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Dan The Automator And Mary Elizabeth Winstead On Being A Band And "Lifestyle Consultants"

The actress and the hip-hop producer releases a stylish new album with a '60s Europop influence--and an olive oil, a perfume, and a red wine.

Among the few uplifting legacies of Edgar Wright’s 2010 film Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is the musical collaboration between Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Dan The Automator, which has resulted in the formation of a band, Got A Girl, and now, a wine, personal grooming products, and an album, out July 22.

Dan the Automator--whose real name is Daniel Nakamura--made his name as one of the more collaborative producers in music, with projects like Handsome Boy Modeling School, Deltron 3030, Lovage, and the first Gorillaz album. And after he was tapped to provide music for Scott Pilgrim, he encountered Winstead, who starred in the film.

“He was doing music for the film, and I was really excited about that,” Winstead recalls now. “We all went to dinner in a big group, and I just remember at the end of the dinner telling him what a big fan I was, and kind of leaving it at that. I didn’t really think I’d get to talk to him much more after that--but then at the premiere of the movie a year later, he came up to me at the after-party and said, ‘I heard you sing. You sound really good. We should do something sometime.’ He gave me his number, and I remember putting it in my phone as ‘Dan the Automator,’ which just seemed so surreal.”

Thus was an unlikely partnership between a hip-hop producer and an actress who spent most of her career as a horror movie “scream queen” born. But Got A Girl is more than just a band, and the collaboration extends beyond the album they’ve made together, I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now. The stylish, '60s French pop-influenced music that the duo has made has evolved into a full-blown “lifestyle brand,” a phrase Nakumara says without a hint of irony. So how does a chance meeting at a dinner during the filming of a 2010 flop film turn into a wide-ranging collaboration with music, wine, perfume, and more?

Trusting The Collaboration

Winstead, who started singing as a child in plays and musicals, stopped pursuing it as her acting career began to take off (“I didn’t want to be an actress-slash-singer,” she says). But when Dan the Automator says he thinks you’ve got the goods, you have to give it another shot. “When he first asked me to write something and send it to him, he basically said, ‘If it’s shit, then we’ll quit, and if it’s not shit, then we’ll keep going.’ He laid it out in a pretty clear way,” she says. “So when I sent back the first draft of the lyrics and the melody, he was like, ‘It’s not shit, let’s keep going.’ I trusted him for a while, and in doing that, I was able to start trusting my own instincts.”

The collaboration involved Nakamura, who lives in San Francisco, and Winstead, who lives in Los Angeles, sending each other tracks in the early stages of the project--and once they decided that this would be an album, rather than a handful of one-off tracks, they decided to develop it in person.

“I would bring a track to her, and she would work on it, and then I’d look at what she was doing and help her flesh it out a bit,” Nakamura says. “We would do that a few times, then we figured out that we were kind of good at it, so we would block out more time. We started doing one day here or one day there, and then we were like, ‘Let’s do a week here or a week there.’ We just started tearing it apart and really making it right.”

Developing The Chemistry

Winstead had never recorded an album before, but the learning curve when working with an accomplished super-producer is relatively low: she was able to develop lyrical and melodic concepts by recording things on her iPhone and sending them to him, and then build off of those when they would get together in person.

Nakamura made things easy on her, too. Winstead recalls feeling “almost guilty” that a chance to record with Dan the Automator fell into her lap when making music wasn’t necessarily on her radar--but the low-pressure environment he cultivated for the collaboration brought out the best in her.

I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now

“I know how lucky I am with Dan the Automator just saying, ‘Come up to my studio whenever you feel like it, and we’ll record something,’” she says. “We were just making songs to make them. It was so low-pressure, and I think that was the way it needed to be for me. If he came into it like, ‘I want you to be a singer, and I’m going to produce this record, and it’s going to be awesome--we’re going to make hits,’ I would have been scared off by it. But I think neither of us is interested in making hits. We’re both just the type of people that want to do something fun and share it with people--and if other people like it, that’s cool.”

