By Laura Palotie
New York is a city of actors and musicians, and it comes as no surprise that its population of Finnish artists is as diverse as the city’s creative scene as a whole. This Friday, members and friends of Finland Center will have the opportunity to cheer on the budding career of pop singer Alexandra Alexis who, over the past two years, has embarked on the city’s music scene with joy, confidence and tenacity. This past summer, I sat down with Ms. Alexis to learn about her background, her upcoming album, and her busy day-to day routines as she promotes her work and builds her personal brand. Believe it or not, making it in New York seems to be a less complicated process than doing the same in Finland.
One of your big breaks was performing in the Helsinki cast of the musical Hairspray. But looking further back, how did you first get into performing?
“I’ve dug music and performing ever since I was little, but it may have been during my high school years in Finland that I really started getting into music seriously. I was in the special music track in high school, and once during choir rehearsal my teacher suggested I take on a couple of solos. So from there, it just took off for me; every time I got to perform in front of an audience, I realized that I really enjoyed it and could do it well.”
So how did your solo career begin?
“When I was part of Hairspray, I used to also perform gigs around Helsinki. I went and promoted my music around town whenever I had time. Maybe it was just the drive to build a larger career. I got into this pattern where after the curtain call I washed off my stage makeup, put on new makeup and rushed to a club to perform there. Then the next morning I had to get up for rehearsal and was totally wiped. I flew to Asia for a few weekends too; after I was finished at the theater, I’d hop on a plane around midnight, fly to Bangkok for a day, perform a gig and fly back. It was crazy but it was fun.”
Even though you went to high school and got your career started in Finland, you spent most of your childhood here in New York. When did you decide to move back to the city, and why?
“My mother is Finnish and my father is of French descent. They met in New York City in the 1980s, so I was born and raised here. This time around I’ve been here for about a year and a half. After being in Finland for a few years, I started really missing New York; I started yearning for a challenge and feeling like I had seen everything there was to see in Finland. At the end of the day it’s a small place, and after you perform the local club circuit a few times, there aren’t a lot of other places you can go; you just wait for your next album to finish so you can go perform again. The circles in New York are so much bigger; there are more places to throw gigs and promote your music, so it felt like the right place for me. I moved back here in 2007.”
Have you run into any surprises, now that you’re living in the city as an artist?
“It’s interesting; just last week I did an interview with a reporter for a Finnish newspaper, and was asked the same question I always get from Finns: “Why are you choosing to come here to make a career happen? Isn’t it a lot more difficult?” they ask. The truth is, I think it’s a lot easier. In Finland, there’s almost a pervasive attitude of “everything is hard” if one wants to do something artistic. In Finland I heard “no” a lot more, and it was a lot harder to promote my music and book gigs there. Here, everyone just says “oh that’s great, that’s fabulous” and are so excited about everything. If you have a strong single in hand, are talented and have assembled a good team behind you, it’s really easy to start doing things.”
Do you write your own music?
“I write a lot, and have several books full of material, but when I get beats from producers, I like to figure out melodies that go with those beats. The first single on my upcoming album was finished in just a few hours. I heard it and thought it was awesome. I got all kinds of ideas right away, sang melodies on top of the beats, and before we knew it, the song was finished.”
Your new album is coming out later this fall. What can you tell us about it?
“I’m working with a couple of producers: Nicholas Wright, who has worked with Beyonce and Jordin Sparks and is doing Shakira’s new album. I met him at a nightclub called ‘The Box.’ His beats are very Lady GaGa, Kylie Minogue-esque, club-type of beats, a lot of fun. I’ve done some R&B type material in the past, but this time it’s all pop and dance.”
How did you come up with the album’s name, ‘May Cause Shortness of Breath?’
“We went over ideas for names with my publicist, and I said how lame it is when people put their own names in their album titles. Then we thought, what if we approached dance music as a kind of medicine you had to take? And what would this medicine bottle say? “May cause shortness of breath” is like the side effect of my music.”
You currently work with publicist Martha Banks. How much promotion do you do yourself?
