Where do I start with Alexis Houston?
To be honest, I really didn’t know what to think of her when she announced her debut single “Change” awhile back. There was a lot of controversy surrounding her as the media penned her the “secret mistress” of US talk show host Matt Lauer and an impostor to the Houston family who was tainting the public image of sister Whitney Houston. With so much controversy surrounding her, one has to ask the question… Is she doing this for the publicity or is she really a talented musician at heart?
My rule of thumb when it comes to female artists who are embroiled in controversy is to let the music the speak for itself. I fell in love with “Change” the ballad and even more in love with the club remix – as there are moments when Alexis Houston does sound strikingly similar to Whitney herself. After hearing her album “Speak Love – Life Lessons”, my decision was crystal clear.
Alexis Houston is an amazing musician.
Throw away any gossip you’ve heard about her, disregard any negative publicity. When you hear her debut album, you’ll find yourself feeling the same way I do. “Speak Love – Life Lessons” is an outstanding debut effort by a deserving talent and if I must make a comparative, I actually prefer it to Whitney Houston’s comeback album by miles. It’s an autobiographical story of a woman who lost herself and came into herself 360 again, told by painful and emotional stories in just about every musical genre. I know what you’re thinking too – it’s not a mess. It’s a beautiful true story as told by one of the brightest new talents.
I had a chance to catch up with Alexis Houston when I was in San Francisco for an exclusive interview where we talked about all sorts of things from influences on “Speak Love – Life Lessons”, to the controversy with her and Matt Lauer and even those comparisons to Whitney Houston. Soon afterwards, we got to chatting and she even agreed to come and perform for us at EQ Live on Monday night – September 20th in London – a show that I am ever-so-excited to present to you.
I hope you enjoy this interview with Alexis Houston – I had a ball getting to know her and getting to ask her some questions. Make sure you actively seek out her album “Speak Love – Life Lessons” when it drops, it’s one of those unforgettable albums that you will no doubt fall in absolute love with.
EQ: Hello Alexis, how are you today?
Alexis Houston: I’m very well thank you!
I’ve got a few questions for you. First of all, let’s talk about “Change”. I absolutely love the song and I know you refer to it as a song about empowerment. Can you tell our readers a bit about “Change” and what that song means to you.
“Change” is the first single from the album. In it’s original form, it was a ballad, but I chose this song because it talks about the end of a relationship. And there are a lot of songs about end of relationships from a woman’s perspective where they are more “a man did me wrong” kinda thing. I tried with this song, to put a positive spin on what otherwise would be a difficult situation. These are two people who have been in a relationship, with a lot of attempts to make it work and it hasn’t. I got to the point where I’m saying “We tried this and I know in your head you think things are going to work the second time around and we’ve done this a dozen times, so let’s just be friends and walk away from this knowing we love and respect each other – just we are not going to be great together”. All the songs on my album are autobiographical, except one. I’ve taken these stories from my life and made songs of them. It marks not only a time in my life when not only my relationship changed, but this was the first boyfriend I ever had. I was a young girl at university in London and this relationship lasted throughout my entire university experience. It also marked a time in my life when I took more control of being me and doing the things that were important to me, that fed my soul. I chose stop practicing medicine, in order to pursue my career in music. This was a difficult thing for my parents to swallow, particularly my mother. I don’t talk about my career change in the song, but it’s something that’s implied. “Change” is very difficult in any situation and a lot of us stay in difficult situations for fear of what change brings. There is a whole lot of stuff in there and hopefully I’ve presented it in a way that’s not difficult for people to understand.
I definitely think it’s a mature way of presenting your life story. I espcieally love the dance version of “Change” too. Do you think the dance version gives the song a different meaning with the instrumentation and higher BPM?
I think the theme is the same. It’s so funny you asked this as I had to write something about this on the album a few weeks back. With the dance version there is definitely a little more sass and attitude. It’s a little more celebratory in the dance version. I’m not as empathic to the transition in the dance version as I am in the ballad version. The Wideboys from London actually came on board and helped me out with that project.
One thing I didn’t know about you was that you spent some time in London. Do you think living abroad really has an effect on how we percieve ourselves? I’m an American living in London as well and I’m really curious about your point-of-view on this…
Undoubtedly. In hindsight, I can see the differences, I can see the change and that it broadened my perspective on things. I was exposed to a more diverse growing up experience studying with international students from the Far East, The Middle East, The Caribbean and Africa. It was a valuable education for me. Growing up in the UK, having roots in the states…it just gives you a more rounded perspective on things. Being away from home and having to take care of yourself makes you grow up a little faster. My mother always said I was a bit of an old soul, but I think living in London only compounded the situation even more [laughs].
