This interview originally appeared in the print version of RAIN magazine in fall 2017.
Interview by Mark Benjamin. Photography by Raul Romo.
Alexandra Hughes, aka Allie X, isn’t your typical pop musician. There’s a hidden world
to her: she’s both a songwriter for other pop stars and a producer of some of her
own smash pop hits, such as “Catch,” “Bitch,” and, most recently, the radio-ready “Paper Love.” She has also collaborated closely with Troye Sivan, notably on his album Blue Neighborhood, co-writing several of the songs. Under her own name, Allie X creates a constantly refilling treasure trove of uplifting purist pop and fresh visuals with her music-video collaborations, which always come with a clever twist. We caught up with her in Los Angeles right before she started the tour of her debut album, CollXtion II.
MARK BENJAMIN: Hi, Allie. Thank you for talking with us. The first thing I was curious about when I discovered your music was your name. What does the X stand for?
ALLIE X: Thanks for having me. X has been a symbol for lots of significant things throughout history—in religion, math, science, and literature. To me it represents the possibility of anything. And when I replaced my last name with it, I felt I was able to erase my past and become who I wanted to be in that moment. There’s also an anonymity that comes with becoming X.
Yes, that’s the main significance for me, but for my fans or anyone who wants to engage in this concept, X can, and should, mean the possibility of anything. It’s about finding your truth. If you don’t know what it is right now, you can be X in the meantime.
MB: I also want to ask you about the creativity behind your album art. It’s amazing!
AX: Thank you. I’m very proud of it.
MB: Before streaming, most people would first find out about artists from stumbling on their album covers. I think that was important because visuals often represent the music in some way. It’s this weird back and forth between the music and the visuals. Why is it important for you to have strong album art?
AX: This is going to sound obvious, but first of all, it’s important just from a being- noticed perspective—there’s so much music out there. And I think having visuals that stand out and show who you are and what you represent is important. I try to always keep my visuals and aesthetic in line with all the things that are going on inside my brain. With this album it’s totally conceptual – the dunce cap, the very juvenile pose, and a sterile-looking background. There are themes of shame and embarrassment in the journey from childhood to adulthood. Also, the missing pieces of the leg represent how we are all kind of fragmented people and this idea of trying to put yourself back together. That’s all in there.
MB: It’s deep. I can feel it in the visuals. You started out in Toronto, right? I feel like that city has such an incredible list of talented artists who come from there, including Robert Alfons of TR/ST, who also appears in this issue.
AX: Oh, I know Robert! We’re not friends, but we’re in the same circle. And Austra, too. I kind of played with Katie Stelmanis for a second before [she and Maya Postepski] were called Austra.
MB: Katie has an incredible voice.
AX: Yeah, it’s like a beast unleashed!
MB: What is it about that city? Why do all these talented musicians come from there?
AX: Well, I don’t know. Canada is a place where you feel safe to express yourself. It’s a super-liberal country. The indie scene in Toronto is really strong. All my music friends there either come from a jazz background or they’re all into electronic experimental stuff, they’re all into synths. There was no one there who was like, “Let’s write a pop song,” which is part of the reason I moved [to LA], because that’s what I was doing. But yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s also that the government supports artists—that’s part of it as well.
MB: Isn’t it called the Ministry of Culture or something like that?
AX: Yeah. You can apply for several grants and you can live as an artist off those grants.
MB: I can only imagine if the government here in the US supported music in the same way. It would be like, “No, we can’t fund that because it talks about this politically sensitive issue or that one.”
AX: Truthfully, I feel both have their advantages. Here [in the US], you can become a zillionaire doing music—there’s no roof to it. In Toronto, you can make a living as an artist. You’re not going to be rich, but you can live relatively comfortably and you can do it making what doesn’t have to be pop music. Both are cool.
I have always been an ambitious person and I felt that that way of doing things in Toronto wasn’t well suited to me. I wasn’t thriving in that environment—particularly,
I think, because I was writing pop music and my friends were just not doing that. They were doing the genres I mentioned before and I didn’t quite fit in, so I think LA is better suited to me. But on a personal level, on a listener level, I miss Toronto. I miss the culture and the openness with music.
MB: My favorite song when I first discovered you was “Bitch.” I think I melted my brain listening to that song so many times!
AX: Nice! Haha. I’m actually opening my tour with it. I want to have a bold start.
