What inspired you to pursue music as a career?
I actually started as dancer, going to dances and nightclubs with my friends when I was younger, and we would dance all night. That was where I’d get my release. My mum moved to Nigeria for about eight years, I never met my dad, and I lived with an uncle who was always drinking and smoking. It was a pretty tough situation, so I found my release dancing.
What musicians did you look up to growing up, and why were they pivotal for you?
When I was younger I was heavily into Motown. I loved all of it―the Al Greens, the Stevie Wonders, and the Marvin Gayes. Then I got into Smokey Robinson and the more modern-day soul and R&B music in a really big way. They’re all different artists―some of them you don’t even hear about any more. It was more the music that I was influenced by, as opposed to the artist.
I had white foster parents for a while, and I lived in a place called Kent, which is in England, about two hundred and fifty miles out of London. My foster parents started introducing me to Sting, Paul Simon, and 10cc. They taught me a whole other style of music that I didn’t even know about. From then on I had all types of music in my head—from rock to rap to jazz, fusion, stuff like that.
How were you discovered?
After my mission I got into a boy band. I was the only singer; the others were dancers. Our band was called Awesome. We got ourselves a gig as dance mascots for a semi-professional basketball team in London. Basically, we’d make up routines for half-time in between the cheerleaders’ performances. We started dancing, and then I started singing my own songs at the half-time slots. Because we had to entertain the crowd, we performed to songs that had chants and heavy beats so the audience could sing along. I’d put calls and responses into the songs, and the guys would dance behind me. We were just a gimmick, but we started taking it more seriously when we saw that we were getting a following.
Our band was together for about eight years. We started from scratch and toured all over England. It started off as a hobby; then it became a really serious hobby; then we found ourselves with a recording contract with Universal Records; and then it became really, really serious. That all occurred within the space of eight years, and for probably the last three years we were doing it professionally.
What influenced your decision to go solo?
We had a huge hit in Europe back in ’97, and then the whirlwind started: big gigs, performances, limousines, and all the stuff like that. But I remember that one of the apostles said something at a conference that really resonated with me, and this kind of describes one of the reasons why I left the group.
He said, “Sometimes we find ourselves climbing up the ladder of success, and when we get to the top we find ourselves leaning on the wrong side of the wall.” That was me—that was totally me. So I had to get back down, take the ladder, shift it onto a much better wall with a firmer foundation, and start climbing up that wall.
Spiritually, my career was taking me down the wrong road. I was a returned missionary, but being in that world…it was just not conducive to being a member of the Church.
I had to start making some decisions. Even though we were doing really well—spiritually, I wasn’t. It’s kind of funny, but when you have amazing amounts of success, if you’re not spiritually right, all that success doesn’t mean anything.
When you want to excel but it’s not something you’re chasing—when you want to live the standards—then when you find success it becomes sweeter. You appreciate it more.
How did you join the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?
That was another big accident which totally changed my life. Iit was nothing I expected. At the time, I was trying to get into the LDS market, and I had a phone call from an LDS artist, Jenny Frogley, who’s the manager at LDS Artists. She called me up and said, “Hey, I’ve got this gig, are you interested in it?” She explained that the Choir was producing a Broadway album, and that one of the songs on the album was a duet of “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. They wanted some guy to do the big African chants, so they were trying to find some black people. And then she said, “There’s one catch. There’s a ninety-five percent chance that we won’t do it, because the two people who were originally slated to do it, Donny Osmond and Gladys Knight, are ninety-five percent certain that they will do it, but they might not.”
I didn’t hear anything for a couple of months, and I just forgot about it and thought, “Oh well, that fell through.” Then I received a phone call later from Craig Jessop, and he said, “Hey, Alex, you up for doing this project?” And I’m thinking, “What project? Oh, yes!”
It was funny because when I was told that I had that ninety-five percent chance of not getting it, I remember I was praying, “Heavenly Father, please make it so that Gladys Knight and Donny Osmond are so busy they are out of the country…on a world tour…no time…”—basically that they were so busy that I would get the chance to do it. When I got the call, I was like, “God answered a brother’s prayers, yeah!” So I turned up at the recording studio.
Now, usually when I turn up at a recording studio I’m in jeans, a t-shirt, whatever. But this time I turned up in my church suit—tie, tie tack, everything. Because I was like, “How do you dress to go and record with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?” I was very conservative.
When I got in the studio, Brother Jessop was directing, and he said, “Alex, I want you do this African chant right at the beginning. I want you to sing that part.” And I said, “Yeah, sure, no problem.” So I started singing it, and he said, “That’s fine, but I need some more energy from you.” I thought to myself, “Okay, a little bit more energy. No problem, I can do that.” I sang that opening line with a little bit more energy, and he said, “You know, that’s fine, but I’m still not getting what I want from you. I need a little bit more energy and passion in the song.” Okay, no problem. I gave it a little bit more energy.
