Gregg Alexander

Forever Radical: Gregg Alexander On Retiring, Reemerging & Why He Still Believes a Song Can Start a Revolution

The former New Radicals frontman has quit the business three times. But he still finds his way back every now and then.

It’s a drizzling autumn night in New York City when Gregg Alexander, known to the world as the mastermind and frontman of late ‘90s one-hit wonder New Radicals, appears. He’s hard to miss: Standing at 6’5, his large frame looms in the shadows of East Village’s Tompkins Square Park where, early on in his career, he used to busk. Today, his signature bucket hat has been replaced by a baseball cap; the rest of his outfit is unassuming, right down to the shoes he wears to correct his posture.

“I brought you an extra umbrella in case you needed one,” he says. I point out that I already have one. “I know what to do then — I’ll leave it right here in case anyone has use for it.” He steps to the iron railing that cases the park and hooks the umbrella onto it.

It’s one of many small acts of kindness that help define Alexander, a former pop star who abandoned the spotlight the moment he stepped into it. He’s chatty yet pensive, inquisitive yet assured, generous to an extent that he has $20 bills in his pocket ready to thank a waiter for going even slightly out of his or her way. At every turn, he describes the people he admires as “lovely.” He has the sort of egoless familiarity of someone who doesn’t care for fame — never did, really. It’s likely the same instinct that inspired him to hightail it out of the music industry when he discovered its more insidious nature and instead focus on charity work and the freedom that came with using other artists as a medium for his songwriting.

All the meanwhile, he’s forged a remarkable career behind the scenes. Two decades have passed since his group burned bright as a lone wolf in contemporary pop. In the time since, he’s written hits including Santana and Michelle Branch’s “The Game of Love,” which topped the Billboard Adult Top 40 and Adult Contemporary charts in 2002; Ronan Keating’s “Life Is a Rollercoaster” and Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor,” which reached Nos. 1 and 2 in the U.K., respectively; and the soundtrack for the 2014 film Begin Again, for which he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song with “Lost Stars.”

He relishes in his relative anonymity among those who don’t study liner notes. “I think for my creative emotional wellbeing, for lack of a better term, at some point the music business turned into a hobby for me,” he later explains. Alexander hasn’t granted a substantial interview since 2014, and before that, 1999. Right now, he’s seated in a wheezy leather recliner in the empty lobby of a hotel on the Lower East Side, Estrella in hand. “Which doesn’t mean I don’t make a living from it. But, I still believe, in my heart of hearts, that a great rock and roll song or great pop song can cause a fucking revolution.”

* * *

At 48, Alexander in many ways holds the same perspective that compelled him to form New Radicals, his first major foray as an artist and, quietly, a subversive political act. “I knew that the only way I was going to be able to say even an iota of what I could say to the world is through music, because I knew if I went screaming on the rooftops, I'd end up in a straightjacket somewhere,” he says. 

After two failed solo deals and a pair of albums in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, he scraped together a demo tape with a carousel of musician friends in studios in downtown Detroit and Los Angeles. The lot of it would make up Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, which was mastered straight from the cassette (with the exception of the first three tracks) and celebrated its 20-year anniversary on October 16. (On the day, he needed to be reminded of the milestone over email.) It was “really a solo project,” he says, and wasn’t much of a commercial juggernaut: It peaked at No. 41 on the Billboard 200 and spawned only one single, “You Get What You Give,” which reached a modest No. 36 on the Hot 100.

“I think the record company and a decent amount of the people in the press were bemused as opposed to wanting to help fan the flames of a bigger fire I was hoping to light,” Alexander recalls. “Maybe it's better, because maybe if I would have kept going, I would have been shot dead.”

Was it really that serious? He takes a long pause. “Who’s to say where I or other artists would have gone in terms of trying to challenge the status quo?” he asks. “If I had kept trying to assert things I think a lot of other people were feeling about where society, technology companies and big business were going, I think there would have been a concerted effort at some point to say, ‘We can't let artists think this is fair game for them to talk about anything but sex, drugs and rock and roll.’”

In a way, “You Get What You Give” has become his hallmark, a crystallization of the beliefs he maintains about a society that’s more broken than ever. It’s the type of song that unifies karaoke bars across the world yet shocks listeners as they read its lyrics about the superficiality of our culture for the first time on the screen. (Of the most glaring: “Health insurance rip off lying/FDA big bankers buying/Fake computer crashes dining/Cloning while they're multiplying.”) He assembled the song as a writing exercise, with the goal of making each line top the last: “Four A.M., we ran a miracle mile” references his time living around L.A.’s Miracle Mile area and revels in miscreant frivolity; “We’re flat broke but hey we do it in style” serves as a nod to couch-surfing for two years around town and when he was dropped as a solo artist.

He didn’t intend for its final stretch, an indictment of celebrities that name-checks Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson, to be the takeaway, though the media reaction fixated on it. “I was a little bummed out that it focused on this absurd celebrity bash of people — I had no issues with them — versus something that I thought was challenging the powers that be, in a pop song that got on pop radio all over the world. That hadn’t happened in terms of being that political in, fuck, 20 years?” (Still, he faced no backlash from his targets: “Of course I didn’t. I’m 6’5, and I’m a crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube,” he jokes).

