(Sandy) Alex G: 'I don't feel like a brand yet, I still feel like a person'

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(Sandy) Alex G
(Sandy) Alex G, whose full name is Alexander Giannascoli, is a Philadelphia-based musician and songwriter. (Tonje Thilesen)

Alex Giannascoli says composing lyrics is a process of subtraction.

"It starts off a little more specific and then I just keep trying out different things until it feels like the most coherent and essential thing, without saying anything at the same time," he explains.

On House of Sugar, the lo-fi pop musician's ninth full-length release, his often warped voice swarms and lingers over warm walls of stringed instruments and looped synths. The album's themes are murky: memory runs backwards, sugar is spooned, and answers are buried with sand.

Giannascoli got his start as a Bandcamp star, recording tapes in his bedroom. He released his DIY label debut in 2014. In the years since, he's gained traction playing guitar on Frank Ocean's Blond and Endless. And (Sandy) Alex G fans are ravenous about his bedroom-to-sold-out-show trajectory as well as decoding the narratives nestled in his lyrics: there's a Reddit thread with over 3,000 users dedicated to debating lyrical meaning and sharing shaky live videos of unreleased tracks.

Ahead of his sold-out show at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall tonight, I spoke with Giannascoli on the phone about going with his gut, Shania Twain, and the "cyclical digging" that music requires. Read the edited transcript of our call below.

How does it feel to be playing songs live that you've recorded mostly in a solitary space? Is it nerve-wracking for you?

I think when we first started doing this years ago it did feel weird because it was hard for me to let go of the original recording. I've been playing with this band for so long now that I appreciate the new form that the songs can take when we play it like a rock band, you know? It's sort of like two different things — there's the live show and that is its own enclosed world and then the recordings are also their own enclosed world; they're connected but it's not the same effect from one to the other. There's so much manipulating and perfecting in the recording, and then for the live shows its a more raw chaotic thing that also has its own merit, but it is a different type of experience.

You have a tendency to name songs with singular nouns or verbs — when they appear in track lists, they have an effect almost like a minimalist poem. Do you think a lot about naming songs?

I guess I think about the title as much as I would a lyric because a title is a part of the song, so I'm not trying to name it something that would push your perception of the song in one direction or another too much. I try and find the most middle ground word or something that could pinpoint what it is about without skewing the meaning, does that make sense?

To be honest I couldn't really tell you why, but I do think about it for a while and I throw stuff at the wall until it feels good, you know? But I couldn't really tell you what the concrete method is because I don't really know — I just try different names out until it feels good.

Do names come up after a song is finished or does it vary?

Sometimes. There's songs on [House of Sugar] like "Taking," that I named before I even wrote the lyrics, and then I ended up writing the lyrics around the word "taking." The weird one in the middle called "Sugar," I called that sugar before I had lyrics and then I wrote lyrics after the fact. I think there is a method to it but it's just subconscious and I make an effort to have it be a subconscious effort. I don't want it to seem like I'm just randomly assigning names, there is a feeling I'm going for it's just I never take the time to sum that up in a way that I can explain.

I've noticed as well in your lyrics there's these heavier motifs woven in with seemingly simple concepts that are introduced to children as ways into the world — like sports and animals and candy. Are you purposefully trying to return to a childlike mindset when you're composing?

That's a good question — usually because I'm trying to get a really core sentiment of something, and I guess because those are really fundamental symbols. To be honest I don't think about it really concretely. It's such a thing I do that I feel like I can't give you a good answer.

I get that. I understand your music on an intuitive level like you were saying — it's a really raw feeling that you're capturing. I'm wondering if it's difficult for you at times to tap into that place; when you get an idea for a song, do you then try not to think too much about it?

I think I'll start writing lyrics and they're usually a little more specific at the beginning and then it's just a process of replacing things and whittling it down until it's a more blunt, universal... or maybe universal is the wrong word, but a more core set of lyrics — a more essential set of lyrics is what I'm looking for. And it starts off a little more specific and then I just keep trying out different things until it feels like the most coherent and essential thing without saying anything at the same time. It's funny trying to talk about it because it sounds like I'm bullsh*tting you, but that is the process.