MB: I loved it because I am always drawn to music that is rich in lyrics and not just a catchy tune. Something with a powerful message in it, too. Some of those lyrics are, “Gonna bake and make your dinner / Could be your cook / You can bring me home the bacon / Chop the wood / Steal my blood and steal my heart / Whatever it takes to get you up / I’m your bitch, you’re my bitch / Boom boom!” It’s like a feminist anthem.
AX: I think it is, too. Now, that’s not what I had in mind when I wrote it. It just came out. This is one of the songs that I literally threw up. A lot of my songs are long-ass processes that I can’t… I can’t get the production of the lyrics right for, like, a year or two. This one, I had just moved to LA. I didn’t even have a visa or anything. I was here, I thought, temporarily and I was put in this house—this sort of incubation house that these two producers rented on Mulholland Drive. I was sleeping on the floor…
Well, I wasn’t sleeping at all, actually, because I was making music around the clock and no one was being nice to me. I was kind of the new girl at the house and they weren’t even really sharing gear. So I found myself alone.
We made all the rooms into studios. I was in this bedroom that had been converted into a studio and all I had in the room was a Dave Smith Mopho synth. And then all I had on my computer in terms of plugins was a drum machine by Native Instruments. And so I was like, “I’ll just make a song with these two things, then.” I didn’t have any other instruments. What resulted was “Bitch.”
And it was all melodies at first, except for “I’m your bitch, you’re my bitch / Boom boom!” And then I went outside and wrote the lyrics. They just came out. I wasn’t thinking about any of it. The only thing I remember thinking is, “I feel so uncomfortable in this environment.”
MB: A sweet release?
AX: Yeah, yeah. And because I was all in this pop world, I wasn’t showing “Bitch”
to anyone. My manager heard it, just for a second, and told me he thought the song was very special. I was like, “Yeah, I think so, too.” He was like, “I think we should put it out.” I was like, “Yeah, sure,” and now it’s one of my favorites. It’s one of the ones I’m most proud of.
MB: Wow, that’s a story.
AX: It’s also in a film called Closet Monster.
MB: I’ve seen that!
AX: Yeah, Stephen Dunn is my friend. He’s a Canadian director and the writer of that film.
MB: It’s a really good film. At this point I’m just going to give up my US citizenship and become Canadian.
AX: Stephen is just like, “Watch out, world.” He’s got a voice and he’s a really smart guy. And I thought that film was beautiful. It made me cry. I loved it. I mean, I cried for him. It’s his story, loosely. It’s based on his life growing up, his childhood.
MB: It’s one of those touching films you can’t watch and not be moved by it. It’s so great that your song is a part of that.
You moved to LA in 2013 as a songwriter. How was the move? Does it actually feel like La-La land?
AX: Yeah, yeah it does. At first I was completely charmed by Los Angeles. The house that I was describing before was like a mansion, although it wasn’t like living in a mansion, because there were, like, 10 other people there.
MB: Was this connected to [the Canadian producer/songwriter] Cirkut?
AX: I’m signed to Cirkut as a writer, so this was Cirkut’s house that he was renting at the time. He was never there. But there was a bunch of us living there. And, yeah, it was totally magic. I was like, “Where the fuck am I? I can’t believe that I used to live in this tiny apartment in Toronto, looking these people up online, and now I’m living in a house with them.” It was so surreal.
Things started moving a lot faster than they ever had before in my career and I thought that was beautiful! I was driving to the beach a lot and I really did fall in love [with LA]. And then—within two years, I’d say—the city wore me down, you know? Like, I started to understand the hustle and the dusty, darker side of Hollywood. And now it’s a bit of both—like, I love California. I like Los Angeles. I do. I’d like to leave Los Angeles and come back to it to appreciate it fully. I do feel that it’s absolutely the best place for me to be for what I want to do. I don’t see myself leaving it or living anywhere else, although I would love to live a little further away. Like, I’d be OK with an hour’s commute from Malibu or Topanga.
Yeah, I did have that moment of totally falling in love with LA. I’m not one of those people who came here and was like, “This isn’t for me.” I was like, “This is for me.” I liked it a lot.
MB: It feels like home.
AX: Yeah, exactly.
MB: The strength of your multiple talents, such as songwriting and also working on your own music early on, kind of reminds me a lot of Kesha. And as you’re a female singer-songwriter and someone who is watched and inspired by the next generation, I feel compelled to ask what you thought about what happened to Kesha and her journey. What is your take on that? How has that affected you or your peers?