Let’s talk about your album “Speak Love – Life Lessons”. You mentioned before that it’s autobiographical album. After we listen to the album, what are going to be some of the things we’ll learn about you?
I think at the heart of it, what people are going to learn is that I’m a lot like everyone else. There has been so much written about me these past couple of months that falls so far away from the truth – I’m human like everyone else, I’m not a phantom. Although there were times when I loved climbing trees and shooting marbles [laughs] because I have older brothers – that just wasn’t me either [laughs]. You’ll realize that I make mistakes, that I have self-esteem issues, that I’ve suffered heartbreak, that I’ve suffered loss and that I continue to deal with conflict in my life. I’m hoping that by exposing myself, in ways that my mother is mortified about, that I can make a real connection with my listeners. Even though we may never speak, we will open up some sort of dialogue – maybe cosmically. It’s that kind of communion with my audience that I want to have.
Now you say you didn’t write one song on the album, tell us why you did a cover version…
The only song I didn’t write on the album is a song called “Free” by Denise Williams. I was asked to do a cover song for the album and I couldn’t choose one. I was given Stevie Wonder songs, Aretha Franklin songs, Patti LaBelle songs – all songs I felt were just “sung”. To reinterpret those songs felt like reinventing the wheel for me and I couldn’t get my head around it. One Sunday morning, I was in Florida with a friend and was waiting for him to get dressed and it just came to me. I kept hearing bits of that song in my head. So I went to YouTube and looked up the the song and after that I thought that song went well with the album. It talks about being yourself and finding yourself and deciding who you are as a person – how free you are to not only love yourself, but to invite love and give love to your life. I thought, wow this song fits so well on the album. I tried to modernize it a bit by making it radio friendly and cutting it down from six minutes to three [laughs]. People who buy my album will probably never get a chance to meet me in person – they’ll never get a chance to watch me in my garden making beets and stuff [laughs]. But hopefully they can get a taste of who I am from this project.
You can’t avoid it Alexis, but there is a lot of controversy around you. I even got some shtick when I first wrote about you with people saying “oh she’s just courting controversy”. My opinion is – the music comes first and that’s why I decided to write about you. What do you think of people passing judgement on you because of the controversy you were involved in?…or was it really just the right time to tell your story?
Well this album has been three-and-a-half years in the making. I started writing the songs for this album when I was twenty-years-old. It’s been a long-term project – it was slated for a release last year. We held back on doing that for a number of reasons. I thought I had clearance for release last fall, but there was another project that was changed to the same release date as mine and we didn’t want to have the two albums on the market at the same time. It was an Arista artist – her comeback album was scheduled to come out at the same time, so out of respect, I chose to hold of for a little while and release it at the end of this year. The situation that occurred last summer (with Matt Lauer) caused me to push it back even further. I needed to distance my music from that situation. When I decided to do a press conference to confront some of the allegations and hopefully get rid of the paparazzi in front of my house – they were camped out for two weeks in front of my home – you would think that Michael Jackson took up residence there. I went from the girl who walks around my local village, who knows my postman to a woman who couldn’t leave my house. In the press conference a lot of people asked me about my music and I chose to not even discuss it. I didn’t want it to come across as someone who was taking advantage of a nasty situation to promote myself. The only thing I wanted to do was prove that it was a bunch of lies – they really should have been writing about the soldiers in the Gulf. At the same time too, this is what I do. I’d been working hard on this project for years. After I got over the shock and fear, I decided I had to do this. It would had been stupid for me to pull my record and hide it away because it would upset somebody or or appear to compete with somebody else – it’s ridiculous. It’s a matter of “you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t”. If you stay inside your house and hide, like I was, they wouldn’t go away – they were hungry and rabid for more information. Reporters would go to my neighbors and try to bribe them with thousands of dollars to answer lots of questions….who is she dating, what kinda of car do I drive, what does she wear, which family members come to visit…When I finally decided to do my press conference and allow them to ask any question they wanted to and see me, they did and it worked and they finally went away and left me alone for the most part – expect in airports…There were still a few cynics who felt like I was there because I got paid off. Some even wrote online that “Matt Lauer’s pockets were a little lighter now”. I held a press conference to get my privacy back and it worked! After that they got all their questions answered, they got their photographs. A whole lot that went on. My thing is that I have to live my life. I’m a songwriter, I’m a producer, I’m a a singer, I’m a performer – this is what I do. If I can make a living and get some sort of fulfillment from singing in my bathroom mirror to myself, I’d do it! [laughs], but that’s not what we (artists) do…for people who think I’m just courting controversy…well…go fly a kite! [laughs].
