Alex Blair has a show in an hour or so. It’s her Thursday residency at The Mitchell, a spot she calls “chill,” which may be the perfect adjective to describe the soulful jazz singer.
“The Mitchell fits me nicely,” she says, sipping a vanilla cold brew at a Starbucks off Central Expressway. Cars race to-and-fro mere feet away, and each passing minute gets her closer to the impending 2½-hour gig. Yet Blair exudes serenity. “We have plenty of time. Let’s talk.”
It’s an unseasonably cool May day in Dallas, the kind of chilly weather Blair is accustomed to experiencing in her hometown of Portland, Maine. A light wind ruffles her caramel-streaked hair, and she remains calm even while faced with weighty, uncomfortable questions.
Armed with stage presence and shades of Anita O’Day, the 28-year-old Blair has set out to carve a niche for herself by mixing throwback jazz jams with original material. She is also a plus-size model and has contracts with Forever 21 Plus and the lingerie line Adam and Eve. Despite objections from family and friends, Blair refuses to treat these budding careers as separate entities.
“I’m selling Alex Blair,” she says. “If you don’t like it, that’s fine. But it’s me. I stopped giving fucks a long time ago.”
She calls it “confidence.” Her best friend, confidante and unabashed cheerleader Katherine Tejada calls it “grace.”
“Alex isn’t just a performer,” Tejada says. “She’s a personality. A vixen.”
Blair never knew life outside music. Her father is in a popular New England wedding band, and both of her brothers are musicians. She was originally drawn to musical theater. Her high school in South Portland boasted a big-money theater budget, and Blair had enough chops to earn the lead in Hello, Dolly! Other casting processes weren’t as pleasant, like when the school put on High School Musical and Blair was chosen for the role of the chubby girl who break dances. It was her first taste of the kind of typecasting that still plagues her career and personal life, and it soured her acting ambitions.
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“I’m a big woman, and people expect certain things from that,” she says. “In theater, someone is giving you a standard you have to fit, and if you don’t fit those qualifications, you’re out of luck.”
Blair bucked theater in favor of music, which she found was an easier pathway to curating her own identity.
“With music, people will have their opinions, they’ll sexualize you, but ultimately it’s you. You get to build your own character. You get to tell your story.”
Her music studies began at Ithaca College in New York, but Blair’s love of jazz ultimately brought her to Denton, where she studied in the University of North Texas’ vaunted music program. During her final year of study, Blair says she was sexually assaulted by a trusted mentor who held considerable clout in the music
“Think about Michael Jackson, and what his fans felt like once they realized what he did to other people,” she says. “He was their idol until that point. That’s what this man was for me.”
Blair says her attacker was fired from his post with UNT after a university investigation, but he remained a fixture in the music scene. Blair, who maintained a calendar of regular gigs in Denton, was made a pariah.
Ashleigh Smith, Blair’s friend and mentor and a Concord label jazz artist, helped Blair book a gig after the assault, but the drummer backed out when he heard Blair would be singing with him.
“I had to call Alex and tell her that this guy was refusing to play with her, so the gig couldn’t happen,” Smith recalls. “She was devastated.”
“People turned their backs on me,” Blair says. “Even my parents were harassed.”
Blair’s father frequently posts YouTube videos of his children performing, and after the assault, Blair says commenters lashed out on his channel, writing, “There’s the slut that ruins people’s careers.”
“I exhausted Denton, and I was exhausted in Denton,” Blair says. “It was time to move on.”
Moving on meant time away from performing. She moved in with her then-boyfriend in Lewisville and started teaching private lessons to high school students. The job worked out well at first, but with each lesson, Blair yearned to be back creating music full time.
“When I’m performing, I’m reaching out. It’s showing me about myself, and I didn’t have that. I started thinking, ‘How can I keep telling these kids to go for it, if I’m not?’”
Blair quit her private teaching gig, giving herself one last paycheck’s worth of time to figure out how to be a full-time performer. She started gigging more, reaching out into Dallas and the Deep Ellum scenes for the first time, and put together her debut EP, Taste, under the moniker “BLAYR.”
“I wanted to have something tangible as I made the move to Dallas,” she says of that album. “It was my way of saying, ‘I’m a real artist. Here’s something to prove it.’”
The seven-track EP was produced in Blair’s apartment with the help of some of her best friends. Not coincidentally, almost no one from UNT was involved.
“That record made me fall in love with music all over again,” she says. “It was just me and some good people, creating and doing what we love.”
The release bears all the scars of a first record, and its lackluster production value betrays its shoestring budget, but it’s the perfect platform for Blair to show off her astounding vocal power and considerable range. She is not sure if the EP helped boost her profile all that much, but she doesn't seem to mind. Blair set out to make a record, and she had one completed within six months of moving to Dallas. Around the time of its release, Blair started a fledgling modeling career primarily through self-promotion on Instagram. Tejada, who befriended Blair soon after the singer started consistently gigging in Deep Ellum, saw firsthand the backlash her friend received for trying to sing and model at the same time.
“She posted a nude photo of herself, and people started talking about not wanting her around anymore, just because she was feeling good and wanted to put herself out there,” Tejada says. “Alex is fighting a war she doesn’t even want to fight, and a war she can’t win with people.”
Despite the perception that one can’t possibly be an artist and a model at once, Blair persists.
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“Music is how I found myself, but modeling is part of that identity now, too. Both give me that confidence, that fuel to create.”
Local rapper Que P saw that confidence up close when he collaborated with Alex on their new song “Stargazing.”
“She’s not just a jazz singer; she has that edge you need to make your own lane,” he says. “When she smiles, you see all the light in the world in her eyes.”
Later on, after Blair has finished her coffee and jetted to Dallas for her gig, she's at The Mitchell, nodding along to the jazz music rising in the background as her hips move in time with the hi-hat’s pitter-patter. Blair’s hazel eyes move across the room, scanning the somewhat sparse crowd, and for a moment, she looks unnerved. Then, as if someone has flipped a switch, she smiles a high-wattage, girl-next-door grin, and starts to sing.