There is a point early on during my conversation with Alex Giannascoli when I realize that he is physically struggling to answer a question. It’s an unseasonably warm fall day in Toronto’s East End, the latest stop on a North American tour to promote his ninth album God Save The Animals, and the 29-year-old singer-songwriter is sitting next to me on a park bench staring out at a motionless man-made lake. At his feet is my dog, Maggie, a five-year-old mutt who I’ve brought with me in a thinly-veiled attempt to help Giannascoli open up. He occasionally reaches down to scratch her right ear, and they both seem happier for it.
Giannascoli has never enjoyed talking about his own work. Even in his earliest interviews, he seemed to be struggling to express exactly why he felt compelled to keep writing and recording. “I have like, a feeling, and I make music to match this thing, this feeling,” he told Patrick D. McDermott at The FADER eight years ago, when he was first emerging as a preternaturally gifted indie songwriter. “It's extreme. It's like, not being able to deal with the way reality is." When I interviewed him for Vice five years ago around the release of his seventh album, Rocket, he spoke about his own process as though it were an arcane, foreign subject, something he’d just learned about the previous week and suddenly had to speak about in depth. He says that he works almost unconsciously, on instinct, without stopping to over-analyze the oblique poetry of his lyrics or the odd melodic turns his songs might take.
At this point it’s probably true; Giannascoli isn’t squirreling away secrets about the way he writes. But it’s impossible not to push him on the subject. Increasingly, the albums he’s released as Alex G — and briefly (Sandy) Alex G — have had their own particular focuses. On God Save The Animals, as ever, Giannascoli sings through characters, each with their own motives and flaws; he snakes between glowing alt-country and paranoid, angular rock. But throughout, his protagonists circle back to faith, religion, and God — subjects he’s only really considered in passing on previous albums. He writes about these ideas so affectingly — he opens the album by hypnotically repeating “After all, people come and people go away / Yeah, but God with me he stays” — it seems each line must have been crafted and redrafted over and over again.
Even when Giannascoli insists that this isn’t the case, though, he’s kind and thoughtful. He knows that he can’t explain what exactly it is that makes him write and record music, or why he writes about one thing over another. But he’s determined to explain why he can’t explain it.
The FADER: You gave an interview to the New York Times recently where you said that your songwriting process was unconscious, a bit like catching a ball.
Alex G: Right. If I think about it, then it starts to screw it up.
Are you familiar with the concept of the yips?
They say that baseball pitchers or golfers might get the yips. Everything goes wrong with their motion or their swing, and it's because they start thinking about it. Rather than relying on muscle memory, they start thinking about every single movement they have to make. I wonder if it’s the same for you: if you had to start thinking about it, then it would be a conscious act.
It sounds like a cop-out answer, but I guess I'm just trying to be honest when I talk about it; it's not that I'm consciously not thinking about it. I just do it. And I am thinking about it, but I couldn't tell you what I was thinking about. It's not an effort. The effort comes in when it comes down to the stuff that comes after the bulk of the song has been written, when we do production stuff. That is pretty grueling. The essence of the song is something I sit down and think about and do. But if I try to talk about it, it's dishonest.
The way you talk about it, it sounds very close to the literal meaning of inspiration: being spoken to by God.
I don't know what it is. Sometimes I wonder if it's just some weird innate desire for attention that I don't have control over. I'm not trying to be attention-seeking in my everyday life, but I have that urge to do it over and over. I guess now it's my career, so that's another motivation.
Do you think that you would be making music if it wasn't for others? If you knew that nobody else would hear it?
Well, I think even if no one else was going to hear it, I would always be doing it for other people to hear it. Like when I started, when I was a kid, the only person that would listen was my sister and maybe some of my friends. But in my mind, I was like, "I have to do this to show them and whoever else." It always felt like a big deal.
I guess faith is believing that you deserve to be loved. I don’t know much about any religions, but from talking to people who are religious, loving yourself because God made you… there’s a purpose for you to be here.
So do you think you've always written with an audience in mind? Surely you don't think about an audience when you're writing it.
I'm putting a piece of myself out there. I can craft it and take as long as I want to craft it to make sure that people will accept it. It’s much more complicated than me being like, "So tell me I did a good job." It's not that simple. But I think, in essence, it's just another way to be accepted by people.
What does faith mean in the context of this album?
In life, you encounter people with different points of view and you mull them over yourself to see how it would work with your perspective. Experiences like that made me try out writing from different points of view. I think on some of the songs, it's a resigned point of view — which I guess isn't true faith. But then on others, I guess faith is believing that you deserve to be loved. I don't know much about any religions, but from talking to people who are religious, loving yourself because God made you… there's a purpose for you to be here. You deserve love innately because of that. It's not a matter of what you did or who you are, it's just because you're a person, you deserve to be loved. But honestly, man, I don't think I cover that very well in the songs. The songs are so scrambled. It's just something that I guess I had thought about during the time I was writing, but I don't know if I put it into the songs that effectively.
I guess it comes back to what you were saying when you were asking me before about what I do, and I am thinking about it, but I couldn't tell you what happened between when I had a blank piece of paper and then when I had lyrics on it.
We literally had to take a back exit from a venue to get here. You’re a rock star now, and with that comes increased scrutiny on the songs and on you; people want to decipher things. Does that make you feel uncomfortable?
The only times I get uncomfortable is when people are looking into my actual life, just because, like anybody, there's tons of stuff I'd like to keep private. I guess I'm happy that people do that because it means something to them. It feels good. I guess that's the idea, is to make something that people can immerse themselves in. The stuff that I like is kind of escapist stuff where you can just dive in and get lost in it.
You are studiously not on any social media.
Besides advertising stuff. I just have no interest in it and I guess I wouldn't want it to get in the way of anything I'm making.
Would it interfere with your mind in a way that would alter your creative process?
No, I feel like my personal shit isn't relevant or important so I have no desire to put it out there. I'm like, "Oh my music's so important." But that's something that I spend time crafting and so I'm proud to put it out there.
I wonder if having music to put out there sort of negates the need. That's your way of communicating with the outside world.
Totally, yes. A hundred percent. I just have nothing to say on this level, just talking, I have nothing to say. Music… I love communicating like that though.