Australia has a decent track record for producing good rock bands, but Australian rock singer-songrwiters not so much – given the name ‘Russell Crowe’ topped a Google search for ‘Australian rock singers.’ But all that could be about to change with the emergence of Cleo Alexandra, whose style has been aptly described as a ‘grungy rock version of Rihanna.’
Cleo tells us she’s been writing music since she was five-years-old when she was given a notebook for her birthday. And her initial breakthrough came when a home demo of her debut single Criminal was picked up by English producer Stuart Epps. It received plenty of love online, including from record producer Keith Olsen, who’s worked with the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Ozzy Osbourne and Whitesnake.
As Cleo tells us: “As I got older and started playing the guitar and keyboard I started recording demos and it’s all evolved from there. I was quite shy growing up and so I’ve only recently really started getting into performing live on my own and I’m loving it.
“Keith and my producer J.J, who is the amazing guitar player featured on the EP, are the first producers I ever worked with who really understood how to capture the emotion of what I was writing about. It’s the energy that they bring to the tracks which really helps drive home the emotions I’m singing about in the songs.”
Cleo ‘fell into modelling’ – as you do – during high school in Armidale, New South Wales, but soon realised that the only thing she wanted to do was music. And, inspired by influences including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kurt Cobain and Black Sabbath as well as other strong vocalists like Stevie Nicks, Patti Smith and Janis Joplin, she set about honing her deliciously edgy, engaging rock sound.
As Cleo explains: “I would listen to old cassette tapes my Mum would have around the house when I was younger and I still credit her record collection and the tape mixes my older sister would make for me when I was a teenager for introducing me to the artists I’m still inspired by today.
“I starting doing some local modelling in my small hometown and then from there I had the chance to go to castings for modelling agencies in Sydney and was told they could see me modelling in Paris and Milan and all of that ‘bs.’ But I was still in school and I don’t think it would have been a very healthy thing for me at that time to get involved in the modelling world.
“I always felt the pull back towards focusing on music professionally, probably because I’d always had an unexplainable pull towards being a singer/songwriter since I was literally five-years-old. It was one of those very guttural feelings that you can’t deny. Although, I did do a small impromptu modelling shoot with iconic fashion photographer Byron Spencer in my hometown of Armidale last year, so who knows one day I might just have another crack at modelling for fun.”
Our first taste of her music came with the release of Cleo’s eponymous debut EP in January. And it’s a pretty awesome introduction.
It kicks off with the excellent I’ll Explain Later, which is probably my personal favourite track on the record. It opens up with light guitars that continue under Cleo’s catchy vocals then build in intensity, drop into pre-chorus repeats of “So lost in translation” then Cleo’s edgier vocals kick in “Confuse you, Maybe later I’ll explain myself, Lost in translation, Find me in yesterday, If I confuse you I’ll explain later.”
Cleo specialises in big choruses led by edgy vocals, and second track Unravel is a perfect example. Light choruses dominated by her vocals build to “You can keep that red dress, I’m not the only one it will fit, But it will never look the same, You will not see that dress on me” then big cries of “Unravel.” Give it a listen below:
As mentioned, Criminal was the first song Cleo released, and it brings a real highlight mid-way through the EP. It dives straight into Cleo’s raw vocals through the verse, then cool Fall Out Boy-style near-spoken vocals over building drums as it gradually builds up to cries of “You better run boy run, Until you get no more, ‘Cos they’re coming for ya, I said they’re coming for ya, You’d better change your name and forget her face, ‘Cos they’re coming for ya, I said they’re looking for ya.” Check it out in the video below:
The EP also features a collaboration with Australian music legend Rick Springfield – of Jessie’s Girl fame – with a cover version of Who Can It Be Now, which is apparently a classic Australian song by Men At Work.
As Cleo explains: “Keith is somewhat of a legend in the music world and had worked with Rick Springfield back in the 80s when he produced Jessie’s Girl. I think Keith knew Rick would be interested in hearing my cover of the song. After Keith played the cover to Rick he loved it so much he wanted to sing some vocals for the track and it all came together from there. I couldn’t be happier with how it sounds as well as the overall sound of the EP.”
Check it out in the video below:
The EP closes with a moody, atmospheric version of Tears For Fears’ Everybody Wants To Rule The World. Cleo’s high-pitched vocals over an instrumental backdrop of violins and big drum crashes, then intense dual vocals through the atmospheric chorus. Give it a listen below:
On the EP, Cleo told us: “The reception has been overwhelmingly positive! Heaps of people have been coming back to me saying how much of an earworm the songs are and asking for the lyrics so they can really read into what the songs are all about, which has been very cool.”
And on what inspires her music, Cleo adds: “I know how much of an escape music can be and to know the songs I write could be a few minutes of escape for someone else in which they can feel like they are not alone in what they are feeling or thinking. That is what influences me to write music. The songs on my EP in particular were written over a very rough period in my life when I was really struggling with depression, panic attacks and an auto immune disease.
“Writing songs to sift through all the stuff that was going on helped me tremendously to get through it. So I guess what I write about always comes from wanting to capture whatever I’m going through, at the time knowing some else in the future who is going through the same stuff might hear it and feel understood. It’s also a great way of making sure the songs don’t sound contrived or forced because they are always coming from something unforgivingly real.”
We’re loving what we’ve heard from Cleo so far. She has a really unique style in which her edgy vocals cut over the top of gradually building instrumentals then choruses vocals coming in over light instrumental support.
More videos are incoming, with Cleo hoping to confirm gigs in Australia soon. So keep your eye out!