November 10, 2008 12:00 PM

Music has always soothed Alexa Ray Joel. As a baby, she could sing herself to sleep. Chopin’s “Nocturne in D Flat” got her through the split from her boyfriend in January. And before testifying at the bitter divorce trial between her mom, Christie Brinkley, and Peter Cook in July, she found strength in the Beatles tune “Let It Be.”

Writing her own lyrics has been an outlet for the 22-year-old singer too. “Sometimes writing just saves me,” says Joel. “It’s the only thing that gives me any sense of control.” Consider the words she penned following the split from her former bass player, Jimmy Riot: “Take me or leave me but let me be who I am.” Her new confidence also stems from testifying against Cook. “You’ve got to develop a thick skin to go into a courtroom and say some pretty serious stuff,” she admits. “It’s empowering to know I got through it.”

The ongoing Cook-Brinkley drama (there was tension between the exes over Cook’s recent 20/20 interview) has given Joel an even deeper appreciation of Mom’s post-divorce relationship with her dad, Billy Joel. “They’re good friends now,” she says. “That’s hard for my mom now: She’ll never have that with Peter.” Another lesson learned? “You can be beautiful and powerful without a man,” she says, adding, “I won’t lie. I’m working on that.”

Transformation isn’t new to the tiny girl who belts out retro bluesy songs: She used to be so bashful, her mom doubted she’d ever perform. “I was painfully shy in high school,” says Joel. Adds Brinkley: “I thought, I don’t know if she’ll ever be onstage.” But a determined Joel played small clubs and music festivals across the country to conquer her timidness. “Touring toughened me up a bit,” says Joel, whose next gig will be performing at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., on Nov. 20. Her parents see the change. “Her charming realness gives her a connection with her audience,” says Brinkley. And Dad’s review? “I start laughing when she plays,” he says, “because she’s so good. She’s got chops.”

What she doesn’t have yet is a record label. So far, Joel has songs on MySpace and iTunes, though she’s met with several producers and may record an album. “I used to think it’s shallow to crave attention from an audience,” she says. “But when they’re really listening, it’s a relationship.”

Joel is just as hopeful about a love connection—despite Brinkley’s advice. “My mom’s like, ‘Honey, don’t get married,'” says Joel. “It comes from a good place. But I’m such a romantic, I’d like to get married one day. It’s fulfilling to live with a person you love.” As long as that guy heeds Joel’s “let me be who I am” lyrics. “Once you break out of your shell and aren’t afraid anymore,” she says, “it’s nice to be totally open and sing your heart out.”

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