One of America's most beloved cult artists is still keeping it rough around the edges
Throughout Alex Giannascoli’s extensive body of work – nine albums in 12 years to be exact – the 29-year-old Pennsylvanian artist has had a knack for writing nuanced and memorable characters. The people who inhabit, narrate and sometimes title his songs – Mary, Harvey, Gretel, Sarah, Bobby, Sandy – feel intimate to the listener not because they’re fully drawn, but rather because Giannascoli (better known as Alex G) hones in on specific details and desires, tricking you into thinking you have the full picture, when in reality, you have a snapshot of a person who may or may not even be real.
It’s a device which, intentionally or otherwise, has meant that despite his prolificity and increasingly devout following – the Alex G subreddit has nearly 12,000 members – Giannascoli is still quite an enigmatic figure. Speaking to me over Zoom (camera off, as specified before the call) from his home in Philadelphia, he is friendly yet reserved, and I get the feeling he much prefers making music to talking about it, or doing pretty much anything else for that matter, as those nine albums – along with a movie soundtrack, plenty of demos and collaborations with the likes of Frank Ocean, Ryan Hemsworth and Oneohtrix Point Never – attest.
“I do think about stopping often,” Giannascoli tells me, when I ask if he ever takes a break from songwriting, “but I think it’s almost like an addiction or something – the affirmation that music gives you is pretty addicting. Every time I think of stopping, I get an idea for a song and I feel kind of compelled.”
Does the affirmation come from others, or is it a personal thing? “It definitely doesn’t come just from me, I think it comes with putting it out and showing it to other people and having people say, like, ‘good job’ or having people clap,” he laughs, but notes that he tries to avoid reading about himself on the internet. “I’ve been making an effort to not look at stuff online, because the negative things are not worth thinking about.”
Giannascoli’s early output epitomised the lo-fi, ‘bedroom’ aesthetic which was burgeoning at the beginning of the last decade, as sites like SoundCloud and Bandcamp made it easier for DIY artists to share their work with a wider audience. Growing up in Philadelphia, his older siblings had first introduced him to alternative music.
“My older brother is really musically gifted. He brought a lot of instruments into the house when I was kid and my older sister also listened to a lot of music, and turned me on to a lot of artists that were doing things that were a little more underground or DIY or something, making music in a way that wasn’t really professional or produced. So it made me realise how I could maybe fit into that world.” It was his sister (Rachel Giannascoli, an artist who also makes the artwork for Alex G’s records) who played him Modest Mouse, a band which became a key early influence. “That was one of the first bands I really fell in love with,” he says. “I still like them a lot, but especially as a kid, they have such a chaotic style, it’s kind of inspiring – because I didn’t really know how to play guitar that well, but I could make music that sort of fit that vibe. It was really rough around the edges, you know?”
As a teenager he formed a band with some friends, Sam and Colin Acchione (Sam still tours with him to this day) and began to play regularly in local venues, all the while working on solo stuff in his free time and recording it on his computer. “We played a lot of shows,” he recalls. “And that was how I became more entrenched in the Philadelphia music scene, or at least my local scene, and I would give out CDs at the shows and stuff like that.”
I wonder when he first became aware of the traction his music was getting outside of this tight-knit Philadelphia scene and he is characteristically humble. “I guess maybe the album DSU was the first time I felt like it was, and even then I wasn’t sure how far out I was getting because we played in Baltimore and New York, which are pretty close to Philly. As far as I knew, it was like people just in those cities buying or listening to the stuff, but it was the first time a record label put out any of my music, and it was this small label called Orchid Tapes based in New York.”
In fact, DSU, which came out in summer 2014, reached a lot farther than Baltimore – Pitchfork gave it a rating of 7.9, calling it “worthy of its moment”, and when Lucky Number put it out in the UK later that year, The Guardian published a four-star review comparing Giannascoli to Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus. At this point, he was 21 and a college student, taking English Literature at Philadelphia’s Temple University, a degree he completed despite his growing status as “the internet’s secret best songwriter.” His love of fiction is well documented; in the run up to his last album House Of Sugar, he had a quote from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch on his website. Currently, as he prepares to release his next album God Save The Animals, there’s a picture of one of Joy Williams’ 99 Stories Of God titled A Little Prayer, a parable of sorts which hints at where the album’s title might have come from. Given his obvious love of writing and propensity for story telling, I ask if he ever writes fiction, and he says he does, but has no plans on sharing it any time soon.
