Alex Clare is famous, and he is having trouble taking it in. It has, after all, happened rather suddenly.
“I was sitting in Hendon Park Cafe and I heard this voice saying: ‘Let’s see where Alex Clare’s gone in the chart this week’, which made me jump out of my skin. I thought someone was talking about me. Turns out they were, but the voice was coming out of the radio. I couldn’t believe it. It’s very cool.”
Just months ago, it was a different story. Copies of the 26-year-old singer’s debut album, The Lateness of the Hour, did not shift, and last autumn he was dropped by his record label Universal. Seeing his savings quickly evaporate, he took up work for a friend’s property company, then moved to Israel where he enrolled at yeshivah, thinking he would be there for a while. “Then I had to come home because the music had gone a little bit mad,” he explains.
It is all thanks to Microsoft picking his single Too Close for one of their advertisements. “When they asked to use the song, I thought why not, and then before I knew it, it just went crazy.” Suddenly he had his first top five single in the UK and a global hit — a year after the song was released.
“It’s amazing,” he smiles. “It feels like I’ve finally got the recognition that I wanted for my music. Now I know people have heard it, and they like it.”
The songs that are enjoying newfound popularity straddle rock, pop, R&B and dubstep, while Clare’s voice reflects the soul and jazz tastes he developed from his 78-year-old father’s record collection. “One benefit of having a dad who was born in 1936 is the music that was in the house,” he says. “He was very much into bebop and cool jazz. I just loved it.”
Clare’s sudden fame has allowed him to create more music — he is working on a new album set for release next year — but it has also meant having to balance the demands of his career with his life as an Orthodox Jew. Brought up in south-east London — “very, very secular, the definition of” — he describes his teenage self as “wild”.
He dated Amy Winehouse for a year before she was famous; the pair met at Winehouse’s favourite north London pub, The Hawley Arms, but it is not a subject he is keen to revisit.
Four years ago he became observant and now lives in Golders Green. How does he reconcile being a popstar and leading a Jewish life?
“There are a few problems, the glaring obvious things, what goes on in the pop music industry. But I just keep very clear of that.” As for adoring young female fans, he says: “You have to keep a respectful distance. The other trick is to just run away as quickly as possible.”
But there have been practical difficulties to contend with. Unable to play on Shabbat and the festivals, last year he turned down a BBC session during Succot.
And he found himself rejecting the musical opportunity of a lifetime, supporting Adele on tour, because it was over Pesach. “I had to sit there with all the big people in the record company and say: ‘I’m really sorry, but there’s no way I can do it’.
“That was a big turning point, when they really got that I was serious about my Yiddishkeit. When I signed my record deal I think they genuinely thought I would compromise at some point. As soon as people realise I won’t, they’re very accommodating — even when it comes to touring.”
On Clare’s rider, you will find Sabra hummus, as well as rice cakes and copious amounts of fruit and vegetables. So not very rock ’n’ roll, then.
“It’s pretty lame really,” he admits. “But I always have a good bottle of whisky.”