Singer-songwriter Alexa Ray Joel, the daughter of Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Billy Joel and supermodel Christie Brinkley, just released a new single, “Seven Years,” inspired by her love story with her fiancé, Ryan Gleason. It’s her first original single since 2011’s “Beg You to Stay,” and there was a time when she felt she needed to step away from the spotlight after being viciously trolled by gossip reporters (like Perez Hilton at his meanness peak).
“I know I'm going to be compared to my mother's beauty and my father's talent, and it takes a lot of internal work — or at least it did for me — to get to a place where I could even feel comfortable getting back in the saddle with music and putting myself out there,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume. “I guess you could say bloomed very late in life. I'm 35 now, but I'm kind of in the place that a lot of 25-year-olds would be in the industry. It just took me some time to find my own voice and figure out what I wanted to say, and also to get up the courage. When you put yourself out there as an artist, a lot of people don't like to talk about this, but it's scary. … But ultimately, I just loved the song so much. As an artist, you have to go on instinct. And I just felt ready and wanted to put it out.”
Below, Joel talks candidly about dealing with brutal criticism and speculation regarding her appearance, unfair beauty standards, the myth of nepotism, struggling to grow up in the public eye, and how she finally found the courage to use her voice.
Yahoo Entertainment: I didn’t realize it had been a decade since you last put out new music. Why the long break?
Alexa Ray Joel: There is some hesitation, I guess because I am very perfectionistic as an artist, being my father's daughter, having a legend like my father. My father sets the bar so high with his music — everything, the craftsmanship of the song, is so brilliant. He understands how to construct a verse into a pre-course into a chorus, into a bridge, and it paints such a memorable story. I just had some hesitation because I do compare my material to my father's, if I'm being honest. I do set the bar very high for myself, growing up and hearing that be the example.
Did you ever think about just pursuing another career? I’ve interviewed other second-generation musicians, like Louise Goffin, Sophie Simmons, Dhani Harrison, and Aimee Osbourne, and they all said at one point their parents sat them down and suggested maybe they just become a doctor or something.
It kind of was inevitable for me to take this path, regardless of the hardships, being under the shadow, possibly being labeled with nepotism and all of those things that come with that that aren't always so pleasant. … I think when you love music that much, it's not even something that you choose. You just know that you have to do it. Some people would say maybe it's even a little masochistic, because especially when I was younger, I was put through the mill of the media and all of that. But when it calls to you, it calls to you, and you just have to just follow your own voice, do what you love, and hope that others love what you do. My father has definitely always been protective. He doesn't want people to have this notion that I'm riding on of his coattails, which I'm certainly not. I wrote the song. I produced it. I arranged it. I came up with the creative direction behind the music video and lyric video. Everything really is coming from me. And I love it. There's nothing more fulfilling than being in the arts and being creative. Sometimes it is a little bit frustrating, because I feel that I have to repeat myself in terms of how involved I am with my own work.
You talk about being put through the mill with the tabloids at a young age. Can you talk about how that affected you?
I was a teenager when that all started happening. Of course there were some pictures printed of me being out and about with my parents. I just felt that it wasn't fair. I wasn't ready to be looked at or viewed in that way. I was still kind of growing into myself and was definitely going through a bit of an awkward phase, as the rest of us go through. It is unfortunate, I think, that in society there’s this expectation for women to just always be perfect at every phase in life. And I just wasn't there yet, and I was made to feel ashamed. I was critiqued for my appearance. This was when I was younger; I definitely have come a long way [with dealing with trolls], but back then it was very hard. I was targeted by the media and Perez Hilton… and I stopped doing shows actually for a year. I just hid in my then-boyfriend's house and I completely shut down. I was like, “I'm never doing music again.” It wasn't until maybe six or seven years later that I started performing again, doing cabaret showcases at the Café Carlyle in New York City. So it was a process, for sure.
What happened with Perez Hilton?
I don't really like to call him out personally, because I feel it just brings more attention. That was just me having a candid moment! [laughs] I tend to just say what's on my mind! I do think [tabloid/blog media] has gotten better. But there's still the dark corners of the internet world. The Daily Mail has some of the most objectifying, unfortunate articles and commentary on women that I've seen. But you're always going to have that. I mean, I hate to say that and it breaks my heart, but there are just bitter frustrated, jealous, and unhappy people who are going to take their issues out on celebrities or people that are in the public eye.
And now we have social media, which can be even crueler.
