“I don’t feel sorry for being who I am,” proclaims sharp-tongued singer, guitarist and songwriter, Alexx Calise. Delivering a sound fresh and uniquely her own, Calise combines crunchy rock riffs with probing lyrics and hooky pop melodies. Told throughout most of her career to not play guitar as much or at all, and to pursue a more proven musical direction, Calise chose to focus more so on her instrument, practicing 5-6 hours a day, and follow the only direction she knew how to—her own. Countless film and TV placements and millions of Youtube hits later, Calise proved her torchy vocals, impressive guitar chops and heart-and-soul lyrics are enough to make an incredible international impact, even as a completely independent artist.
Calise’s hit song “Cry,” which became a web phenomenon almost overnight (spawning hundreds of covers, tributes and dance routines) after it appeared on the Lifetime show “Dance Moms,” has sold hundreds of thousands of downloads independently, and charted at #64 on the iTunes rock chart. Its official video features Sia’s muse, Maddie Ziegler, who danced to the song in several episodes of the show. Calise also performed “Cry” on an episode of “Dance Moms” along with Nia Sioux and Kendall Vertes, and she performed on an episode of “Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition” with Maddie Ziegler.
Ever-growing and ever-changing, the effervescent Calise continues to make waves one small step at a time, currently penning songs for her band with Dennis Morehouse, Batfarm, and her other music project with Rob Johnson, Sensitive Robot. She is also a freelance writer for a variety of publications including Music Connection and Guitar Girl, and an accomplished model, actress and small business owner. Calise’s music has appeared on a multitude of shows such as “Dance Moms” (Lifetime), “Dance Moms: Miami” (Lifetime), “Last Call With Carson Daly” (NBC), “The Voice” (NBC), Audrina” (Vh1), “Tough Love” (Vh1), “NY Ink” (TLC), “Next” (MTV), “10 on Top” (MTV), “One Tree Hill” (CW), “Texas Women” (CMT) and in the feature film, “LA, I Hate You” starring Malcolm McDowell and William Forsythe.
Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Alexx Calise to discuss her life in music, her creative process, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on her work and breathing life into her passion project, Batfarm!
We are living in the strangest of times. How has the pandemic impacted you?
The pandemic has affected me in a variety of ways. As a musician, I’m unable to play live shows on a traditional stage, which I miss more than anything. We’re able to do the livestream thing, but it’s just not the same. You run into tech issues, it’s hard to monetize, and it’s hard to get it looking and sounding good. I’ve also taken a huge hit financially, because we can’t tour, and our industry has pretty much closed down completely. However, Dennis [Morehouse] and I have definitely been more creative during this time, and we’re trying to write and plan ahead as much as possible. It hasn’t been all bad.
What is your biggest takeaway from the experience? What do you hope is born out of this period?
I’ve actually seen some great new innovations and ideas that are the direct result of the pandemic. There are a lot of cool new streaming platforms for musicians, there’s been a creative renaissance of sorts all over the internet (people have had ample free time to craft new material, pursue hobbies, and learn how to do new things), and more people are telecommuting and working remotely. I’m hoping that this situation will influence more employers to allow their employees to work a bit more from home in the future, and that streaming technology will improve enough so that musicians, for example, can virtually tour in addition to traditional touring. There are still a lot of kinks to work out in terms of audio and video quality, but eventually someone will get it right, and they will end up changing the face of the music industry. While this time has been very hard on us financially as a band, it’s given us some time to reflect, refocus and rebrand. We’re going to be shifting our attention more to Youtube, as that platform isn’t going anywhere, and it’s a platform that you can actually monetize and reach more people with.
Everyone has been discovering new music or rediscovering old music over the last few months of lockdown. What has captivated you recently?
We’ve actually opened up some old sessions of ours recently, and we’re working on some unfinished tunes. Not sure if that counts or not as rediscovering music! [laughs] As far as searching out new music or listening back to old favorites, we honestly haven’t had much time to listen to much music aside from ours! [laughs]
Going back to your early years — When did you decide to pursue music in a professional sense?
I knew pretty early on that music was what I wanted to do. I got really, really serious when I was about 18 though; when I was in my first band. It was then that I discovered just how much I loved and needed the stage. I was a sponge, and I learned as much as I possibly could about the industry while I was with that project. I even went to college for music-business for a spell. It’s been the only thing that’s ever made any sense to me. I don’t really like doing much else.
