Interview By: Victoria H. (Urban/Pop Editor)
It’s hard for vocalist Alex Young to remember a time when music wasn’t a central part of her life. At home in New Jersey, Young’s mom and dad, a dancer/musician and actor, respectively, nurtured her early fascination with different sounds. “There was always music playing in my house, so I’ve had a lot of access to a wide array of genres like jazz standards, classical and bossa nova,” recalls the singer. As a child on trips to New York, you could frequently find Young wandering around Carnegie Hall in a wondrous, dreamlike state, enthralled by the cacophony of myriad instruments all warming up at once. “I knew what I always wanted to do,” says Young. “I remember telling my parents when I was little, ‘I’m gonna be a singer.’” This diversity had a profound effect on the singer, who channeled her musical passion into Amazing, her debut album to be released this June on Anaka Records.
While most 13-year olds have no plan for their later years, Young was already starting a bourgeoning career in music. On 9/11, Young’s dad barely escaped his World Trade Center office before the destruction of the Twin Towers. The event was an emotional one for Young, who promptly recorded “Heart of America” as a tribute to the police and firefighters who sacrificed their lives that day. The song was Young’s first time in a professional studio (though as a 6-year-old cast member of Sesame Street, she’d had previous experience on a stage), but proved so popular, it was picked up by New York radio station WHTZ (Z100) and played for several years after.
Now 20, Young’s passion for music has only increased since her auspicious debut. The result is Amazing, an amalgam of pop, R&B, funk and dance that is poised to make Young a breakout star for 2009. With the help of Philip “Taj” Jackson (Rihanna, Janet Jackson), a two-time Grammy nominee and winner of the 2008 ASCAP Songwriter of the Year Award and Michelle “Bizzy” Bell, whose credits include Miley Cyrus, Nelly Furtado, Mary J. Blige, and Britney Spears, Young’s vocal talents and prolific nature were brought to the forefront. “Over the course of recording these past 12 to 18 months, we must have laid down about 60 songs,” admits the singer. “I have a whole library’s worth. I feel like I was creating Amazing 24/7 whether I knew it or not.” What made the final cut is a diverse mix of sounds that range from ethereal and haunting new wave-inspired pop (“Broken Heart”) to romantic balladry (“Amazing”) to synth-driven club banger (“Heavy Breathing”).
The team of producers that have worked with Young reads like a who’s who of industry heavyweights. While Jackson produced most of the album, Amazing also features the contributions of Cuttfather (Ace of Base, Santana), Deantoni Parks (Me’Shell Ndegeocello), Jonas Jeberg (Pussycat Dolls, Kylie Minogue), and Mysto & Pizzi (R. Kelly, Justin Timberlake).
While the music shares its roots with Young’s female pop contemporaries, the singer herself is a far cry from the starlets known as much for their extracurricular activities as their music. “One of my goals is to spread inspiration through my music and do it with class and sophistication,” says Young. “I’m trying to change up the model that if you’re a female singer, you have to be raunchy and offensive.”
To that end, the singer has signed on to be the official spokesperson for White Diamonds International, a diamond company specializing in mining and delivering fair trade and conflict-free diamonds. For the precocious singer, joining up with the company was a no-brainer. “It’s such a noble cause and I’m honored to be part of it,” says Young. “They’re raising the bar in creating an environment that promotes humanity and doesn’t destroy it to make profit. To create the model for bloodless diamonds is a huge undertaking, but one that is definitely worth pursuing. A lot of people may not know that there are other options.”
Her work with White Diamonds, though, is just the latest in a long history of tireless devotion to her interests. As a student at Sarah Lawrence College, Young balanced the intense pressure of her studies with the time-consuming recording of her debut album. More recently, the singer has been working more than six hours a day with choreographers Nu-Stylz (“So You Think You Can Dance”) for the videos to the Amazing tracks “Music” and “Heart Stop” (“I have black and blue bruises on my knees!,” says Young in a tone more playful than painful.)
Through it all, Young’s message and hope for her music are identical to her bigger role as an inspiration for other people. “I really want to make a mark in a positive light and not just be some superficial image,” says the singer. “It really only takes one person who’s inspiring to create something wonderful.”
Or, in some cases, Amazing.
CWG: How does it feel to be Walmart.com's Artist Of The Month?
AY: It’s amazing. I’ve been working so hard at developing every aspect of myself as an artist. I just put so much effort, energy and time into what I love. It’s great to see the kind of exposure it’s getting now. It’s always nice, in some way, to see your hard work paying off.
CWG: How did you become the official spokesperson for White Diamonds International (a diamond company specializing in mining and delivering fair trade and conflict-free diamonds)?
It was actually pretty serendipitous. It’s always been an issue of great interest to me. I met the owner of white diamonds international, Brandon White, through a mutual friend. It just sort of clicked. I am very passionate about the subject and I guess it came across.
To be able to represent and be the official face of such an important cause is such an honor.
CWG: You have achieved a lot in your career so far (being on Sesame Street, your first single "Cold" reaching over one million plays on Myspace). How do you handle your success? What do you do when you are away from the spotlight?
AY: It’s been incredible to see such a positive response to my music. I’m also performing at different clubs In NYC right now. At my last show at Greenhouse in the city, I saw lips moving to my lyrics in the audience. To be able to connect in that way to people though music is really what it’s all about for me.
As for what I do when I’m away from “the spotlight” It’s basically getting ready and preparing to be in it. No too much free time right now. I love finding time for yoga. I’m also at the gym a lot and listening to as much Joao Gilberto as possible.
CWG: You worked with some great producers (Cuttfather, Deantoni Parks, Jonas Jeberg and Mysto & Pizzi) who have crafted hits for Justin Timberlake and the Pussycat Dolls. What did you learn working with these producers?
AY: I’ve worked with so many amazing and talented people on my album. You learn so many great things from them. It’s always illuminating to discover the complexity that goes into a single track and how it forms such dynamic within itself. To be able to be involved with the creative process is a very magical experience. To see what kind of inspiration they pull from and adding some of your own is just awesome.
CWG: You have been working with choreographers Nu-Stylz (So You Think You Can Dance) for videos to the tracks Music and Heart Stop. What moves have you learned? Do you like to dance?
AY: I absolutely love to dance. It’s an immeasurably expressive form of art. My choreographers Cecily and Olisa are such amazingly creative people. I feel that with them I am constantly learning another completely different move. Being around such talented and successful people is very humbling. I try my best to be a very thirsty sponge.
CWG: You are a student at Sarah Lawrence College. What are you studying? How do you handle being a student and an artist at the same time?
AY: Being in school while at the same time pursuing my passion was pretty difficult. I love both so much. At the same time, I knew that I had to follow my passion and give everything I had. Doing both at the same time was pretty much like being bi-polar.
While I was there I studied sociology, anthropology, art history and photography. It was obvious that I couldn’t do both and give 100% So, I made the choice to take a leave of absence and put everything I had into my music.
CWG: What goals do you have for career and how do you plan to achieve them?
AY: To spread inspiration is my biggest goal. To in some way, through music, effect and connect with people is really the most meaningful experience for me. So, in a way the goal for me really has to do with the process. That’s why I love performance.
It’s the most raw, intimate and immediate form of sharing music through performance, which leads to inspiration. It’s priceless, indescribable and incredibly powerful. That is why I do what I do.
Alex Young On Why Diamonds Are Still A Girl's Best Friend
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