There's a longstanding tradition of British musicians absorbing classic American R&B and soul music during their formative years and then going on to become famous. It happened with the Stones and the Beatles. And it's certainly the story with up-and-coming singer-songwriter Alex Clare. With his new album, Three Hearts, Clare, who is Jewish, establishes himself as a terrific singer in the fine tradition of Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder. His upbringing had plenty to do with determining his musical approach.
"My dad is really into Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie," he explains via Skype from an Austin tour stop, one of many shows on the appropriately titled Ones to Watch tour that he's currently headlining. "It definitely opens up your mind to music. To quantify something like that is almost impossible. It's pretty ear-opening if you listen to a lot of jazz from an early age. I have a lot of soul vocalists I like. My mom was very into it, and I got into it as well. Donny Hathaway is a big influence. Some of the earliest records I have are Stevie Wonder and the Jackson Five. Like a lot of people, we had a lot of Motown and Stax records and the early Atlantic stuff as well."
Initially, Clare started playing the trumpet at age 9. He then started to hammer away at drums at age 12 and played in numerous bands in his teenage years. He began writing music for himself and pursuing a career as a singer and songwriter almost a decade ago, at age 20. Gigging in London clubs gave him some good exposure and a demo tape eventually found its way into the hands of a record label exec.
"I had been playing on the scene a long time," he says when asked about how he first got signed in 2010. "There was a thriving live music scene in London at the time. That's not the case now as the venues are disappearing. But until about three or four years ago, there were countless venues. There were live music nights and indie nights where you could get out there. I was out there constantly. I was gigging four nights a week. Eventually, people notice you and word gets around. The labels eventually came knocking. Even if it's just to satisfy their curiosity, they'll call you up. When you get one offer, you tend to get other people sniffing around at the same time."
For his debut, 2011's The Lateness of the Hour, he worked with producers Major Lazer and Mike Spencer. The album combines an organic, singer-songwriter vibe with electronic beats.
"Most of the demos I made were in my bedroom in West London," he says. "Suddenly, I was getting flown out to L.A. and New Orleans and Jamaica to make a record. It was a bit of a paradigm shift, to say the least."
He says the interest in electronic music stemmed from an early exposure to the music.
"It was more the case of where I grew up, which is the heartland of where a lot of the music came from," Clare says. "A lot of the dubstep came from where I was. My friends were producing and I dabbled in that as well. It was a logical progression to marry the songwriting and the electronic music together. It was great fun to [record The Lateness of the Hour]. I don't think the [producers] had ever worked with a singer-songwriter before. They had never gone to that world of songwriting as opposed to beatmaking but they enjoyed it."
The biggest hit from the album, "Too Close," features ricocheting, dubstep-inspired beats. It was nominated for the Brit Award for Best British Single at the 2013 BRIT Awards. With Three Hearts, Clare sounds better than ever as he lets his voice loose. His vocals soar on the pulsating "Never Let You Go" and the somber "Take You Back," giving the album a classic '70s feel. The punchy title track sounds like a cross between Cee-Lo and Marvin Gaye.
"With the new album, we wanted to make a more classic sounding album," he says. "On the new album, we have big nods toward the electronic elements with 'War Raises On,' 'Holding On' and even 'Never Let You Go.' All in all, we're trying to make a much more classic sounding album. It's just a natural progression. We wanted a more organic sounding record. It's something you want to do at least once in your life. The next album will be more electronic based."
"War Rages On," one of the album's best songs, has a real intensity to it as Clare sings, "When darkness comes/You're like a burning light/Through it all."
"Well, in terms of lyrical content it's about understanding how bad life gets and how someone can get you through it," explains Clare, who denies the reports that he converted to Orthodox Judaism ("I'm just more observant," he says). "That's the idea of the song. It started with that piano loop. I had that knocking around, and it just kind of grew from there. It's based on an old book that was written in Poland about 150 years ago which is a commentary on the book of Psalms. There's a certain line in there that inspired my song. At the very time, if you have a level of conflict, that's when you need someone there with you. In Hebrew, the book's title means 'the lips of truth.'"
If it sounds like Clare slips between musical genres on his two studio albums, that's because he does. While he doesn't have an issue with embracing different musical styles, it doesn't make it easy for labels to market his music.
"I like a lot of music," he says. "I don't try to write anything eclectic. I never approach a song thinking that it should be a specific genre. It usually falls into a genre by the time I finish it. I never consciously try to make a track. I might be fond of a garage song or a hip-hop song but whatever form it takes, it takes. I just try to write a song and whatever happens happens. Back in the day, music was about genre. It's not the case anymore. You can listen to whatever you want. It's cool, I don't mind if it's hard for the [record label]. It should be hard for them."
Alex Clare with Firekid & Taylor Berrett, 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 20, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $20, houseofblues.com