Ansel Elgort Talks To R29 About His Music & Why He Wants His Girlfriend In His Videos

Photo: Nino Munoz
Hearts raced at the weekend when the trailer for Baby Driver, the new Ansel Elgort, ahem, vehicle hit the internet. In the two-minute promo, the 23-year-old The Fault In Our Stars actor races around town as a getaway driver (called Baby) who works for a crime lord played by Kevin Spacey. Baby is never without his headphones in, constantly listening to music.
And music plays a big role in Ansel's real life too. If you closely follow his career (and plenty do) you might know that besides starring in one of the saddest teen films of all time (Okay?), he is also a keen musician, DJing under the moniker Ansølo and writing and producing his own music. Last month he dropped his first single, “Thief”, after signing to Island Records last year. We caught up with the star to chat about music, his girlfriend, and if he’d prefer to win a Grammy or an Oscar.
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So, Ansel, people might be surprised to know you make music; how would you describe your sound?
Well, I was doing dance music for a while and I sort of realised that dance music and pop music these days are very similar and it seems as though pop music is taking things from dance music shortly after dance music makes them popular. I was lucky because I started as a dance music producer and I learned how to use the modern instrument – the computer – and I decided a little over a year ago to make whatever I felt like making, which would be songs that I could sing on and also produce.
There are songs that are more vocal oriented. I definitely wouldn’t call it EDM, I would call it pop music or future pop music. I try to push the production but keep the songwriting sort of traditional.
Which musicians are inspiring you at the moment?
Just like with film, I have a lot of inspirations from the past, such as Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. With music, what needs to stay current is the production. So I look up to Daft Punk, Skrillex, Flume. If I could work with anyone it would be those guys.
Your mother works in opera and your father is a fashion photographer. Did their interests affect your tastes much growing up?
There used to be a lot of classical music and jazz in my house – my dad loves jazz. I grew up with a little CD player by my bed and my dad would burn me CDs to listen to. I listened a lot to George Gershwin’s "Rhapsody In Blue", West Side Story. I loved show tunes – I love theatrical music still. And then a little bit of rock’n’roll mixed in.
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Your video for “Thief” stars your real-life girlfriend Violetta. Were you ever concerned about putting your private life in the public sphere?
I feel like it wasn’t that public because we’re playing characters and I didn’t really feel like myself when I was doing the video. And she didn’t really feel like herself. It also made my life a lot easier because I think she wouldn’t have adored me doing that with a different girl. The video would never have gotten that racy had it been with a different girl! But because it was my girlfriend we were able to really go for it.
Your next film Baby Driver sees you star as a man who drives speeds around while listening to music. What sort of music do you listen to when you’re driving?
That’s the best, I love listening to music while driving. I guess it depends what the vibe is. Like, if I'm driving in a convertible with the top down I’ll listen to Bill Withers’ "Lovely Day". Then if I’m driving in the city at nighttime, and it's really late, and I'm moving fast, maybe I’ll listen to deadmau5 and Kaskade's "I Remember". Also, if I have a passenger then I’ll cater to them. I’m naturally a DJ so I always think about what people want to hear. If everyone’s happy with the music, then I’m happy. Also you can't go wrong with Queen.
If you’re DJing at a party, do you have one song that is your fail-safe tune to drop?
I still secretly play parties for fun all the time. It depends on the vibe of the party. If people want house music then I’ll play that. If you play “Show Me Love” – the Steve Angello version – that’ll always work [he starts singing it]. That will tear the club down. If I’m playing at a party and playing every kind of music, everyone always loves “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. It’s the perfect level of throwback and current, and everyone knows the words and it’s a good vibe.
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How are you going to juggle music and acting?
Well, we’ll see what happens with the music. I think I’ll have to play it by ear. For me, the most exciting part about it is just making the music, but it hasn’t got to the point where it has taken over my life yet. I’ll have to cross that bridge if and when I get to it. I anticipate that I’ll be able to do both and it won’t be a problem.
Is there anyone's career who you would like to emulate?
Well Frank Sinatra really did it all. He was the biggest star in the world and he was winning Oscars and singing. People think you need to do one thing professionally. What a lot of people don’t know is that I started out singing, I didn’t start with acting. It just so happened that I started professionally acting first. I just auditioned for stuff and got it but I always wanted to do music.
Was it disappointing to put music on the back burner and have the world see you solely as an actor?
Yeah but I was always ok with it. I was so excited to be acting. When I did my first movie I rented a keyboard and was writing songs in my little apartment like crazy. I never stopped. I’ve done movies that no one’s seen too but they still mean a lot to me. I don’t think it makes you any less of a musician if no one hears your stuff. I feel like art is for the artist and you feel accomplished when you get to make something that you’re happy with. It’s not about having the record on the radio, it’s about making the record.
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Let’s cut to the chase: would you rather win an Oscar or a Grammy?
Oh definitely an Oscar. But that’s not because I want to be an actor more than a singer, I just feel like it’s harder....
They give Grammys to everybody, don’t they?
[Laughs] Do you know how many multi-Grammy winners that I’ve never heard of sing “The Star Spangled Banner” in Madison Square Garden?! But if you’re an Oscar winner that’s legit. If you’re Oscar-nominated that’s legit.
Do you have any favourite female musicians?
I love Ella Fitzgerald. Currently, I think Lorde is great; she sounds cool and different and her music is a really good mixture of indie and pop. And I’m looking forward to seeing what Hailee Steinfeld does. Just because she started as an actress and now she’s doing music and I think she’s doing a good job.
Ansel Elgort's debut album will be released this summer on Island Records.
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