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British pop sensation Alex Clare balances stardom and Orthodoxy

by Chavie Lieber, JTA

October 31, 2012 | 11:37 am

Emerging British pop star Alex Clare is working to balance his Orthodox religious commitments with the demands of global celebrity. Photo by Jon Baker

Emerging British pop star Alex Clare is working to balance his Orthodox religious commitments with the demands of global celebrity. Photo by Jon Baker

Alex Clare is really just a nice Jewish boy.

Sure, his hit “Too Close” is currently the seventh most popular song in the United States, his music video has garnered more than 18 million hits on YouTube and he has mobs of teenage girls chasing him around Europe. But at the end of the day, he still likes to sit down with a nice challenging page of Talmud.

“I have to say, it's pretty easy being in this business and keeping the basics of Jewish law,” Clare told JTA in a phone interview before a gig in Manchester, England, last week. “I travel with a full set of milk and meat pots and dishes, in addition to having a full suitcase of tins and dry kosher goods. And Shabbos and holidays aren't an issue because I almost always go back to London or Israel or find a Chabad house to stay at.”

Clare’s career got a huge boost this past summer when Microsoft chose "Too Close" for the commercial for the latest version of Internet Explorer. The 27-year-old resident of the heavily Jewish London neighborhood of Golders Green had been dropped from his record label five months before the software company reached out to him. His 2011 album “The Lateness of the Hour,” on which "Too Close" first appeared, was considered a flop.

But Clare is embracing the commercial’s success and riding the publicity to fuel a European tour. He will be performing in the United States in late November.

“It was definitely a good feeling to get that call that they wanted my music,” Clare said. “It's tough not to want to give up.”

Clare began his career performing at bars and clubs in London. For a time he dated Amy Winehouse, the troubled pop star and fellow British Jew who died of alcohol poisoning last year. After Clare was picked up by Island Records in 2010, Winehouse reportedly told friends she was worried Clare would reveal details about their relationship in his songs.

Clare declined to discuss his relationship with Winehouse.

Asked about the subject matter of his songs, he replied that they are about "deep" themes and that he's currently working on balancing a life of stardom and religious identity. 

Watching Clare's videos and hearing his raspy voice, one wouldn’t immediately assume he is a devoted member of the tribe, but he has been an Orthodox Jew for about five years. Raised in a secular home, Clare hooked up with Chabad after studying in Jerusalem.

While on tour, Clare relies on daily spiritual guidance to help maintain his religious practice in a music world that provides no end of temptation. He studies the Tanya, a work of Chasidic philosophy by the founder of the Chabad movement, and the Talmud tractate Brachot. He also finds time to work on a new album, expected next year, which he says will incorporate subtle spiritual messages.

“One new song I’m writing is sort of based off of Shir HaShirim [Song of Songs], but you would never have known unless I told you,” he said. “But my goal isn’t to have an agenda through my music. Just to be living the way I am is a message in itself.” 

Clare is part of a growing corps of Jewish artists whose religious commitments that preclude performing on Friday nights, including the Moshav Band, Peter Himmelman and Dov Rosenblatt of The Wellspring. But a more apt comparison may be Matisyahu, the reggae star and onetime Chabad adherent who achieved global success singing about spiritual themes while clad in the black and white garb of a Chasid.

Clare acknowledges that many compare him to Matisyahu but insists that his mission is different, adding he doesn't come with the same "shtick."

"I'm not trying to be a religious symbol for anyone," he said.

Clare said his team helps him keep certain religious laws: For example, his bodyguards help ward off the mobs of screaming teenage girls -- and there are many -- so that nobody touches him, since he adheres to religious laws of modesty which forbid touching women.

“I know clubs and concert halls are not the best place for a nice Jewish boy, but everyone has their life choices and this is mine," he said. "It’d definitely be different if I was a Satmar Chasid. They’d probably disown me.”

Clare says that he did lose a record deal opportunity because he refused to play on Sukkot and tour over the holidays. But he says these are small prices to pay, and even with sacrifices made, a little faith can go a long way.

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