“Quite a few people suggested Martha to me because she likes to work with new artists. So we met for lunch and she said “let’s try this for two weeks.” Two days later, when I called her and said I got a sponsorship with Kimora Lee Simmons—I just approached her myself, backstage at a concert—Martha was impressed. I’m not the type of artist you have to babysit; I do so much on my own that it’s easy to work with me. She noticed it early on. Many artists work day jobs, but I do this full-time, which makes it so that we can work with a very small team (myself, Martha and her assistant).”
For those of us who aren’t familiar with the way sponsorships work, can you explain how you’ve landed sponsorships so far? Is it different here than in Finland?
“After I met Kimora Lee Simmons, I had a meeting with her representatives and played them my songs, and they thought I was the kind of artist who fit their brand, so our collaboration started from there. What’s important is meeting people and telling them what you do, and at some point if you’ll get in front of the right person. When I first started promoting myself as an artist in New York, I called different people, said I was a manager or publicist of myself and got myself into events. And then I’d just find a backstage pass somewhere. You can’t wait for someone to knock on your door. In Finland I tried to get sponsors for a long time and explain that it would help firms get visibility, but mostly they just said “no, we don’t do stuff like that.” Here, companies understand the business side of things—that it’s only positive for them. It’s saved me a lot of energy and money to be able to borrow clothes. I don’t even like shopping anymore!”
So who else is sponsoring you right now?
“I’m working with Erin Featherston, who lends me gorgeous dresses for shows—I just visited her showroom and she said things like “Oh, we just got this back from Beyonce so you can probably wear it next week” (laughs). I also wear things by Jordi Scott, Andrew Marc, Kalvin Clein, K-Swiss and Girlprops.”
It seems that moving forward in your career has been easier for you here than in Finland. If you could send a message to the Finnish music industry, what would it be?
“Just having a positive outlook on life is important. What’s not understood in Finland is that promotion and marketing are really important things. When I was there, self-promotion was seen, by some, as “pushing yourself.” If you’re an artist with an album coming out, of course you want to promote it and do gigs and interviews. It’s a totally normal thing. People should collaborate and build their brands—often musicians think that when an album comes out they’ll throw a round of gigs, do a round of interviews and then it’s over. Musicians often don’t have a lot to do. The local industry should create a lot more opportunities for artists.”
What advice would you give to other aspiring artists?
“I tell everyone this: Don’t go to auditions. Auditions and workshops are good if you want to learn a new singing technique, etc. but you don’t need them if you already have your own thing going. A lot of artists throw their money into workshops and spend time standing in line at auditions, when the easiest thing to do is go out and meet people; it’s always who you know, not what you know. With ‘Hairspray,’ I new someone involved in the project who said I’d be perfect for the role, and before I knew it, I had it. And it’s amazing to think how many girls dream about being in a musical. Auditions are stupid: You stand in line with a million girls who look like you, wait all day to maybe be seen for that one role. You can easily meet casting directors at parties. People think it’s so hard and it’s really not.”
So what would you say is your biggest challenge right now?
“There isn’t enough time in a day. Right now I’m totally exhausted, but it comes with the territory. I’ve been told that people who aren’t in this field can’t understand how hard it is. You wake up in the morning and have to make yourself look great, and then you run around and meet people all day. You meet so many people that just remembering everyone’s name is a challenge. I have to take constant notes. You have to give your all to your career. I have no other life. It would be nice to spend more time with friends but it’s really hard.”
What about future plans? What would you like to see happen next, and what do you envision in the long term?
“It’s so hard to say. Oprah once said that if you had asked her what she’d be doing at this point, she wouldn’t have been able to answer. There was a time when all she wanted was a house and some money. A lot of the things I wanted to accomplish I already have—I wanted to have sponsors and be able to walk the red carpet at events, and when little things like that happen you pause and think “ok, what now?” I have a good album and a lot of exciting gigs coming up. It’s hard to say what I still want because right now everything is going so well and I’m having so much fun with it. Having a headlining world tour would probably be the ultimate thing.”