An Unlikely Masterpiece of Romance and Ennui from a Super Producer and a Movie Star

By in Music Creation

When movie stars try to break into music, audiences are often quick to harshly judge the actor’s attempt at creativity in another field. Some people figure that being beautiful, rich, and famous is enough reward for one person. Others may feel that actors are simply dilettantes making a record as a vanity project. There’s often truth in both of these points of view, and I’d be lying if I haven’t felt this way myself on occasion. But being closed-minded towards music has never made anyone happier.

Le chanteuse: Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Got a Girl, the new project from producer Dan The Automator and actress/singer Mary Elizabeth Winstead is clearly not a vanity project. Fans of Dan the Automator will recognize his signature production style on the record and it stands among his very best work. But it’s Winsteads’ enormous talent as a singer and songwriter that makes this record one of the most surprising and satisfying of the past few years.

Got a Girl – “Did We Live Too Fast”

Their record I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now was released last year. But due to scheduling conflicts, the duo has just began performing live in support of the album this past week. I caught up with Dan at their show in San Francisco to talk about how he and Winstead created one of the most romantic and sophisticated records in recent memory.

Ennui? Oui.

Anthony Gordon: How did you end up working with Mary?

Dan: In 2008, Radiohead was playing the Outside Lands festival here in San Francisco and [Radiohead guitarist] Ed [O’Brien] called me up to have dinner with him and Nigel Godrich and a bunch of other people. We were hanging out and these guys I hadn’t met before, Edgar Wright and Bryan Lee O’Malley, and Edgar asked me to do some music for a film they were making called Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and I was like “Yes! Of course!” Mary, who was starring in the movie, was at the dinner as well. She told me she was a fan and wanted to do some music together. We stayed in touch and a year or two later we were like “you know what? We should just try something and see what happens.” It ended up being cool and we had good chemistry together so we kept making songs and just took it from there.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead bringing the Parisian vibe to San Francisco

AG: Got a Girl sounds like it’s in the same vein as your Loveage record because they both have a really sexy, sensual vibe to them. How did the chemistry between you and Mary contribute to making this record sound different from Loveage when they’re both occupying sort of the same musical space?

Dan: The main difference is that Loveage was based around tension­—sexual tension and personal tension. Got a Girl is based around romance. It’s got more of a Jane Birkin vibe. Both records come from a place that’s sort of French-ish, but there’s a different emotional feeling from those records on some level.

Dan the Automator on the streets of San Francisco

AG: How did you two go about making this record? What’s your songwriting process like?

Dan: I make the music, and sometimes I’d send her tracks here and there, but mostly we’d sit together in the studio and she’d come up with melodies and we’d work out lyrics together.

Work on your automation skills and maybe you end up here

AG: How did that work with Mary in LA and you in San Francisco?

Dan: Well, I’d be LA sometimes and she’d hang out and we’d write songs together, in the hotel or whatever.  But for the most part we worked together in my studio in San Francisco.


AG: How long did it take to make the record like that?

Dan: It was about a year and some change, mostly because of our schedules. She’s doing movies and I’d been doing a lot of touring with Deltron 3030, so we had to start and stop a lot. Luckily, we have a relationship where months can go by and we can get back together and the chemistry is still there so we can get right back to it without a problem.

Le sigh

AG: What are your plans for touring with the record now?

Dan:  We just did two shows on the West Coast, then we have a few more coming up in New York and LA. I’m feeling pretty good about it. The band is well rehearsed and the shows have been going well. Right now we’re just dipping our feet into the water to show people we can play live.

Is this really a band you want to miss seeing live?

After seeing them in San Francisco, there’s no doubt they have a live show. It’s no exaggeration to say that Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance puts her on par with anybody fronting a band right now and she’s clearly born to do it.  And with a killer band and fully stocked wet bar on stage, the Automator looks like he couldn’t be more at home. If you can’t catch them live, go get the record, start a fire, and open a bottle of wine with someone you love. Or would like to love. Because I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now is the kind of record that can make anyone feel like they’re falling in love. At least for 46 minutes at a time.

Bonus Playlist: 10 classic cuts from Dan the Automator

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