Beyond ‘Too Close’: Alex Clare comes to Aspen with new album

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Alex Clare, best known for his hit "Too Close," is touring in support of his new album "Three Hearts." He will play Belly Up on Saturday night.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: Alex Clare

Where: Belly Up Aspen

When: Saturday, Dec. 6, 9:30 p.m.

Cost: $25

Tickets and more info:

Growing up in South London, Alex Clare was playing in local bands by the time he was 16. His solo gigs as a singer-songwriter won him a record deal at 22. Yet shortly after his debut album, “The Lateness of the Hour,” came out in 2011, it looked like his career was over.

Co-produced by Major Lazer, the album — a unique mix of his soulful singing, folky acoustic guitar and thumping dubstep — had flopped and his label, Island Records, dropped him. Months later, Microsoft asked him to use one of the album’s songs, “Too Close,” in a series of commercials, and his fortunes drastically changed once again. The song blew up, and became an inescapable international hit.

“When we first released ‘Too Close’ to radio no one would play it, because no one had heard this type of music before,” Clare said from a recent studio session. “It was only six months after the release that it went massive, because suddenly people had accepted it. By that time, dubstep had become like a mainstream style of music.”

The song’s mix of singer-songwriter balladry and enthralling dubstep climaxes hit on something in the zeitgeist. Suddenly, he was a globe-trotting sensation with a sold-out world tour, playing sets at festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza and South by Southwest.

He’s always been a singer-songwriter, but as a fan he was into the electronic music scene in the U.K. and experimented with it on the side. Bringing a human, troubadour’s touch to the often cold and mechanical feel of electronic music was a natural evolution for Clare.

“I always had a foot in the electronic music world,” he said, “but my first love will always be writing the singer-songwriter stuff. It’s cool. It’s just a scene to be a part of. … You get the happy accident of the singer-songwriter style being in that DJ/producer world, and it’s just by exposure to both worlds.”

He always writes on an acoustic guitar, he said, searching for a lyrical melody and building from there. He doesn’t calculate, for instance, how much a song is going to be electronic and how much will be analog. His new album, “Three Hearts,” leans more toward analog ballads than “The Lateness of the Hour” did.

“I don’t write to fit in genres,” he said. “As a songwriter, you just want to make music, and if you’re making music you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing. … Sometimes it comes out like a ballad, and sometimes it comes out as a dance track, and sometimes it’s a punk track.”

The recordings tend to have the sound of a studio project when they mix Clare’s ballads with layered electronic production. At the live show, Clare plays guitar and sings, with a bass player and drummer backing him up with live instrumentation and a keyboardist who doubles as programmer and DJ.

He breaks up his live performances into a singer-songwriter set, with his more straightforward acoustic ballads and folky material, then adds in electronic elements and builds momentum toward the last half-hour of what he calls, with a chuckle, “full-on, live whomp-whomp.”

Clare and his band recorded most of the new album live in the studio, not by piecing together the live instrumentation with the electronic parts after the fact. As a result, he said, the songs translate well live and come out more or less as recorded.

“It tends to bulk up toward the end into some very crazy, loud stuff,” Clare said. “At the beginning of the set, we stay with the emotional stuff, but by the end it’s just loud and awesome.”

The new album’s lead single, “War Rages On,” is an apt, crowd-pleasing follow-up to “Too Close,” opening with a minute of piano before uptempo drums enter, followed by Clare’s confident, booming voice and crescendos into a soaring dubstep epic. Clare calls it “a real mover live.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the title track is a straightforward, upbeat acoustic ballad. Like much of the album, it drops the dance music touches of his earlier work. The record also includes an intensely rendered cover of Robert Palmer’s 1985 hit “Addicted to Love,” which was released the year Clare was born. The cover isn’t a kitschy send-up of the ’80s anthem, but a sincere tribute to Palmer.

“The thing about Robert Palmer is he’s got this corny image, but he’s an amazing songwriter,” Clare said. “You listen to his catalog of music and it’s really unbelievable.”

Clare makes his Aspen debut Saturday night at Belly Up. Taylor Berrett opens.