I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now is a firmly idiosyncratic album that might have some “hit” potential, but it definitely doesn’t cater to the mainstream--one late-album track, “Da Da Da,” involves Winstead muttering “this song is shit, it sucks, it’s a piece of shit” over distorted guitars and a bouncy pop track, while “Put Your Head Down” features a baritone-voiced guest vocalist delivering a strange spoken monologue about sandwiches. Hits or no, the project is built around the tastes of its two collaborators.

Getting The Vibe

The collaboration between Nakamura and Winstead came together so easily because the two share a similar sensibility. Nakamura recalls coming up with the name for the project sometime after the record was finished.

“We were trying to get something that got the vibe,” he recalls. “And we were hanging out at City Lights Bookstore, looking at inspirational stuff, and everything didn’t seem right--and then I just caught something. It just popped into my head and it was like, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ and she was like, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ Instinctively, we go there. We disagree about stuff when we know they’re not right. We know this was right.”

Despite the occasional dips into the weirdness of its collaborators’ personalities, Got A Girl is a decidedly stylish project: Winstead name-checks '60s European pop-culture icons like Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin when talking about the inspirations for the album. The album art is clearly influenced by work from the same time period with the typefaces and design recalling something an obscure crate-digger might pull out of a collector’s garage sale. The photograph features Nakamura in his Don Draper-best, with sunglasses and a martini glass, while Winstead poses in a vintage fur coat. It’s not, in other words, the sort of band you promote by trying to sell Got A Girl T-shirts.

To that end, the Got A Girl brand extends beyond the album--and into a lifestyle product realm that at least half of the duo is very straight-faced about.

The Got A Girl Brand

Nakamura doesn’t insinuate a hint of irony when he talks about the decision to promote I Love You But I Must Drive Off A Cliff Now with a series of lifestyle products: in lieu of T-shirts, hoodies, and baseball caps, Got A Girl’s branded offerings include a perfume, bubble bath, olive oil, and a Pinot Noir.

“We like to think of ourselves as lifestyle consultants, he says. “The whole idea is about the vibe, the feeling, the lifestyle. What better way than--we like food, fine wine, smelling good. If you have a certain appreciation for those kinds of things in life, we thought it would be nice to get involved and do those kinds of things. It has to do with me and Mary--this is how we feel.”

Winstead agrees that culture is important to her, but she does break character a bit when asked whether she can call herself a “lifestyle consultant” with a straight face.

“Dan and I both, when we get together, spent most of our time eating or drinking or talking about art and culture in some form. That’s a big part of our bond and what brought us together,” she says. “So I think we thought it’d be kind of fun to take on these larger-than-life personas in a bit of a tongue-in-cheek way. I don’t think we’re super serious about it, but it is kind of fun.”

This aspect of their collaboration may be tongue-in-cheek, but Winstead and Nakamura are serious about delivering a quality product. They were involved in every aspect of creating the Got A Girl brand--sampling grapes and olives, creating the fragrance that best represented the project, and more.

“It’s so funny and ridiculous that we have these, and we do, and I love it,” Winstead laughs. “It’s just kind of the strange world that you get brought into when you are hanging out with Dan the Automator. We’re just going in and picking out different essential oils to put into our perfume in a factory one day, and picking olives the next. It’s really fun and strange and wonderful, and not like anything I expected to be doing.”

Perhaps the reason Nakamura plays it more straight than Winstead when talking about the Got A Girl brand is, in part, that while this is a side-gig for her, music is his day job--and reaching a new, and broader, audience than he might without these products is important to him. Every musician is looking for ways to monetize what they do that goes outside of selling records in 2014, and Dan the Automator recognizes that he’s got a brand that appeals to people.

“A couple of years ago, I did a collaboration with Dogfish Head Brewery for [hip-hop project] Deltron for a thing called Positive Contact, which is a beer through Dogfish, which is one of the greater artisanal brewers in the U.S. It was very successful--it was fun, but it worked out for everyone, and a lot of them sold,” he says. “I don’t like how the music industry promotes records. I don’t like the politics of everything. I want to do what I want to do. We’re going to lose here and there, obviously, but we’re also going to have cooler things than a lot of other people, and it’s going to end up in different places. The record and the products are going to end up in different places than the normal record business would take things.”

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