Just over a month ago, U.K. singer-songwriter Alex Clare thought his career in music had reached a standstill. "The Lateness of the Hour" came and went with little fanfare in his home country despite top-of-the-line production from Major Lazer producers, Diplo and Switch. He also had to turn down a high-profile supporting slot on Adele's fall tour due to personal commitments. Those events and more prompted Clare's label, Island Records UK, to essentially drop him after a little more than a year, leaving him to pursue work with a realtor friend in East London to make ends meet, essentially "acting as a slum lord," he says.
"Obviously record deals are a finite bit of money, and I found out I kind of needed to make ends meet," Clare says on the phone from his home base of Southeast London. "But I kept getting emails from Island saying, 'We want to use your song for an advert,' so I said 'yes of course' even though I kept thinking nothing would come of it."
Cut to the week of March 5, and suddenly Clare's song "Too Close" was getting the widespread exposure it never received in the U.K., courtesy of a new campaign for Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9. The browser's multi-million dollar media outlay made a big impact its first week out when 60-second ads that made dramatic use of the dubstep-inflected power ballad started airing during broadcast prime-time and in movie theaters before major titles like "The Hunger Games." TV viewers and theater-goers started Shazam-ing the song on their smartphones and searching for the track on YouTube and iTunes. Apple even took the rare unsolicited move of buying keywords on Bing and Google to further connect the dots for fans of the song. By the week ending April 1, the song debuted at No. 68 on the Hot 100, and sales totaled over 100,000 downloads after the first weeks of release.
The song's instant popularity prompted Universal Republic to hastily sign Clare to a U.S. distribution deal that rush-released his album on iTunes March 24, with sales high enough to earn the set a No. 2 debut on Heatseekers and an entry at No. 123 on the Billboard 200, with sales of 4,000 units. It tops this week's Heatseekers chart despite a slight sales dip. A physical copy will hit retail April 24.
The newfound attention comes nearly two years after the first sessions for "Lateness of the Hour" first began with Diplo and Switch in New Orleans. Clare got connected with the producers via Island's A&R head Nick Huggett, the man who helped sign Adele to Columbia Records and also first connected Diplo and M.I.A. Clare had a handful of songs for the album (including "Too Close") already produced in demo form before hitting the studio with the Major Lazer producers. After a few weeks in New Orleans, subsequent sessions followed later in the year in Jamaica and eventually Los Angeles, working around Diplo's tour schedule.
"They wanted to focus more on live instruments which was something I don't think they're used to," Clare says of the collaboration with Diplo and Switch. "It was a challenge for them, a challenge for me and good things came out of it. We clicked very quickly."
Clare was born and raised in Bromley, a neighborhood in South East London notable as the birthplace of H.G. Wells and David Bowie and, in more recent years, as a big hub for the city's skating and drum-and-bass communities. Clare describes his music career as kind of an accidental hobby. "Most of my friends grew up playing in bands because there was literally nothing else to do. It was just a gig."
His childhood surroundings as well as his love for literature inspired album cuts like "Whispering" and "Tight Rope," but it's his personal relationships that comprise the bulk of the album's stories. Clare says his relationship with Amy Winehouse in 2006, which occurred during a break from then-ex Blake Fielder-Civil, is not specifically addressed on the record, nor is any one person. Even so, he and Winehouse remained on good terms during the years after their romance. "There were a lot of emotions there that obviously didn't end up at the time it was happening, but we got to a very good place. We stayed friends above all."
"Too Close," however, was inspired by a particular relationship with a close friend that turned romantic. "One thing led to another, but it didn't really work out and that felt too close," he says.
The renewed interest in Clare's career has promoted the singer to head back in the studio to start work on a planned new EP with synth artist James Greenwood, who's done played with bands like Death in Vegas. A U.S. tour is also in the works, though no specific plans have been confirmed. He may even pitch the new music to his old label in the U.K., against whom he harbors no ill will. "They're very good at developing acts, they just kind of hit a wall. Promotion has to kind of have a free will," he says. "I've got a big debt of gratitude to Microsoft."