It’s 11:00 pm on a Wednesday, and Toronto’s Drake Underground is an elbow-to-elbow sea of people. A lofty white electric organ and matching bench preside over the stage, leavening the atmosphere with a hallowed air. The lights go dim and the crowd’s pulse heaves with anticipation, stirred by the clamour of excited hollers charging the room. The music begins with the sound of an electric guitar and drums; a figure emerges onto the stage—and pop goes the frenzy of fans.
If one didn’t know who was headlining the evening’s show, one might think—gaging from the zeal of the audience—that a chart-topping megastar was scheduled to play a “secret” set at this small venue, before a gathering of informed devotees.
The name of the singer on the ticket that night? Well, there’s a good chance if you’re the type of listener who knew who The Weekend (Abel Tesfaye) was before the R&B singer-producer landed on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack and took over the main stage at Coachella this year, that you’re already well acquainted with the artist in question. Or, perhaps you’re amongst one of Katy Perry’s current 70.5 million Twitter followers that clicked on a link to this artist’s song, “Catch,” when you heard Miss Perry declare she was “obsessed” with her new found “spring jam,” back in March. Either way, you’re in the know, but not for long…because pop has found a new indie-darling to crown “it”, and soon all will hail Allie X.
On stage, singer-songwriter Allie X (born Alexandra Ashley Hughes) is a spellbinding performer. The dynamism in her voice is a beautiful thunder. She throws her arms up as she sings; her movements interpreting the lyrics with choreographed robotic stiffness. She lunges her body at the electric organ, seeming to beat out the emotion of songs through its keys. She wears what looks like a tulle prom dress that has been cut to the length of short shorts. Its neutral shade absorbs the stage lights, igniting colour transformations song by song. It’s theatrical, all of it, as it’s meant to be—and it’s utterly captivating.
It’s no wonder Billboard has its eyes on Toronto-native, Allie X, and while she has yet to reach number one—her single “Catch” has climbed halfway up the Canadian Hot 100 chart—a rise in the ranks is coming…and it’s coming fast.
While not the sort of “alt” artist to turn her nose up at the charts—“I don’t think that writing a top 40 hit is anything to be laughed at”—wide radio airplay is not the end goal of Allie X. For the twentysomething-year-old musician (like all personal details, her exact age is cloaked in mystery), being an artist is about curating an experience—or should we say “Xperience”—one that has been custom tailored to espoused the full spectrum of Allie X’s creative fancies. “The best way I can describe it is feeling “X,” she says. “It’s this almost indescribable aesthetic, and the reason that I use those visuals is because I can’t actually communicate it with words.”
Evidently, Allie X has near perfected the tailoring of the “Xperience.” In a rapid amount of time, the singer-songwriter has not only beckoned a small army of X’s to her side, but has also managed to earn a place at Montreal’s Phi Centre, where she held an artist residency this past April through May. In an extensive expression of “X,” the arts centre presented “48H Allie X,” an homage to the musician and her universe of “X,” complete with interactive media installation, pop-up shop, online supplement, and a live performance by the artist herself. A highly touted event, the creative collaboration acted unofficially as something of a ceremonial crowning for a singer-songwriter that exhibit organizers—and in extension the Canadian arts community—have ordained “the future queen of shadow pop.”
Like music icons of a Bowie pedigree before her, Allie X has stepped onto the scene steeled with a persona that glows bright in the spotlight. And with her, she brings a “X” glossary. The creative invention yielded from this combination is a performing artist that bends expectation and alludes description. Allie X is sui generis... though, refreshingly, too humble to admit it. “I think that there’s nothing that is completely original,” she shrugs, when asked how she feels about being compared to other artists. “When you come up with something that takes, it’s just a clever combination of different influences and genres.” Something tells us, fans of this singular artist may disagree.
Before the April release of her debut album, CollXtion I—notably via her own label, aptly named, Label X—Allie X had already bestowed an eponymous sobriquet upon fans, affectionately referring to them as “X’s.” As X’s, listeners are invited to immerse themselves into the “Xperience.” For some, this might simply entail singing along to addictive songs, such as “Hello” and “Catch” (imagine sunshine synth-pop in its most astute form), but for most, hopes the musician, this means perceiving the “X” she’s offered up, as something of a blank space awaiting creative input. In other words, exploring the human experience (often through collective interactivity) and partaking in some healthy self-expression, for which, Allie X has provided the outlet. See “Xhibit 1,” a user-generated component of her “Bitch” music video that asks X’s to post videos sharing what the song means to them individually on a personal level.