Then he got really frustrated and said, “Alex, the reason I chose you was I heard you have passion and energy and you sing with vigor,” and I’m like, “Oh, okay…really?” I was thinking I should go with conservative. So I took my tie off, I took my jacket off, I rolled up my sleeves, and I just let out this huge “Waaaan…” and then Brother Jessop said, “Yes, that’s it! That’s exactly what I want!” It was a great experience.
After we’d finished the whole recording session, Bro. Jessop started asking me questions: who are you, what do you do, where are you from, etc. Then all of sudden he just asked, “Have you ever considered auditioning for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?” I paused and thought to myself, “Is this really…what? Is he… This doesn’t really make sense. I don’t have any classical training, I’ve never sung in a choir before…” It felt like a really out-of-place question. So I said, “Well, I’ll think about it,” and I remember in my mind I was like, “Yeah right! I’ve heard how tough it is.”
Later I was at a conference or at church or something like that, and I had this kind of voice of inspiration that I just felt. Every now and then I’ll feel it when I need to do something, you know what I mean? This voice said, “When you left the group, do you remember the promise that you made to yourself? You said that from now on you were going to seek the highest good in music.” And I remember thinking to myself, “Yeah.” And it was almost like I had this, “McFly, McFly! Hello, hello! It’s right here, right in front of you!” I had this feeling that said, “So what’s the highest good? What can be a higher good than being in the Tabernacle Choir?” And I remember thinking, “Uh…nothing.”
So I got on the phone and started making arrangements. I got the audition and started with the Choir.
First I participated in the really hard sixteen-week training school. That was one of the toughest and most rewarding things I had ever done, because afterward I saw music in a totally different way—I had an understanding of what music really, really was.
There was something that one of the teachers would say that blew me away. He talked about how, at general conference for instance, you will never have an apostle or a prophet of the Lord speak until the choir has sung. I gained this realization of how powerful music is—powerful to the point that an anointed man will not speak first until the Spirit is brought into the place through the power of music.
That changed my whole outlook on what music is and how powerful that is and my role in it. Even if I did something beyond the Tabernacle Choir, or if I do my other projects, I always remember that—even if I’m not necessarily doing songs about God or if I have a project that’s a secular project. It’s always uplifting, the lyrics are always clean, and it’s always in a place where I can stand up and say, “Yes, I can sing this in front of a prophet. I can sing this in front of anyone,” no matter what style of music it is. That has been something that has changed my life and really put me in a place where I can use music to serve other people as opposed to serving myself.
Do you have a favorite experience from performing with the Choir?
There’s been quite a few. One of them was singing on the Midwest tour that we had last year, where I had a chance to sing solos. One of the standout songs for me was, “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.”
The last day of the tour, we performed at Denver at the Red Rocks, which is a beautiful venue, and sitting out there in the audience about twenty feet away from me was President Monson. So I’m singing to President Monson, and it was the most surreal, daunting, amazing, nerve-wracking, exciting feeling I’ve ever had in my life.
Another experience I had took place when I had only been in the choir for a few months. President Mac Christensen came into rehearsals and said, “We’re going to cut the rehearsals short. We’d like every single one of you to grab hold of your hymnbook and come with me.”
So we went for a walk right through the tunnels and out through to the Conference Center. We headed up the stairs and walked out onto the floor, and there was President Hinckley’s casket. We sang three hymns. The last one was, “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” We all gathered around President Hinckley’s casket and looked at his face. It was the most amazing feeling. I had a strong testimony of the power of the resurrection—that President Hinckley was not there. He was not dead, but we saw his body. We knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was not there. He was out and about the Lord’s business.
Another thing we felt was that the man we sang to was a prophet of God. It was one of the most powerful musical experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Now, I’ve had the chance to sing on MTV, I’ve had songs fairly big on the charts, and I’ve experienced singing to an audience of maybe sixty or seventy thousand people, with eleven million people watching the show all over Europe. All of that didn’t even come close to that experience of singing to President Hinckley.
You’ve recently put out a religious album called Be Still, My Soul. How was working on that album different from working on some of your other albums and projects?
In many, many ways, big and small. It goes back again to seeking the highest good from music. The highest form of art, in my opinion, is art that praises God. There is no higher form of art than that. You can have artists all around the world doing amazing things, but there is no form of art that is higher and that is more poignant. I have always had a strong belief that I need to be a part of that as often as I can.
So, I decided to do a hymns album. It was a powerful experience, because I felt prompted that I needed to do a hymns album, but nobody asked me to do it. I didn’t know how I was going to sell it—I didn’t have a deal with Deseret Book or anything like that—but I kept getting this prompting all the time. I was also working on a secular album then, because I thought that’s what was going to make me money. Interestingly, I spent more money on the secular album than I did on the spiritual album.