What went into finding your creative voice as a young woman?
I was definitely inspired by a lot of different artists, but I’ve always kind of done things my own way. Even in times of uncertainty in my life, I’ve always known who I am creatively, and I’ve had confidence in that arena. I found my voice just by doing, by hammering away, and by experiencing life. With each album, I grow a little more, my voice is a little different, and my point of view shifts a bit.
The last interview we did was nearly five years ago (Check out the interview here!). What changed the most in that period of time?
Oh man. I can’t believe that; that’s just crazy! The most important changes were eliminating certain things in my life that were holding me back personally and professionally. After the death of my brother, I kind of spun out for a few years, because I didn’t know how to process something as heavy as that. Everything happened the way it needed to happen, but it wasn’t pretty. I won’t go into gory details about anything, but I’ll just say I’m in a much more positive place now.
You have a great presence online that offers a window into your world. You’re a positive force and have great energy. Have you always been comfortable in your own skin?
Well, thanks! And no, I haven’t I’m afraid. I’d say that it took me until about 27 or 28 to start feeling more comfortable with myself. The older I get, the less I care about what people think, and the more I like myself. It’s taken a lot of work to get to this point; lots of self-reflection and lots of mistakes.
What would people be most surprised to learn about you?
I’m quite different in person than I am on stage. I’m a bit understated and relatively chill if you were to talk to me in person, but, on stage, I’m a maniac. I definitely have a certain duality about me as a person and performer. Also, I do a variety of things aside from just music. I’ve been in the event production business for over 11 years, I do social media management, PR and writing, and video production. Music is my main love, but I also have other passions and curiosities outside of that. It makes life more interesting for me.
In following your story, I am inspired by your hustle. What keeps you driven?
It’s definitely a bit innate, which I’ll attribute to genetics (a lot of people in my family are creatives and professionals), but more than anything, I just want to live the best life that I can. I can always be better as a human being and as a musician. I never want to stop learning and discovering new things. I don’t like to sit still. We don’t have a lot of time on this Earth, so I want to build and be a part of as many things as possible.
You have an incredible work ethic. How did that end up in your creative DNA?
Thank you! I totally credit my work ethic to my amazing parents. They’re both extremely hard working and driven people. From the time I was 12 years old, I’ve had a job. They taught me that if I wanted things in life, that I needed to work hard to get them. I’m so grateful for those lessons, because I grew up to be a very independent and self-sufficient human being. I’m not beholden to anyone.
One of your most recent endeavors is Batfarm. For those who might not be familiar, what’s the best way to describe it?
We call it darkedelic. It combines my love of rock, grunge and blues with Dennis’s affinity for psychedelic, industrial and funk music. A lot of people have compared us to Alanis Morrisette (probably in terms of vocals), A Perfect Circle, Portishead, Massive Attack, The Cure, and Nine Inch Nails. Our influences are all over the board, so it’s a bit hard to fit it into a neat little box, which I’m very OK with.
How did the project initially come about?
Dennis approached me years ago to help him write a song for a horror film. After working on that tune together, we found that we really had a cool thing, and we gelled unbelievably well musically speaking. We decided to keep writing songs for licensing, and those songs eventually became Batfarm songs.
What went into finding the sound and direction?
It was completely accidental. Since we didn’t necessarily have a plan to start a band, it just morphed into what it is now naturally. Dennis has a tendency to produce super dark and ominous music (haha), and I write dark lyrics, so it was a perfect marriage.
How has the project evolved over time?
The production has definitely gotten better, and we’ve both improved a lot as musicians. We’ve been playing together for over 11 years, so it can only get better with time so long as you’re always plugging away. Musically speaking, we’ve gone back to our roots a little bit more recently, and we’re employing the big choral harmonies and more ominous soundscapes to our new material.
This is a passion project for you. What about Batfarm keeps you intrigued?
I feel like I really can do anything in Batfarm, without repercussions or expectations. My solo project definitely has a certain audience, and that audience doesn’t always get Batfarm. While I guess I can do whatever I want in my own solo project as I’m not beholden to a label, I feel like Batfarm is a little more experimental and free.
How did you and your drummer/songwriting partner, Dennis Morehouse, cross paths?