AX: I think none of us really knows what happened to her. But from what I do know, I think she’s had a hell of a time and it’s so hard. This music industry can really, like…
I have an image of a rolling pin just rolling over you. And body image… I don’t want to be clichéd and get into it, but if you’re a female artist and somebody tells you that you don’t look good enough, you’re not going to forget that. Even if someone tells you it only once, it’s going to stick with you.
And I’ve struggled with different eating problems and I think it’s so difficult and
it requires so much energy and focus on something that just shouldn’t be taking up your time like that, so I really feel for her in that way as well. I’m really glad she’s putting out music and sort of back on her feet after all the legal stuff. It sounds exhausting to me. I’ve had my own shitty deals that I’ve signed or whatever, but it hasn’t been an eighth of what she’s gone through.
MB: It’s like all that creative energy that she has should be put towards something she enjoys creating rather than defending herself.
AX: Yeah, exactly.
“This album art is totally conceptual—the dunce cap, the juvenile pose, and a sterile-looking background. There are themes of shame and embarrassment in the journey from childhood to adulthood. Also, the missing pieces of the leg represent how we are all fragmented people and this idea of trying to put yourself back together. That’s all in there”
MB: So your first single under Allie X was “Catch”—and it really did catch.
AX: Haha! Nice.
MB: And Katy Perry tweeted it was her spring jam. How did that make you feel? What was that like?
AX: Oh again, it was just really surreal. It was like, “Where am I? Who? What?” It was extremely surreal and flattering and made for good press.
MB: It’s incredible how much staying power she has as a pop star. You know, she’s like the quiet one in the background. I realized the other day I’ve been listening to her songs for 10 years and I didn’t even know it.
AX: Yeah, I know. It was so crazy connecting to her. I felt a planet away from people
at that level. I was listening to “Teenage Dream” and thinking, “This is crazy pop,” then looking up Max Martin and just kind of starting to understand the whole thing. But I never thought, like, I’ll move to Los Angeles and five months later Katy Perry will be tweeting about the song.
MB: Isn’t that nuts?
AX: Yeah, it was weird. Now it’s not that weird, though. Now I’m used to all of it. I’m used to running into celebrities at the grocery store or whatever, but at the time it was so crazy.
MB: I also wanted to talk about your music videos. They’re amazing. I could see them
as art installations. I can tell you put a lot of energy and thought into conceptualizing them.
AX: Thanks. Yeah.
MB: I mean, that’s probably a whole separate interview, but I guess we could talk about “Paper Love,” because I feel like that’s probably something quite special as the first single released from your new album. Then, when the music video came out, it was so amazing.
AX: Yeah, when I was speaking to the director—Renata Raksha, she’s a photographer… I always like to work with photographers-turned-music directors because photography is kind of the most important thing to me in the video. It’s never like, “Let’s think of a great story with a twist.” It’s more like, “Let’s capture a feeling and a vibe and an aesthetic.”
Anyways, so I was speaking to her about what I saw for the video and we agreed there should be a transformation and a kind of paralysis. And so she came up with this idea of a doll that gets unwrapped and then defaced. I mean, there are a lot of different perspectives… I think the video is open to interpretation. But one thing I really take from it is I have this weird longing to be a doll-like person—almost like an internal child. I love to look pale and I like to look, you know, like a doll, I guess, and be like a doll. But it’s so damaging as a female to try to be smooth and flat and perfect and quiet, and what happens to the doll is a good reminder for me. By the end of the video she’s just ignored and defaced and put in a plastic bag and left in the corner because nobody cares anymore.
MB: What is the significance of the mother in the cowgirl getup? At this moment she’s dancing, or two-stepping, and I’m mesmerized. It’s riveting. I couldn’t look away from her. Why the Midwestern influence?
AX: Well, I think the whistling [on the track] made Renata think of that cowboy/cowgirl thing. And the character’s name was “the cowboy,” but we cast a woman. It’s open to interpretation. What I took from it was she’s this kind of—what’s the word?—she’s kind of like the one who… Oh my God, what the fuck is the word…? Instigator! It’s almost like she kind of has this plan all along and she’s almost celebrating when the little girl starts to unwrap the doll. And there’s this one moment in the video where [the cowgirl] hands the little girl the package that I’m in for the first time and she has this creepy- looking smile on her face and it’s like… yes, I think she’s kind of devious and she’s very Hollywood to me—she has this face that’s just very Hollywood to me.
