Gregg Alexander is a free agent who makes the music he wants to make. The affable singer/songwriter whose New Radicals existed briefly between 1997 and 1999, turning up the hit “You Get What You Give,” co-penned and produced the songs for John Carney’s terrific summer musical film “Begin Again.” Keira Knightley headlines as a bright folk chanteuse — rocked by a breakup with her cocky, more successful pop star ex (Adam Levine) — who drifts into the sights of an alcoholic indie music exec (Mark Ruffalo), who spies more than just coffee shop-lite talent in the young Gretta.
The film’s standout track is “Lost Stars,” which is headed for the Best Original Song Oscar nomination and has popped up at various award shows throughout the season, including a rare performance at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards. Alexander, meanwhile, is on the award circuit and back in the spotlight after New Radicals disbanded 15 years ago. He cowrote the pop-colored songs and folky arrangements in “Begin Again with” scribes Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley, Rick Nowels and Nick Southwood, with some songs written by director Carney and Glen Hansard, who crooned for his first film, much-loved indie musical “Once.”
Hear snips from “Begin Again” below. Gregg Alexander and I spoke on the phone.
It was fun meeting you at the Hollywood
Music in Media Awards. I must admit I was embarrassed that I hadn’t seen the movie then,
but now I have. This is one of the year’s loveliest surprises. How did you get involved in the project?
[At the Hollywood Music in Media Awards], we literally had no idea we were up for anything
so we were deer-in-the-headlights. Someone forwarded me that piece that you did
and I thought that was so freaking funny- it cracked me up.
We thought you were pulling my leg.
No. I swear on my mom’s life. It was so funny
we literally didn’t even know until we were backstage about to go on that we
were winning the award. It was completely abstract.
respect to the music in the film, Simon Carmody and
Bono, two Irish gentlemen who I have known over the years, gave my number to
John Carney, who in fact, called me and I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or a prank call
or whatnot when he called. But it turned out he was serious about doing music
for a film. John and I ended up chatting for an hour and a half and ended up just
really connecting about what music we grew up liking, who our favorite
filmmakers were and by the end of the phone
call I was on board. I started
writing songs and sending them via email and mp3 to John until we finally met
up a couple of months later for the first time in London. We met up and walked around
a couple hours and cemented our creative energy, I suppose.
Was the script more or less finished when
you signed or was it shaped around the music as you were writing it?
It changed quit
a bit interestingly enough. There were a couple of re-writes that came in as
the songs the songs were going back and forth, so that was also very satisfying
to see the music as it fit into the narrative. It felt very collaborative and I
really enjoyed that process. That was kind of cool. John is very fluid. A
butterfly can land in the woods and he’ll change a word.
There are two versions of the song “Lost Stars.” There is the
more pop-friendly, commercial version that Adam Levine sings and there is Kira Knightley’s take, which is more
personal and soulful. Which do you prefer?
The more intimate and stripped down, Keira version is a bit more evocative of the
pathos and the pain of the song and the Adam version was a bit more like a
plane taking off, meant to take you on more of a journey sonically. There are
more highs and lows. I like them both, however I would say the full band
version, separate from their vocals because I like both their vocals, is instrumentally the one that speaks to me more. But I tend to like the
full band versions of songs. There have been a handful of acoustic records over
the years that I have really been fond of but I tend to like more fully realized
productions. I love the stripped-down version of “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman for instance, but I am also very fond of “With a Little Help From My Friends” by
the Beatles, which to me is more of a big wide palette record.
At various points in “Begin Again,” musicians are asked to sell their souls. As someone quite familiar with the ins and outs of the industry, can you sympathize with these characters and the pressures they face?
gosh, the record business is littered with stories of A&R guys that sometimes
push their way into the creative process and its not always to the benefit of
the artist or the record. There is an exception to the rule: being somebody
with a vision like Clive Davis who’s a genius and has this very unusual set of
ears and sense of what works in the context of an effective pop record
whereas there’s a lot of wannabe Clive Davises out there that may weaken a
I would say that is something I have seen first-hand where you get an
A&R guy who want an artist to sound like everyone else on the radio that
month and the danger with chasing trends is that by the time you make a record
and put it out a year later, that trend has already moved on which is, sadly, why modern pop radio sounds so generic. We need more rule-breakers in
the music business and they’re out there. A lot of them are working in film
actually. I would say that a lot of the people that were driving in their own
lane, somebody like a Trent Reznor, they ended up moving towards film because
maybe they felt there was less of a rule book but I hope, because I do love pop
music and great rock and roll, that there is a resurgence in A&R people in
taking chances again and not just signing something that sounds like whatever’s
at the top of the charts that particular six month period.
So is it scary or strange to be returning
to a spotlight since The New Radicals disbanded?
it’s supporting songs in a film that I dedicated several years of my life to,
it feels like a worthwhile endeavor to support the work and hopefully call some
attention to it. So I think it’s all pretty manageable. I don’t even live in California I live in New York and London so really I’ve come out here because of all the good vibes from the community that’s been rattling the cage around this work. We had no idea who saw it who heard it. We knew it did well at the box office because it was an indie film but we didn’t really know who saw it and how they felt about it. So to get that kind of support is really exciting as songwriters. It’s why we do it.
During the filmmaking were you
collaborating closely with the actors or were you sort of in your own world?
How did that work?
I went to the
set a handful of times so that was a pleasure to see that process. John was
definitely the director in the sense that I didn’t really have any creative
input on the set. I definitely had passionate opinions about that it would be a
strong positive to have amazing singers like Adam Levine or Cee-Lo. If the film
is going to be about music it seemed imperative that there be some folks that
actually did this for a living. Although, amazingly enough, Keira ended up being
a great singer too. She is very humble about her gift. She knows how to deliver
a sentiment and emotion with a lovely, charming, gorgeous voice. Even though
its not her medium she brought that level of passion that you don’t see
sometimes even with singers and that made it fun even though she wasn’t a
singer per se. Maybe the flip side is the way David Bowie is in “Labyrinth.” Maybe there were people
associated with that film that may not have understood the passion and
quirkiness that Bowie would bring to that role but all these years later you
couldn’t really imagine anyone but David Bowie playing that excessive
character. Who else could have played that guy? I mean nobody really.
“Begin Again” is a musical but not a typical one. The songs are woven effortlessly into the story. People don’t just come from nowhere bursting into song.
testament to John’s great gift of making things happen on screen in a
spontaneous way. The way that the songs began didn’t seem like there was a count
off –one, two, three, four– there was no false sense of expectation because
there was a big build up. It was like a car that just got started up and the
next thing you know it’s driving down the street at one hundred miles per hour.
It is one of the beautiful things about the way that “Lost Stars” came together
throughout the film. They had this building process. At first it’s a little
snip-it of a song and then there was a dance version of it that wasn’t right
and the characters had mixed feelings about it and by the end of the film it
was almost like a jet plane that was at full throttle.
You might be nominated for an Oscar at
some point soon. How does that feel? If that’s even on your radar.
I am one of
those folks that someone could hand me a lottery ticket and the bags of money
and I wouldn’t believe it, you know, let me see the serial numbers on the
bills. Until anything happens I don’t believe it. I don’t count on anything. I
feel like there’s still a long journey and we need as many folks as possible, to
hopefully, if they hear about the song or read about it to go listen to it and
see if they even like it and if it connects with them and hopefully if all of
those things line up maybe some of those things will come into fruition.