And I remember I was sitting in a Sunday School lesson, and we were talking about King Solomon and how Solomon built a temple for the Lord, and after he’d built this temple it was beautiful, amazing, and elaborate; then he built himself a temple and it was three times the size of the temple that he built for the Lord. I remember thinking to myself all of the sudden, “Well, where does his allegiance lie?”
I started thinking about my album, and I thought, “Wait a minute. I’ve got to remember where my allegiance lies.” I was putting my leftover change toward doing the spiritual album, but the bulk of my hours toward the secular one. I remember thinking, “Is this really for the Lord, or am I just doing it for myself?” I came to a big realization of how I needed to use everything that I had to do this spiritual album.
I did the album, and I remember thinking, “What am I going to do with this album now?” I put it on the shelf, asking, “Did I really feel this prompting or was it just me?” After I finished that first tour with the Tabernacle Choir, doing all those solos, a week later I got a phone call from Deseret Book saying, “Alex, we would like to commission you to do a hymns album.” And I said, “No way, are you kidding? It’s done.” So I just took it to Deseret Book and they released it. For about two months it was in the top ten of the Deseret Book ratings.
What steps go into writing a song for you?
It really varies. Sometimes I’ll have a producer who sends a whole bunch of music and I like the feel of the music or the instrument, and then I’ll write a song to it. Sometimes it’s a process. Sometimes I’ll feel that inspiration as a melody that I just can’t get out of my head, and it’s annoying me and I have to go to the studio and get it out before I explode.
Sometimes I’ll get inspired even listening to a song on the radio. It’s not necessarily that I write a song that sounds exactly like that—maybe it’s just the energy I felt from that particular song that makes me want to emulate that energy in my song or whatever it is that I’m doing.
I don’t have a specific way—there are so many different ways.
How do you prepare yourself mentally, spiritually, and physically to sing?
I will never ever sing a song without a prayer first. It doesn’t matter what type of song it is—if I’m doing a corporate gig, singing at church, singing a hymn, singing anywhere, it doesn’t matter, I always have a prayer first. Somehow, whenever I’ve had that, the music seems to touch people in powerful ways. There have been times when I’ve not prayed, and the song was just a song. Even for a secular song, a love song, or a dance song, I’ve found that it just didn’t have the same effect. To this day I still cannot explain it. It’s one thing to explain that when you’re praying and you’re singing a hymn at sacrament, you’re hoping the Spirit is there and it becomes a powerful talk. But when I’m not singing songs about Christ, or when I’m just singing a pop song and I pray beforehand, there seems to be just great response from the audience, whether they want to dance more, or whether they enjoy it more, or whether they say, “Hey, can you come back?” or, “We’ll pay you a lot more money this time,” all those types of things. It’s like everything is spiritual. Everything is spiritual.
How does the gospel affect you as an artist?
I think that when you have the gospel in your life, you use a different language, and that language changes you. When you’re reading scriptures every day and feeling influence from there and trying your best to stand in holy places, it becomes a part of you, and when you do your music you think about that a lot more. There’s that scripture in Doctrine & Covenants 25:12—“The song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” If every song is a prayer, then I want to make sure my prayer is sincere. So one of my favorite things to do is doing sincere music—music that praises God. At the end of that scripture, it talks about how “it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads,” and I can honestly say that I have felt those blessings from performing that type of song. I’m definitely a huge advocate of that type of song—it’s blessed my life in so many different ways.
What are your plans for your continued musical career? What do you most want to achieve going forward?
One of my biggest goals is to continue writing songs, but to start putting really strong, powerful, inspirational songs into the Billboard charts. I was reading a magazine that listed the most influential artists. If you think about them, what were they doing? Overdosing on drugs, breaking the law of chastity, and putting God before themselves. And so I’m thinking to myself, “I want to get a team together and just infiltrate the Billboard charts with uplifting and good music.” A lot of times I used to say, “It’s impossible,” but then I think to myself, “Nothing’s impossible with God. The Lord says I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.” I don’t doubt that anymore.
So that’s what my goal is, and I’m going to keep doing it even if I’m ninety when it happens, because you can change the world through music. Elder Ballard said that as members of the Church, we need to provide a quality alternative, and I love the way he said “quality.” If it is quality, then people will want to listen to it—they won’t care if we’re Mormons. If it’s quality, if it’s well done, if it’s well orchestrated, and it’s well composed, I’m telling you it doesn’t matter what faith you are, they will take the songs. I believe that with all my heart.
That’s one of the things that is always in my mind: quality alternatives, quality alternatives. We can do that. We as members of the Church—me, you, everyone. We can do that. ❧