Alexandra Stoetzel

Alexandra Stoetzel
No Sneakin' Down This Alley - Singer Alexandra Stoetzel talks about Alley Blues

By Bill Copeland
April 2009

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The female fronted Alley Blues outfit has been picking up a lot of new rooms since making it into the finals of last year’s Boston Blues Challenge. Without yet having a CD of original music, Alley Blues markets themselves the old-fashioned way ---- by calling a lot of clubs and hitting the open mike circuit.

The “Alley” of Alley Blues is Alexandra Stoetzel, a Berklee trained vocalist who plays out with three musicians and two female backing vocalists. One can only imagine how far Stoetzel and her cohorts will go once they release a disc she now has in the works.

Currently working with keyboardist Bruce Bears as producer, the album will be called Public Alley. It’s going to be 10 tracks featuring her band on bass, guitar, and drums, with two to three back-up singers, and some keys. It will be a mix of covers and originals.

“The covers will be all really old R&B stuff like Betty Wright and maybe some Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings,” Stoetzel said.

Her collaboration with Bruce Bears (Toni Lynn Washington, Duke Robillard) is a creative process. “It’s working out really great,” she said. “We meet a lot and we’ve done some writing together. I’m excited. I’ve played a couple of gigs with him before for my band. We just really hit it off. He said he’d be willing to produce my album. I was just excited. I jumped at the chance.”

Alley Blues, she said, has moved on from being a strictly blues outfit, and the upcoming record will reflect this evolution.

“They’ll be some blues tunes on it, but it will also be a lot of R&B - probably like some Chaka Kahn in there. I like her a lot,” Stoetzel said.

Changing tastes and changing audiences has had an impact on the popularity of this outfit.

“When we first started we did pretty much just blues. We did 12-bar blues a lot,” she said. “Then as I grew up, I started liking more R&B and funk. We just shifted to that genre a little more. We still do a good amount of blues at shows.”

A disciplined songwriter, Stoetzel has been writing songs as far back as she can remember.

“I always wrote a lot of lyrics in journals. I never wrote chords or really too much music, maybe just a little melody. I just started bringing my stuff to other people. When I was at Berklee I brought it to a teacher and we started working on stuff together,” she said.

With notebooks filled with ideas, Stoetzel should never run out of material.

“I try to write every day. When I was in school, I took this class about classical composers. A lot of them would write a fugue every day. They would just write something every day to keep yourself in that habit of constantly writing. I write a lot of stuff that I know I’ll never really develop it. That way I’m just very comfortable with getting my ideas onto paper. When something does jump off the page to me, I’m just ready to go with it. It definitely comes from life experiences, a lot of heartbreaks,” she said.

Fans of her live shows may recognize her covers, but they’ll also likely see some differences in the way her band plays them

“A lot of times we try to play with the grooves,” Stoetzel explained. “There are a couple of songs we do with more of a Latin feel. We try to make them our own as much as possible. With the back-up singers, they’re really amazing, especially Bre Levere. I just give her the song and she just runs with it. She comes up with parts. A lot of times there’s only two (back-up singers.) So she’ll come up with parts for two people, the other singer, whoever it may be, and they’re ready to go. She really does a lot of the arranging for the background vocals.”

Stoetzel’s main inspiration comes from her parents. Her dad, Bob Stoetzel, inspired her to sing, and has tremendous confidence in her. Dad, and mom, Laura Tenero, go to every one of her gigs. Alley learned a lot from her professor, Gabrielle Goodman, at Berklee after she realized Goodman would allow her to break away from the jazz mind set at the music school.

“More than anything she helped my spirit. I really didn’t enjoy Berklee for a long time. I didn’t really get it. I felt like they were really looking for more of a jazz singer. When I met her, she was just kind of like, ‘Do your own thing.’ She just helped me make it work at Berklee. I just felt more comfortable singing after I met her,” Stoetzel said.

Clearly influenced by belters like Janis Joplin, Etta James, Betsy Smith, and Chaka Kahn, Stoetzel has recently taken to Billie Holiday’s sophisticated approach.

“I never understood her when I was younger. I was more into Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, as far as jazz vocalists went. And then I just started listening to her, and I just felt like it was so relaxed and so easy that it just felt like that was the way you were supposed to sing,” she said.

Chaka Kahn became a big influence and she’s added Kahn’s “I Got The Right Street” to her set list. Her professor, Goodman, used to sing back-up for Khan and told Alley she has a similar range.

