Published Sep 10, 2019House of Sugar is the ninth full-length album by Alex Giannascoli, aka (Sandy) Alex G. Its release — this Friday, September 13 — would be a remarkable milestone for anyone, but it's particularly impressive for an artist who's just 26 years old. Not that he wants to talk all that much about it.
From his early reclusive work, like the acoustically-plucked record Race and countless "unreleased" songs he floated onto the internet as a teenager, to his signing with indie heavyweights Domino Records prior to 2015's Beach Music, Giannascoli hasn't slowed down or changed his mindset at all. He's still crafting an incredibly consistent output of enchanting and freaky lo-fi songs — and he'd rather you listen to it than have to talk about it.
"It's not so much the interview itself that I'm uncomfortable with," he tells Exclaim! in a new interview, "but the effect that interviews have on people who listen to the music. I don't think they serve the purpose of the music at all, which is to be something that someone can have a personal attachment with. I think an interview sort of undermines that a little bit."
Despite developing a cult following from his Bandcamp days and a fanbase that is continually growing with every release, Giannascoli tries to avoid the spotlight. His social media accounts are largely unused aside from tour and album announcements. Instead, he lets his music speak for him, through his fragmented, sedative storytelling and restlessly imaginative melodies. Because of this, Giannascoli is hesitant to try to articulate much about his songwriting process during his interview.
"It's not that I don't know about things — but a lot of what I'm doing means one thing to me at one time and means something else to me a different time. And it's hard to tell people that I feel a certain way about a song when in reality it's a whole spectrum of things that the songs can represent. It feels a bit limiting to try to talk about it on the spot."
It's an easy feeling to understand, particularly considering his critically acclaimed 2017 effort Rocket was a superfluid foray into his incessantly creative mind, touching on everything from alt-country to Auto-Tuned R&B to industrial noise while still feeling distinctly cohesive. Giannascoli didn't hold onto any one style, and House of Sugar follows suit, intertwining the ultra-tender Americana strumming of songs like "In My Arms" and "Cow" with the glassy, heavily digitized "Near" and "Sugar," which roll seamlessly into each other in the album's sequencing in a clever way that only Giannascoli could pull off.
House of Sugar's lead single, "Gretel," is a definitively (Sandy) Alex G song, with all of his signature elements: pitch-shifted vocals, downtrodden guitar, chimes and whistles, and cryptic lyrics that contain a morsel of a twisted reality that triggers visceral sensations. Giannascoli's dazed voice sings the main refrain: "I don't wanna go back, nobody's gonna push me off track," an unintentional ode to the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel.
"I was writing the lyrics not thinking about that story, but at one point in the song I thought 'Gretel' fit really well because it adds another dimension to the ambiguous nature of the lyrics. It kind of points to this more menacing feeling like there's a witch out there."
The final song on the album, "SugarHouse," named after a casino in his current hometown of Philadelphia, was recorded live at a concert in St. Louis, and features Giannascoli in full croon mode set to a backdrop of cocktail-jazz saxophone.
"I don't know if it's a coincidence or subconscious, but I didn't name the album after the casino. Later someone was like, 'Oh, I see what you did with the Sugarhouse Casino.' It wasn't my intention at all, but I think it definitely fit really well."
Giannascoli's claims that "one thing led to another" in establishing House of Sugar's push and pull between momentary feelings of bliss, yearning, and crashing lows of indecision and self-doubt, reflected through Giannascoli's sonic mood swings and narrated by one of his defining moves: prominent yet tasteful use of voice manipulation. It's a method he uses jarringly at the start of the album on "Walk Away," which begins with a painstakingly slowed and creepy moan, and then tumbles into a chorus of disorienting, mumbling voices. On "Taking," Giannascoli's pitched-up, indecipherable vocals act like an additional instrument.
"It's mostly just a gut feeling. If the songs ever feel a little boring or a little dull then I think the voices add a really surprising character to them that makes it more exciting. There's more to digest as opposed to just my voice, which also gets kind of dull after a while," Giannascoli laughs, humbly.
And, just to add a final sprinkle of variety to House of Sugar, Giannascoli reached out to the people closest to him, to add fresh voices into the mix. Long-time collaborator Emily Yacina sings on the teetering, gorgeous "Southern Sky," and his girlfriend Molly Germer plays violin throughout the album and sings on jaunty country number "Crime."
"The album seems more like a movie or something when there's more characters," he says, "as opposed to just me being the only character that you hear."
House of Sugar is out September 13 via Domino.