BEVERLY HILLS – Gregg Alexander is enamored by movies. He grew up in a conservative household where television was “Satan's tool,” but he'd sneak off to friends' houses to watch theirs instead. He talks passionately about filmmakers like the Coen brothers, Michael Haneke and Mike Leigh and seems eager to be a part of an industry he finds incredibly efficient. So it's perfectly fitting that he would eventually make his way there via a collaboration on John Carney's “Begin Again,” and maybe even more understanding that after 15 years of being relatively reclusive away from touring and the media, he's finally speaking out again in support of the film and his work on tracks like “Lost Stars,” which is primed for a Best Original Song Oscar nomination.
“It's been exciting and to some degree emboldened me and been a reminder that film and music are amazing dancing partners,” Alexander says of his experience. “One of the things I find compelling about John is the idea of making films that have music in them, but it's not old songs or a recycling of something that's come before. Not that that's bad. There's always a place for that. But I think it's way more challenging to cover new ground, which is what I hope to continue to do.”
Since landing a recording contract with A&M at the ripe age of 16, Alexander has been trying to stake out that new ground. But it's not as if he grew up within the industry. “I was always in the outside lane,” he says. Soon came worldwide acclaim and success with his music project New Radicals, whose radio hit “You Get What You Give” basically made him a one-hit wonder by default when he dissolved the group soon after to focus on songwriting.
Before walking into the Four Seasons bar for our chat, in fact, he says he bumped into a couple of guys on the sidewalk who have recorded one of his songs. You may have heard of them: Daryl Hall and John Oates (in town for a concert at the Greek Theatre). And over the last decade, while working with a number of artists along the way, he says he's written maybe 500 unrecorded songs, a veritable treasure trove of material waiting to be let out onto the world stage.
Alexander's career moved in a direction away from the spotlight largely because his passion isn't performing, he says, though he certainly enjoys it. His passion is rather the art and craft of songwriting, and his work has been performed by the likes of Enrique Iglesias, Geri Halliwell, Rod Stewart and Carlos Santana in the years since New Radicals was disbanded. “I've been blessed to have some really amazing voices to sing my songs,” he says.
With “Begin Again,” he can add Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine to the list. The lead track “Lost Stars” is interesting in that it seems tailor-made for Levine's peak-and-valley melodic stylings, but it wasn't actually written with the singer in mind because Levine – who also stars in the film – wasn't fully attached when Alexander began the work.
“Adam had been mentioned as a possibility, but he's also in some ways the busiest person in show business,” Alexander says. “But he's amazing. He has a fantastic instrument.”
When Alexander first received the script from Carney, it still bore the project's former title: “Can a Song Save Your Life?” Such a notion was daunting, he says, but he was a fan of Carney's 2007 indie “Once” and saw it as a challenge and maybe a chance to infuse the story with something intangible. “The reason why I wanted to cut the record at Electric Lady Studios” – which has seen the recording of landmark albums such as The Clash's “Combat Rock” and “Sandinista!,” KISS' “Destroyer” and David Bowie's “Young Americans,” among others – “was I hoped the ghosts would maybe inhabit the track somehow,” he says.
Talk to Alexander for a while, though, and the conversation shifts away from “Begin Again” quite a lot. He'll talk about movies and what an honor it is to work with Harvey Weinstein, “the gold standard,” he calls him. He'll talk passionately about Weinstein's guts in pushing socially important films like “Fruitvale Station” and “Lee Daniels' The Butler” into the public consciousness, and then shift to considerations of the zeitgeist surrounding the late-'90s and choices made for the “You Get What You Give” music video, or the perceived mindset of music critics versus film critics.
Mostly, he just wants to talk about movies. And so we do. “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the “Three Colors” trilogy, he can't get enough. After so long away from the fray, maybe a new industry is the spark he needs. Or maybe he'll just get to work pushing one or a few of those 500 songs out into the world.
“I'll have to,” he says, “because my mom and dad are getting sick of listening to them!”
Alexander will break his silence in another way on Nov. 4 when he's set to perform “Lost Stars”at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards. It will be his first public performance in 15 years.
“Begin Again” will be released on DVD/Blu-ray Oct. 28.