Alex Clare isn't the first Orthodox Jew to have a recording career, but he may be the first to be dumped by one major company and rescued by another in the space of a few months. The British singer-songwriter released his debut album, The Lateness of the Hour, on Island Records last summer. But the label soon discovered how serious Clare was about his faith — especially when it came to the sabbath and high holy days, on which Orthodox Jews are forbidden to perform.
"When I signed to Island — you know, obviously a shomer Shabbos Jewish person — I don't think they quite realized what that means," Clare says. "I got offered a tour at Pesach, at Passover, and couldn't perform."
The offer Clare turned down was a slot opening for Adele. About four months later, he was dropped from Island's roster, having failed to generate significant album sales or radio play. As Clare was figuring out his next move, he received a call from Microsoft, which was interested in using his song "Too Close" in a commercial. It was a deal that would make the song a hit and restart his career.
Speaking with NPR's Guy Raz, Alex Clare discusses that surprising turn of events, as well as his beginnings in both music and religion.
On getting dropped from his label
"If you're a musician, you're a musician; you don't ever get that out of your bones. You're always going to want to play and sing and write music. But I knew I had to definitely have a rethink about how I was going to approach writing, and certainly how I was going to approach performing. The funny thing is, as I was dropped, I was just starting to sell out tours. ... We were building this really nice buzz; it was just taking quite a while. And then I got the rug pulled out from underneath me, as it was."
On becoming Orthodox in his early 20s
"My parents are like religious atheists. They're not even slightly observant in any capacity. My parents are kind of into existentialism, actually. ... For me, [religion] really came about much later in life. I could never call myself an atheist; my parents could, quite happily. I always felt like there was a little bit more out there, and was always into observing the world from a slightly more spiritual, as opposed to scientific, perspective. Gradually, boxes began to get ticked. I decided to start learning to read Hebrew and really try and understand it."
On discovering his voice
"The sort of epiphany, for want of a better word, was probably around [age] 18. I was playing in a group in London; I was playing drums for them. I always sang, and I always played a little bit of guitar, but my main instrument was drums and that's what I was focused on. I was singing backing vocals one day, and the singer of the band kind of turned around and said, 'You know what? You should probably just sing. Because you're drowning everybody else out.'"
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Before this past week's tragic events, we spoke with a young musician whose faith is also central to his life. And you wouldn't necessarily know that by the sound of his hit single.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO CLOSE")
ALEX CLARE: (Singing) And it feels like I am just too close to love you.
RAZ: This song, "Too Close," became a smash hit around the world this year. It's sung by a 27-year-old Londoner named Alex Clare, and the song almost never saw the light of day. After it was released, Alex Clare's record label dropped him. And he was dropped in part because of his personal religious obligations. Alex Clare is an Orthodox Jew, and it means he won't perform on Friday nights or Saturdays or any religious Jewish holidays.
CLARE: I got offered a tour at Pesach at Passover two years ago and couldn't perform.
RAZ: This was to tour with Adele, right?
CLARE: This was to tour with Adele. Yeah.
RAZ: You were going to open for Adele...
RAZ: ...and you said I don't - as Walter says in "The Big Lebowski"...
CLARE: I don't roll on Shabbos.
RAZ: You don't roll on Shabbos.
CLARE: Exactly. I don't roll on Shabbos.
RAZ: You do not perform on a Jewish Sabbath.
CLARE: I don't perform on the Jewish Sabbath or on Jewish High Holy Days. And the problem was the tour with Adele would've been - it was over Shabbat, and then it was over the actual holidays itself, around that week. And, obviously, it's an eight-day holiday, which would've eaten up at least 20 percent of the tour, so I couldn't do it.
So that was the first thing. That was the first thing. And they were, like, OK. I think they realized then that my beliefs are very important to me.
RAZ: And you weren't - your record wasn't selling.
CLARE: It wasn't selling.
RAZ: And they basically said: This record is a flop. This album you've made...
RAZ: I mean, "The Lateness of the Hour" is a flop, and we're going to drop you, and that was it.
CLARE: That was it. Simple as that.
RAZ: You're dropped by the label, and five months later, you get a call, out of the blue, from somebody in Microsoft.
CLARE: No. I think I got the call about a month after being dropped, actually.
RAZ: OK. They wanted to use your song. And you didn't know for what.
CLARE: Nope. I just knew it was a - an advertising campaign of some sort.
RAZ: And they obviously paid you something for it.
CLARE: No. That money went straight to paying off my record deal.
CLARE: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. When you sign a record deal, they basically have you for a while.
RAZ: They own you.
CLARE: They basically own you, yeah.
RAZ: So Microsoft took this song, and they were going to use it in an ad.
RAZ: And then when did you realize that this wasn't just a song in some Microsoft ad. This was blowing up. This was becoming huge.
CLARE: The key moment, I think, I was sort of looking at my Twitter feed. And not only did my Twitter go from like 5,000 people to like 25,000 people in the space of a few days, but the languages that were being spoken on the Twitter feed were everything from sort of Russian to German. And that had never really happened before. So that kind of made me go, OK, something's happening.
