How faith and commercial radio shaped Alex G’s most personal record to date


How faith and commercial radio shaped Alex G’s most personal record to date

Whether by nature or by design, Alex G is one of indie rock’s most inscrutable characters.

As a lyricist and songwriter, he is most comfortable as an omniscient storyteller, creating vivid but ambiguous vignettes filled with fictional characters – while his own place in these stories remains obscured. As a singer, he often uses technology to alter the sound of his voice, sometimes warping it beyond recognition.

In interviews, he is friendly, but notoriously terse — something I experienced first hand over the phone in September, just days before his latest studio album was released.

Was he excited to share “God Save The Animals” — his first album in three years — with his fans?

“It’s been a while since I finished it,” he responded flatly. “So just like, yeah, I haven’t thought about it much.”

Hailing from Haverton, Pennsylvania, the singer-songwriter born Alex Giannascoli — who is set to play History in Toronto on Saturday — first made a splash in the early 2010s with a series of charmingly lo-fi projects that exploded online, garnering comparisons to the beloved indie-folk singer Elliott Smith. In 2014, The Fader dubbed him “the internet’s Secret Best Songwriter.”

Since then, he’s evolved from a bedroom pop prodigy into one of indie rock’s most intriguing experimentalists, frequently veering into country, folk, electronica, punk and even hyperpop.

And yet, over the course of his prolific career – he’s recorded nine studio albums, two EPs, a film soundtrack, and was a key contributor on Frank Ocean’s “Endless”/“Blonde” – the 29-year-old has maintained a shroud of mystery.

This has been a source of frustration for some music critics, but provides plenty of fodder for his earnestly devoted fans, thousands of whom spend their days dissecting his songs on a lively subreddit dedicated to “the creative genius of Alex G.”

“Whenever I make music I try to keep it open for interpretation, even with myself,” he explained, comparing his songwriting style to abstract painting. “I’m trying to capture certain feelings without questioning the logic or the meaning of the words and really just adhering to how the words are making me feel.”

On its surface, “God Save The Animals” comes across as a typically enigmatic Alex G project. Inspired by Joy Young’s “Ninety-Nine Stories of God” — a collection of aphoristic “micro-fictions” that explore the elusive nature of God — the album is peppered with references to Christianity and faith, though Alex said he himself is not religious.

Meanwhile, his vocals are modulated on the majority of these 13 tracks, whether pitched up into childlike innocence, or distorted into a menacing whisper.

But tucked beneath its blurry exterior is perhaps Alex G’s most personal and mature record to date.

“Were you young when you lost innocence?/ Did the world feel so unkind?,” he sings with quiet confidence on the opening track “After All,” as if speaking to a younger version of himself. “Things may come and things may go away / Yeah but God with me he stayed,” he concludes.

Elsewhere, he seems fixated on – even haunted by – the past: “I have done a couple bad things,” he repeats several times on “Runner,” before letting out a blood curdling scream.

What emerges is a complex portrait of an artist on the verge of 30, when the messy complexity of youth gives way to the grounded responsibilities of adulthood.

A common reaction to this transition is dread (see Bo Burnham’s “Inside”), but Alex G seems poised to face the future with a clear-eyed sense of purpose – inspired, by the concept of faith.

“The idea of faith has kind of opened the door for a lot of people in my life, people who have come to the realization that you can throw yourself into the future and forgive yourself for the past. It’s not easy or self-explanatory to get to that place, but I think religion really helps people get there,” he said.

On “Miracles” — one of Alex G’s most moving and stripped back songs — the narrator contemplates starting a family, expressing doubt in one line, only to commit to the idea in the next.

“You say one day that we should have a baby, well/ Right now, baby, I’m struggling, we’ll see, yeah.” He sings over a softly strummed acoustic guitar and twangy fiddle. “You say one day that we should have a baby, well/ God help me, I love you, I agree.”

Is Alex G narrating from his own perspective? Is he in dialogue with his long-time partner Molly Germer, who provides vocals and strings on “God Save The Animals?”

“I try to tell a story that, even if it’s a dramatized caricature of my life, there is still a possibility that it’s real.”

There is a timeless quality to Alex G’s earliest bedroom recordings. These songs are stark and unvarnished, but expertly crafted, often featuring little more than guitar, maybe some drums and a young man’s endearingly unsteady vocals.

As a teen, he was immersed in Philadelphia’s thriving punk and DIY scene, inspiring him to make music of his own.

“There were just a ton of free, or pay-what-you-can shows going on in people’s basements,” he explained. “And so it was a piece of cake to just start a band or start making music and playing shows. That’s a huge part of why I make music the way I do.”

Over time, Alex G continued to record from home, even as his music became increasingly complex and varied. He signed with Domino — a prominent independent record label — in 2015, and released a trio of stellar and idiosyncratic LPs.

On 2017’s critically-acclaimed “Rocket,” he experimented with rootsy Americana, adorning his hooks with fiddles and banjos. On 2019’s “House Of Sugar,” he experimented with vocal modulation and drum machines, resulting in his most polished and sonically ambitious project yet.

But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that Alex G was finally willing to enter a professional studio. Working with his longtime collaborator Jacob Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra at a studio in Brooklyn, Alex would track his music in the studio, then take the recordings home to edit.

“A lot of my writing is in the editing process,” he explained. “I think what I was afraid of was having to make editing decisions on the clock, or having to tell someone else to do stuff on the computer. When I realized that I could just take it home and do what I always did, I was like, why not?”

Musically, “God Save The Animals” seems to be pulling in two distinct directions. On the one hand, it contains some of Alex G’s strangest genre experiments, apparently inspired by listening to a lot of commercial radio.

The hyperpop-adjacent track “No Bitterness,” for example, lifts the drums from Outkast’s “Hey Ya” and adds auto-tuned vocals in the style of pop rap artists like Lil Uzi Vert and Juice WRLD. The idea for “Blessing” came to him after hearing the Audioslave song “Like A Stone.” Some fans have noted an uncanny similarity between “Runner” and Soul Asylum’s 1993 power ballad “Runaway Train.”

On the other hand, the album features some of Alex G’s most vulnerable and eloquent songwriting, from the Gillian Welch-inspired “Miracles” to the angsty closing track “Again.”

“I guess I like both of those directions a lot,” he explained. “I’m just trying to find a middle ground or something. Not even a middle ground. I was kind of just like, f— it. I’ll put it all on the record. That’s what I always do.”

Though Alex G has finally graduated from the bedroom to the studio, he knows that his early output will always be special to his fans.

“There’s a lot of drama in the lo-fi, sort of janky recordings. It somehow paints a different picture that’s engaging. I remember reading a review of this black metal album, and the reviewer was like: ‘You can hear the tape hiss, and the low end is blown out, and it was dropped in my mailbox on a cassette tape … ’ All that stuff adds up to create this ambiguous narrative that is engaging and fun.”

But as a musician with far more means at his disposal, he can’t help but look forward, driven by a desire to create new sounds that excite him.

“It’s the same calculator making the moves, but that’s not my taste anymore,” he said. “I’m chasing the high of (writing something) that’s new every time.”


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Credit: How faith and commercial radio shaped Alex G’s most personal record to date