Since the release of her debut album, Morning Pill, in 2007, singer/songwriter/guitarist Alexx Calise has worked tirelessly to promote her music. As an independent artist, she retains creative control over her work, but her career has taken some unique twists and turns.
She has released three albums: the aforementioned Morning Pill, In Avanti (2010) and AC3 (2011). She established herself as a rock musician, but thanks to the success of “Cry,” which became a hit via the Lifetime television show Dance Moms, and her recent piano ballad, “Home Again,” young fans — those from the Dance Moms and Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition programs, on which she has performed live — think of her as a balladeer. Calise is fine with both avenues. She’s as comfortable turning up the volume at a gig as she is reading fan mail from young girls who tell her, “You’re my inspiration. I dance to your music all the time.” Loyal to her audiences, she’s happy to make music that both demographics can enjoy. Her new single, “All Night Long,” will appeal to her rock and roll fan base; she’ll perform “Survive,” for which she just filmed a video, on the finale episode of Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition.
Having a young following comes with responsibilities that Alexx Calise takes very seriously. She recently discussed how she balances being a “rocker chick” and an unexpected role model, the challenges and benefits of being an independent artist, and why it’s important to be “the worst person in your band.”
“Home Again” is your first piano ballad. How did that come about?
“Cry” had really started taking off on Dance Moms. I shot the video with Maddie Ziegler, the little girl from the show, and it started doing really well. Since that placement, I have become friends with the show’s producers and they keep placing my music. They asked if I could write a song for the final episode. They had a montage that the girls were doing about Hurricane Katrina, because the finale was in Louisiana, so they wanted something heartfelt and suited for that. I got together with Justin Batad, a piano player and up-and-coming songwriter. I asked him to play some music and I would write lyrics and a melody. There have been certain songs I’ve written where I felt almost a chemical reaction — you know when you hear it that it’s going to be powerful. I was going through a lot at the time, a lot of emotions, so “Home Again” wrote itself very quickly and lent itself to that theme as well. My producer, Wesley Michener, is also a recording engineer and our guitar player, and he has access to an amazing studio in Hollywood called Sage and Sound, where bands like Motorhead, Puddle of Mudd and Stone Temple Pilots have recorded. It’s the most beautiful studio I’ve ever recorded in. It was a very inspiring experience. It’s so much easier to write and be creative in an environment where that’s what you’re there to do. It’s a lot different from writing and recording at home.
How did your music make its way to dance shows?
It was such a freak thing. I have licensing with an agency called Jingle Punks. They help place indie music in films and television. I started getting sales from “Cry,” and seeing people covering it and doing tributes to it. I wondered what was going on. I researched it and found out it was on Dance Moms. It’s been on six or seven episodes and has completely taken off. What’s funny is that I am a “rocker chick,” and that was the only ballad on the record, and now I’m the Dance Moms chick. People want the ballads, which is great because it’s a part of me and I love it, but at the same time, I play at the Viper Room. I’m a rocker at heart. I’m so grateful for the success I’ve had through that show, and I love doing ballads, but I’m a rocker with a Les Paul and an SG.
As an independent artist, how have you broken into so many markets?
I get this from my mom and dad — I’m extremely driven. I’m constantly working. I do absolutely everything myself. I have someone from Liaison Music helping me now and she’s trying to partner me with some big brands. I’m very driven, and you have to be, especially as an indie artist. That’s not to say that I don’t want to sign with a label, but I’m so afraid of being shelved, because no one cares about my career as much as I do. Maybe I’m too much of a control freak, but I feel like I’m the only one who can do it as well as I possibly can. There’s only one Alexx Calise, and I do absolutely everything to maximize that as much as I can.
With so many young fans, are you cautious about what you say and what you post on social media?
Absolutely. I feel a social responsibility and I don’t want to upset those people. Because all these little girls look up to me, I have to watch myself. I curse like a sailor, I really do, so I have to be careful when I post — also because I have a children’s party business [Inkabink Kids Party Entertainment]. There’s always a way to say something. You don’t have to curse gratuitously in order to say it. I did a photo shoot where I’m wearing a bikini and I have my guitar, and I wasn’t sure if I should release it because of these little girls. It’s not super sexy, but I have to watch myself now a little bit more. That’s OK. I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
How long has Inkabink been in business? At what point were you able to go into business and support yourself without “day jobs”?
I’ve had the party planning business for three or four years. In the past two years it has taken off to the point where I can support myself. I have a partner and she’s great. I also worked at a music and sound design firm and they were amazing. I did a lot of work for commercials there as well. I left in 2010 and decided to concentrate on doing what I’m good at, and that’s creating music. I could do day jobs and sustain myself more, but if I spend a few hours writing or recording, the return will be much greater when I get my royalties or download sales. I’m one of the few people I know who can support themselves as a musician independently. I’m still trying to acquire sponsors so that I can do some touring, but as far as paying my rent and paying my bills, I’m completely sustained by my music.
Why party planning?
It’s not that I had a dream of opening this kind of business, but when I moved to L.A., I needed a way to sustain myself, so I started working for a woman who had a party-planning company. The costumes were disgusting, she treated the clients and employees horribly, and I felt I could do this, do it better, treat people well and be more organized. I bought three costumes, spent maybe $1000 on the company and it has grown from there. We now offer over 100 costumes, 100 characters, we have stilt walkers, jugglers, face painters, fire breathers, I have a staff of over 25 people. It has grown. I learned how to do a lot of this because of managing my own music. I’ve always been business savvy and good at managing things. I get that from my father. He’s a neurologist and he owns his own business. I grew up with a very strong, hardworking family and I got a lot of that from them.
Your first album, Morning Pill, was released in 2007. In six years, how have you grown as a singer, songwriter and musician?