“I listen to her old stuff. I like the stuff she did with Rufus,” Stoetzel said.

Alley already has a five-song sampler and they usually sell at least two a night. For ten bucks, fans can hear her renditions of “Fell In Love With A Boy,” “Son Of A Preacher Man,” “Stormy Monday,” “Before He Cheats,” and “It Hurts So Bad.”

These five songs reflect what Stoetzel was singing when she initially formed her band.

“Those were the songs we were doing the most when we recorded it. On that one you hear a lot of blues, the ‘Stormy Monday’ and the ‘Hurt So Bad.’ Those were just the songs we thought sounded the best at the time, and we didn’t have as big of a song list as we do now. I’m really looking forward to getting more material out there with the new album coming out,” she said.

One song that people would assume to be a crowd pleaser on her set list is “Celibacy Blues” by Jill Scott. Yet, the nightclub crowds are not catching on yet.

“Most of the time people are drinking and having a good time, so I don’t really know if they’re paying that much attention to it,” Stoetzel said.

Older material from the R&B genre dominates the set list Stoetzel works from now. Older blues material from the likes of Betsy Smith and Etta James doesn‘t dominate as much.

“I think Etta James is more R&B than blues anyway, and so I slowly shifted into that genre. And I like a lot of Aretha Franklin too. She’s really a big inspiration. When I was younger, I listened to a lot of R&B - almost like pop R&B - when I was really young, like before I was teenager,” she said. “As you grow up, you shift. In high school I listened to more rock and classic rock. When I went to Berklee, I was really into blues, and that just kind of shifted into old R&B.”

Stoetzel was also inspired by Amy Winehouse’s writing on her first album, Frank.

“I know everything on that album,” she said.

Clearly, women singers are where it’s at for Stoetzel. The male singers she likes are the ones who impact her more with the emotive qualities than techniques.

“I love Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead. I know he’s not the best technical singer,” Stoetzel said. “I just like the emotion he sings with. I have noticed that. When it comes to male singers I’m not really looking for the best technical singer. I’m looking for the emotion of the song.”

Alley Blues have landed a lot of rooms without having an original CD yet. Attending as many open mikes as possible gave her exposure, and playing rare covers gives audiences something they can’t get anywhere else.

A curious selection on Stoetzel’s set list is “A Woman’s Worth,” from the first Alicia Keys album.

“I connect with the lyrics a lot. It’s a fun song to sing. You’ve got to have backups for that one,” she said.

Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” (written by Willy Dixon) is another.

“We usually do that one the way it is. We do that one if people ask for it,” Stoetzel said.

As for how audiences react to a girl singer belting out the frenzied Led Zep classic, she said: “They usually like it. They like the guitar and the whole band playing that one.”

Alley and her band mates are in their early to mid-20s. She said guitarist Eric Vincent, “does a great job of playing a lot of the horn parts on the guitar, and he does a really good job mixing it up so the band can sound really full without a keys player and without a horn section.”

Her bass player Louis Ochoa, “adds a lot of funk to our sound. He has a lot of say creatively with the originals that we’re doing, as well as trying to make the covers different.” Drummer Justin Oliver, she said, “is the perfect drummer for any singer. He does well playing with singers, knowing how to give them enough space and how to set them up for different verses and choruses.”

Stoetzel said Oliver does a great solo when they do a Paul Simon tune “Late In The Evening.”

Besides Levere, Stoetzel’s back-up singers include Althea Feil, who, along with Levere, comes from from British Columbia; and Suzanna Liming from California. They occasionally play with their former keyboard player Axel Schwintzer from Germany, and sometimes Bears will bring his keys.

There is a blog on the Alley Blues MySpace page titled “Sexy Alley Blues Shows.” Here she describes the behavior at some of her recent gigs. A pajama party lead to nudity at Franko’s in Waltham. A bachelorette party lead to a male audience member getting a lot of lap dances. In Framingham, a lady starting dancing on a pole.

“I don’t know what it is about us. I don’t know what we do. I guess they just really get into it,” Stoetzel said.

When asked if she thought she and the other singers may be inspiring their audiences, Stoetzel responded: “It’s always sexy when you have three good girls up there crooning.”

How does she feel about the lively behavior? “I think it’s great. I would recommend that people keep their clothes on, though,” she joked.

www.myspace.com/alleyblues

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