Musician Allie X Explores the Darker, Intellectual Side of Pop

How the singer and songwriter learned pop isn’t what it used to be

When Allie X was younger, pop music meant bubblegum. It meant Britney Spears and *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, all singing and dancing and picture perfect love and lust songs machinated for mass consumption. But the state of pop is different now, to the point where Allie X’s electronic, emotionally exposed, dark, and intellectual explorations of self can get attention from the likes of Katy Perry, arguably one of the foremost pop sensations in the country if not the world.

Perry famously tweeted about her love of Allie X’s song “Catch” in 2014, exploding Allie X into the music world’s radar, almost instantaneously. Who was this singer a reigning pop queen had asked her loyal subjects to listen to? Publication after publication sought to answer the question and upon sharing the answer provided a glimpse into the world of X, a concept Allie X had been working on creating for years.

X, this concept of blank space that allows a person to fill in whatever part of their identity they feel is missing, has been running through Allie X’s work since she first adopted the letter after moving from Toronto to Los Angeles in 2013. You don’t know what X is until you solve for it, and the solution takes time to find. Maybe we never quite know who we are, and this is something Allie X explores in her debut album, CollXtion II, released earlier this year. “In some ways I feel like I’m incredibly vulnerable and I try to show parts of myself that people can relate to and feel that they’re part of, that we share the same struggle…but in some ways I also feel like I’m wearing a veil,” she says. “You don’t want to give so much of yourself away that it hurts you, but you want it to be therapeutic at the same time. I just think it’s a fine balance.” The Story of X is an ongoing one, and each CollXtion features a different thematic arch—CollXtion I, her debut EP, was about addiction and self-destruction while CollXtion II studies longing and being lost. Allie X sees them as “little eras” for the way she sonically and emotionally evolves through each.

Born Alexandra Ashley Hughes in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, Allie X is a classically trained musician who at one point hoped to work in musical theatre. Eventually, though, she felt that world wasn’t for her. “I dabbled in classical music and I never really fit in,” she says. “I thought there wasn’t much room for creativity.” Instead, she found and exercised creativity as a singer-songwriter and indie pop artist in Toronto, where she moved after graduating college. Pop music was always an interest, she says, but she didn’t even know she was writing it until after the success of another song, “Touch.”

“I reached a point where I realized that I was making pop music even if I’m kind of weird or if the production was kind of weird,” says Allie X, whose influences include not just Bjork and Tom Petty but surrealist novelist Haruki Murakami. “I just decided to go fully electronic and go in that direction.” “Touch” garnered attention from major labels that heard potential radio play in the tune, which she found surprising. “I thought it wasn’t in that world,” she says. “When I started getting all that attention, that’s when I really started to look at where music was going and realized that the internet and all these streaming services have actually really influenced the kind of song that gets on the radio now. I think it’s a really positive change and it’s good timing for an artist like me because I would have never had a chance at a big success in this previous bubblegum era.”

Allie X considers herself a multimedia artist, one whose work crosses into both concept-driven music and digital art. CollXtion II and CollXtion I both include a series of GIFs, or “X Visuals,” developed specifically for the albums as well as for multiple music videos. She had been developing her style and visuals, both featuring a sort of high-fashion art goth aesthetic, for years with the help of mood boards and Tumblr images she says she found disconcerting, beautiful, and abstract. She was also inspired by the films of Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski as well as the work of photographers she has collaborated with in the past, like Eddie Chacon, Logan White, and Jungle George.

The resulting combination of these visual influences is minimalist and mysterious, evoking the darkness and loneliness that’s echoed in trying to discover or understand one’s own identity in the first place. For example, on the album cover of CollXtion II, shot by Eddie Chacon, she sits slouched on the floor wearing a white dunce cap, her sleek brown hair spilling around her face, playing with blocks made of her own body. She seems to castigate herself, wondering why she doesn’t know better, why can’t she figure herself out? There’s an idea of feeling stuck, childlike, wishing you knew better, wishing you knew how to grow. This experience is reflected in the album’s songs, like “Paper Love,” about getting into relationships she knows are going to hurt her; or “Need You,” a somber yet defiant desire for independence that repeats “I don’t need you anymore” not because it’s true but in the hope that one day it will be; or “True Love is Violent,” where love’s ocean attempts to toss and tear two sailors apart, but they stay regardless of whether or not they should: “Tossed ’til we capsized/ Battered and bruised/ Say it’s the last time/ We know the truth.”

Despite her ongoing desire to understand her own identity and the weight of the topics she has grappled with in each CollXtion so far, Allie X finds the work she’s created really affirming. “I think I’ve always thought that I could do something special and I feel that I have done something special with this project,” she says. “It’s allowed me to have stamina. It’s allowed me to come into myself and connect with people like me. I’ve always felt like a loner, I guess, and through having this platform with this voice, I’ve [found] a lot of people who feel the same way I do.”

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