Well, I will say the upside to social media and running my own account is I can be in control of your own voice. It isn't being skewed by the tabloid media, which is definitely something I struggled with in the past. … But I do try to be a voice for women and speak out against bullying and just this sort of online cruelty that I see, this objectification of women. It’s very disturbing to me and I'm always speaking out on it. Now I feel I really can't complain. I have the kindest people in the world on my pages on social media. But I have worked hard to develop the confidence and find my own voice and be able to articulate what I want to say. I had a really hard time with that earlier in my life. I was deeply insecure. And I think when you're not sure about yourself, it makes you a target for others, like, “Oh, she's easy to pick on! Let's go after her!” You have to really be very strong, and as narcissistic as this might sound, you have to really build yourself up and hype yourself up as an artist to even just to put yourself out there, just to get up on the stage in front of people. … I think with the media and with social media and all of that, it's a study in extremes. I think that there's a lot of extreme anger out there, and cruelty, and there's also a lot of extreme kindness and support and earnest appreciation for artistry and fresh voices. What I can only hope is that more of that positivity wins out. Who was it that said the quote, was it Taylor Swift? She said something like, women that are making moves and doing things and being empowered in their own voices, they should thrill you. They shouldn't trigger you. They shouldn't make you feel like you have to lash out at them.
But people in general are nicer to you now?
When I was younger, it was, “Oh, she's awkward. She's not attractive enough.” And now, yes, people are very kind to me with regard to my appearance. But why is there so much focus on appearance? For women, that's a question that we really need to look at more closely as a society. Especially now because we have the platforms of social media and we’re all looking at pictures and images, it's so image-based. I have absolutely been on both sides of the coin, both extremes with regard to how people perceive me in the public eye. But at the end of the day, you just have to do your own thing and be strong and be proud in who you are. And my mom sets a really great example for that and she couldn't be more supportive.
People have picked apart your looks when comparing you to your mom.
A lot of people would just rather believe an exaggerated narrative. You know, I've had one [surgery] done. I've always been transparent about it. I think that women should be proud of themselves and live their truth. If they haven't had something done, great; if they've had something done, great! I happen to have had one rhinoplasty surgery that was done over a decade ago — and people are still talking about it! They're still saying I had a full body and face transformation. And at this point I'm just like, “OK, I'm going to take it as a backhanded compliment”! [laughs] … I do get very frustrated when people lie and spread these rumors, but at a certain point you've got to let it go, because if people prefer this exaggerated, sensationalized story, then they're gonna say it and there's really nothing that I can do about that. I think it's damned if you do or damned if you don't, so you may as well do what makes you happy. And I think that there's a lot of good men and women out there that get that and support women and their choices to do whatever they want to do.
You know, I am in the entertainment industry. I think as a woman in the entertainment industry, we want to feel good about ourselves. Personally, I don't love the trend of when women get so much redone that they can't move their face. I don't find that to be beautiful. But I do think that whatever makes you feel good, do it! For me, I had my nose done because it made me feel good and I wanted to be the best version of me. And I felt good, and it was the best decision for me. But it wasn't, “Oh, I'm getting this done because I want to look exactly like this other woman who I find to be so beautiful.” We need to be more encouraging of women in their own individual beauty and not have this sort of cloning, the stock idea of “This is what you should look like, let's hold this up on a silver platter and you can imitate this.” No! Imitate yourself, you know?
I think there is a double-edged sword no matter what, and there's still some shaming of women taking place — either they're not attractive enough, or their beauty has been altered or is affected. I do think that that is still a thing. But I don't want to undercut how many great, supportive people are out there. I do see this sort of wave of kindness coming into with people that just appreciate women for who they are and want to give to the world and just there for the art, for the music. Personally, I've been on the receiving end of this overflow of support and encouragement, and it keeps me going. They say you're not supposed to care about reactions, but a big part of sharing your art and sharing your work is hoping that it resonates with others and trying to connect in the human experience, you know?
Tell me more about how you regained your artistic footing at the Café Carlyle.
My parents are the biggest theater nerds. They love Broadway. I was raised on that. … My mom did Chicago on Broadway — a lot of people don't know that — so she's very creative and very theatrical and actually quite musical as well. I grew up with musical theater from as long as I can remember; they were dressing me up as Liesl from The Sound of Music and we did a lot of little plays. … So, it just seemed natural for me to kind of come full-circle and go back to doing cabaret at the Carlyle. I love everything vintage and old-world, and that is the Cafe Carlyle. It's this iconic, old-world institution with all these beautiful vintage murals, and I thought it was inspiring. I was lucky enough to be able to do a showcase there, and it did well. I think I've played there now eight showcases or nine showcases now, and it really is my musical home away from home. I have to thank the Café Carlyle, because they kind of picked me back up on my feet and reminded me that I am an artist at my core and that I shouldn't run away from that.
So now that you’re back, will we be getting more new music from you soon? Hopefully we won’t have to wait another 10 years!
I don't want to give too much away, but yes, I already have the song; I just have to get into the studio. It's the polar opposite of “Seven Years.” It's very sexy and gritty, like the bad girl to my good girl! [laughs] … It's really just all about being honest as I get older, and with my artistry. When I was younger, even doing interviews like this, I used to feel like, “Oh gosh, there's certain things I cannot say, because no matter what they're going to pick me apart.” And now, all I can do is be myself. I think a lot of women finally reach a point where they're just kind of over whatever been thrown at them and they've worked through it, and they recognize the importance of just being honest and being themselves. I’ve tried to do the same in my work. And that's what it's really all about.
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This above interview has been edited for length and clarity and is taken from Alexa Ray Joel's appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.