Monday, November 10, 2014

A CMJ Feature with Alexz Johnson

>> Between 2004-2008, The N (TeenNick) was my television network of choice. I loved virtually every show they had, and Instant Star was definitely a favorite. The show starred Alexz Johnson as a young musician navigating a music career, fame, label drama, friendships, family, and love interests - all at the same time. The show was great, and the soundtracks were a huge part of my life at that time. When the show ended, I was understandably upset, but shows end and life goes on. That was that.

>> A few years later I stumbled upon an album called Voodoo and was pleasantly surprised to find Alexz still making music, but this time it was on her own. Throughout her career, she gradually stepped out from the Instant Star shadow to become an artist in her own right and has been pursuing a career doing what she loves.  I got to speak with Alexz a few weeks ago at the CMJ Music Marathon.  We discussed her new album, Let 'Em Eat Cake, her love of touring, and making the decision to turn down major labels in order to do things her way.  You can read the interview below, and watch an acoustic performance of the song "Let 'Em Eat Cake" here.

How's your day been so far?
Hectic. We drove in from Maine this morning and we played a show at 11:30 last night, which was super fun, but then we got up to drive to New York to do two days of CMJ.  Everyone's pretty tired but playing in New York City is always so exciting. Plus it's nice that I get to sleep in my own bed, too.

You're originally from Canada, but you're currently based in Brooklyn right?
I'm from Vancouver and I've been in Brooklyn now for about three years. I come to the Lower East Side (where we were doing the interview) all the time, Brooklyn is just more affordable.

How has being part of CMJ been so far?
It's cool! I mean I've played a CMJ show before but this is the first time where I have an album to promote and something to talk about.  I'm doing a showcase tonight at The Living Room which just re-opened in Williamsburg, and then one tomorrow night at Webster Hall which I'm stoked about. It's all full band which is great. The last two tours I've done have been acoustic based, so it’s been really nice to have a full band behind me.

So it's been a different experience this time around.
Yeah, totally.  I’ve been on tour with a band a couple of times before but this just means a lot to me because it’s my new album and I’ve spent almost two years creating it so it has a lot of my heart.

Which makes sense! You crowd-funded this album too which is interesting - want to tell us more about that?
I had some success using Kickstarter to launch my first tour and after some thought I decided to use Pledge Music as a platform to be able to reach out and work with one of my favorite producers, David Kahne who agreed to work on the project. Upon completion of the record I got offered a major label and I turned it down because I felt like I’d already paid for the album and I believe in it and I love it. I’ve gone down the major label route twice and between bad luck and shifts in companies, albums get shelved. It just happens, and I didn’t want to take that chance. I wanted to be able to release it and tour it. I want to spend the next two years touring it, I want to go back to Europe, South America… My expectations aren’t crazy at this point. I’ve been in the business for so long that I want to be able to have enough success that I can maintain momentum in my career and keep making music and touring.  I want to have a long-term career.

You decided to turn down the majors to do it on your own instead. What went into that decision? Was it mostly just past experiences? 
Pretty much, yeah. It can sound good and it can feel good, and it's nice to have a major label behind you, but there's so much mainstream... cutting down that's happening.  If your music doesn't sound specifically like something they feel is sellable then you have a tougher time. There’s luck of the draw for sure, but I didn’t want to be in that anymore as an artist. I’d rather have fans that like my music and buy my music keeping me alive and eating and making music – I’d just rather give them what they’ve gambled on.  That’s what’s so amazing about Pledge [Music] – I’m able to do that. It's such a wonderful thing and it's work; it's so much more work than just having a [major label] team behind you. I mean I have a great management team which I locked down this past year which is awesome. That's one of the hardest things to find as an artist: someone that believes in you before real money comes in. It’s been amazing having that Pledge platform to fund my own projects. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it.

It must be great knowing that many fans wanted to and were able to support the album.
There’s something really cathartic about having a physical CD in your hand that you paid for with their help that you’re signing and shipping off to them. It's the best way to say thank you.  It's like you get to personally see these people. I love writing - it's been like sharing the journey and ups and downs through Pledge. It's like a blog in a way. Will I do it again? I don't know, maybe. With this album, there's help with distribution through Capitol which helps it get into stores and stuff like that.  I’m trying to make the best choices so that my music gets out there. Since Instant Star, and most people probably know me from that show most prevalently, I’ve had two major record deals. My music seems to be a little too off the beaten track so maybe that’s not the best move for me. There are other options for me to get it out there.

Kind of going off of that, you have a great presence on social media. Have you been using that to get the word out and connect with fans?
Hugely! I don't know what I would do without Instagram and Twitter - that's what's promoting this tour right now, that and Facebook. It's a full time job with being on the road, touring, and maintaining relationships - everything is just so geared towards getting this music out there. I believe in this album so much.

So much so that you named your current tour after it.
Yeah, it's the Let 'Em Eat Cake Tour.  It's a tour with an awesome band called Jared and the Mill who are the sweetest guys from Phoenix, and I'm also on tour with Patrick Droney who's opening every night. He's an amazing electric guitarist and he's actually going to be performing a song with me on guitar for you.  He's opening and he's in my band, and the band is awesome. I'm able to pick the musicians I want to work with and play with which is one of the coolest parts - I get to create the world I want to have on stage.

Acoustic obSession: "Let 'Em Eat Cake" by Alexz Johnson featuring Patrick Droney on guitar

That must be another great part of the crowd-funded freedom - you not only get to choose the music you make, but who helps you make it.
Yeah! The producers, and I got to write a lot of songs with my brother. "Let 'Em Eat Cake" I wrote with my brother... it's been a really cool experience so far. It's indie but it fits me more, I think. 

I still hand write my business cards, so I definitely respect wanting that control over your own content.
I’d rather have 10 fans that see my authenticity than a million that don’t. I'm never going to stop, so hopefully my health maintains and I can keep touring. Touring can be challenging sometimes but I'm totally willing to put the hard work in, and hopefully this record represents that.

If you can survive CMJ you can survive almost anything.
It's been great, I'm just mid-tour. It's a long one, almost two months. It's lengthy but we're meeting new people and having a blast. My younger brother Garrison is playing drums with me on this one. He's 17, the youngest of ten of my siblings so we flew him out from Vancouver, Canada to play in the band. Keeping it in the family, keeping it real.

After this you have the rest of the Let 'Em Eat Cake Tour, but what's your plan for after that?
Toronto, then it'll be Christmas and the New Year. I want to go to South America and tour there, I want to tour Europe - I want to keep touring. Then hopefully maybe getting an opening spot for a great band, anything to promote this record as much as I can.

Is there anything else you want to say?
Thank you for filming, thanks for your time and come catch a show if you can. The dates are on my website, and you can follow me on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook!

From left to right: Kate Russell, Patrick Droney, Alexz Johnson, Sheila McNair @ Hotel on Rivington for CMJ

>> Alexz Johnson is still out on the Let 'Em Eat Cake Tour with Jared & The Mill and Patrick Droney.  Check out the remaining dates for the tour here.

- Kate Russell

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