“I don’t see a hierarchy in music. In my own music, I have the freedom to express anything I want and put my feelings out in a positive way.” – Alexis Ffrench
Welcome to Dreamland, the remarkable new album by classical soul artist, Alexis Ffrench. You may well already know Alexis’ remarkable music: his previous album ‘Evolution’ reached No 1 in the classical music charts and the pianist, composer and producer has achieved over 100m streams. Alexis has headlined at the Royal Albert Hall, sound-tracked campaigns for Miyake and Hugo Boss, worked with Paloma Faith, has composed several major film scores and shares the management team of Little Mix.
Even if you haven’t been introduced to Alexis’ compelling world before, come in. In Dreamland, everyone is welcome. The album’s 14 concise pieces form a beautiful, positive environment where the listener can find respite from troubled times. As Alexis explains: “Dreamland is about positivity and light. It’s a landing point for hopes and dreams, a place of safety and calm.”
Dreamland is also a place with no musical barriers. It doesn’t matter if you prefer Bach or Kendrick Lamar, there’s succour to be found in Alexis Ffrench’s universe, whether in the purity and innocence of ‘Story of You’, the empathy in ‘These Days’, ‘Heartbeats’’ poignant fragility or ‘One’s journey of universality. “I aspire to be non-denominational in how my music is viewed,” says Alexis. “Even calling yourself ‘a classical artist’ is a barrier of entry to many people. My music has a classical signature in its DNA, but it’s border-less, a synthesis of many styles.”
Although the ultimate Dreamland experience is to lose yourself in the album in its entirety for 40 minutes, the album tracks can still be savored as individual pieces. “We’re all affected by worries that can weigh us down in untold ways,” Alexis states. “These problems are big and real, and they need tackling. They inhibit our ability to be everything we can be. As artists, we have a duty to shine light back into the world. To give people an opportunity to stop, listen and breathe – if only for three minutes for one track – is something I take very seriously.”
That it’s Alexis Ffrench who has created the calming and inspiring powers of Dreamland perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s a musician who has been offering practical support for some time. Evangelical about the power to be gained from music and saddened by the demise of music education in schools, Alexis has created video tutorials for aspiring musicians of all abilities. “The videos are for people who play and study piano, but also for people who can’t play a note,” he explains. “Lots of musical people simply haven’t had the opportunity to learn an instrument. That doesn’t make them any less musical. I want my videos to allow people to create whatever musical ideas they have. With an educational consultant, I’m looking at ways to bring those ideas to life, to create a Dreamland helping people of all ages to get closer to the music they have within them.”
Alexis is aware of the gifts a music education brings. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, he won a scholarship for gifted children to study there when he was 10. At the same time, Alexis was a student at The Purcell School before going to Guildhall School of Music. “I was very fortunate,” Alexis acknowledges. “The Royal Academy was an incredible environment: warm, challenging, demanding, all the things education should be about. But it wasn’t terribly inclusive. It’s better now, but I was one of only two black children then. It’s really important to reach out to attract children from all walks of life to receive specialist education, because it was so important for me.”
Even before his formal music education, from the age of seven, Alexis had been the organist at his local church in Bagshot, Surrey. Growing up in a household full of the music of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Alexis would play along to Stevie Wonder’s songs on the kitchen table aged four and writing his first pieces at five, his prodigious gifts convincing his parents to buy a second-hand piano: his ability really does come naturally. “I see the world in sound,” says Alexis. “If I hear a symphony, I can write it down – every instrument – and give it back to you almost in real time. That’s a party trick, but I’m constantly translating life into music. I can see music and I can play everything I hear immediately.”
Someone with Alexis’ talent would be forgiven for being a lofty, unapproachable figure, but he’s a warm and engaging enthusiast, passionate about music in all its forms. He recalls being dismayed at how arcane some of the language was during his musical education, and how “cleverness” was valued above clarity. “It seemed that the mark of real success was if only a small fraction of people were able to understand your music,” he frowns. “My music has always come from a place where people can relate. But I’m grateful for that study, because you have to go through it in order to know what to rip up. It’s better to know than not know.”
A tragic turning point came at 23, when Alexis’ best friend, a fellow musician, died by suicide. It led Alexis both to reassess his music and to become keenly aware of the importance of good mental health. Dreamland’s vision of a safe haven is drawn from Alexis’ awareness of mental health concerns. The classical music community is increasingly aware of its responsibilities to its musicians, through campaigns such as Classical Music magazine’s Harmony in Mind. However, as Alexis points out, “There’s a way to go, and not all the campaigns have the necessary funding.” He’s concerned about the lack of full-time salaried orchestras, saying: “It’s a well that’s being drained every time. The opportunities are worse than ever for classical musicians.”
It’s the lack of those opportunities that makes Alexis passionate about musicians’ need to have, in his words, “agile virtuosity”, to bring their talents to bear in additional musical realms. “Versatility has to be encouraged,” says Alexis. “You have to look at the existing opportunities and say, ‘I can either work in my attic or I can find a way to monetize my talent.’ There’s a never-ending stream of young musicians with fewer opportunities. Of course, that leads to mental health issues.”
Alexis points to the hip-hop community’s success in getting across its own complex musical messages to the mainstream. He cites the challenging music of Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak as examples of superstars doing it their own way. “People speak of ‘hip-hop’ as one genre, but it’s a number of communities coming together,” he reasons. “Its music is packaged with its videos and the musicians present themselves in a way that’s so heady and so potent. Much of the music is actually very dissonant and at times atonal. Kendrick Lamar’s song ‘Humble’ is like Bartok’s’ Out of Doors’ suite, in the pugilistic bass notes in the extremities of the piano at the opening of both works. I’m not for a moment suggesting a merging of Mozart with beats, but I think to attract a contemporary audience classical can learn from how hip-hop has marketed its music and ideas.”
The mix of Kendrick Lamar and Bartok, Shostakovich and Ariana Grande are present throughout Alexis’ weekly Sunday show on Scala Radio, a broad church where Alexis highlights the song craft in pop and revels in classical majesty. It’s an eclectic spirit shot through Dreamland. “I want the music I make to be a synthesis of what I listen to,” he enthuses. ‘These Days’ includes his interpretation of Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’, which he calls “one of the great pop tunes – very simple, but there’s a whole world within there.” Alexis is aware of the strengths of keeping his own music concise. ‘Dreamland’, ‘Rivers’ and ‘Wishing’ need less than two-and-a-half-minutes to get their beauty across. “I chuck away 99% of what I do because it’s not worthy of what I’m trying to say,” Alexis laughs. “I concentrate on that remaining 1% and distill it, keep subtracting ideas until I say what I want to say.” It’s a purity and simplicity that makes Alexis a staple of playlists on streaming sites. His face lights up as he talks of his pieces sitting alongside Justin Bieber and Pharrell on New Music Friday. “I love that,” he beams. “There’s no segregation on those sites, and that’s the mark of success for classical.”
Alexis speaks warmly of the attention to detail taken by his management at Modest!, who also represent Little Mix, Niall Horan, Alison Moyet and Katherine Jenkins. However, Alexis’ music is his own singular vision, including producing his albums and writing their orchestral scores. He hopes there might be a vocal version of Dreamland, with guest singers. He’s a compelling presence, full of ideas and insight. That he’s able to distill them so clearly makes Dreamland a powerful work. Come on in – whenever you want a recharge, Dreamland is right there.