Alex Bird, if you haven't heard his name, you soon will. The Toronto based jazz singer just released his debut album, “Whisky Kisses.” Alex brings a modern twist to the classic crooners of days gone by. You can imagine yourself putting on the record, lighting a fire, and pouring yourself a drink. His intimate lyrics and smooth vocals immediately pulls you in. It's an album you're certain to play again and again.
The record features 11 new original songs, including the title track which was awarded Best Jazz Song at the World Songwriting Awards and “The Way She Moves” which was featured on All About Jazz as track of the day. It was also awarded the #1 spot in reader favorites on Jazziz Magazine’s “Inside Track."
We were lucky to have Alex sit down and answer some of our burning questions about the album and his inspirations.
BB: Alex, you were adopted from Romania and grew up going to the jazz clubs in downtown Toronto. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into jazz?
AB: Absolutely. I got incredibly lucky as a kid. I was adopted from Romania and came to Canada at six weeks old. It was really a second chance at life. So many of the kids at my orphanage never got that chance. The luck continued...my dad was a massive jazz fan and started taking me to jazz clubs in downtown Toronto starting at the age of two. I grew up going to these smoky jazz bars at eleven o’ clock at night, when I should have been getting in bed. I saw the likes of Oscar Peterson, Freddy Cole, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Ray Brown, Diana Krall, Cleo Laine, Clark Terry, John Pizzarelli, Ray Charles...and the list goes on and on. It was my musical training without me knowing it. When I started singing around high school, it all started taking shape. All those years spent at the jazz clubs, combined with my discovery at the time of the music of Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Peggy Lee, and many others, sent me on my way.
BB: You wrote all the songs on the new album, is writing something that comes easily to you? What went behind picking each song for the album and do you have a favorite?
AB: I only recently discovered I was a songwriter. I’ve always called myself a jazz singer but for the longest time I was living at home, uploading YouTube videos to backtracks but never really performed with a band before, except singing at some open mics and such. I wasn’t doing anything about it. About three years ago I met my darling partner, Lola, and then my band. They were all the catalysts for my newfound momentum. One of my band members, Ewen Farncombe, is truly one of the best piano players around, and we do a lot of songwriting together. When I have a song in my head, I map it out; melody/lyrics, certain things for the band to do, and then I take it to Ewen. He starts playing it like he’s played it a million times before, he helps shape it and makes it what it was meant to be.
The 11 songs on the album were written specifically for the record and I wrote the songs with many different musical influences in them. Always tough to pick a favorite, but it would probably be the title track, “Whisky Kisses”. It is a very personal and special song to me. And the guys sound beautiful on it.
BB: “The Way She Moves,” released as a debut single in November of 2019, garnered lots of recognition. Was this the first song you wrote for the album? How did the song come about?
AB: The first song I wrote for the album was actually “Baby I’ll Have You”, which is a fun little swinger I wrote with Ewen Farncombe. “The Way She Moves” didn’t come too long after that though. I wrote that one with another great songwriter, Mr. Charlie Angus. The feel of that song was inspired by Tom Jones. Sir Tom is one of my all-time favorite singers. I was watching a clip of his old tv show, where he was singing with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and it started the song writing spark. Lyrically, the song draws on many influences as well, with some of my musical inspirations peppered throughout. Taking the song to the next level was achieved by Ewen playing B3 on the track. I wanted the song to have a timeless but new sound to it.
"Whisky Kisses is a term that my darling Lola and I have used before. I thought it was always a wonderfully sweet phrase, and when writing the album, I knew I wanted a song for whisky kisses."
BB: The title track was released in May of 2020 and was awarded Best Jazz Song at the World Songwriting Awards. What was the inspiration behind “Whisky Kisses?”
AB: I feel very grateful for that award, and all the recognition we are receiving on this independent debut album. “Whisky Kisses” is a term that my darling Lola and I have used before. I thought it was always a wonderfully sweet phrase, and when writing the album, I knew I wanted a song for whisky kisses. It’s dedicated to Lola, and lovers of all kinds, all over the world, especially now. Musically I was very inspired by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night”, and Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”. I loved the sentiment and feel of those songs and wanted to pay homage to that through our music.
BB: You work with a group of musicians called, “The Jazz Mavericks.” Can you tell us more about them and how you connected?