“I always try but I’m so bad at it. It’s not as easy as writing music because I guess with music you can leave a lot for the listeners’ imagination. There’s a really strong technical craft in fiction writing in addition to just the creative aspect of it, and I just don’t have that technical skill, but maybe one day.”
As well as Joy Williams, Giannascoli credits the musician Gillian Welch as an inspiration for God Save The Animals.“That was an artist that I newly discovered when I was making this record and, and I just really fell in love with her stuff. I feel like her influence is pretty apparent, at least to me, on songs like ‘Mission’ or ‘Miracles.’” On both tracks, you can feel Welch’s impact in the bluegrass-y guitars and strings, as well as the high-pitched harmonies, although they were already something of an Alex G staple.
In many ways, God Save The Animals is a quintessential Alex G album, filled with songs that earworm their way into your brain until you feel like you’ve heard them forever, and off-kilter subjects approached with specificity and ambiguity at the same time. It’s by far the cleanest sounding thing he’s ever made though, having been recorded at various studios and produced in collaboration with various sound engineers. There’s also a sort of overarching theme, namely faith and religion, which sets it apart from Giannascoli’s previous releases, although he says this is less of a conscious decision than an accidental one. “I wrote a bunch of songs over the course of a couple years, and then sticking them all together, I realised there was kind of a theme, but it wasn’t really a decision. And I’m not sure if there’s a real unified message or anything, it just sort of happens to have that imagery pop up, I guess.”
Religion does crop up throughout the record, and not just in the title. “People come and people go, but God with me he stayed,” Giannascoli sings on album opener ‘After All’, and later, on ‘S.D.O.S’, comes the line “God is my designer, Jesus is my lawyer,” followed by tracks titled ‘Blessing’, ‘Miracles’ and ‘Forgive’. The recurring references to God and faith could be seen as surprising for an artist who has never appeared to be particularly pious; sex, drugs and violence have been regular themes in his work, and continue to crop up in God Save The Animals. But Giannascoli tells me he’s not religious himself.
“I don’t have a strong sense of religion, because I wasn’t raised religious, but I guess it’s something that started to become interesting to me in the past few years. It’s always been interesting to me, but maybe Christianity in particular, started to interest me. I guess some people close to me have recently either found religion or have started to have serious thoughts about religion. But it’s not something that I personally practise.”
God Save The Animals isn’t the first release Giannascoli has put out in 2022. His fans were thrilled when, almost three years after his 2019 record House of Sugar – the longest period without an Alex G release since he started making music – it was announced that he had written the score for We’re All Going To The World’s Fair, the Jane Schoenbrun-directed horror movie about a teenage girl who gets wrapped up in a bizarre internet challenge. Schoenbrun has said that she was listening to a lot of Alex G whilst writing the film, and his slightly jarring tone matches her eerie, off-kilter aesthetic perfectly. I ask Giannascoli if he had a brief for the score, or whether Schoenberg left him to it.
“[She] reached out and just asked if I’d be interested, and sent me the movie, which was mostly edited, and I really liked it. So I said I was down, and then for the next month or two, I would just go scene-by-scene and she would give me tonal guidelines, like ‘This scene is suspenseful’, or ‘In this scene, the music should be happy’. It was pretty collaborative with the director – I would send her something, and she’d say whether it was on the right track or not, and I’d change it according to what she said.”
Would he do another film score? “It was a lot of work,” he says. “But I enjoyed it a lot. I enjoyed the regimented structure where I would just sit down every day and make something and I wouldn’t have to wait for my own ideas to come because the director already had the ideas, and it was just up to me to make the simply make the music, you know, not have to worry about lyrics, et cetera.”
He echoes this sentiment when I ask him about his collaborations with other musicians like Oneohtrix Point Never and Frank Ocean (as well as contributing to Ocean’s Blonde album, Giannascoli has played in his touring band).
“I love when other people need me to do something,” he laughs, “It’s nice, because it’s just helping them accomplish whatever they want to accomplish. And I’m happy to use whatever I know to help them with that.”
Given his openness to collaboration, it’s interesting that no one – other than his partner, the violinist Molly Germer – has ever featured on an Alex G track. “I guess I don’t see the reason for it in my own stuff,” he tells me. “Because when I’m making something I kind of know what I want to do with it, so I don’t have a reason to reach out.”
Despite his audience growing exponentially, he’s still making music in the same way as he always has. “I think my approach has been pretty much the same,” he admits. “I approached it from the beginning with the idea that people would be listening, you know, whether it’s a mass of people or just a couple of people.” It’s this quiet confidence that has perhaps made Giannascoli one of the most prolific and singular artists of his time, and endeared him to so many people.
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