Interview with Alexx Calise
From her pop-oriented solo work to her darker and more ambitious rock project, Sound of Cancer, singer/songwriter Alexx Calise is always looking to flex her creative muscles. To broaden her vision, Calise delves into emotionally uncharted territories, taking risks without a safety net.
Commercially, Calise has had her original music licensed for TV and film placement. BOC caught up the very busy Calise, who is working on writing new material and editing videos. She spoke about growing up in a musical household, her sonic influences leading her to becoming a prolific singer/songwriter, and more.
Photo by Alyssa Armstrong
Did you come from a musical background growing up?
My father is a musician. He is a guitar player. When he was younger, he had an opportunity to tour with a band called The Happenings that did that song, “See You In September.” He choose a career in medicine instead. He still plays but it’s more of a hobby at this point. He very much influenced my playing. I grow up in a really musical household listening to everything from to Tchaikovsky to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones to the Rolling Stones. My tastes are pretty vast.
When did you decide you wanted to be a singer/songwriter?
First and foremost, I’ve always been a writer. That has always been my greatest passion but I didn’t know how that would parlay into something. Because I had such a love for music, I just eventually fused the two together. I thought for the longest time I would just be a writer. I put two my loves together and that’s how it kind of came about. I went to a Catholic school, and every Wednesday we had mass and I sang. That is where I discovered that I had a voice and wanted to sing a lot.
When did you pick up an instrument?
I picked a guitar when I was about 11. I’m 31 now. My father influenced me to do that. I had some formal training but for the most part, I would just listen to the blues like Stevie Ray Vaughn and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. I would solo and noodle around.
When did you find your direction musically?
It was so easy to go anywhere and play with an acoustic guitar. Eventually I formed my first band at 17. I just played all around Florida where I’m from originally. I haven’t stopped since.
What was the music like in that band?
It was rock/metal/blues. I’ve always been a rocker at heart. Now I do a lot of stuff for film and TV, so I’m all over the board these days, and whenever I feel a need to write a certain style, I form another project and get my jollies off in that arena.
I read on your website you released six albums?
Yes. It’s six solo albums. They are all within the rock/pop vein.
I have another band called Sound of Cancer. That’s very dark, it’s like The Cure meets Portishead meets Nine Inch Nails.
Is the solo career on hold or still going on?
It’s still going on. I’m always writing new material.
Sound of Cancer has one album we actually released in 2011. We are going to be releasing something else at the end of this year. We took a hiatus because my partner and I in that band used to date, and then we broke up. For a few years, we didn’t speak and didn’t do anything musically, but we found each other again on a musical level and we’re back at it again. He is involved in my solo project, too.
Was Sound of Cancer part of another side music you wanted to explore?
I’m glad you realize it’s a zodiac thing. Most people ask what is that all about. Do we endorse cancer, absolutely not. My songwriting partner Dennis and I are both Cancers in the project.
With my solo project, it’s never been a band situation. It’s like an insurance policy, I can’t break up with myself. I have revolving members in the band.
Sound of Cancer is me and Dennis.
Is Sound of Cancer a concept project?
Yes. It’s funny, the theme of our first record is the demise of the human spirit. It’s dark, very self loathing and existential. It’s also very introspective. My best lyrics I feel have gone to that project because it’s very gut wrenching and emotive. It’s not always pleasant to write it mentally.
Do you and Dennis write together? The lyrics?
No, not usually at the same time. Occasionally Dennis will write lyrics. For the most part (at least on our first record), I did a lot of the lyrics and melodies. Dennis did the musical side of everything. Now we’re both doing a little bit of both, and since we’ve been doing a lot of collaborative stuff for licensing, we’re a lot more comfortable writing in the same room. It’s not as personal as it used to be, at least for me. Now I very much enjoy when both of us are putting in our two cents at the same time.
You and Dennis obviously have some musical commonality?
Oh yeah. We’re huge Pink Floyd fans and Electric Light Orchestra fans. We recently ELO in concert. I love that “Heroin music”. The really ethereal, ominous and soundscapy kind of music.
I noticed you and Dennis are wearing crazy outfits on your Facebook page? What’s going on with them?
We’re doing a music video for Sound of Cancer. We’re covering a song by the Sneaker Pimps called “6 Underground,” it was a huge hit in the 1990s. With the 90s, there is a huge resurgence now. We are huge 90s people. We are going with that whole car video trend right now. We’re dressing up as different characters. There will be a revolving door characters in the video. I happen to own a kid’s party company and I have access to all these cool costumes.
We’re doing our own unique version of the song that is very much Sound of Cancer. I was editing the video before the interview. I also do video editing, ha ha. I do a little bit of everything.
Do you enjoy doing covers?
We both hate it to be honest with you, I’ve never done it before. However, with Dennis, I admit it has been fun. We’re doing something totally different with it. We have three that we are currently working on because we’re doing a covers EP specifically. We are also doing “Telephone Line” by ELO and “Lullaby” from The Cure. We may also do “I Only Have Eyes For You by The Flamingos. Eventually we may also want to do a Backstreet Boys song, but very dark. You’re not going to recognize any of the original songs.
When are the covers coming out?
Very soon. I’m aiming for a Halloween release for the first single (as well as a video), which is a cover of Sneaker Pimps – “6 Underground.” The EP will come later.
Have you ever performed live?
No. It’s always been a studio band. We have been rehearsing it for live now. We have been playing together 8 or 9 years now and Dennis has always played in my solo band and we’ve collaborated forever.
With the solo band, you’ve played all over L.A.?
Yes, and I’ve toured. It’s a lot of fun.
How did you get involved in film and TV work?
It was 2009-2010, I was doing an Internet search and I wanted to get my music licensed. A manager of mine did that with some of my other material in 2007. I researched some licensing agencies in the L.A. area, and found a few good ones and that gave me my start. For example, there’s a licensing agency called Jingle Punks. They got me my initial placement of my song “Cry” in Dance Moms. By me having that song in that show, I’ve sold 70,000 downloads of it. I made a video with one of the cast members in it, Maddie Ziegler, who is now a judge on So You Think You Can Dance, and she’s also go on to dance in all of Sia’s music videos. The Cry video now has 3.5 million hits. It’s about taking one opportunity and building upon it.
Have you had any other placements other than Dance Moms?
Yes. The Voice, One Tree Hill and Grimm and in several movies. It’s an ongoing thing, and anytime I get to write something for a commercial or film, I’m down.
Do you tailor the songs to the project?
Sometimes I do. But I’ve had the best luck licensing already existing material. Not just through Jingle Punks, but other licensing agencies. They have just been the most aggressive.
So you are focusing on your solo work and Sound of Cancer?
I get my rock jollies off with Sound of Cancer. We’re going to be going on tour soon and I really get to rock out with that band. Because of the success I’ve had with “Cry” with my solo project, some of the fans who like “Cry” and who have latched onto that song aren’t as apt to latch onto my rockier material from that project.
They like more pop?
Yes. So the EP I’m doing later this year for my solo project is a bit more poppy.
What do you enjoy doing the most in your career?
I love the writing aspect of everything. It’s my favorite part because recording requires a lot of hours and work. I’m more than willing to do that of course, but writing is just so much fun and that’s who I am at the core.
Then, when you actually get to perform, that’s great too. You spend so much time as an artist struggling and striving to achieve something, and then you have those precious few minutes onstage when you can forget everything in the world exists but that.