I was very much a part of making the video, but it was Renata who cast these people and thought of the cowboys. So you’ll have to ask her what exactly she meant with that!
MB: The other thing I thought about was the paper surrounding the doll and the connection with the song’s title.
AX: Yeah, I definitely wanted that and I wanted some sort of paper or some sort of cutting.
MB: Yeah, the song is about heartbreak or a metaphorical paper cut, right?
AX: Yeah. And also if you take a piece of paper and you put it into a glass of water it’s going to fall apart right away. So it’s kind of about, “Come and watch my heart turn to pulp like paper.” And I’m always thinking about what happens when you combine paper with water—the fragility of the material.
MB: And we write everything on it and we think it’s indestructible.
MB: I wanted to ask you about your friendship and work with Troye Sivan. You collaborated on his last album, Blue Neighborhood.
AX: And wore his sweater at our shoot today—haha.
MB: And you wrote some of his songs for Blue Neighborhood, right?
MB: I was especially curious about what that process was like, because you’re a songwriter first. How was it collaborating and writing music for somebody else, especially someone who’s a close friend?
AX: Writing for Troye is not the same as writing for… other artists I’ve been put in the same room with—I don’t want to name names. Troye has such a clear vision of what he wants to express and he knows what style he wants.
He knows what instruments he wants. He’s very good at leading myself in and Brett McLaughlin, who I’ve written all those Troye songs with. It’s such an enjoyable process—it’s a very casual kind of, like, hanging with your friends. Not a lot of pressure to make it sound like a radio song or anything like that. And it’s been the most fruitful thing I’ve done. I’m just super- grateful to have been brought into it and to be a part of the next album as well.
Plus, you couldn’t meet a nicer, sweeter, humbler person, or more intelligent. I’ve spent a lot of time with him and it’s not an act—it’s just who he is. He’s just really generous. He’s helped me a lot in my own career. He’s great. I remember when I started telling people about him, way before Blue Neighborhood came out and people were like, “Who is he?”
And I was like, “He’s a successful YouTuber who’s crossing into music,” and people pretty much just rolled their eyes. It’s been wonderful to watch it. He wrote one of the most legit pop albums of—what was it?—2015 or whatever. And now all the writers are like, “Oh, we want to work with Troye. He’s the most exciting artist, blah blah blah.” I’m just really glad I got to be a part of it.
MB: I was telling your manager earlier that I knew about [Troye] through Tyler Oakley’s videos. It’s kind of crazy how it’s turned into this whole thing, this career, you know. Anything is possible today.
AX: Yeah, I think everybody is so multitalented today and you can’t do just one thing. This generation is so smart— savvy, culturally. And intelligent…
“The video for ’Paper Love’ is open to interpretation. But one thing I take from it is I have this weird longing to be a doll-like person. I love to look pale and I like to look like a doll and be like a doll. But it’s so damaging as a female to try to be smooth and flat and perfect and quiet, and what happens to the doll in the video is a good reminder for me”
MB: And interested!
AX: Yeah, interested—interested in engaging. It’s been really cool. How old are you?
AX: Yes, I’m like, you know… [At 32] I’m not a generation above you, but I’m kind of between generations and it’s sometimes very interesting and encouraging to watch the shift between the people I went to college with and then the people I hang out with who are 26, 27, 28, or 21. People are just a lot smarter [now] and they have much better taste. When I go on Facebook and I’m looking at what people I went to college with are saying or pictures of their babies or whatever, I’m just like, “BORING!”
It’s really amazing what the youth have become and that sort of leads me back
to Troye—a reason he’s so successful and means so much to so many people is because he’s sharing his journey of what it is to be a millennial—a gay millennial. And the identity, it’s not in a clichéd way, like, “Oh, I’m so trendy.” It’s very authentic. And YouTube in general, I feel, has been so wonderful for LGBT youth. It’s offered a whole new way for them to empower and express themselves. I think it’s amazing.
MB: Yeah, I can relate to that. I came out somewhat late at 19. YouTube videos and people online who I could relate to and feel comfortable with in that virtual space helped me a lot. You don’t feel like strangers with YouTube personalities. It’s more interpersonal—almost therapeutic.
