Scotland Week: God Help the Girl’s Olly Alexander Interview | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Scotland Week: God Help the Girl’s Olly Alexander

The Years & Years Singer On Working With Stuart Murdoch

Sep 02, 2014 Web Exclusive
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We have a special theme on Under the Radar’s website this week which we’re simply calling Scotland Week. All throughout the week we will be posting interviews, reviews, lists, and blog posts relating to Scotland and in particular Scottish music. 

Olly Alexander was the first actor Stuart Murdoch cast in his directorial debut, God Help the Girl. While the actor had appeared in several films before that point, including Enter the Void and Gulliver’s Travels, it was his unique audition video—in which Alexander performed a song he’d written on his little Casio keyboard—which caught Murdoch’s attention.

God Help The Girl is a feature-length musical written and directed by Belle and Sebastian frontman (and first-time filmmaker) Stuart Murdoch. In the movie, budding songwriter Eve (Emily Browning) sneaks out of her mental health facility and connects with young, like-minded musicians James (Olly Alexander) and Cass (Hannah Murray). They form a band – with James as the pseudo-mastermind – and make music over the course of a single, magical Glasgow summer.

Olly Alexander sat down with us in New York, short on sleep after playing a show in Poland with his real-life band, Years & Years.

Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): So, your band -- did that come about before God Help the Girl?

Olly Alexander: Oh, yeah. I mean, I was in bands when I was younger, but the band I’m in now, Years and Years, has been together in some formation or another for almost five years. So it’s been a while, but we’ve had different members and the music is really different now from where we started. But it’s really been in the last year that it’s become my main job, really.

I read that you were asked to join the band after you were overheard singing in the shower…?

Yeah. [Laughs] That’s the story that we tell now. I met Mikey, the bassist, through a friend. I moved to London when I was 18 and I wanted to be in a band again, but I didn’t know any musicians or anything. Mikey was the first person that I met who was in a band. I said, “Let me be in your band, I want to be in a band!” And he wasn’t that sure about it, he was just like, “Oh, yeah, cool, maybe…”

We had a party at my house and I think he stayed over, and I was singing in the shower in the morning. He was like, “I heard you singing. It sounded good. You can be in the band.” That was my way in. I knew he could hear. [Laughs] That’s a thing I do when people stay over: I sing really, really loud in the shower just to show off.

And you have a brand new EP out?

Yes! Take Shelter. It’s actually not available on U.S. iTunes. We will be releasing music here, but this one… probably not, unfortunately. But I think it’s on Spotify here. [Ed. Note: It isn’t, but lots of their other music is.] Otherwise, we’re on Soundcloud.

I’ll ask you the same question I asked Stuart: did you find there to be any parallels between your experiences in your real-life band, and those of the band you’re in in God Help the Girl?

That is a good question, but I would say no. [Laughs] At least, initially.

When you’re in a band, you’re always frustrated that your music’s not getting heard by enough people, especially when you start out; or that the music doesn’t sound the way you want it to. Or, you’re thinking about the music you want to make versus the music you think people want to hear, or the label wants to hear. In the movie they’re kind of this very pure band. They’re just these friends who get together for a moment to make very pure music.

I think where that comes from – that desire to make music – is universal to anyone who wants to make music or art. It all comes from the same place.

Were you a Belle and Sebastian fan before you became involved with the film?

I didn’t know that much Belle and Sebastian, but I have a friend who played me “I’m A Cuckoo” when I was around 14 or 15, maybe. She was really into them, and I liked that song. I’d heard a couple more of their tunes and liked them. Since being in the movie I’m familiar with more of their music. I’m such a fan of who they are, and what they represent. They know who they are and they’re so true to themselves, and it’s not easy to do that. They’re so prolific – they’ve written so many songs, and I have so much respect for them as musicians and songwriters.

What was your audition like for Stuart? Did you record one of the singing videos?

Oh, yeah. So, for the audition, you had to read a bit of the script and then perform a song. Stuart told me the reason I got the part was because while everyone else had been playing guitar and doing covers of Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or David Bowie and being cool, for my audition I wrote a song on my little, shitty Casio keyboard. [Laughs] It was about a camping holiday I’d been on when I was seven years old. He told me, “You got the part because that’s something James would have done.”

And that song was just for the audition? Will it see any other light of day?

Oh, no. Thank god!

Do you remember the films that Stuart sent you to prepare for God Help the Girl?

He sent us a lot of films. A lot of references. The Railway Children was a big one. And French New Wave films, generally: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Anna Karina films. We all watched Fast Times At Ridgemont High together. Gregory’s Girl… There’s a definite vibe in his references, but I didn’t watch all of it.

You, Emily, and Hannah lived together during filming. What did you get up to in your downtime?

We ate a lot of Mexican food. We watched some of those movies, and we watch a lot of terrible, crappy television. We were like a little gang, just hanging out all the time. But we didn’t get up to much… we just hung out in our rooms and ordered take-out Mexican food.

Once the cast was all together, did you have much time for rehearsal?

We had two weeks, which for a film like this is amazing. Usually you don’t get any time for rehearsal. But we had two weeks to hang out, learn songs, go through the script, and learn some dance choreography. And to get to know Glasgow, which was really nice. I love Glasgow so much. I can’t speak more highly of the city, it’s just so brilliant.

Beyond the Mexican food, what were your favorite parts of Glasgow?

I don’t think people say this enough, but the food in Glasgow is great. Specifically, I’m a vegetarian, and Glasgow has a lot of vegan and vegetarian options, which you wouldn’t expect. So, the food! But more than that, the music community is so strong in Glasgow, and everyone’s so supportive of each other. It has a real history of producing great bands. They’ve got so many great live music venues.

And how was Stuart, as a director?

So relaxed. So chilled. So calm, unbelievably calm… he might have been cracking underneath, but on the exterior he was so chilled out, which is amazing. I think if it was my first movie I’d be having nervous breakdowns daily. But he was just so calm, and as a result I think it made everyone else more calm. He was just so warm and got along with everyone, and that kind of thing always trickles down from the director.

He put a lot of trust in us and let us do what we want, which was fun. I’d never had that experience, really. I’d never felt so comfortable during the actual shooting of things.

As a musician, did you learn anything from him?

Yeah, but I feel like I should have picked Stuart’s brain even more. I was too embarrassed to be asking too many questions, but Stuart’s such a great songwriter. I realized his process for writing songs… he sort of gets flashes of inspiration, maybe a lyric or a melody, and then he’ll expand on that one idea. That’s a really great way of working. Instead of pushing it, you wait for it to come to you. And what I really learned from him is that simplicity is always better; the best pop songs, the best music, at its core is really simple.

***

God Help the Girl opens theatrically in the U.S. on Friday, September 5th and is available on demand. For more information about the film, check out its website. To listen to Olly’s band, Years and Years, head over to their website



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