It's a paradox, though, because if you talk about it, it ruins it, right?

Yeah, exactly. I think that's why I really like music as an art form, it's this weird... you know you can just return to it so many times and the narrative can develop with each listen as opposed to [with] story there's a finite distance you can dig, you know? Whereas with music you can dig in this cyclical way where you're just digging forever and you can keep finding new things. Because it's all about context and the listener's personal context and just a whole bunch of stuff.

I read a recent interview where you were talking about being drawn to reading more instead of listening to music. Is that still the case and has that influenced your [music] writing style at all?

That is still the case. I don't listen to a lot of music anymore just because it takes a little more for me to get excited about stuff because that's part of indulging in one thing for too long — you build a tolerance for it or something. But as far as reading and if that influences anything, I'm sure it does but I don't have a good concrete example of that either because I try to delude myself into thinking everything I'm writing is purely from me — even though it's not. Inevitably it's just a collage of all this sh*t that I've ingested over my life so I'm sure things I'm reading and watching pop out, and even music I've listened to in the past pops out, but I can't think of a specific example, you know?

I noticed that you recently covered Shania Twain. Where did that idea come from?

To be honest we got asked to do this Sirius Radio Live session and the label was like, "You should do this because it will get you a lot of clicks." But one of the requirements was that we had to do a cover, and I don't really like doing covers, but I figured that song was really bland so we could just cover that and it would be like a non-statement. I figured I could do that and maybe it would disappear but it seems like people are actually listening to it, which is fine too.

I feel like people are listening to it because [in the past] you've been compared to freak folk artists and [your music is] a little bit twangy in some places. But [Shania] is in such a different area of country than you tap into.

It is a good song —- I guess the main reason I think [we chose it] is it's just something that we could cover that wouldn't say anything. That's what I was looking for — the most non, bland thing we could do so that it's like almost not a cover, you know what I mean?

So you're purposefully not trying to make a statement with it?

Exactly.

Do you have any thoughts about why so many rock and hip-hop artists are incorporating that country sound right now?

I think there's an earnestness about it, and like an irony in being that earnest or something. That's my interpretation, but I don't really know. That music is very earnest and that's something that's really charming about it but I think that's why a lot of people poke fun at it too.

I wanted to ask about your visuals. The paintings that appear on the covers of your albums — are they done by your sister?

Yeah, my sister Rachel.

Those are very vivid and beautiful and expressive — and not to say that the music videos you've released for the two singles [off House of Sugar] aren't [that way], but they seem like different aesthetics, especially the video for "Hope."

Yeah, that was on my phone.

Do the album covers and [other visuals] you've released seem contrasting to you; is there anything you're trying to communicate with visuals in particular?

I'm going off whatever my gut tells me to do and there's not a lot of calculating. I like having my sister paint it because she's my sister and she's dictated my taste in everything. I've always sort of modeled what I think is cool off what she thinks is cool, so whatever she paints I'm always excited about.

For the videos, I try and work with people who I like and it's difficult to find people who I really can — I don't know, who I would feel comfortable putting my music behind. So I stick with [animator] Elliot Bech because I think his stuff has some quality that I like. I can't really explain it more than that. I guess it's just like I'm trying really hard to filter everything through my lens and not what anyone else thinks is cool...but that's what everyone does. It's hard to say because I just don't think about it to be honest. I feel stuff about all the things [I release] and if it feels bad I don't put it out. It takes a lot for it to feel comfortable, but when it feels good and comfortable then I'm happy to put it out. But that's about as much of the process that I even know about too, you know?

It's so genuine and anti-brand...but that in itself does communicate something because you're resisting a label so much that that almost is your thing.

I guess. I don't feel like I'm resisting anything, it's more just like trying to do what allows me to be comfortable being so public, you know? Because no matter what is coming out, it's a reflection of me. I don't feel like a brand yet, I still feel like a person. That's where I'm at.