AX: Yeah, totally.
MB: I wanted to ask you about your long list of influences. You also remind me of Charli XCX, because she also started as a songwriter, right? Do you feel inspired by her?
AX: She’s the best. She’s so cool. That’s a big compliment. I’ve been following Charli XCX since she put out “Nuclear Seasons” and that was all on Pitchfork, or whatever.
I remember that was around the same time as Lana Del Rey and Azealia Banks. Yeah, I was definitely following all that stuff. And then Charli—she was super-young at that time, I think she was, like, 16 or 17, and I think she made her way to LA and started writing in sessions.
I met her once. She’s supercool and everyone just has really good things to say about Charli. That she’s such a hard worker. I really respect the fact that she never… she’s just not willing to sell out. Like, she just wants to make cool shit. And if that means she’s going against what her label wants or it means she’s not making a million dollars, she still does it. She’s a great supporter of other female artists, which I love. She’s always bringing forward more underground female artists.
MB: I feel like she’s an energy within pop music that’s different. And what she’s doing is not formula pop.
AX: Yeah, but at the same time she is able to crank out formula pop, like the Camila Cabello song that just came out. She knows how to do that. But just because she knows how to do that doesn’t mean that she’s going to represent herself that way. And that’s really cool.
MB: Tell me about the drag queens who will be opening all the shows on your tour.
AX: Yeah, we’re working on an idea for the YouTube channel, for drag queens to cover songs of mine if they want. I’m really excited about the tour. I had a fan tweet something like, “You should have a queen open up your shows on tour,” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s a great idea. Let’s do it.” And then we did it. You had to submit a video to prove that you could do it and were a legitimate drag queen. And we did Twitter polls, and in some cities there were ties, so we’ll be having two performers there. But with pretty simple, 10- to 15-minute sets opening the shows.
MB: Will they open by covering your songs?
AX: No, they’ll just be doing their thing, whatever they want to do.
MB: Lip-sync for your life!
AX: Hahaha. Sashay away. No, everyone’s going to be celebrated. I think drag is an amazing art. I’ve always had a fascination with it and drag-queen friends. I love that RuPaul has brought it to the next level. There’s so much work involved, so much thought, so many skills. I’m just doing my little part to celebrate it.
MB: There was a short video I recently saw on Elle.com. It featured a seven-year-old boy who was starting to do drag. And his mom was like, “We were watching RuPaul one day and he decided this is what he likes. He’s really into it.” And some people in the comments, of course, are like, “Oh my God, this kid, how could you…?”
AX: If that’s what the kid wants to do, let him do it! If you’re going to let some seven- year-old be in a beauty pageant…
MB: Right? Or play football, or whatever… I was sort of shocked. And at the same time
I think, without RuPaul and people like that promoting drag online, none of it would be possible. It has opened up a whole world to young people. Because, before, it was like… what age are you when you can first see a drag show? 18 or 21? What age do
you have to be to get into a club? Where can drag queens perform? It’s previously been limited to this specific sort of venue where you can be yourself, but now that it’s on TV and the internet…
AX: Yeah, totally. I don’t know what the comments are but I imagine they’re probably like, “It’s not sexually appropriate for this young boy to be doing drag,” or whatever. But drag doesn’t have much to do with being sexual, it has to do with sexual identity. But it’s not like watching an R-rated movie.
AX: If I had a son, I hope he would be gay and I would make him watch it.
MB: Haha. Even if he’s not into it, too bad!
AX: “You’re watching this!”
MB: Haha. What are you most looking forward to about the tour?
AX: I’m looking forward to… I’ve been really in my head lately and feeling insecure and it’s good to just get onstage and to own it and to see people…
MB: It becomes real.
AX: Yeah, it does. All I’m looking at [right now] is data and it gets so stressful, and there are so many people on the team and so many industry people here and their irrelevant opinions get to me. So I’m just really looking forward to getting away from that for a second and actually doing the thing that got me into this in the first place, which is performing and letting loose and meeting my fans. It’s always really inspiring to do that.
MB: How does it feel knowing that there are fans waiting for you?
AX: I don’t know. It’s still weird to me to do shows where people know all the words to my songs and are looking at me as if I’m a big deal.
MB: You are!
AX: Haha. And knowing that the things that I wrote from a personal place connect with someone else and help them get through a tough time or something like that—that’s an amazing feeling.