Alex G and the Art of Interesting Choices

Alex G in the studio earlier this year. The musician has become a Philadelphia hero, but his listenership is far from just local.Credit…Sinna Nasseri for The New York Times

PHILADELPHIA — On a blustery Thursday in June, the 29-year-old musician Alex Giannascoli sat on a bench in tranquil Penn Treaty Park, overlooking the Delaware River, the breeze occasionally shaking loose acorns from an overhead tree. Giannascoli, who is known professionally as Alex G, has dark, shaggy hair and a disheveled handsomeness that makes him look a bit like a softer, more approachable Andrew W.K. He clutched a large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup and, whenever he felt like he’d gone on a tangent, blamed the caffeine.

Before long, a hiply dressed 20-something walking an old dog came up and interrupted to politely ask if Alex G was indeed Alex G.

Alex grinned sheepishly and laughed. “Yeah.”

“I knew it!” the man said, shaking his head. “I just moved to Philly — and what do you know!”

To a certain type of indie music fan, Alex G is a regional celebrity, the kind of artist who stands almost as a metonym for the place where he lives and works. Since 2010, he has released a string of albums that have showcased both his outré, D.I.Y. ethos and a melodic pop sensibility at the core of his music. Vocally and aesthetically, he is a restless shape shifter, altering the pitch of his voice, embodying uncanny characters (like, say, a cowboy who has survived the nuclear holocaust or an insecure teenage girl named Sandy), and plundering innumerable genres. All of these elements together make his albums feel like warped, scratchy transmissions from a sonic collective unconscious. Yet, somehow, they still sound unmistakably like Alex G.

Over the past decade, his fandom has grown far beyond local love. It now includes Frank Ocean (who personally tapped Alex to play guitar on his 2016 opus, “Blonde”), a lively Subreddit whose members cheekily but reverently refer to him as “Mr. G,” and Michelle Zauner, the author of the best-selling memoir “Crying in H Mart” and the leader of the Grammy-nominated indie band Japanese Breakfast, which opened for Alex on a 2017 tour.

“A lot of the music is still relying on my gut,” Alex G said. “Like, if I have a guitar part, and it gives me a gut feeling, I add that.”Credit…Sinna Nasseri for The New York Times

“Honestly, he is one of my favorite contemporary songwriters,” Zauner said in a phone interview. “Everything he does is so brilliant and singular and bizarre. Every time you think you know what he’s up to, he does something else, and then a bunch of people just try to copy what he does.” Trying to pin down his personality, she gave up: “He’s just a really unique, weird man.”

Alex G’s signature eccentricity was in full force in May when he released “Blessing,” the introductory single from his ninth album, “God Save the Animals,” due Sept. 23. On first listen, it sounded like an entirely different artist: Perhaps one of those vaguely goth, subtextually Christian alternative rock bands that proliferated during the nu-metal boom. “Every day is a blessing,” he whispers with menacing intensity. “If I live like the fishes, I will rise from the flood.”

“I guess it’s kind of left-field,” he said at the park, shrugging. “After a long time of not really putting stuff out, I thought it would be the most interesting choice.”

The cult of Alex G, a group down for interesting choices, has grown with each album. His last release, the wildly eclectic “House of Sugar,” was his most acclaimed and successful yet. This year he released his first ever film score, for the indie horror flick “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.” He also recently played on a major late-night show for the first time, performing a memorable rendition of his single “Runner” on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

Yet at a time when so many musicians feel a professional obligation to share intimate details of their lives with fans on social media to grow their audience, Alex has carefully erected barriers protecting his privacy. (His longtime partner Molly Gerber, a violinist who sometimes plays in his band, and his sister, Rachel, a painter who does the cover art for most of his records, both declined to comment for this article.)

Still, there are moments on “God Save the Animals” that are so frank and plain-spokenly sincere — from inquiries about spirituality to anxiety about when to start a family — that some listeners will be inclined to wonder whether they are extensions of Alex’s inner dialogue.

Alex remains reluctant to ascribe any meaning — least of all autobiography — to anything he writes. “It’s honesty like catching a ball or something,” he said of his songwriting process. “I just don’t allow myself to think, ‘Should I put my hand here or here?’”

He laughed, looking at his now-empty coffee cup. “Maybe there’s someone who’s very good at this, buried deep down, who’s just not in touch with the dumb part of me that’s navigating the world.”

“When I’m thinking of a song,” Alex G said, “it’s not like, ‘This would be a great ‘me’ song.’ I’m just like, ‘This would be a cool song.’”Credit…Sinna Nasseri for The New York Times

IN JANUARY, ALEX and his longtime collaborator Jacob Portrait, a founder of the band Unknown Mortal Orchestra, were in the final stages of mixing “God Save the Animals” at a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Wearing a beanie and a black hoodie, Alex spoke enthusiastically about the Beatles documentary “Get Back,” which he’d just watched (“I just love how it felt like you were their friend”) and his recent obsession with the folk songwriter Gillian Welch. Talking about his new album, though, still felt difficult.

“A lot of the music is still relying on my gut,” he said. “Like, if I have a guitar part, and it gives me a gut feeling, I add that.”

Portrait spun around in his chair in front of the mixing console to assist. “Some people, the way that they analyze it feels almost scholarly,” he told Alex. “But you’re always like, ‘It doesn’t feel right.’ And then you go in and change something and it’s like, ‘Oh wow. That’s incredible.’”

