Olivia Gagan: Does it feel like a century ago that you were making this video? So much has changed since you were working on it.
Alison Sudol: Yeah. Weirdly, you know how your phone does that horrific thing of popping up memories? Where it's generally not something that I want to see. My phone popped up a memory of scouting for the video’s house. And I was just like, I can't really even get my head around what the world was like then, how much the world has changed, and just how different everything is. But then also, when you put so much of your time and energy and yourself into a project like this – because I went a little nuts, making this video – when you finish it, it just feels like time has stretched out so much.
So even just from when I started it to when I finished it, seemed like a large chunk of time, and then it took me forever to edit. Forever, like months and months and months, and the whole process took a long time anyway.
Was it your first time directing your own video, or is it something you've done before?
It was my third time directing. The first time that I did it, it was really off the cuff, something I did on tour. The second time was the Moon video, which was crazy, because we shot it in different locations. We shot it in Vancouver, and then out in the desert and then in L.A. But The Runner video had quite a few people in it, and involved a lot more logistically than any of them had.
We also worked with dancers, which was incredible. But there was just a lot. It was definitely the most intense sort of setup. Then I decided to edit it, which I didn't know how to do at all when I started. I didn't even know how to put the files into Final Cut. I had to call a friend and be like, "How do you even begin... how do you get the video into the program?" It was all a learning curve.
Can you tell me about the concept of the video, your ideas, and the inspirations behind it?
I cheer-led for like five seconds, unwillingly, when I was in high school. I was really bad at it, but I love the imagery of it so much. And [the idea of] going through a house, at a party, really not feeling like you belong… those were the images that came to me right from the beginning with the song.
When I was coming up with the video treatment, at first, I thought about the traditional awkwardness of wanting a boy, because it felt very high school to me, this song. But the really big loves that I had in school weren’t really ever about a boy. I had big crushes, but I was actually completely in love with these girls in school that were a little bit older than me. I just worshipped the ground they walked on.
Some of them were nice, and then some of them were not. I just had this idea of wanting to explore the deep desire I had at that age to be accepted, the discomfort that I felt in social settings, that longing for these girls to see me, and the cruelty that young women can display towards each other. I also wanted to incorporate me now, wishing that I could hug or hold that younger person.
That’s my favourite bit of the video, right at the end, where you’re hugging your younger self. I think that's something a lot of women have to do as you get older, right? You have to kind of make peace with and take care of that younger version of yourself.
You really do, and it's funny how the impressions you make of yourself can crystallise at certain pivotal times like that. It almost doesn't matter, as you get older, whether people still see you in that same way. You can change dramatically, but until you heal that part of yourself… I've felt like that awkward 15-year-old my whole life.
It doesn't matter if I wear something I always wished I could wear, or I meet people that I never thought I could be friends with – I just always feel like the dork. I also think that so many young women who are different, and don't really know how to fit in, get bullied in one way or another. Bullying can be really horrendous, like it is in the video, or bullying can just mean being excluded.
The principal cheerleader character, she's strangely seductive, but obviously very cruel as well. How did the casting come about for that, and why did you decide to incorporate that kind of dancing and the cheerleading? Was it like a representation of feeling alienated?
Funny enough, the woman that plays the head cheerleader, her name is Rebecca Diane, and she's a really good friend of mine. When I first met her, I was just shocked at how beautiful she was. I immediately assumed she was going to be mean to me, and it was hilarious, because she actually sort of pursued a friendship with me, and I was confused for some amount of time, before I realised that she was really lovely and just wanted to be my friend. And I immediately thought of her, because I just think she's really talented and very charismatic, and I thought it would be quite healing in a way for her, who I love so much, to also be mean to me.
I was like, "Go for it, you're allowed to be mean." It was like owning something that had owned me for a long time. And she was so great. I mean directing her was such a ... it was really inspiring and easy. And then the dancing came about ... I went to a dance class that was down the street from where I was living in New York, this incredible dance space called Forward Space. And I took a class by a woman named Kristin Sudeikis, who had started it. I cried in this class. It was such a powerful, beautiful class, and there was such love radiating from her and all these dancers. Dancing was something that I stopped doing because I associated it with not feeling good about myself, and it was just a really healing space to be in. So I asked her if she would be interested in doing some work choreographing the video, and she did. There was quite a lot more dancing in my intention, but we had a lot of technical problems on the shoot. Like quite a lot of issues. One of our vans broke down. It was just kind of a mess, so we didn't get to [have] all the choreography in, but they were still just incredible.
