VIBE Lineage is an interview series with the heirs of Black excellence. Now that their legendary predecessors have gained high regards in their own right, these younger kin are blazing their own trails.
In the face of futile discussions about R&B being “dead,” Alex Isley is an enchanting talent with longevity built into her repertoire. Her airy vocals, perfect pitch, transformative lyrics, and soft beauty can attest that her ethereal magic is what’s missing from the conversation.
While it may seem like Isley’s bright light fell from the sky, her journey more closely mirrors the ten-years-to-overnight-success adage. She’s been in this game since her debut in May 2012 with Love / Art Memoirs. And as the daughter of Ernie Isley and niece of Ronald Isley, one can also argue that this path is her birthright.
The illustrious talent has since worked with legends and current phenoms alike, from Robert Glasper and 9th Wonder, to Lucky Daye, Masego, and DRAM. Seeing how she lit up the El Rey Theater stage in Los Angeles before the official start of her Marigold Tour further cemented Isley’s budding legacy. The captivated crowd swayed and recited the words to her adoring ballads, “Into Orbit” and “About Him,” from 2012 and 2013, respectively, as though time stood still. Over the course of her career, it seems like Isley has been one of those “IYKYK” types of talent, but you need to know her.
We caught up with the singer and mother to discuss her latest project, Marigold, growing up Isley, and the ebb and flow of R&B.
VIBE: Growing up in one of the most musically influential families, what were some major lessons or takeaways that you learned from your dad or uncles?
Alex Isley: Honestly, anything that I learned was just from watching them. I don’t think they ever really verbally gave me advice. Everything I watched and picked up, that’s what I learned. From just watching them on stage and watching them in the studio. That was my study guide. That was my teacher.
With that guidance, you’re growing to be one of R&B’s greatest love song singer-songwriters. What’s your process behind love songs like “Into Orbit,” “About Him,” and “Love Again?”
I really don’t have a process, but I like that it varies. It’s spontaneous and unpredictable. Sometimes I’ll have an idea. Lyrically, sometimes I’ll hear a chorus first, or I’ll just hear a word and build on that, or somebody’s story, or tap into one of my experiences. It just depends.
Let’s talk Marigold and how it’s different from your previous projects.
So with Marigold, Jack [Dine, co-producer] and I started putting that together mid-2020 when it was a little bit safer to start meeting in person again. And from there, we just tried to meet as regularly as we could and safely. It was still kind of tricky, but that was the beginning of everything. It took almost two years, but very well worth the work and the wait, of course.
How did you and Jack become this musical synergetic match made in heaven?
I met him actually almost exactly three years ago and one of the musicians he was working with at the time was like, “Okay, well, let’s just see what happens.” I think we started and finished something that day and we liked what we did. So we said, “Okay, well let’s meet next week.” And then eventually we developed a weekly thing [and] were like, “Well, we should put out a project or something.” So then that was the beginning of Wilton. Working around Jack, I write very quickly and I’m much more inspired when I’m working with him. The energy and trust is very honest and natural. So it’s easy to work.
Fast forward to two of the best songs of 2021, “Good & Plenty,” and the “Good & Plenty (Remix).” Did y’all just band together and say, “We’re just going to take R&B by its head and just put this song out?”
(Laughs) I brought Masego over to Jack, right before the pandemic. And we’re like, “Okay, well, let’s vibe and see what happens.” Jack started putting together drums, and Masego had his sax, of course. It took me maybe two minutes to write my verse. It just happened so quickly, and we finished “Good & Plenty” in a matter of two to three hours. Jack and I always laugh about how I don’t think either one of us were expecting it to take off like it did. But that’s been crazy. So very, very grateful for that.
And then bringing in Lucky Daye for the remix, whose idea was that?
I love, like everybody else, love Lucky, but that was Jack’s idea, actually. That was a no-brainer when he brought him up. The way he flipped it with his verse, coming in, he gave it a whole new life.
You also have secret vocals on his album, Candy Drip.
The genius mastermind behind Candy Drip, D’Mile, hit me right in the beginning of the pandemic. He was just like, “Can you send me some vocal loops into some ideas that you have?” So I didn’t know necessarily what for, but sent some stuff over to him. He ended up asking me about some other parts for Lucky’s album and for the vocals that eventually ended up on “Cherry Forest,” “Ego,” and “Intro.” I’m just so happy to be a part of that album because it’s incredible.
First of all, it’s like a full-circle moment for me. I remember when Who Is Jill Scott came out. That first album, especially, always stuck with me. So to be on a record with her and PJ is just brilliant.
Who else would you love to collaborate with that you haven’t already?
Stevie [Wonder], of course. Drake, that’s off the top of my head, John Mayer, Jhené [Aiko]. Yeah, those four come to mind.
Let’s talk about your relationship with Stevie Wonder, because I see your tweets about wanting to meet him. Why haven’t you?
So with Stevie, I always wanted to meet him. But especially within the past 10 years, it’s happened where I’ve been in the same space and been within arms reach, but not being able to connect. Or I would leave somewhere, and he would show up five minutes later. It’s just been that hit-or-miss for the past 10 years. I’m even more so on a mission now to make this happen.
What’s your first reaction when people realize that you are an actual Isley? Because I’m sure that people assumed your name was just a stage name or something. Then they’re like, “Oh wait, no, she’s actually related to the Isley Brothers.”
I forget sometimes or I’m reminded when I see people like, “Oh, I was today years old when I got the connection.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, I guess it’s not obvious.” (Laughs) So that’s funny.
Do you care more about being part of this historic legacy, or is music more of a personal journey for you?
I think it’s great to have the notoriety and the recognition for sure. But ultimately, I’m after longevity. I just want to do this for as long as humanly possible for a living. And it’s work, but everything that I’m doing, it honestly doesn’t feel like work at all. That’s how I know that I really, really love what I do. I just want to do it for as long as I can. The industry fame and everything that comes and goes, but ultimately I love the art and the process of creating, and I love sharing and connecting with people who listen.
If you were to curate a mini Alex Isley playlist of essentials to introduce someone to your music, what would be on that playlist?
“Into Orbit” would for sure be on there, which I can’t believe that project will be 10 years old. I’m just still wrapping my head around that, but I’m really proud of that. I would say “Into Orbit.” “About Him” would be another one. “Road To You,” “Think Of Me,” which was kind of the first single from Wilton, “Wait” and “Good & Plenty,” for sure.
I know that you started a decade ago, and R&B has gone through so many ebbs and flows. Have you ever felt pressured to change your sound? Because you have a very soft, airy, dreamy type of sound that people gravitate towards.
Not pressured necessarily, but I’ve absolutely picked up on the changes and have wanted to adapt in a sense. Just figuring out how to do that, but still maintain who I am in the core of my sound as it continues to grow. But yeah, I definitely want to just continue to adapt, and I think that’s a part of having success and longevity is being able to change with the changes, but still keeping that core of who you are.
Speaking of legacy, would you ever get on a record with your dad and uncle?
Oh, absolutely. I don’t know when and how that would turn out, but of course, my dad and I especially have talked about creating together. Hopefully, in the near future, that’ll take place.
Stream Alex Isley’s latest album, Marigold—now available on all digital platforms—and watch her 2020 Tiny Desk performance below.