He was still open to working with anyone who called enough times (the benchmark for how he picks working with new artists today), but he fell almost entirely out of the public eye, with the exception of appearing at a few industry gatherings in hopes of meeting his idols. He speaks of artists he adores with the intensity and appreciation of a true music fan — artists like Billy Idol, Lionel Richie and Aretha Franklin, the latter of whom praised “Lost Stars” prior to her passing. (“The reason even one-third of me has a foot in the door is the thrill of meeting Smokey Robinson or something like that,” he says.)
By Alexander’s count, he’s retired three times from the industry he can’t seem to leave behind. He says his true passions are philanthropy and creating a better world — a world he first strived to change with his music. After selling his catalog in the wake of the success of “The Game of Love,” he got into advocacy work for poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa, working with NGOs and giving “low seven figures” to various organizations. He generously praises fellow altruists like Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama, recalling the time he met the latter at the former’s house prior to his presidency and urged him to do more for the Global Fund.
He was coaxed out of retirement for the second time in 2014 with John Carney’s film Begin Again. It couldn’t have aligned better with Alexander’s own experiences in the industry: The movie follows a young musician in New York City (Keira Knightly) who starts writing and recording an album with a disgraced executive (Mark Ruffalo) after her ex-boyfriend (Adam Levine) dumps her in his quest for fame. It’s a lighthearted condemnation of corporate greed and the monetization of creativity that rang true to what Alexander experienced throughout his career.
“There was the disillusionment of a lot of the superficial aspects of the music business,” he says. Alexander stops to point out that Begin Again was filmed just blocks away from where we’re sitting. “I thought it had something very meaningful to say about that, and hopefully the lyrics infused the script with [the notion that] we're all lost stars. I'm a lost star, in some respects, because maybe I walked away from my larger, true destiny if I had had seven albums out by now.”
Begin Again was a hit, grossing north of $60 million on a reported $8 million budget. It was also ubiquitous, featured prominently on streaming services and airplanes. “Lost Stars” got its Oscar nomination, and Common and John Legend’s “Glory” beat it out. Alexander couldn't, expectedly, care less: “In the shadow of the fact that, that year, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign [happened], it was a testament to how lopsided even the film business can be sometimes that there were no categories where the brilliant work of African-Americans was being celebrated except for in the Best Song category.”
After a moderate press run, including rare performances and interviews, he retreated back from the spotlight once more. He did some work with rock group The Struts for “Put Your Money on Me” off their 2014 album, and two years later co-wrote on Spencer Ludwig's “Right Into U”; he’s currently in New York working on music with a popular English band. It’s unclear where, exactly, he calls home. (He's an ardent traveler.) Right now, it appears to be the Lower East Side. He isn't on social media, and getting in touch with him is its own obstacle course if you don't have the proper channels. Over the last year, he's spent his time tending to his parents, both of whom have fallen ill. From what he tells me about them, he cares very deeply about them, in his own intense way, with the same fervor he does for the world at large.
Throughout our five-hour interview, Alexander brings up several moments that represent New Radicals’ impact to him over the years. He thinks back to when the lyrics from “You Get What You Give” were quoted at the funeral for Joe Biden's son Beau in 2015, or how U2 played opening track “Mother We Just Can't Get Enough” every night on its 113-date Elevation tour in 2001 just before they went on stage.
Alexander settles on a memory from 10 years ago, when a woman approached him while eating lunch at a restaurant to discuss “You Get What You Give.” “She said, 'I have to thank you on behalf of my dozens of kids for making that song.' I was like, ‘Wow, you have dozens of kids?’ She said, 'No, I work in a cancer ward. Your song gave hope to them.' Not just because of the song, but because of my buzzed head. They saw me and were going through chemotherapy and things like that.