Where was the video shot? And how does the location and costuming play into those themes?
There's a specific kind of feeling that floodlights on a football field evoke, [but] it's really quite difficult to find a quintessential American football field. The house and the field were maybe an eight-minute drive away from each other, which was insane, that the exact field and the exact house that I wanted were in the same place. We had looked all over the place, and yeah, it was just meant to be.
And the cheerleading uniforms just channelled exactly what I had been looking for. Leith [Clark, who did the costuming] completely nailed it. I looked at the uniforms and I was like, "I would never fit in those." They’re such a specific thing. Everything [in that world] is quite exclusionary.
And they’re also instantly recognisable as American. Like McDonald's fries.
Very much so. I never felt particularly American, even though I grew up in America. My stepdad was English, so there was a British vibe around my house growing up, and I have Polish ancestry. So I felt excluded by the American Dream, even though I’m living inside of it, weirdly.
The more you direct, the more you make videos, does it whet your appetite to do more of them, or do you finish them and you're like, "I don't want to do another one of these again. It's too stressful."
For this one, we really needed a far bigger budget than we had access to, and we needed more help and more time and more everything. It really tested me. But now that a little bit of time has passed, I definitely think about directing. I mean, what I find so fulfilling about directing is that whenever I write a song, it's so visual to me. The colours and the textures and the essence of the song has a real visual nature to me from the beginning.
So then, because they're my videos, I'm allowed to do it, I'm able to... if I mess up it's on me. You know what I mean? So I'm able to take risks and see if I can push myself to try and capture that essence somehow visually, and it's like a further exploration of whatever I was exploring when I was writing the song. And I find that really cool. It's really fun, and hard.
I was just thinking when you were saying that, you have so much freedom when you're not having to answer to label executives or whoever, saying the video needs to hit this demographic, or strike this note, or get this many views. Is there more freedom working this way and within a smaller budget? Or have I totally got that wrong?
No, no, no, you're right on. I mean, I came from a major label environment, which most of my early videos were made. My first sort of, big pressure video, the label spent a ton of money on… I hate that video more than words can say, the original video. I'm playing piano in like a waterfall. And we had to release it.
It just was a really not ideal experience. But then my label actually were like, "This doesn't feel right to us either. Why don't you go and take this little budget and go make another video with your friends." And I did another video with my friends, and that's the alternate video, and that felt so creative and exciting. Even though it was like a tenth or whatever of the budget [that] we spent on the other one, it’s so much better. So that taught me very early on, even within the confines of having a major label, that when you're working with the right people you can still have freedom. But I had other experiences down the line where there were a lot of battles, so by the time I left I really never wanted to answer to anybody. I think it just depends on who you're working with. I've done it really hard and scrappy, paying for things myself, and scraping by. And I think that while there are so many things which having a tiny budget opens up to you, you have to be super creative. There are certain things where it's nice to have a little bit of the [financial] pad so you don't overwork your crew, and so you can have access to certain things. So it's just finding that balance. But I prefer to keep things small.
Now we're all in this extended period of being at home, how are you finding it’s affecting you creatively? Are you in the mood for writing or performing?
It’s been challenging for everyone, obviously. But for me, I've been on the go for such a long time that it's been really nice to have an enforced time of staying in one place. All of my work was cancelled, so I’ve started to write. I’m working on a book that I started a long time ago, that I've never really been able to find the headspace for. It’s because I've had uninterrupted space, and the privilege of being bored, frankly, that I've been feeling creative.
Would you want to make new music right now? Or is it just, nope. Not on the agenda.
Oh, I have been making music, actually. In a really gentle way. I don't really play guitar, as my IGTV performance may have illuminated. But I play it well enough to write with it. I've been writing little sort of gentle folk songs and writing while I look out at birds landing on trees and spring unfolding in front of my eyes. It's been a really lovely way to go about it. Sometimes I'm very intense when I write music, and this has been really gentle. So yeah, I definitely am, and I plan on continuing to.
I think what, at least to me, has become really so important is finding our shared humanity in all this. Seeing really what's essential, and really connecting with true intimacy. Because you can't take it for granted anymore. You can't just see people. You can't just go get a glass of wine with your friend. So yeah, I feel actually really creative.
Watch The Runner here.