There’s a poetic irony to “You Get What You Give” when applied to Alexander’s career at large. As the track began to grow, so did his fan base. In 2000, Joni Mitchell called it “the only song I have liked in a long time” and referred to him as “my kind of punky white boy”; Alexander recalls meeting heroes Prince and George Michael, who both lauded Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too. But as the adulation grew, so did his disdain for the exact corporate greed he bemoaned on the song. (There wasn’t one specific moment that led him to kill the project. Instead, he cites the promotional responsibilities that came with it: “My life was irrevocably changing, and was no longer going to be about music every day, but about a lot of the insanity that comes with the star machinery.”)

“I'd seen inside the dream factory as a visitor. I got the visitor pass, if you know what I mean,” he continues. “When it actually started happening for real, and I wanted to talk about injustice and politics and meaningful things, there was no support system. I had no one backing me up. I was young and disillusioned and saw quite a bit of the writing on the wall about consolidation of radio cable companies, big business.”

Danielle Brisebois, a member of New Radicals who has worked with Alexander throughout the years and co-wrote “Lost Stars,” witnessed it firsthand. “Even in 1999, we were horrified where the music business and media were speeding to,” she says. “Gregg wanted to return to being a ‘day-to-day artist’ and not a ‘career rockstar.’ He was maybe just too generous, or even naive of a spirit for the job. He was an enigmatic performer, and on tour during encores he would often let the audience rush the stage to dance and jump around, yet he was surprised when people would grab onto him and not let go. That childlike wonder was kinda beautiful.”

What could have been doesn't much concern Alexander; instead, he traces the downfall of New Radicals to its roots, likening his burgeoning fame to Hotel California, a metaphor for the prison that celebrity can quickly become. “You're this scrawny little fucking musician, some 28-year-old, but all of a sudden, you become the conduit to people’s bonuses, their greater agendas,” he says. “There was a part of me that felt like it was going to fucking destroy me. I saw one chance to run out of the Hotel California, and I think I realized [that the only way to do that] was to burn that motherfucker to the ground.”

He shrugs. “Nobody will ever know if five or six singles [would have come] out, whether it would have sold one more copy or 20 more million copies. Nobody knows, and I don't fucking care at this point. But I was grateful when I left the business of being an artist. When I extracted myself from that situation, I had the same thing I have now: hundreds and hundreds of pop songs.”

* * *

Music has been a constant in Alexander's life since his childhood in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and it never went away, even after he pulled the ripcord on New Radicals in 1999. Since then, he’s recorded and mastered somewhere between seven to 10 full-length follow-ups to Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too. He'll probably never release them. “Sting once said music is its own reward,” he explains. “In that context, it’s been its own reward for me. I still scheme sometimes about the idea of maybe putting records out. Maybe after I die, I’ll put them out every year.”

It’s as a songwriter that he’s continued to excel. Alexander has the type of watermark that writers can only strive to leave on a song. There’s a throughline between his greatest tracks when you line them up: the chug of acoustic guitars, the yelps, the handclaps, the charming musings about romance. And there’s something frayed and familiar about his demos — some leaked to the Internet, others he sent me as as attachments in emails leading up to our interviews — which are so full of passion that their potency rivals that of the versions other artists recorded.

“Gregg’s greatest strength as a writer is soul-searching lyric and melody ideas that seemingly appear out of thin air,” Brisebois says. “[He] can write amazing songs at 3 a.m. on a train in Morocco with his acoustic guitar and a beat-up cassette deck, or in a massive studio in the middle of California. I believe he easily could have been as big as Coldplay or Max Martin, but fame or the game were never what truly mattered to him.”

After disbanding New Radicals, Alexander jetted to England and settled in Notting Hill. (At one point, he recalls, he lived with rock revivalists The Darkness.) The music industry never forgot him. As he settled in London, music executives like Craig Kallman and Lucian Grainge rang him, as did Clive Davis and Colin Barlow. “I thought Clive was calling to yell at me,” he says, smiling. “He was like, ‘I really believed in your band. If you’d like to make some records...”

Those calls led to opportunities to write for other artists and, as he puts it, a “blank check” creatively. Keating remembers their work fondly: “Gregg is one of the most inspirational song writers I’ve had the pleasure to work with. I love that he doesn't care about boundaries or barriers when it comes to songwriting. He writes from the heart and is 100 percent committed to his songs. I find that truly infectious.”

“The Game of Love,” originally demoed by Macy Gray (whose version is unreleased) and then Tina Turner (whose rendition was included on Santana’s Greatest Hits in 2007), ended up being his biggest hit. After Santana and Branch won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for the track in 2003, though, that old feeling of disillusionment crept back. Alexander sold his catalog to a few boutique publishers but kept the masters. “I’m not that crazy — I would never do that,” he says.

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.

“I'm just a little conduit,” he continues. “That's what ‘Lost Stars’ is: ‘Who are we, just a speck of dust within the galaxy?’ I'm going to be forgotten very quickly. Almost all of the people in show business, very few will be remembered. But if a sentiment or a song can live on in people's minds or they share it with their kids and it lives on, that's when it goes beyond you. It's a passport to a lot of love. For that, I can only be forever in debt to the universe and music for allowing me to be the vessel.”