Music

Closer Look Summer Indie Artist Spotlight: Alex Guthrie

Atlanta-based artist Alex Guthrie performed on "Closer Look."
Credit Emilia Brock
Audio version of this story here.

Imagine being a local artist in Atlanta, playing gigs around town, when one day you find yourself singing in a national commercial for American Family Insurance, and while you’re singing Jennifer Hudson suddenly shows up.

>> Check out more from Closer Look’s Summer Indie Music Series here.

Well, that’s what happened to Atlanta-based artist Alex Guthrie last year, and since then he’s been launched to national fame and is touring the country.

Guthrie recently stopped by the WABE studios as part of Closer Look’s Summer Indie Music Series.

Guthrie says growing up his influences were mostly metal and grunge, but that changed when he did an open mic night at the age of 17.

“I had a bunch of Pearl Jam and Nirvana songs prepared, and that day I heard a song by a guy named Ray LaMontagne and it was a [Travelers] Insurance commercial of all things,” he said. “I heard the song, loved it and learned it before the open mic. The only song people cared about was the soulful, folk song that I learned and I went ‘Alright, maybe I’ll look up more of his music,’ and I fell in love with it.”

Now, Guthrie said even though he doesn’t necessarily label his sound, he does enjoy the description “soulful.”

“I think [it’s] anything that’s from the heart — it doesn’t have to be Motown, it doesn’t have to be R&B — it’s anything that’s not kitschy or doesn’t have a gimmick behind it or isn’t trying to fit into a box for the sake of fitting into a box,” said Guthrie.

Guthrie had been performing gigs around Atlanta with his band, when one day a family friend, whose a local casting director, reached out to him on Facebook about an audition.

“She tagged me on Facebook and said this casting agency is looking for some guy in his early 20s with a soulful voice. It doesn’t say what for, but [she said] you should send in a tape,” said Guthrie.

And he did, he submitted a video of himself singing “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke — 30 minutes later he got a call to come in for an audition. After another round of auditions with the agency, and about a week later Guthrie found himself in Atlanta’s Woodruff Park with his guitar singing “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers — he had to learn the song overnight and still didn’t know exactly what the commercial was for.

After several hours of filming, the producers on set told Guthrie he’d be doing his final take and that he had to keep singing no matter what happens. In the commercial you see that while Guthrie’s belting out “Lovely Day” Jennifer Hudson suddenly appears over his shoulder.

“The first things that went through my mind are ‘This extra looks an awful lot like Jennifer Hudson and why is she walking up behind me?’ Then I did that double-take and she starts singing and I [thought] she looks like Jennifer Hudson because she is Jennifer Hudson,” said Guthrie.

Since the commercial aired, Guthrie’s career has taken off — he’s currently in the middle of a national tour, and  is working on his next album — a follow-up to his 2014, folk project “Lessons Learned,” which will have more of an R&B influence.

He said the past year has opened a lot of doors for him, “The commercial played in 22 states and in those 22 states even if people don’t know me well, if they see my name somewhere, generally, they’re going to take the time to click on a link and think ‘Oh, that’s the guy from the commercial. Yeah let’s go buy a ticket,’ ” said Guthrie.

“But more than that it’s been interesting to gain Jennifer Hudson as a friend and mentor. The whole thing has just been an entirely different experience that I never thought I would have.”

You can check out more about Alex Guthrie here.