“The idea behind ‘X’ is that anybody can adopt it into their own life and make it their own. And what I hope for fans to do is to take what I’ve done with ‘X’ in my own life, as just a little source of inspiration, and to take it and create their own expression of ‘X,’” explains the singer. “The virtual gallery is my way of encouraging people to do that, and hopefully, as time goes by, there will be even better ways for me to host people’s work and to encourage them, but “Xhibit 1” is a start.” And, as the project’s title number indicates, this will not be the last of such modern art experiments; “Xart” is to the Allie X listening experience, what eccentricity is to Allie X: bound.
As both her unique personal fashion and signature kaleidoscopic music videos demonstrate, her sensibilities lean towards art house quirk—never appropriated and always branded “X.” “People aren’t going to do a lot of extra work to figure out who you are in the beginning,” she points out. “You have to sort of hand it to them.”
In her songs, Allie X composes juxtaposition with cunning artistry. In “Bitch” she scrambles archetypes with feminism, dousing them in lust, as she coos: “You can bring me home the bacon/And chop the wood;” before bumping it up an octave and chanting: “Always be in your control/I’m your bitch, you’re my bitch,” with animated childish vigor.
Skip to tracks such as “Good” and “Sanctuary,” and from peppy pistol, Allie X turns sensitive observer of human nature, sharing in “Good” what feels like a coming of age diary entry, while penning the ultimate fade-to-black sendoff for an epic romantic drama in the form of “Sanctuary.”
With every confession CollXtion I sings out loud, one hears the songwriter contemplating a new set of circumstances and emotions, at times, seemingly outside herself, until hindsight kicks in. “Sometimes I imagine other people and then upon reflection, I realize that I was writing about myself or a part of myself,” she shares. “But usually, there’s some sort of visual going on in my head, some sort of movie.”
A mystery—it would seem, even to herself at times—Allie X, with her surprisingly easy laugh and wonderfully abstruse “X” glossary, wields sphinxlike charm with creative prowess. On stage, its potency is palpable; behind pink sunglasses, she hypnotizes the audience, they sing with her, move to her melody, and form their arms into a statuesque “X” on her command. For those in search of the next big breakout act, take a cue from the pages of Treasure Island: X marks the spot.
Below, we talk to Allie X from her home in Los Angeles, and attempt to decipher the enigmatic star on the rise, during a candid discussion about inspiration, creative vision and everything “X.”
Take me back to the beginning. You started music at a young age, studying classical piano and voice. Where did that early interest in music stem from?
I’m not sure, it was always just there…it was always the only thing I was good at.
What music did you listen to growing up?
Ummm…I can’t answer that, but I can tell you some of my influences. I love the Ark, Chopin, Haruki Murakami, the author…and Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks…and Giorgio Moroder.
In terms of music, was there one album from your youth that stands out for you, a record that made you fall in love with music?
Mariah Carey “Fantasy”…no, sorry, Daydream was the name of the album.
Did that album help you find your own sound in a way?
No, but on a vocal level, I learned to sing by trying to imitate those incredible pop singers: Céline Dion, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. I don’t think I ever got to be as good as they are, but certainly, it helped me learn.
I understand it was songwriting that first got you out to L.A. Did you always sort of know though that you were still going to pursue a solo career in music?
Yes. I mean, the catalog of songs that I had, that got me a publishing deal and got me to L.A., was all written with myself in mind, it just took me a long time to find my sound, so I ended up with a lot of different songs, in a lot of different genres. But I still knew that I wanted to do something as an artist, as well as a songwriter.
The category of “pop” sometimes suffers from a bit of a negative connotation; how do you define pop music yourself?
