Interview: ‘Begin Again’s songwriter Gregg Alexander poises the question ‘Can A Song Save Your Life?”

Former New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander, famous for the recognizable anthem “You Get What You Give,” co-wrote the songs for John Carney’s Begin Again. His song “Lost Stars,” which has two memorable renditions in the film, is competing for the Best Original Song Oscar. Although it missed out on a Globe nomination Thursday, it still has a good chance to reappear. I had the delight of talking to Alexander recently, here’s an edited transcript of our conversation

How did you get involved in the project?

The director gave me a call and we ended up rambling on about music and everything for a long time. He was aware of some of the stuff that I done in the past and was wondering what I’ve been up to. It turned out we have a lot of the same influences so it seemed like a natural progression to start working together.

Before the film was retitled Begin Again it was called Can A Song Save Your Life? That question is quite an ambitious challenge for Carney to set upon you. Did that factor into every line you wrote?

I would say it definitely put a little bit of heaviness because it’d be like writing a song called ‘The Last Song Ever Written.’ It would have to be halfway decent. We just have to keep rolling the dice and going back to the drawing board if we didn’t get it right. You never know what’s gonna connect with people. When we sent the song over to John and he responded positively we were very excited. It was almost like presenting a song to your teacher.

As all the songs were co-written, what is your collaboration process?

I like working with people that have a stream of consciousness approach to music and no rules. And Danielle Brisebois [of The New Radicals], we’ve written a lot of songs together and what we try to do is go anywhere and everywhere. Usually the stupidest idea wins. The one that’s the most ridiculous sometimes ends up being the best one because if you take a chance melodically or lyrically that you haven’t heard before then there’s a natural progression. There’s this kind of dreamscape place that you go to when you’re not thinking lyrically and that’s when I tend to sometimes do my best lyrics.

So it’s like a communal relationship where it’s democratic as far what ideas get through?

I wouldn’t go that far, haha. That would be letting go of the control freak part of myself. I’m half-kidding. What I mean by the best idea winning is not necessarily democracy because sometimes you’ll fight like an animal for a lyric you really believe in. I originally wanted to call the song “Lost Cars” and thank god Danielle was there because she fought me to the nail and we ended up coming up with “Lost Stars.”

Which song was the most challenging to write and which one was the easiest?

I would say probably the easiest one is the stupidest one. “Horny.” The scary thing is that was written with my mother in the next room, so I was trying to get her to go sleep. I didn’t want to sing such absurd lyrics in front of my mom. But I knew that Cee-Lo was going to be singing it so I wanted to make it just as really over the top and crazy as possible. The hardest one because it just took a lot out of all of us, was “Lost Stars.” That it was the one that was the most effortless but the most difficult, to be contradictory.

Effortless in the sense that you had so many options?

I would say effortless in the sense that your best songs tend to write themselves, but you have to get out of the way when something good is happening. If you start thinking about it as a statement from you, which I never do thank god, it starts watering down the sentiment. Whereas if you try to express it a place of, ‘well we’re just passing through this life, we may not even be here in 40 years, let alone 40 minutes, if a car ran us over.’ So if I were to be out of the process and out of the equation, what would this song have to say to the universe as it were?

Do the songs come from a personal place or did you get yourself under a fictional skin to write them?

That’s a difficult question to answer, because in a weird way you have this personal perspective that you bring to everything, even if you’re just eating a popsicle or something ridiculous. I had read the script quite a bit so it had permeated me what the film was trying to articulate about modern pop culture, celebrity culture and the disease that is kind of morphed into – where everybody’s a star and nobody wants to be part of the support team.

Everybody wants to be the exclusive star of their own selfies and home movies. I don’t necessarily mean literally, but that seems to be the message that society is saying to each other. I think there’s even a song called “Everything Is Awesome” from an animated movie. I think that’s kind of where a lot of western society is going, towards this idea of instant gratification and exceptionalism.

Ah, that’s from The Lego Movie. Have you seen it yet?

No I haven’t!

That song is kind of satire, pointing out the stupidity of it all.

Oh, okay! Is it good?

It’s entertaining enough — Did you have any influence on the story? Any personal experiences that you implemented?

As the songs were going to John, he was working on rewrites. So I would see that the songs probably had an influence, moreso than me giving a character analysis and stuff. But John’s a brilliant writer. He has his antenna up a lot so he’s open to outside stimuli if something resonates. Whether there be a lyric or whether it be somebody spilling a cup of tea at the table next to him. Sometimes it’ll spark an idea.

Did you look to any films or musicians for inspiration?

I bought John a couple of copies of Purple Rain. It was a film that meant a lot to me. There were a lot of the great music films that I revisited – Singin In The Rain or The Sound of Music. I kinda wanted to re-familiarize myself with the highs and the lows of what a music based film can do. Also what clichés to avoid and things that are worth revisiting because you want to find the balance in a new approach to something. You hope to at least.

What input did the actors have?

Oh! The actors were very supportive of just the whole energy and what everybody was trying say in their various mediums. There was this kind of cross-pollination where they would come to the studio and I went to the set a couple of times. They were generous in spirit to allow us to have creative autonomy with the music.

Did any of the songs come out better than you expected when you saw the film in context?

Yeah! I’m very fond of “No-One Else Like You” which is the one that Adam sings in the studio. [Gregg proceeds to sing me the lyrics]. Remember that one? That was one that I wish would’ve been in even more but I guess if they put the songs in too long the film would’ve been 3 hours instead of 90 minutes.

What do you hope are the consequences to Begin Again, either regarding the music business or fans who are aspiring musicians?

I hope that it’s a reminder to young artists that just because the business has spiraled into being exclusively about money and branding and less about finding real artists, that there still is a way get your music heard. I think artists have to be willing to just try to change up the formula and come up with a record that just sounds very different. I mean like Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” was an interesting record, MGMT’s “Time To Pretend” too.

Would you write original songs for another film or do you feel it was a uniquely cathartic and therapeutic experience?

Oh gosh! If it was a great director and a great writer absolutely! The question is how often films like this are greenlit, what is the economic model for a modern musical. I’d like to think that there’s an opportunity for a unique convergence of good filmmaking and good music to address society. Since music doesn’t have the opportunity to challenge the system as much as it used to for all the reasons we discussed, I think it makes it all the more imperative and urgent for the film community to use music and compelling characters to fight the injustices that are still so prevalent in a world. I think that’s Hollywood’s greatest purpose is that it could start stepping up and becoming more of an agent for change. It’s done a good job in the past. I hope that if I can write music that can help support that sort of agenda, I’d get a kick out of that.

So do you feel you’ve answered the question of Can A Song Save Your Life?

Very funny, that’s funny! I certainly think it can.

How does it feel to be a frontrunner for all these major film awards?

Holy moly! Gosh, well fingers crossed. I’m one of those folks that never takes for granted any of these things people say is gonna happen so even if the tea leaves are looking good. I am still thoroughly in grateful mode that there seems to be an organic energy and support for the song. Danielle and I are just beyond humbled, genuinely. If it’s meant to be it falls into place but we’re very grateful at the very least. And if it does happen it’ll be an opportunity for people to see John’s wonderful film. It’s a great film and hopefully more people will want to hear the music because we put a lot of love into it.