AB: I am so lucky to be able to play with these musicians. They have not only become great musical friends, but also personal friends. Ewen Farncombe on piano, Eric West on drums, and Scott Hunter on bass. Three rising young jazz stars in their own right. I first met Ewen and Scott back in 2018 when I was booked as one of the singers for a Vintage Prom in Toronto. I had never really performed with a band before and playing with them that night set everything into motion. I met Eric later that year on a gig, and we really connected. When I decided to do the album, I knew it had to be with those three guys.
Fun fact: The band name comes from my love of the British comedy show, “The Mighty Boosh”, by Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding. There’s a character named Howard Moon, who calls himself a “Jazz Maverick”. I always loved that phrase. When thinking of a band name I wanted to draw on the old- style band names, where you had the singer backed by another named group, like Buddy Holly and the Crickets etc. Alex Bird and the Jazz Mavericks stuck.
"Most of what you hear on the album is live off the floor. I wanted to feel as much as I could, that we were all playing together and off each other."
BB: What was the recording process like and was there any struggles you had to overcome?
AB: The recording process was incredibly rewarding, but hard work. Time was the struggle to overcome. We only had three days in the studio, an incredibly small budget and a lot of music to get through. I’m so happy with the “sound” of the album though, I am obsessed with how things can sound, how an artist achieves their sound in the studio. I can’t stress how lucky I am to have gotten to work with Jeremy Darby, who engineered and mixed the album for us at his Canterbury Music Company. Jeremy is a master and he has worked with so many musical greats. I knew he would help make this special. Most of what you hear on the album is live off the floor. I wanted to feel as much as I could, that we were all playing together and off each other. I requested that I be placed in the centre of the room, instead of a booth. The piano was behind a partition, bass in a booth, drums in a booth, but we
could all see each other. And that contributed immensely to what we were able to record.
BB: We love songs like “3:52 (In the Morning).” Your style is reminiscent of old school crooners with a modern twist. How are you trying to modernize and add to the Great American Songbook?
AB: Thank you very much, that’s another special song. My mission statement is that we are trying to open up a new chapter of The Great American Songbook...it sounds crazy, but that’s the goal. I thought the best way to start was by saying thank you to all that’s come before me, by sharing something new. The great artists of the past, while they always performed the standards, were also always looking for new material, new songwriters. I’ve tried to stay true to the heart of that music, but also infuse it with my many musical influences. It wouldn’t have been enough for me to come out with a debut of just covers, I wanted to try to take this beautiful tradition to some new places. If you listen to my music and it makes you want to go back and rediscover the artists and songwriters of the past, then I’ve done my job.
BB: Do you feel jazz can become mainstream again? What advice would you give to inspiring artist?
AB: I think the mere fact that jazz is still a wonderful and evolving tradition means its sort of transcended beyond the mainstream. It will always be around. There will always be people listening to and discovering it, and also playing it. There are also a lot of modern musicians who are inspired by jazz and the artists who created it. It’s kind of difficult to give advice to people starting out when I am very much doing the same. But I’ll share the words that keep me going. Don’t give up. Good things come to those who hustle.
BB: With COVID pausing much of the entertainment industry how are you going about promoting your music? Do you have any live streams planned?
AB: If I didn’t have the debut album to release now, I would have probably been in a very darker place creatively. So many of my fellow musicians, and friends are struggling, but people are still finding new ways to promote and create. We’re all learning about this new age together. I’ve been trying my best to spend every day sending the album out to press and radio, following up with publications and mailing out CD’s. I don’t have a job now, but I’m staying busy. As for live streams, a few have already taken place. There’s a great jazz club in Toronto called The Emmet Ray, they had me do a livestream from home this past Summer, and it looks like I’ll be doing another one for Christmas.
Looking ahead, next year will still be very tricky for live gigs, so that is why the second album is in motion. We’ve written a lot since the last album, we already have more than enough songs for a follow-up. Recording is thankfully still possible, so I want to head back into the studio in 2021 and release the second album in 2021-2022. A year or so after our first. I’m eager to share with people the new music we’re working on.
BB: We always end by asking what is your favorite jazz album of all time?
AB: Such a tough question! My choices are always changing. I’ll split this into two answers, as there are so many top-notch jazz albums, in many different categories of jazz. Vocal Jazz Album, "The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album" and Instrumental Jazz Album, "Erroll Garner Concert by the Sea."
Alex Bird's debut album, "Whisky Kisses," is out now and is not to be missed. He blends the new and old seamlessly, making us look forward but at the same time take a look back at all who came before.
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