Alex Clare is standing in Farlow’s, a regal fishing emporium on London’s well-to-do Pall Mall, picking through a selection of lures embellished with brightly dyed feathers and unblinking plastic eyes. It seems an unlikely endeavour for a 25-year-old rising pop star, but fishing and cooking up his catch happen to be two of Clare’s abiding obsessions. Not that there’s been much time for such hobbies recently—he’s spent most of the past 12 months locked in a studio perfecting his debut album.
The youngest of six, Clare’s Detective Inspector mother spent a good deal of time trying to keep him and his brothers out of trouble in South East London. When they weren’t setting fire to the neighbor’s place, Clare and his siblings messed around on piano, guitar and drums, and listening to their dad’s jazz and soul records, Clare began to develop his own expressive vocals. After several years kicking around in various bands, it was only when Clare opted to go it alone that he caught the ear of prolific music-makers Diplo and Switch. In collaboration, the production powerhouse pumped up Clare’s acoustic guitar-accompanied demos with electro-dancehall and skewed bombast. “Switch is probably the greatest engineer I’ve ever met and Diplo’s just very innovative,” he says. “They’ll throw stuff at you and my natural instinct is to resist a lot of it because it’s quite different to how I would work, but it’s very creative.”
The result is The Lateness of the Hour, a fresh, genre-straddling debut full of unlikely sonic collusions—from the brassy, Stevie Wonder-indebted “Hands Are Clever” to the synth-womped, jungle soul of “Treading Water” and “Up All Night,” a hedonistic anthem where Clare’s ragga-tinged vocal rides a distorted riff and a formidable beat. “It’s a reflection on what I used to do,” says Clare. “I used to be a lot wilder! Now I’m such a square.” There is a sense that these days Clare is a different man. A few years ago, after meeting “some nice rabbis,” he became more religiously observant. “I’ve always had a religious outlook even though I’ve definitely lacked ethics and morals,” he says. “It made me aware that you can lead a relatively decent life and not be a complete dick, which is what I was doing until that point.”
On the album, Clare doesn’t flinch when holding a mirror to his own experiences, and when I ask him about his decision in 2007 to speak to the British tabloids about his relationship with troubled songstress Amy Winehouse, he is openly regretful. “It’s like an albatross,” he says looking downcast. “I can’t justify it at all. It definitely wasn’t about any money because I didn’t make any. I kind of wanted to get some revenge, honestly. I wasn’t in a particularly good place… She was in an even worse place. It was a stupid thing to do.” It’s hard to reconcile this grubby act of betrayal with such a polite, engaging guy, but we all know the sting of mistakes made, and Clare’s debut makes certain he’s defined by his future, not his past.