It was late on Monday when Allie X called me from a hotel room in Hawaii. She was packing; I could hear the zippers going, quick between her sentences. The up-and-coming pop artist played Boston’s House of Blues on Thursday, and she’ll be in New York tonight, Tuesday, opening for Charli XCX at Terminal 5. But she had to make a brief trip out West first, to headline Honolulu Pride.
It’s been a busy week, and also a busy few years. Allie has been grabbing attention since the release of her single “Catch” in 2014, but it was last year’s Super Sunset—her sophomore studio album, a bright electro-pop record with a knotty underside—that solidified her as a striking, contemplative artist to watch. Super Sunset paired buoyant, synth-driven pop beats and shimmery soprano vocals with thoughtfully jaded lyrics, barbed critiques of Los Angeles’s shallow vampirism. It was packaged with a comprehensive narrative landscape, too, an Allie-built world of three distinct alter ego characters and motley recurring visuals: lipstick, chiffon, and palm trees; litter, crosses, and abandoned trailers. Oversaturated yellow everywhere, like a Southern California sky gone slightly sour. The 34-year-old Toronto native writes pop songs for other artists, including Troye Sivan. But when she works as Allie X, she tends to pen small universes.
This fall, Allie began a rollout of new music. “Fresh Laundry” dropped in late September, and “Rings A Bell” arrived just this past Friday. Each of these new songs, in its way, feels like a notable shift away from the Super Sunset era. “Rings A Bell” echoes and swings. “Fresh Laundry” has a dark, reverberating pulse. Its music video has no sun at all, not even an offbeat one—its world is lit by lightning-flash and bonfire, is haunted by look-alikes, silhouettes, and shadows. Allie told me that this shift in sound and tone was not planned for; that, though it feels as fully realized as her previous output, this new music happened almost accidentally, the way things do when you’re an artist who leads with your gut. It may just be now—post-Super Sunset, while she’s supporting both Charli and Marina on their respective tours—that people are really starting to take notice.
In between planes and Pride fests and her Hell’s Kitchen showing, Allie took a few minutes to chat about her new sonic era. Our conversation is condensed below.
I flew to Sweden to work with [producers] Oscar Gorres and James Allen Ghaleb in March of 2018, really not knowing what to expect at all. I didn’t have plans, no reference songs…usually when you go into a writing session you have something that you’re trying to emulate, or take inspiration from. But it was just one of those magical things where my collaborators and I had this synergy, and this new sound just emerged. We didn’t really say, “oh this doesn’t sound like Super Sunset” or “this doesn’t sound like your past work”—we just were like, “this is cool, let’s keep exploring!” And it was so me. Like this sound [had been] in me that was wanting to come out, and we finally found it. And lyrically, too, I had been wanting to say things that had been in me for a while, but had never been able to get out in the language of pop music, because pop music can be quite limiting, lyrically. Everything needs to be so immediate. So, I don’t know, I just felt like we stumbled upon something really special.
My answer is kind of backwards as well, because it’s not like at the time I was writing this music, I was listening much to these artists, it’s more like…as I wrote the music, I started being drawn to these artists. Those artists are the Cocteau Twins, Elizabeth Fraser—I feel this real connection with her work. I’ve gone really deep into The Cure, Tori Amos, and Bjork’s discography…I feel super drawn to strong, bold women artists, who made their way into mainstream culture, but really did it in their own way. It’s funny, I’ve been kind of having trouble listening to modern pop music…at the moment, I’m listening to older music.
Yeah, that’s totally part of it. It happened even in Honolulu…[I’ll be] at the mall or something, some top 40 song will come on and I’ll just think about who wrote it, and what they are like, and how much money they have! [Laughs.] I just know how it works so well now that I’m a little disillusioned by it, and it doesn’t feel like music anymore. It feels like business.
I guess it speaks mostly to my process. I don’t really approach things from a single song perspective. It’s really hard for me not to write a body of work, which [isn’t really aligned with] today’s music model. But for me, I need to create a world, and I need it to have an aesthetic, and I need it to further my story.
Your visuals do so much to further the stories. Can you talk a little more about the non-sonic elements of your work? At what point in the writing process do they become clear to you, and how they are in conversation with the sound?
Music is always the starting point, but visuals are always guiding me through the writing process. For instance, with this new music, while I was writing it, I was seeing the color blue a lot, and purple a little bit, and I was looking at a lot of Gregory Crewdson’s photography…as I was writing, those were sort of my visual guide points, like, this is what the world that I’m writing about looks like. And then once I have the work compiled, then I usually will refine all those ideas, and [the visuals] become my priority.
That was most prevalent during the Super Sunset era. At that time, I just decided to go full out, really explore it, and actually create three different characters. In the “Fresh Laundry” video, there’s a bit of an alter ego happening, but it’s not something I’m planning on carving out or giving a name to [during this new phase]. I think I’m just really drawn to duality. I have one tattoo, and it’s a silhouette of a girl—there’s a dark side and a skin-colored side, and it speaks to like, Carl Jung, and his theory of the shadow self. For a long time, I was asking myself the question if I was good or bad, or what that even means, and I’ve always really related to the idea of having a shadow, not repressing it, and just letting the darkness out. It’s just something that continues to surface throughout my work.
This new work is about stuff that I went through as a teenager and a young adult. Trying to find a place I belonged, feeling like an outsider…dealing with things physically that were challenging, a lot of illness…and difficulties with my family. There’s also this documentary on HBO called Heroin: Cape Cod, and I was really struck by the characters in that film…their nonchalance about life, I guess, sparked some lyric ideas as well. Sorry, I ramble on a bit about stuff like this, it’s hard to put it in one sentence.
[Laughs.] No, no, I think I can find it! …I actually love—this is a quote from Sasha Velour, who’s a friend of mine, and a very talented artist and queen. When I sent her this music, she said: it’s a gaudy, North American, goth kind of melancholy.
The older I get and the more experienced I get at writing, the better I get at distilling what is inside of me. With this new music, I feel like I’m really representing me. When you live [in Los Angeles] and work in pop music, the question is always, what’s trendy? What’s the hit song? I really tried to ignore that. It was awesome writing in Sweden, isolated, and not giving into the pressures of Los Angeles, which a lot of Super Sunset was about. I feel very proud of this music, because to me—someone who listens to a lot of music, and works in the industry, and who is really hard on myself—it really feels fresh.