I’m a totally different person. The songs on Morning Pill were the best songs I had written up until that point. I was living in Florida, and after that album was finished, I moved to L.A. and basically shed my skin and became who I am. This town has built and shaped me so much as a human being. I think everybody at one point in their life should go to a big city and experience something like that. It makes you such a strong person. A lot of people come to L.A. and they crumble or it cuts them down to size. Either you power through it, survive and become a stronger person or you fall to pieces. It was the best and the smartest thing I could have ever done. I know how to face rejection so much better because there’s so much of it in this business. It’s character building. This place has been my salvation.
You began playing guitar when you were 11 years old. At that age, what did it mean to you? When did you begin to understand the technical side of it and the importance of finding your style?
I definitely picked it up because of my father, who is also a musician. In terms of the technical side, I took some formal lessons for about two years, but I think I learned most everything I know from the blues and listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang. I’m a huge blues fan and that’s my foundation. I grew up in a very musical family. My parents would play all different styles of music for my brother and I — my brother, God rest his soul. We would sit at the dinner table listening to Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, and then later in the day we’d listen to the Rolling Stones. My parents took me to concerts to see the Beach Boys and Natalie Cole. I would go to plays; I saw Cats and Chicago. My parents were very encouraging when it came to the arts.
Is this why you perform in schools?
Oh, absolutely. Some of the programs I work for, like P.A.C.E. [Promoting Academics Through Creative Expression], do such wonderful things for kids. They emphasize how important it is to stay in school, they give artists a platform in which to perform, and they give the kids a chance to see some live music so that maybe they’ll want to do that. The arts are so important. Everyone needs a creative outlet.
You recorded AC3 at home over a six-month period and filmed a documentary about the making of the album. What prompted that decision?
I wanted to document the recording process. A lot of people take pictures and videos everywhere they go and put them on social media, but I’m not that type of person. I wanted to talk to people, explain myself and show them that I know how to shred and solo and I play everything on all my records, because so often they don’t believe you. I think I’m a pretty good guitar player, and I wanted people to see that and to be an inspiration to young women who are trying to get into music.
When did you start playing Gibsons?
A few years ago. I was a Fender girl. My first guitar, which I still have, was a Fender Strat. I was a fan because some of my favorite guitar players use them. I first discovered the Les Paul because one of my guitar players in Florida had an SG and it was amazing. I finally got one and I put it on the cover of AC3. There is nothing like the crunch and sustain of a Les Paul. You hit a chord and it rings forever, especially if you put distortion on it. It’s so great for the rock music I do. When I first picked up the Les Paul I have now, it felt like it was molded to my body. I never felt that way about another guitar. I have had my guitar since 2009. I went to Guitar Center to buy my Vox, and I saw it and said, “That’s the guitar.” It was a serendipitous thing. With my amp, I was playing through a Hughes and Kettner Triumph and they’re fantastic, they’re the Mercedes-Benz of amplification, but I wanted something more compact. The Vox is a combo amp, so it’s easier to carry around. The AC30 is the standard. Dave Grohl uses it, Aerosmith uses it, and they always sound amazing, so I picked it up and it was phenomenal. That amp can get so loud. It’s been an amazing amplifier, and that guitar sounds wonderful through it.
Who designed your skateboard pedalboard?
My former bass player/guitar player, Scott Williams, came up with the idea because I love skateboarding. It was innovative and very cool. I get so many compliments on it and it definitely suits my personality.
You’ve gone from a three-piece to four-piece band. How does having another guitarist challenge you and make you a better player?
It definitely makes the sound fuller, and it’s great that my producer, Wes, is also the guitar player, because he was integral to those guitar parts and I don’t think anyone could play them better than he could. Those parts mean a lot to him as well. It gives me a break as a guitar player because sometimes we trade solos. I’m constantly playing as I’m singing, so he’ll trade off with me. It’s made me a better player because the caliber of musicianship in my current lineup is just insane. My bass player, Steve Kinsman, is actually a guitar player, but he’s fantastic at both. They challenge me as a musician and sometimes I feel like I can’t keep up, but that’s a good thing. You always want to be the worst person in your band. Otherwise, you’re not going to grow. That’s how I feel. I also have a new drummer named Dustin Yewell. We just played our first show with him and he is fantastic.
The bikini picture: career risk or career move?
My roommate, Jonathan Rice, is a photographer, and we had the idea to do this ridiculously ostentatious photo shoot where I wore my Les Paul or my SG and an all-American bikini. We did it kind of as a joke and we got a positive response on social media. As far as risk, I try not to think about it too much, because when you focus on it, it becomes less genuine. I’m not censoring myself, but I am cautious because I value the little girls and their moms and I think about them. There aren’t a lot of positive role models in the entertainment world today. You see these women wearing ridiculous sexy outfits or rubbing themselves all over everybody. I don’t want to do that and I don’t feel I need to do that. Atrociously bad behavior is encouraged, and I’m not a fan of that. I don’t want to be a part of that. I don’t think you have to be a pig in order to sell records or make people look up to you.
2007 Gibson Les Paul Studio
2012 Gibson SG Standard
Both have standard 57 Classic pickups
I use a combination of GHS Boomers — 11 gauge and GHS Zakk Wylde Signature Series Boomers — 10 gauge
Vox AC-30 2x12 Alnico Blue Combo Amp
Zvex Box of Rock Distortion Pedal (Vexter Series)
Vox V847A Wah-Wah Pedal
Boss Chromatic Tuner TU-3
Boss Sustainer CS-3
Malekko Omicron Series analog chorus pedal
Girls Rock picks (mediums) from Hot Picks USA and Jim Dunlop mediums