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The Search for a Unified Theory of Alex G

The prolific Philadelphia songwriter returns with a new album. Is it too polished? Is it too weird? Or maybe it’s just all about dogs.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Where do the words come from?

Alex G admits that he really doesn’t know. Songwriting has become a reflex at this point for the Philadelphia-based musician, like catching a ball that’s been thrown at him. First the page is empty, then it’s not.

“I just go off of intuition,” he says during a call on an August afternoon. “The words that come into my head are what I put down, and then I fine-tune them later so it’s more coherent of a narrative, or whatever.”

Though only 29 years old, he’s already had a prolific career. Born Alex Giannascoli and temporarily known as (Sandy) Alex G, he’s released nine albums, two EPs, one live recording, one film score, and a smattering of collaborations with artists ranging from Frank Ocean to Oneohtrix Point Never. And that doesn’t take into account all the rarities and unofficial tracks—including a trove of songs he recorded back when he was in high school—that have found their way to the internet through YouTube or that have been collected on fan sites like Unreleased Alex G. He’s rarely on social media, but he’s continued to build a shockingly large audience among young listeners. A few of his songs, specifically some of the weirder ones from the earliest years of his output, have gone viral through TikTok and now have the eight-digit streaming numbers to prove it.

God Save the Animals, Giannascoli’s newest album and his fourth for Domino Recording Company, will be released this Friday. The elements that have come to define an Alex G record are all present: There are absorbing, if hazy, tales where some sketchy situation lurks not too far below the surface. There are unexpected genre flips that take the music beyond the realm of standard indie rock. There are myriad vocal effects that literally give him a different voice from song to song. But God Save the Animals is also another step forward in a discography built on continuous progression. Each album reveals new dimensions of Giannascoli as an artist that he previously hadn’t unlocked.

As the name God Save the Animals implies, religious themes and allusions pervade the record. Alex G song titles are usually only a word or two long, and those words are usually either nouns or proper nouns. Here the tracklist includes “Mission,” “Blessing,” and “Miracles.” He begins the album with the pious lines, “After all / People come and people go away / Yeah but God with me he stayed” and ends with a song in which he hollers the absolving plea, “Forgive yesterday, I choose today.”

Giannascoli says his upbringing wasn’t religious at all and he hasn’t had a recent spiritual awakening. It’s just that some people he’s close to have found religion later in life, so it was on his mind. “I wasn’t thinking about any bigger picture when I was writing,” he says. “I was just seeing where these powerful motifs would bring me when I was throwing different words together.”

In conversation, Giannascoli is reserved but not unfriendly. He doesn’t offer many personal stories or details that might explain his perspective. He’s not withholding exactly, it just can feel like that as a private person he’s unsure how to express what either he or you might be looking for in a response. His most frequent lines during our conversation were variations on the apologetic, “Does that answer your question?”

In recent years, Giannascoli has been recognized as one of his generation’s remarkable songwriters. He’s been covered by Phoebe Bridgers and his friend Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, two other generational talents. Yet when Alex speaks about writing his songs, it can come tinged with self-doubt. “Sometimes I think I’m just rehashing phrases and melodies that I hear throughout the day,” he says. “It’s not like I’m ever coming up with something fresh. It’s just my brain is tossing around stuff that’s already in there.”

He then references the refrain from the God Save the Animals track “No Bitterness” as an example. “‘My teacher is a child,’ I don’t know where I got that from,” he says. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if it just was on a commercial or something.”

When Giannascoli was a teenager, he began putting his music up on Bandcamp, the audio distribution service. By the time he was a senior at Temple University, he’d cultivated enough of a following that he left school to focus on his career as a musician.

He self-released his early albums or put them out through micro indies like Orchid Tapes. By the time 2014’s DSU came along, he’d begun getting coverage in some pockets of the online music press. That’s how director Jane Schoenbrun, now 35, first learned about Giannascoli’s music. “I was always the kid trying to find new musicians to become obsessed with,” Schoenbrun says. “I was especially drawn to stuff that felt really intimate. I grew up on Elliott Smith and Neutral Milk Hotel. When I first heard Alex’s music and the way he was playing on that history of the bedroom artist, but also manipulating it and making it much stranger and much more surreal, I immediately fell in love.”

During the first year of the pandemic, Schoenbrun reached out to Alex to see if he’d be interested in scoring their indie horror film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, since his music had played such a large part inspiring it. Giannascoli created atmospheric, unsettling tracks for the movie, which was released in theaters earlier this year. He’s now doing the score for Schoenbrun’s follow-up, the upcoming A24 film I Saw the TV Glow.