RAZ: And this is all from a Microsoft Internet Explorer ad.
CLARE: All from a Microsoft Internet Explorer ad. Yeah.
RAZ: When did you first see the ad, like, in a public space?
CLARE: I went to watch a movie in the cinema, and I saw it being played.
RAZ: What did you think?
CLARE: I was amazed. I turned to my friend, and I turned to the people behind me and said: This is my song. I wrote and sung this. And, you know, the people behind me just sort of scoffed and thought, OK, whatever. But, yeah. It was a pretty surreal moment.
RAZ: Not too long after that, it climbed the charts, hit number seven in the United States.
CLARE: Yeah. Yeah. It's awesome.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO CLOSE")
CLARE: (Singing) And it feels like I am just too close to love you. So I'll be on my way. So I'll be on my way. So I'll be on my way.
RAZ: Alex, you've alluded to this already - more than alluded to. You've made reference to it. But you are - you're not just Jewish, you are an observant Jew. You are Orthodox. But I understand you were not raised in an observant home in any way.
CLARE: No, not at all. My parents are like religious atheists, not even slightly observant in any capacity. My parents are kind of into existentialism, actually.
RAZ: So you didn't grow up with a Jewish upbringing.
CLARE: No (unintelligible) identity. But, see, that's where it kind of stopped, you know? I could never call myself an atheist. My parents could, quite happily. But I kind of - I always felt like there was a little bit more out there. Gradually, boxes began to get ticked, and I decided to start learning to read, you know, Hebrew and really try and understand it.
RAZ: How old were you?
CLARE: I'm 27 now, so it was about six years ago. I was 21.
RAZ: And your parents, did they think it was strange?
CLARE: My mother was very worried...
CLARE: ...for a while. But she got over it. She, you know, I think she realized after a while, actually, my son's balanced out quite nicely.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Alex Clare. His new record is called "The Lateness of the Hour," and it features the smash hit song "Too Close." Alex, there's a track on this record called "Hands Are Clever." It's this funk-soul track. It sounds like it's from the late '70s.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANDS ARE CLEVER")
CLARE: (Singing) Care about no history. I just want to go and raise a family with you. Raise 'em true, raise 'em properly...
RAZ: When did you discover your voice, I mean, this powerful soul-tinged voice that comes out of your mouth?
CLARE: The sort of epiphany, for want of a better word, was probably around 18. I was playing in a group in London - I was playing drums for the band. I was singing backing vocals one day, and the singer of the band I was playing in kind of turned around and said, you know what, mate? You should probably just sing, because you're drowning everybody else out.
I don't think I really noticed any individual quality to my voice, but it definitely was a bit more powerful. It had a bit more oomph behind it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANDS ARE CLEVER")
CLARE: (Singing) And you're tired of playing games I'm in. I'm gonna get you those precious things like old brand whiskey and chicken wings. See, that's a promise I can keep. I like cashmere, I like your sweater. But if you take it off, we'll both feel better. You know I'll help you happily. If these lights are low enough, no one's gonna see you blush. Words are clever, hands are better. So let's put them together.
RAZ: You covered Prince's song "When Doves Cry." You sing this when you're on tour.
CLARE: I do.
RAZ: What is it about that song?
CLARE: I just always loved that record, you know? It just sounds awesome. You know, in terms of production and musical content, Prince is a bit of a genius and a bit of a trailblazer. And I admire that a lot. Just wanted to try and cover it but try and make it my own in a way, you know, just put a new spin on it and obviously use the sort of the sound wave and more baseline element.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN DOVES CRY")
CLARE: (Singing) Maybe I'm just too demanding. Maybe I'm just like my father, too bold. Maybe you're just like my mother. She's never satisfied. Why do we scream at each other? This is what it sounds like when doves cry.
RAZ: If you saw yourself 10 years ago, the Alex Clare of today...
RAZ: Would you believe it?
CLARE: Would I believe it? I think so. I think I'd be fairly happy with where I am now.
RAZ: Not just where you are, but who you've become and what you...
CLARE: Sure. I always kind of imagined I'd be living in like a camper van by the beach surfing all day. That's kind of how I imagined myself when I was like a 17-, 18-year-old.
RAZ: Are you surprised by what happened to you and what happened with this song?
CLARE: You always hope. You know, you always kind of sit there and hope that, yeah, something will happen. I definitely imagined it and dreamed it, but I am surprised, yeah. I am surprised. Pleasantly surprised.
RAZ: That's Alex Clare. His new record is called "The Lateness of the Hour." It features the smash hit song "Too Close." Alex is currently on tour in the U.S. Alex Clare, thank you so much.
CLARE: It was a pleasure. Thank you.
RAZ: And Happy Hannukah to you.
CLARE: Happy Hannukah.
RAZ: And we leave you tonight with some of the sounds from the service this morning in Washington's National Cathedral.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening. And please keep the people of Newtown in your thoughts this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.