Alexis Hightower

Queens Central Library celebrates its 50th anniversary on April 20, and we're capping off a wonderful day of festivities with an amazing concert with R&B artist Alexis Hightower. 

Described by critics as “mesmerizing," Alexis’s chic sound is a sophisticated mix of classic jazz touched with the hip hop and classic soul she grew up on.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Alexis grew up in California and made the move to New York City during the heyday of hip hop, spoken word, and neo-soul in the 1990s. A piano player and singer from a young age, Alexis’s search for her sound led to collaborations with emerging talents like Roy Hargrove, Kareem Riggins, and Saul Williams. She has headlined at venerated NYC venues including The Blue Note, The Bitter End, and BAMcafé Live; made her European festival debut in Spain in 2001 at the San Sebastian Music Festival; and later toured throughout Spain, Austria, and Japan. Her first full-length album, Girl Next Door, is out now.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us before your concert, Alexis! What led you to New York City for your musical career?
I first visited New York when I was about nine years old. I think I knew then that I was going to end up here, so to speak. I was so drawn to the energy and all the possibility that New York had. And, of course, world-class music and culture is in the DNA of the city, which immediately made an impression on me. Later on, it was kind of a push-and-pull. I think that living in New York is still a rite of passage for many creative types, and also business types if you think about it. At the same time, I also wanted to get away from home. Independence and culture mixed with limitless possibility, that’s what brought me here.

You got your start in the late ‘90s NYC café-poetry scene, working with spoken-word performers like Saul Williams. When you’re writing your songs, do you find yourself developing your lyrics first?
Actually, for me the lyrics are usually the last piece of the song to emerge and get fine-tuned.  I tend to start with a groove in my head that I build out in the sequencer, or the song will start at the piano in both hands with a kind-of vague melody and maybe a word or two. Lyrics take a lot of time to craft.  Those poets and performers instilled in me a great love for crafted, signature lyricism and showed how there should never be any wasted words. Or throwaway words, for that matter. For me, it takes time to develop them and I need to know exactly what I want to say. So…lyrics take time.

Who are your top five creative influences?
That’s actually a tough question to answer, because I’m always finding new sources of inspiration. That’s one of the great upsides of the creative life—you always get to find influences everywhere and in everything.  Right now, I’m listening to a lot of King, Kendrick Lamar, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, and A Tribe Called Quest.

What books are you currently reading?
I just started a book called Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. I actually got it at the library! A friend of mine, Olaronke, started a pop-up library called the Free Black Woman’s Library and you have to bring a book to take one with you; you can’t buy anything. Right now, I’m finding out about all these amazing female authors of color from around the globe. I didn’t even know about a lot of them. So, libraries and books are really important to me and always have been. I’m also reading a book called The Attention Revolution, which is about mindful meditation.

What can our patrons expect to hear at your concert on April 20?
I’m excited to play some songs from my first EP, Lucy’s Blues, and from my album, Girl Next Door. I also have some new material that I think is a nice evolution of those projects, so I think that any fans of that material will like the new stuff, too. Also, there are so many great artists who either came from or lived in Queens. I mean, everyone from Cyndi Lauper to LL Cool J, Burt Bacharach, Louis Armstrong, the list is pretty amazing. So, I’ve got to do some of that material, right?

Do you have any advice for aspiring singers and musicians?
I would say…be very free creatively, but take your work very seriously, if that makes sense. I think there’s a constant balancing act between expressing your creative voice and handling your business. You really have to manage both. And who you surround yourself with is important. Try to be around people who take their work as seriously as you take yours, because that’s something you can build on.