Alexa Ray Joel has been creating music for as long as she can remember. Her mom, supermodel Christie Brinkley, played music throughout her pregnancy, so the exposure happened right from the start.
“Literally since I popped out of the womb, I was obsessed with music,” says Joel. The only child of Brinkley and music legend Billy Joel, she says her early years were spent surrounded by the arts. Joel’s paternal grandmother was a musical theater aficionado, as are her parents. “My best memories growing up are of putting on musicals with my mom and dad,” says Joel. “Both of them are real hams; it was like vaudeville in East Hampton.”
Of course, being the daughter of one of the greatest musicians of all time and working hard to establish her own place in the business has had its challenges. The Joel name has attracted opportunists looking to take advantage, and she says it’s been a constant battle to get people to see her as her own artist—not just her father’s daughter.
But the surprise from fans who don’t expect Joel to have as good a voice as she does only inspires her. “I like to defy expectations,” she says. Her powerful and soulful sound captures audiences’ attention, and her appreciation for the various genres and musical greats she grew up listening to—including her father—is evident.
Here, Joel shares more about the most important aspects of her life: her music, her career, and her family.
Growing up with music all around you, did you ever have a different vision for yourself?
My number one dream is to perform on Broadway. Thanks to my parents, I grew up with such an expansive taste in music, including musical theater. You’ll hear a lot of that in my shows at the [Café] Carlyle; it’s part of who I am.
I studied musical theater at NYU and took some acting classes at Strasberg [The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute]. I have great respect for actors because you have to be fearless and immerse yourself in becoming a character. I’ve done some auditioning in the past; one day the right role will come around.
When it comes to music, what sets you apart from your father?
He’s more rock ‘n’ roll, and I’m a bit more of an ethereal singer-songwriter. My songwriting muse is a toss-up between Fiona Apple and Joni Mitchell. I’m more eclectic with my genres than he is. But if you study his musicians a whole body of work, he’s very derivative in an amazing way—you can pick out who he was listening to when he wrote a particular song. My favorite songs of his are the ones he doesn’t play a lot, like “Where’s the Orchestra” and “Souvenir.” It’s the more obscure ballads that influence me. He always tells me, “You’re more of a ballad girl.”
You’ve worked hard to create your own identity. Has that been difficult?
I am very proud of the legacy my father has bestowed upon me. It’s a double-edged sword: I want to pave my own way and be seen as my own person, but at the same time I’m not going to ignore this amazing, talented man. I think my father is the greatest musician in the world. I’m still his number one fan and I want to pay tribute to his music. I play songs like “Summer, Highland Falls” at my shows, but I do them a little differently. It’s all about finding that balance. There would be something disingenuous about me saying, “Don’t use my last name.” I feel that’s denying this brilliant legacy I was lucky to be born into.
Where do you draw your inspiration when writing a song?
I can only write from what’s happening in my own subconscious; I don’t know how to do it any other way. Also, I can only write when the sun goes down. For better or worse, I’m a night owl. I wrote a song called “Night Fantasy” as a tribute to the night.
When writing, you can’t hold back. It can be depressing, but that’s songwriting—you pull from what makes you feel deeply. People say my best melody is a song I wrote called “Invisible.” I had just gotten dumped by my first love and was crying when I wrote it. A lot of songs poured out of me as a result of that breakup.
My dad says songwriting is like spilling your guts out, pouring them on the table, and then going back into society and sewing yourself back up again. I’ve gotten many letters from young girls thanking me for being honest and transparent about what I was going through because it made them feel less alone. As someone who always felt like she didn’t fit in, this made me realize that maybe there are more people out there like me.
Are you more at ease performing on stage than you were in the past?
I’ve always been overly self-conscious; it comes with growing up in the spotlight. Because of that I’ve never been one to party or be in the tabloids, but at the same time I have trouble letting loose and shaking that layer of fear and stage fright. So it takes a lot before I get up there. I put every inch of myself into what I’m doing on stage, and I’ve become more comfortable as an artist.
In 2017 you posed for Sports Illustrated with your mom and sister. What was that experience like?
It was one of the most surprising and spontaneous things I’ve ever done. My mom is an amazing model, but I’ve never been one to show my body. I’m extremely close to her and my sister Sailor, and because I wanted to share that experience with them, I agreed. I felt even more comfortable when I heard it was going to be shot at my mom’s house in Turks and Caicos, and that I would have creative control.
I learned to love my body as I was doing that shoot; it was an empowering experience. But it was definitely a spontaneous decision. I surprised myself by jumping out of my comfort zone—something I rarely do.
What’s up next for you?
I’m in the process of putting a new show together for the Café Carlyle. Having that kind of artistic home away from home in terms of a performance venue in New York is wonderful. I’m also writing, and I plan to release another single soon. And you never know—I just might pop up on stage with my dad at Madison Square Garden. A lot
of people don’t realize we’ve sang together in the past, just in more private venues. But we’ve been talking about doing something sooner rather than later. It’ll be a great memory to have.