It was also around DSU that Susan Busch, then the director of A&R at Domino and who currently works at Loma Vista Recordings, first heard about him. She instantly fell for the album, particularly the song “Harvey.”

When she first saw him play in June of that year, it was in the tiny performance beneath the storied Manhattan venue Webster Hall. That night a Soundgarden reunion show was happening upstairs and VIPs kept getting whisked through the room. There were only about 20 other people there to see Alex G and the then-21-year-old performed with his back to the small crowd. “It was great and so bizarre, the whole spectacle of it,” Busch says. “I loved it, everything about it was insane.”

Two months later, during an Alex G show at the DIY venue Shea Stadium in East Williamsburg, Busch saw just how much of a connection he’d already established with his fans. “It was packed wall-to-wall,” she says. “Everybody was hanging onto every word of every song. These kids were already super, super invested in Alex.”

“He looked like them and he wasn’t taking it super seriously, but was great and it was loose,” she continues. “That energy was really magnetic.”

Though Busch committed herself to bringing Giannascoli to Domino, he remained unsure about joining such a prominent indie label. It wasn’t because he feared that he would get labeled a sellout by the homespun music scene he came from. Instead he wasn’t sure he actually needed them. “He just wants to do things the way that he wants to do them and make sure they feel right to him,” Busch says. “When he could see that having more ears on his records might help him tour more successfully, he was like, ‘Oh cool.’”

After he eventually did sign with Domino, he maintained the same dubious outlook when Busch introduced him to Jake Portrait, a member of the band Unknown Mortal Orchestra, in hopes they’d work together on the next Alex G project. Despite some initial hesitation on Giannascoli’s part, the two have collaborated on all four of his albums for the label—the first three with Portrait as the mixer and with God Save the Animals as a co-producer. Portrait considers himself a pretty low-tech guy, but even he was shocked by just how rudimentary Giannascoli’s setup was. He would just record everything into GarageBand through a $90 USB microphone that he connected with a cable directly into his laptop.

Despite these technical limitations, Portrait couldn’t deny the power of what he was able to capture. “The recordings were coming in sounding insane, but the performance is the thing that Alex really understands,” he says. “He respects the moment that he bottles an idea.”

Many of the articles surrounding Alex G’s last album, 2019’s House of Sugar, made sure to note that he had upgraded to a newer, more expensive microphone. Portrait explains that this development actually was a huge deal. On Beach Music (2015) and Rocket (2017), the pair had to spend a lot of their time together adjusting the audio to get it up to acceptable standards. With the new microphone, they could devote themselves more to creative exploration.

For God Save the Animals, Giannascoli took the even more dramatic step of going to professional studios around Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York, where engineers would record him playing his parts. They would then send him the audio stems, so Giannascoli and Portrait could mix, match and chop them up themselves. “I had been intimidated by the studio because it was a process I was unfamiliar with,” Giannascoli says. “But since I had all this time during the pandemic, I had the opportunity to go in and experiment and get used to working with an engineer.”

While he thinks he’ll probably keep going to studios because now he’s spoiled and doesn’t want to do the arduous business of setting up the equipment anymore, it was an adjustment. The hardest part for him was feeling guilty about having to ask someone else to record him playing the same stuff over and over again. “[You’re] just feeling like you’re wasting someone’s time, which you’re not, because you’re paying them,” he says. “You can do a thousand takes and it’s only you that you’re bothering.”

One of the engineers he frequently recorded with was Mark Watter, a Philadelphia musician who works at Headroom Studios and was Alex’s classmate at the suburban Haverford High School. “Alex doesn’t have expectations for what he wants you to do necessarily,” Watter explains. “He knows what he wants to hear and he doesn’t really care how you get there.”

God Save the Animals is far from a polished studio album. The reason it was recorded in so many different locations wasn’t because he liked the drum sounds in one place or the guitar tones in another. It was partially a function of him usually deciding to go to the studio at the last minute and taking whatever spot was available. “It’s a spontaneity with confidence,” Watter says of Giannascoli’s process. “Confidence in songwriting or the sounds he wants to seek out.”

“Alex is smart,” Busch says. “He knows when it’s time to level up or do something that might push things further, but within his own realm of comfort.”