Very well put Alexis – I love that.
It was scary for me to come out these past few weeks and meet new people when doing press for my album, because I know that people know what went on last summer – they did their research! I know what things they have in their head…they think I broke up someones marriage or that I look like a linebacker in a dress [both laugh]. I’ve gotten the response from people that they are surprised that I’m just this tiny little lady! I can’t live half a life to please anyone, that’s part of what I went through in my late teens and early twenties. I was a girlfriend of a guy who had his life planned out for him. I was my mother’s daughter who was going to be coming back to the states as a physician to work, I was my dad’s baby. I was a responsible younger sister to my older siblings. I was just this girl who followed the rules and was expected to do what was expected of her. Somehow during my journey to please everyone, I found myself moving further and further away from who I was – not living an authentic life. That being said, six years later, I am not going to compromise who I am as a person just to please or satisfy somebody else’s existence or perception of or concept of who or what I should be. I am not going to do that. It’s unfair for anyone to assume I will do that as well. I may upset some people along the way, then so be it!
So be it. Absolutlely. I love the electronic pop feel on your song “Actions”…I wonder if you can expand on that song a bit.
[laughs] Well the names and places in the song have been changed to protect identities of individuals! I guess this is my song in the same vein of “Your So Vain” by Carly Simon or “You Outta Know” by Alanis Morrisette. “Actions” was one of the very first songs written for this album. It’s the story about giving your heart to someone who was clearly wrong for me. It was one of those learning experiences that many young women in big cities fall into. You realize what you’re saying and what you’re doing is very two different things. “Actions” is the slightly more angry side of “Change”. I wanted this album as a whole to not only reflect my personal experiences but I wanted it to reflect my musical taste as well. You know I have been exposed to electronic music in the UK, drum and bass, you name it – I’ve been exposed to gospel and jazz, RnB and all variations of pop and I wanted to find a way to bring all these types of music into my album and try to make it a cohesive set of songs. Even on one of my songs called “Music Man” I put a classical or Vivaldi style introduction on the song because that was something I loved at a time when I distanced myself from pop music completely and delved head first into classical music. I wanted to bring that in here and for people to get a feel for that and enjoy it.
I know you’re probably not going to like this question…but I sense a little bit a riff between you and Whitney and I have to say, there are some moments on your album when you do sound exactly like her. Do you mind being compared to Whitney?
I’ve seen blogs written that say my songs are actually Whitney’s tracks [laughs]. I’ve heard someone even say my songs are Whitney’s throw away songs or whatever! [laughs again]. I’m a product of the 80s and 90s and every RnB female singer who is out there now and is around my age – we all grew up and respect singers like Whitney. Her legacy is a part of our mosaic. I hear people say there are similarities between us. They said there were similarities even before I sang the first note! I keep hearing we look alike or what have you – but I think I look like my mom! [laughs]. But really, I’m a product of my environment and I have to accept that much. I’m flattered by the comparison, but at the same time I realize that I’m a very different creature. The type of artist that I am – I’m very different. I’m more of a writer/producer who is finding her way in the whole performance and singing aspect and learning my craft. I also come from a different time. I’m hoping that my performances will distance any type of comparison because I dance and I’m into the whole visual presentation – I’m into the spectacle of live performance in addition to serving up great vocals. I want the Alexis Houston show to be an experience for an audience. If you’ve given me your money or your time which is even more valuable, I’m going to take you somewhere special that you can’t go by just listening to my music in your car or your house. I think the focus with Whitney and the focus of the people around her – it was all about the voice and keep everything else very simple. It was about this beautiful woman and this incredible voice and these great songs that were written for her. So hopefully people will just give me a chance to just be me, make the mistakes that I will make. I see all the comments with people saying “She’s not Whitney” and I say “Thank You”. [laughs] I’m not her and I never want to try to be…once again that takes me away from being who I am. I hope the comparisons will end and people will just give me a chance to be myself.
Alexis Houston debut album “Speak Love – Life Lessons” will be available on September 28th and she will be headlining EQ Live in London on Monday, September 20th – more information here.