We met through a mutual friend, actually, and we were originally linked in a romantic sense. While we’re no longer together, we definitely still have an undeniable musical chemistry.
What do you bring out in each other creatively?
Dennis has always forced me to dig deep. I don’t always feel like doing something, and I’m not always in love with the overall creative journey or process. He always tells me to look at things in a different way, and that sometimes the process is going to hurt or suck, or that it won’t always be entirely fun. However, the end results we’re always so proud of, and at the end of the day, I’m glad we did it and that he pushed me to push myself. I think I force him to focus and be a bit more business minded. We work so well as a team and as a united front. We always say that we suck without each other, haha.
Tell us about the songwriting process for the band. How does it compare and contrast to what you’ve done in the past?
It’s very strange, but we usually write together, separately. Either I’ll give Dennis lyrics, melodies and basic chords to start working with, or he’ll give me some music to write lyrics and melodies to. Then, we’ll start working independently, and come together when we have enough fleshed out on our own. That’s the beauty of technology and home studios. In the past, with my solo project, I’ve written most of the music and lyrics and then I’ll go to a producer, or I’ll collaborate similarly to how I do with Dennis with another artist or producer, and come together when we’ve finished our respective parts.
Where do you stand in regard to a full album release?
Our plan is to release a five-song EP twice a year, and then release those songs as a 10-song album at the end of the year. These days, it’s difficult financially to do a 10-song album all at once, so that’s really the most feasible and economical way to put out material now.
You performed live with Batfarm in the past. What have those experiences been like?
It’s been a gas, truly. I get to play music with my best friend, which is the greatest thing in the world. Most people aren’t fortunate enough to have creative partnerships like that, so I’m incredibly grateful for what I have. Before COVID, we were planning to tour our last EP, but those plans have obviously been put on an indefinite hold. Right now, we’re mainly just writing and recording so we can be ready as things start to open up.
You are on the frontlines as a musician and also work in public relations. What is the best way to support artists in this day and age?
I’d say the best way to support artists now during the pandemic is by buying their merch and supporting them when they livestream. Some musicians are putting up Paypal or Venmo links while they play, so if you like what they’re doing and want to help them out, send them a few bucks. It doesn’t have to be much. Those are really the only ways we’re supporting ourselves now. Post-COVID, go out to see a show. There’s something about experiencing a concert live in person. You can’t capture that energy from a virtual performance.
Where do you look for inspiration these days?
Well, there’s definitely a lot going on now politically, economically and socially, so I’ve definitely been inspired by those things. Like many others, I’ve had a lot going on internally that I’d like to get out in the form of music and writing.
Do you have a system or process for logging ideas? Voice notes, journals, napkins, etc?
Great question! I’d say all of the above. Voice memos I love most of all though, because I can hum melodies or play guitar parts into my phone very quickly. I also have hundreds of random pieces of paper with lyrics on them in various drawers in my house, and so many journals from over the years that I reference from time to time.
As I said before, I know you have a lot of irons in the fire. Was it difficult to find and maintain a balance? Any pro-tips for those fearless enough to juggle multiple things?
Balance I’ve definitely struggled with throughout my life. My career has often taken over, which isn’t always healthy. You need to have other things in your life, otherwise your work and creativity will suffer too. I’ve had to learn to compartmentalize and prioritize, which hasn’t been easy. Because I do so many things, it’s absolutely necessary for me to have a virtual calendar, otherwise I’d be lost. I also have a huge whiteboard on an easel in my house. I write down my list of things to do or goals for the week (in order of importance) so that they’re staring me in the face. That way I make 100% sure I’m completing tasks.
Where are you focused short and long term?
For the short term, we’re going to try and film a new music video since we can’t play as much during the pandemic. We’ll also be writing toward our new EP, and doing a lot more video content than we have in the past. For the long term, we’re really going to concentrate on growing our Youtube page even more and building up the Batfarm brand. That’s really where you’ll get the biggest audience and have a chance to actually make some money.
You faced challenges and learned things from this project. What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?
The best lesson is to do what you love, preferably with the people you love. Sure, Dennis and I have our own sets of challenges, but we’re family, and we will forever be united by music. If you’re not doing what you love, and you’re not surrounding yourself with people who build you up and support you, then really, what’s the point?
Follow the continuing adventures of Alexx Calise on social media via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Check out the official site for Batfarm at www.batfarmband.com.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.