With his brand new album release and an exclusive live "Homecoming" concert right here on the island, we sat down with Joey Alexander to talk all things jazz and the beauty of Bali.
Words by Rebecca Foreman
Critically acclaimed, grammy-nominated, and internationally celebrated are just some of the grand phrases used to describe 17-year-old Joey Alexander. He is, after all, a globally recognised jazz pianist having recorded his album My Favourite Things (Motema) at the tender age of 11, which earned him the first of his three Grammy Nominations. Not bad, not bad at all!
A lot has happened to Joey throughout the years. He was ‘discovered’ on Youtube by jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, who invited him to come and play in New York. That’s how the Joey Alexander rollercoaster ride began. Since then, there’s been five album releases (most recently “Warna”), global travel and performances at live festivals and concerts, countless interviews and television performances including TED Talks and an appearance on 60 Minutes. And let’s not forget the busy job of growing up.
Talking to Joey, it’s easy to see how he has become the toast of the jazz world. His razor focussed demeanour is measured beyond his years, and as someone who has swapped Bali life for the concrete jungle of New York to pursue his musical dreams, he is quite simply, inspirational.
How did your love affair with music begin?
I grew up around it. I had a Dad who loved and played music, not professionally, but he had a passion for music. So I watched him play gospel and could see how fun it was. When I started doing it, I knew it took commitment and conviction. I never thought music would become my life, until I started seeing musicians play in Bali. My parents would take me to live shows and I was just blown away seeing how musicians were interacting. Sometimes it looked like random jazz players knew each other when playing for the first time. I was so amazed by it. And that’s jazz. You can put together a group of different people from all over the world and they play as a language. You get to improvise in the moment. It’s a special language.
What have you been doing during the pandemic?
It’s been hard for all musicians around the world. We are not able to do what we love which is to get out there and perform and share the music. Especially me, I’m growing as a composer, and I really want to share my original work. Last month, we were in Jakarta and I was approached by a tour promoter who gave me an idea to perform in my birthplace for the very first time, in a long time. I was surprised and also thankful for the support and people that still want to come and see me play live music. So I decided to put together a band, friends, who used to play together back in Bali and who I wanted to play with. It all came to be through the magical Hotel TUGU Bali. When an opportunity comes knocking at your door, you have to be ready and always take it as a lifeline, because sometimes, opportunity only comes once.
You’ve outgrown the label of the child prodigy, but how did your commitment to music begin?
I wasn’t very serious about music at all at first. I was just playing music at home. But I always looked at it as something I enjoyed. Music is to be enjoyed! I don’t think parents should force their kids to pursue things they don’t want to do and my mum and dad never forced me to do things I didn’t want to do. But they saw that I had this interest in music. I don’t consider myself a master – I always find ways to improve and I think being on stage has always been a place that I can go and be with other musicians. That’s why my parents decided on homeschooling me, so I could spend my time between school and still focus on and channel my efforts in music.
How much does Bali inspire your music?
Bali has always held a special place for me. There’s no other place like Bali and I’m always inspired by many things here, like the people. From the time I wake up, I hear the waves, the birds chirping, and people are very warm and kind here. This really shows the beautiful side of Bali. When I composed a song Bali, I wanted to put the feel of Bali in it. It’s always an adventure in Bali and that’s jazz too, because you never know where you’re headed. You just enjoy the moment which is kind of what my music is, and I hope people enjoy my music at the moment.
How have you managed to stay grounded throughout your successful career?
I’m really thankful to have a really supportive environment. I think you need that as your career progresses. I’m thankful to have supportive parents – my mum (Fara) and my Dad. They both really see it through with me, alongside me. My parents had a tourism business in Bali, which made it a hard decision for me when I first moved to Jakarta. We didn’t know (at first) what to do in Jakarta because I had no gigs or performances lined up – so during that time, I learned that whenever there’s a chance, I show what I’ve got! Always show what you have, and do something good for people! I always tell myself that even with all these accolades or praise, I just focus on myself and how I can bring education to people. Despite criticism that I started my career too early, I just try to move forward and enjoy the moment I have with these musicians. It’s not easy, but the positive side is that I’m always supported by positive people, like my parents, my manager, and the many people that enjoy my music.
Where do you go to enjoy Bali when you visit?
I spend time with old friends when I’m in Bali, and I actually get to go to the beach! It is so gorgeous here and I never get to go to the beach living in a big city like New York. So I guess I do things that I haven’t done in a long time. It’s sad to see things have closed in Bali due to the pandemic, and how it’s affecting people here and things are hard. I just hope the situation will be better for us to enjoy and meet friends and other musicians to play, but I think it will take some time to recover.
Life in New York versus Bali. Discuss!
In New York, you always meet cool and artistic creative people. It is a melting pot for artists who want to be there and especially for the music that I play. It’s the epicentre of it. So it’s a great place for me to meet new people and musicians with who I’ve become friends. So there’s no place like New York, just like there’s no place like Bali, where you also have uniquely creative artists too. I love these two very different worlds! The pressure is always on in New York though, and that’s something that I’m very aware of.
Tell us about the world, according to Joey.
I always think, what can I do today to bring people to a better place with my music? The key essence of my music is that it’s a place where people can forget everything – their problems and troubles. Even though my music has no words, I would say my music has a soul. It has the ability to create melodies that can inspire and hope. I always let my audience be the storytellers. Every day is a gift. So always make time to enjoy it!
Joey Alexander’s latest album is titled Warna. He performed live in a trio format at Hotel TUGU Bali. This 75-minute set titled ‘Homecoming’ took place under the magical eye of a 130-year-old Garuda statue.