you’ve come to live by that you would want to share with readers of FLATT?
ALEXA RAY JOEL: My main piece of wisdom—I’m still learning, my God—is to just be honest. It’s important to be honest with yourself, with the people around you, because that comes through in whatever it is that you do in your life. Be honest and respect yourself. To learn to like yourself and trust yourself is really, really hard but I think it’s the most important thing.