Oprah Winfrey once said, “If you come to fame not understanding who you are, it will define who you are.” For Alexa Ray Joel, that getting to know oneself part of the equation is something she’s been grappling with, even more so given she’s the offspring of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame singer/songwriter Billy Joel and world-famous supermodel/actress Christie Brinkley. For most 20-somethings, this time of life is where you can make your mistakes or have some of your greatest triumphs without having to worry about either being splashed across social media. At the age of 29, the younger Joel has spent her recent years finding herself thanks to the help of a musical change of direction that’s led her down a cabaret path by way of residencies at the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel and more recently at the Café Carlyle, where she’s made three separate appearances. And while she released the six-song 2006 EP Sketches and performed at a number of benefits, her first Carlyle gig was the first time she was playing for an extended string of dates.
“Before I started performing at the Carlyle, I still felt like I hadn’t quite found my niche. I wasn’t quite sure if cabaret would be the correct musical home for me. But it was like magic. Luckily, knock wood, it will continue to be magic,” she said. “It’s this chemistry. I feel right at home at the venue, which is very intimate. I can connect with the audience. I can see them. There’s a rapport and it works really well for me. And I’m going to be doing my fourth run in the fall.”
If you’re wondering what to expect from one of Alexa Ray Joel’s cabaret gigs, know that it’s a mix of old and new. And even some of the occasional numbers from her piano-playing pop.
“I do about half of my own material and half of everything from standards and more torchy, Etta James/Sarah Vaughan-style ballads. I’ll throw in a Randy Newman song or one of Dad’s songs. It’s super eclectic. I have some stuff I do at the piano that’s more reminiscent of Fiona Apple or Kate Bush. It’s a really fun way to do a medley of different genres that still has an interweaving cabaret feel throughout,” Joel explained. “On my last run I did, ‘How Lovely To Be a Woman’ from Bye Bye Birdie. Or I’ll do something like ‘Keep Young and Beautiful,’ which is a more obscure theater song by Al Dubin. I try to always put some recognizable, fun, kitschy, playful theater moments in without being the same old thing that every other musical theater background artist would do, just to give it a fresh feeling because I’m one of the only younger artists that regularly plays there, which is really cool.”
Apparently Joel’s efforts are being noticed as she was recently honored by the City College Center for the Arts, which gave her an award and named its scholarship program the Rosalind Joel Scholarship for the Performing Arts after Joel’s grandmother. It means a lot to Joel, who was close with Nanny Roz, who got to see her granddaughter perform at the Carlyle while holding court at a table of 30 younger friends. Joel even wound up dedicating a version of “Loch Lomond” to her grandmother at this performance, which happened shortly before the latter passed away.
“Even more so than my dad, she was probably the most musical person that I’ve come across. Ever since I was a little girl, she was singing everything to me from old Scottish hymns and humming Beethoven to singing Sondheim and Rodgers & Hammerstein. She gave me my musical theater and classical education by default from singing to me all the time,” Joel said. “Right before she passed, they were saying she wasn’t responsive and couldn’t speak. But when I saw her at the hospital I started singing ‘Mighty Like a Rose’ to her, which is what she would sing to me. And my mom and dad would sing that to me when I was little to get me to sleep and she started singing with me and that was right before she passed. It’s a very profound memory in my mind and it further substantiates how much music was a part of her. If you got to know her, it was so inevitable as to why my father chose to become a musician. I kind of want to be able to honor her legacy and just give her a lot of credit for this award.”
With the kind of pressure that comes with being under the withering spotlight of fame from being the daughter of two mega-celebrities, Joel stopped getting sucked in by the blogosphere.
“There are a lot of expectations in general but as a woman, you have to eventually build a family, be a successful mother and be a career woman and still look 25. I think women are hard on themselves, but if you look at the media now and blogs, there is so much focus on a woman’s looks,” she said. “I wish there was more focus, if not more, on a woman’s intellect versus her appearance. I think that’s a huge part of why women have some of the insecurities that they have. I think it’s been amplified even more so with social media.”
What’s also helped Joel is the advice offered by both her parents.
“[My father] always says not to take s*** from anybody, which is a good rule of thumb. That’s really cool that I always get to hear that from dad and that he always trusts me as an artist. Now and then he’s stubborn and tells me to try something one way, but at the end of the day, he trusts my own kind of artistic direction and lets me be,” she explained. “I don’t know if my mom has told me [anything] specifically, but I think she exemplifies this in her life and she’s always encouraging this to me, and all her kids, is to be as confident as possible and to put your best foot forward. She’s such a role model for me in terms of just projecting yourself in a positive light and supporting and being good to yourself.”
As for the younger Joel’s future, another run at the Carlyle awaits her in the fall and she’s been actively working with Billy Joel archivist Jeff Shock, who has been recording her Carlyle shows with the idea of creating an audio/video compilation to make available on iTunes. And while she’s even entertaining the thought of working on a studio album, one of Joel’s bucket list items is to do voice-over work for a Disney animated feature. It’s an obsession that dates back to childhood and aside from recording with her pop and aspiring to hone her cabaret craft, it’s something that’s been a longtime goal for Joel.
“My dream, ever since I was a child, is that I would really love to do a voice for Disney. Maybe the biggest dream,” she explained with a laugh. “I’m just a big Disney fanatic—always have been. In fact, my dad actually did Oliver and Company because I asked him to do a Disney movie. I would love to continue the legacy and be able to do a voice.”
To see what Alexa Ray Joel’s favorite Billy Joel songs are, click here.