Pop to me is something that is popular. I don’t think it is anything to be frowned upon. I think for something to become known around the world, where people from every country hear it and know the words, I think in a way, that is more powerful than any initiative that the government can ever take. It’s so universal, and to think that one person or several people write something like that, that can transend culture and language barriers and religion and everything, I think that’s actually an incredible feat. That is pop music to me…in its best sense. That said, I know that really terrible pop music is made as well.(Laughing.)
Would you say your new album fits that definition of pop? The good definition I mean.
It’s definitely not widely known. (Laughing.) I think that it’s relevant and comes from a very true place. And I think, the sound has been thought out…I think it’s a really good piece of pop music.
Do you find the labels that critics place on music confining, or just arbitrary and not something to pay attention to?
A label like, “she sounds like the new…whatever,” like that sort of thing?
I don’t mind. I never have. I don’t mind labels like that. If someone needs to compare me to someone else for someone to understand, then so be it, no big deal.
How do you feel about getting praise from other musicians such as Katy Perry, does it feel better coming from your peers than say, a music critic?
Both are equally flattering. I was very flattered to get that praise from Katy. And I’ve been very flattered to get it from press and various outlets, and also from fans online. It’s all very gratifying.
You are though getting incredible recognition from music critics, does it feel like success is happening at lightening speed, or does it actually feel more like a long time coming?
This project…I’ve been developing it for several years; it doesn’t feel like an overnight thing. But, I also didn’t expect people to catch on so quickly, as they did. When I put “Catch” up on Soundcloud, it was within 24 hours that it was on Time magazine (laughing), and getting recognition from all these outlets, and then from Katy, of course…that felt surreal to me…very quick.
I love the energy of your music contrasted with the weight of its lyrics, like in “Prime.” Is that juxtaposition something you like to play with as a musician?
Yeah, it is something that interests me. It’s something that happens naturally, just because of the way I am, and the fact that I have this kind of weird brain, but I’m also drawn to these very grand, theatrical, uplifting melodies. (Laughing.) With the combination of those two things, it ends up happening naturally. I think it is interesting, and there is a lot of substance and truth to it…so, yes, does that answer your question? (Laughing.)
Your song “Good” is one of my favourites off the album. Where was your head when you wrote that one? There’s a lot of emotion in there.
I was in the head of a person who felt that they had been bad to the people around them…and that they had to exile themselves to stop hurting other people. I imagined them getting into some sort of midnight car…taxi…and just being driven off into limbo. I guess the real beauty of it is, even as they reflect on what a failure they were in many ways, there is still that desire to be good…to be a better person. I think that, no matter what you’ve done, and how much of a failure you feel like, if there’s still a part of you that’s fighting to be better, and there’s still that hope…then I think you’re okay.
Just on the topic of songs, what would you say the overall mood of the album is?
There’s a lot of themes…delusion, you get some delusion in the song “Hello.” You get some love and addiction, and sedation in “Catch.” And, in “Prime”…humour, self-destructive sort of humour. There’s medical imagery, obviously, throughout the album. And then there’s a bit of self-redemption and hope in “Good” and “Sanctuary.”
Is that all a reflection of what was going on in your life at the time you were writing the bulk of the songs for this record?
Yes, in some ways. It feels very stream of conscious writing sometimes, not too much of a conscious choice.
You have a very distinct aesthetic and style. Do you think having a signature style is important as a musician?
I do. I think that from a branding perspective it’s very important. And then, on a personal level, I think it’s important as well.
Why is that?
I think it’s important to have a fully formed idea of what you’re trying to communicate to the world.
Simple…makes sense. In relation to the world and your relationship with your audience, it states in your press bio that you’re “not a role model.” Do you think in some ways though, the minute you put yourself out there for the public to hear and see, you automatically become a candidate to be somebody’s a role model, like it or not?
I mean…I accept the responsibility of being a public figure, and I do want to be good. But, I see myself as a very flawed individual, and I would prefer that people, instead of becoming Allie X-inators or what have you, become the “X” version of themselves… Jennifer X, you. (Laughing.)
Got it! As an artist working out of the US, is it important to you that audiences know you’re Canadian, and that you remain a part of the Canadian arts scene?
I think it’s relevant information. I think that…I’m proud to be from Canada, it’s a great place, but I really view California as my home now.
What’s next for you, touring?
Collection two is in the works and there will be some live shows soon.