Giannascoli has performed live with guitarist Sam Acchione and bassist John Heywood for about 10 years. The latest addition to the group, drummer Tom Kelly, has been around for six. They’re a tight crew, but on his albums, he usually plays the instruments himself. The previous exception was the live version of “SugarHouse” on House of Sugar. While Giannascoli continued to handle most of the instrumentation on God Save the Animals, the album does include four tracks featuring members of the band.

Again, this wasn’t a conscious choice made at the outset. When the band all got together and recorded the ominous track “Blessing” and Giannascoli was excited by the results, he and Portrait decided to investigate the approach some more. “There is not a game plan,” Portrait says. “I don’t like the masterminding. All of the records that I love and have loved, the majority of the stories I know about them is that people went into the studio looking for something and they finished when they felt like they found the thing.”

Though there is a ramshackle quality to Alex G songs, the reality is that he and Portrait will radically rework multiple versions of them until they’re satisfied. But Portrait acknowledges that plenty of the key moments continue to happen when Giannascoli is off on his own. “Those things are still happening in his bedroom,” he says. “Even as his process evolves, he’ll come in and play something that’s a voice memo on his phone and it’s sick. The idea is right there.”

As expected with any artist with such a devoted following, the Alex G fan community can go to unexpected places when interpreting his music. When only three singles were available from God Save the Animals, there was a thread in his subreddit theorizing that every song would be told from the perspective of a different creature. In another thread following the success of the seemingly canine-focused track “Runner,” someone else posited that every song from Alex G’s catalog was told from the perspective of a dog. The idea wasn’t entirely dismissed.

Giannascoli is aware of some of these fan discussions because they get sent to him, but he never seeks them out. He does understand the impulse to try and make the entirety of output make sense. “I remember when I was a kid and I had blocks or, like, Jenga,” he says. “If you stick a Jenga piece back in and it fits perfectly, it just feels good. There’s something about having everything fit. You just like seeing some type of order in the chaos.”

At the same time, he cautions against searching for any unified theory of Alex G beyond that his music is an evolving creative expression of himself. “The unifying thing that I’m trying to be conscious of is that it’s my whims that guide the process,” he says. “I’m just a guy or just the same, you know, ignorant person doing this thing without a lot of external input. It does become unified in some way, if only just so you could kind of trace where I’m at a little bit. I don’t know, not exactly, but there’s gotta be something to that.”

As relatable as Alex G’s songs can be, they can also be deeply weird. To the skeptic, it can feel like he’s purposefully emphasizing the latter at the expense of the former. On “Bad Man” from House of Sugar he combines two of the more accessible genres he’s touched before—rootsy country and 1980s pop rock—then pushes each of them to the point of parody.

“I’m really drawn to artists who have to be themselves, that is a prerequisite for them doing magic,” says Schoenbrun. “That’s how I feel about Alex. He has an incredible sense of self and sense of what he’s drawn towards. And a lot of what he’s drawn towards are strange, strange detours and sounds that don’t fit into an easy commercial package. For him to forsake that and try to make a mature country album would be so against the grain of what drives his creative process.”

Portrait denies that Alex G’s use of effects on his voice is in any way a trolling move. Portrait says that when people mention the possibility of clearing up the vocals, what he hears is: “Maybe we could make more money on this song if it was more traditional.” That may be true, and while God Save the Animals opener “After All” is beautiful in its sorrow, you also can’t help but wonder how it might have turned out if it didn’t sound like it was sung by a choir of drowned android ghosts.

Right before mastering God Save the Animals, Giannascoli came in with a new song called “Miracles.” It was the last track they recorded. “It’s a little more of a standard song, there’s not that much between you and him,” Portrait says. “There’s something about it that struck me as something that he could continue to explore, which is leaning even more on the songs.”

“Miracles” is as tender and romantic sounding as Alex G has ever been. It’s the kind of song that optimistic young couples might turn into “our song” with its pledges of fidelity that will make “infinite futures become a single past.” But in the middle of it, Alex asks, “How many more songs am I supposed to write / Before I can turn it off and say goodnight?”

In interviews, Alex has often been reluctant to talk about how much of his songs are autobiographical. But as someone not yet 30 years old who’s already put so many songs into the world, was he actually contemplating how long he’d be able to keep on doing this? “I don’t really ask questions like that of myself or the world or whatever,” he replies. “Writing lyrics is a time where it feels productive to just put questions like that out there and see what other people make of it. Personally, I try not to let myself think like that. I’ll [write songs] until I hit a wall. And then I’ll just stop.”

Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.