Alex said his instincts are a part of a creative process that can skew obsessive. “I am beyond a control freak — I’m a monster,” he told me. “I say it straight up to my band sometimes, because I’ll have them play on some of the songs, and sometimes I’m like, ‘Honestly you could play something so amazing and I might not like it just because I didn’t do it.’”

After self-recording a prolific run of early albums, Alex was reluctant to invite anyone new into his process, but Portrait, who arrived to work on the 2015 album “Beach Music,” slowly became a trusted partner.

Portrait recalled a turning point in their relationship, when Alex was writing his next album, the tuneful, quasi-folk “Rocket.” Alex was so excited about a new song he’d just written that he drove from Philadelphia to Brooklyn just to tape a USB stick containing the demo to Portrait’s computer screen. (“Which is hilarious,” Portrait said, “because the internet’s definitely around.”) When he plugged it in and listened, Portrait was blown away by one of the best songs Alex had ever written, a fractured country lament called “Bobby,” which has since become a fan favorite.

Around this time, an email from Ocean’s manager arrived out of the blue. Alex ended up credited as a guitarist and arranger on two tracks from Ocean’s “Blonde”: the plangent, pitch-shifted “Self Control” and the diffuse “White Ferrari.” He also played guitar throughout the amorphous visual album “Endless” and joined Ocean’s live band for a six-gig stint.

The scope of their fame is certainly different, but, in an aesthetic sense, Alex and Ocean are kindred spirits. Both value privacy and continue to work with a trusted circle of collaborators, incubated from outside timelines and trends, which allows their music to retain a power of intimacy no matter how many people listen to it.

“As a producer, Frank really was thinking of Alex when he got some of his music onto that record,” Portrait said, “because you can get the feeling of some of those moments. You’re like, ‘Damn, that really is Alex.’”

ALEX GREW UP in Havertown, a quiet suburb nine miles outside of Philadelphia. He has two artistic siblings who are roughly a decade older than him, so it took him a while to figure out his place. His brother played jazz and had formal training in music, but 7-year-old Alex quickly grew bored with the piano lessons he’d begged his parents for.

His sister, Rachel, though, was an avid music fan who introduced him to his first “cool bands”: Nirvana, Radiohead. In his early teens, influenced by another one of his sister’s favorite artists, Aphex Twin, Alex started fiddling around on the computer, making what he laughingly dismissed as “beep-boop [expletive].” His older sister heard something in it, though, and that meant the world to him.

“You could show her any outlandish thing and she’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, OK,” he said, of sending her his songs. “It basically pushed me into the world of DIY music, the fact that I had this confidence to be like, ‘She thinks I’m good at it.’” They’re still close today, and live down the street from each other.

In high school, Alex was into “typical pot-smoking teenager” stuff, he said: drawing, reading, writing, and, of course, honing his musical sensibility. His school hosted coffeehouses where local bands could play. He went to his first one when he was in middle school and felt a world of possibility open up: “It clued me in as a kid that, ‘OK, you can make a band. You can just do it.’”

Credit…Sinna Nasseri for The New York Times

In recent years, as would-be creatives continue to be priced out of New York, Philadelphia has become a kind of beacon for young artistic types, especially independent musicians. As soon as he started playing music, Alex felt the support of a strong local scene. Early in high school, he and his friend Sam Acchione, who still plays in his band, formed a group called the Skin Cells and performed their first show in the basement of a local library, opening for the New Jersey punk stalwarts Screaming Females. “I remember afterwards they were like, ‘Hey, great job,’” Alex said. “And then we went home, like, ‘They said great job!’”

Still, for all his DIY bona fides, Alex’s influences often skew surprisingly mainstream. At the park, Alex said the production on “Blessing” was inspired by a song he became obsessed with while working on “God Save the Animals,” which he’d listen to endlessly on loop. I leaned in, expecting him to name-drop some obscure, crate-dug rarity.

“It was this song ‘Like a Stone’ by Audioslave,” Alex said. “It came on the radio one night and I was like, ‘What the …? This is the best thing I’ve ever heard!’”

“Blessing” is an outlier sonically, though not thematically, on the new album. Its title included, “God Save the Animals” riffs on religious imagery and sometimes even evokes a kind of funhouse-mirror Christianity (“God is my designer,” a surreal, helium-voiced Alex sings on one song, “Jesus is my lawyer”). Though Alex wasn’t raised in a religious household, he admits that spirituality has been on his mind these past few years, and that some of the songs likely sprang from that part of his subconscious. “I don’t really have a set of beliefs,” he said, “but it seems like a place everyone has to go at some point.”

Even if Alex’s music has never felt especially spiritual, there has long been a recurring sense of morality in it. Terrible things happen in and around the margins of his songs — nuclear bombs; fentanyl overdoses; bottomless longing — but never without the possibility of renewal and carrying on.

Similarly, one of the most stirring moments on the new album comes in the middle of “Runner,” which until then has been a mild-mannered lite-rocker in the vein of Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train.” “I have done a couple bad things,” Alex sings in a pleasant voice, and then repeats the line several times, his voice becoming increasingly anguished until it turns into a bloodcurdling scream. It’s a gaping rupture in the song, but just as casually, it continues on.

That it sounds nothing quite like anything he’s released before goes without saying — as does the fact that it’s still somehow so Alex G. “When I’m thinking of a song,” he said, “it’s not like, ‘This would be a great ‘me’ song. I’m just like, ‘This would be a cool song.’”

“And so it sounds like me because I don’t know what I’m doing,” he added, his laughter rising against the wind. “But I’m pursuing it as far as I can go.”

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button