The Soul Search! Alex Boyd Talks Being Influenced By Great Black Artists, Working With Common
Not quite Ol’ Blue Eyes, but charming, soulful, passionate and honest just the same. Crooner Alex Boyd was reared in a well-rounded environment, despite being shifted from place to place. The kid of government parents, young Boyd got to enjoy the fruits of their labor traveling from country to country and experiencing cultures solely read about in history textbooks. Stateside, the blue-eyed youngster attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and, later on, Interlochen Center Of The Arts where he learned the dynamic of academic achievement and the experiences afforded at the height of academic overachievement. Jump to present day and you’ll find a handsome man suited in what he calls “guady chic.” He’s indeed sharp, but not only in dress. The “Light Up Tonight” singer is also acute in his knowledge what his life journey has afforded him in this moment. He talks with VIBE about what “no’s” from major labels has taught him, the great black artists he has drawn inspiration from and the endless love he has for Adele. -Niki McGloster
VIBE: So tell me a little bit about, I know you went to Duke Ellington School of the Arts, um, tell me how that kind of shaped your sound and just dealing with life and things in general.
ALEX: Yeah, um, yeah like I grew up in the suburbs, like political suburbs, Washington DC and Virginia. Everybody’s parents worked [in] government, yuppies everywhere and country clubs, all that stuff, so when I went to Duke Ellington for high school for the first two years, there were probably like 10 or 15 black kids in my whole school in Virginia, well now it was 10 or 15 white kids in the whole school, and um, it just really broadened my musical horizons for a lack of a better description. I listened to lots of Rock and Roll and Beatles, and before Duke Ellington was like Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, the original, you know? Big crooners and what not. But you know, I started getting into A Tribe Called Quest, and I discovered Common and D’Angelo and Musiq Soulchild and Duke Ellington and some of the greatest black entertainers of all time. And I couldn’t help but be influenced by it, especially after learning that all the other music that I’ve been listening to is basically spawned from that idea, so I had a great time there. Things changed shortly after that when I went off to boarding school in Interlochen in Michigan.
It was a 180-degree change.
Four hundred students from 60 nations around the world. Most of the people had English as a second language, and one of our star visual artists, when he was 18, he got commissioned by the Pope to do a piece for the Vatican, and one of our sopranos, she did a piece with Yo-Yo Ma and Cello Octet. Just really heavy, big stuff.
So what about those experiences do you still carry with you to this day? Not necessarily what you learned musically, but just some of the life lessons?
All I can say is that I’ve been fortunate to be in foreign environments since I was very young. I traveled around the world with my dad, and he worked for the government like I said. So, you know, when I was 10, I was in Cairo, you know, climbing inside the pyramids in Egypt. All I can say is that at that young of an age to be exposed to that many different walks of life, I feel really fortunate just because not only am I open to meeting all kinds of new people and understanding new cultures and learning new languages and what not, I also just have this sense, this belief that there’s nothing I can’t do. You know, when you’re 10 years old and you’re standing on another land mass on the planet, their customs are so completely foreign to any way of life in the United States. Anything’s possible.
I love that you carry that particular lesson with you ‘cause I know a lot of people that don’t even have that after growing up or experiencing certain things.
Yeah, I know a lot of people that haven’t like left the state
Very true. With your music journey and coming out with your debut album, there’s a lot of comparisons to Robin Thicke.
Yeah [Laughing], and what do you have to say to the people that would compare you to him?
I’d say, ‘thank you;’ he’s a great artist.
A lot of artists get irritated at comparisons, and sometimes it is annoying. Where do you stand on that?
I mean, there was a time when I was doing pop music, and I had my head shaved and then everybody called me Justin Timberlake. People wanna draw comparisons; it helps them understand something. I strive to be in a position where people are making records in the studio, and they’re saying, ‘Oh no that sounds too much like Alex Boyd – that’s too Alex. Can’t do it like that…’ And that day will come, but you know, until then, I’m happy to be compared to great artists.
How was it working with him Common, another great artist, and being with him in the studio?
I mean the dude’s a professional, you know? He’s been doing it forever and it’s apparent. He probably had half the verse written by the time we got into the studio, and I basically just told him, you know, ‘We don’t really wanna involve anybody in this record that doesn’t have something to say, that can’t come with some real narrative that fits into the songwriting,’ ‘cause everything that we’ve written is almost cinematic. My producer came from a background [in] scoring films, so the songs take you on a journey and if we were gonna have anybody to step onto the record, they had to take us on a journey with what they were contributing and Common certainly did.
If anybody could pop in ‘Commit Me,’ what journey would you take them on? What would they be listening to, what messages…?
Every song is a different narrative. But every single song is true [and] honest-to-life. It’s pure self expression, and then the songwriting technique we kind of called it “general specificity” where the lyrics were specific enough that you understood a general story that anyone could apply, you see what I’m saying? So um, I think it’s really for people [to] identify with the story ‘cause like I said everybody goes through the same shit.
Mhm. What would you say is your favorite song on the album that means the most to you?
[Thinking] Hard to answer that question. I think “Commit Me” was most important to me on this album because it was the most adventurous in terms of songwriting. I don’t know a song like it. And I think to have been able to achieve a recording that it really doesn’t really resemble any one artist in the entire world that I’ve heard. I haven’t heard anybody that has a song like “Commit Me,” and I’m not tooting my own horn. I feel blessed to have been in the room with Andy when we were inspired to make it. And these inspirations come from, I don’t know, another world, you know what I mean?