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Interview: Allie X revisits the devil she knows on ‘Cape God’

Photo Credit: Brendon Burton
 

Allie X doesn’t have a discography as much as an ever-growing book of fables. “Susie Save Your Love,” “Sarah Come Home,” “Simon Says”… flip to any chapter of her catalogue and there’s a parable or cautionary tale at hand, weaved into the tapestry of her stunning alt-pop.

“It’s not so bad in L.A.,” she famously cooed on her 2018 effort Super Sunset. But life on Cape God is a different story.

Pulled by an undertow of addiction and darque party music, Allie X’s sophomore record Cape God (released in February) in an ominous one, forcing a toothy grin while it navigates the plights of a white suburban adolescence in America.

 

When we spoke to the Canadian-born pop singer about her new record in early March, our country was a different place, still gyrating to the melodies of live music. Allie X still had a North American tour in place, set to stop at Sonia on this Sunday (April 5). Like many other spring tours, it was postponed officially last month.

In honor of what would have been her Cambridge show this weekend, we’re sharing our pre-show interview with Allie X today. As you cash in your ticket to Cape God, read on below about the singer’s adolescence at Interlochen, her friendship with Troye Sivan, and the privilege of expressing pain in art.

Victoria Wasylak: Your record Cape God just came out and I was really interested to learn that a lot of these songs you actually started writing before your previous album. How did you know that these songs were ripe, per se?

Allie X: As I was preparing to release my last EP, which was called Super Sunset, I did a writing trip to Stockholm. That was when the first three songs that ended up being foundation of Cape God were written. I didn’t sit on them for very long. I dove right into making Cape God after those were written because I knew that they just had such a specific sound and a particular tone to them that I knew instantly that it was gonna be my next record. And the producer that I was working with was also very excited and we kind of agreed, right after they were written, we’d make a project together. It was just funny though because I couldn’t really show them to anyone for such a long time because I was publicly focused on promoting Super Sunset.

You said this record is kind of about when the “light turned out in you” when you were younger. I was wondering if you are comfortable talking a little bit more about that?

Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a lot I could say. When you’re a kid, I think you’re a beautiful, innocent creature for a time, and you don’t understand really how painful life can be. And you don’t understand the complexities of life and emotion — which is wonderful, and that’s how kids should be. But I also think for the people around you as a kid, to expect that you’ll always be like that is not realistic. Yeah, I think when kids turn into adolescents and into teenagers you start to understand the weight of the world. And in my case, I just radically changed. I remember my family asking me what had happened because I was so different, and I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t, really. I mean, it could have been chemical, it could have been hormonal, but I think it was just growing up. I think that’s the case for a lot of people, and life definitely became harder. This record documents a long time, really 10 years if you look at it, but I was very focused on my high school years, kind of the age 13 to 18 or 19.

What was it like to revisit this time period in your life? You just talked about this big change you had experienced and that probably wasn’t the most pleasant time period. And now you have to go back and excavate it out of your memories, and think about it, and make art out of it. What was that like?

Well, it was actually really therapeutic and really liberating. I think I gave myself a long, long time to heal and reach a point of maturity. My point of view is sympathetic and reflective. I think, had I tried to write about it at the time, I wouldn’t have been able to. I was so scared and detached from what was going on with my body and my mind. In a way, there was all this pent-up stuff from that time that never artistically was expressed, because I didn’t know how and I wasn’t even writing songs at that age. So it was great, I was able to give a voice to her, who’d never had a voice, and that was empowering and liberating. Uncomfortable, yeah, but so is any creation of art for me usually. I mean, sometimes it’s very fun and seamless, but usually you have to dig deep and go to uncomfortable places for that.

And you went to Interlochen, right?

Yeah, yeah.

What was your experience like there? I feel like I know quite a few folks who went there and they all come out on the other end as really, really astounding musicians. In the context of this record, what were you like as a teenager and what were you like when you went there?

When I went there, I was very sick and I was very determined. I had just been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and was in and out of the hospital. But at the same time — it sounds crazy, looking back then — I was so set on going and being an artist, and proving to everyone around me that I was not to be seen as weak and I was to be seen as an artist. I think I desperately just wanted to control how I was being seen. I had just turned 16 when I went off to Interlochen, which is a boarding arts school. I had a really, really, good girlfriend at my previous high school, and I remember it being very heartbreaking to part ways with her. She was kind of my everything. Yeah, and I was just hiding all the physical stuff I was going through and hiding my body and doing way too many courses.

I was very overwhelmed and very tired, all the time. It was difficult. To put it in a few words, it was very difficult. But it was also very unique and a special experience. There’s no place like that place that I know of. People come from all around the world — young, young people, because usually that’s the experience you get in college but this is like, young teenagers in high school. My roommate was from Costa Rica. She was a double bass player and that was really cool. My social life was going to see concertos and going to writing workshops and watching an organ concert. The campus is in the woods. It was winter, like, three-quarters of the time we were there. I remember I used to wear Birkenstocks with socks. My feet would always be soaking because I’d walk through the snow and just try to find other people’s footprints. Yeah, no one’s actually asked me about that in an interview yet so I’m just diving down memory lane.

No, go for it.

Yeah, it was challenging and it was memorable. I’m kind of proud of myself for how brave I was. I was just so determined.

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Something you just said really stuck with me — that you were so determined to prove yourself that you worked at proving yourself to the point where it actually was a detriment to your health. I think it’s interesting to hear you talk about that because I had a very similar experience where, when you’re that young, you don’t know how to prove yourself outside of school. Your whole world is school and academics. As an adult, when you go to college, you realize there’s so many different ways to prove that you’re a talented person or a good person. But when you’re in school, that’s it, especially if you go to a really difficult school like you did. You have the weight of the world on you and It’s almost like you don’t have a life outside of school and school-related things.

Yeah, totally. And I’d gone there against the advice of my doctors and my family. My family is always trying to support my decisions, but they were kind of like, “Are you sure you wanna do this to yourself?” So that just added more pressure because I was like, “I’m not going home. I’m not failing.” And you know, I had to go to the hospital a couple times but… Yeah, I was very desperate to prove to myself and to the people around me that I was an artist, I guess. I didn’t want to be seen as all the stuff that I was going through. It was a crazy time.

Do you think, if you could go back and do it again, that you would have pushed yourself less, or do you think you would have just let it play out the way it did so that you could get to this point where you are now? Because that’s the funny thing about looking back at things, even if it kind of sucked at the time, you wouldn’t be exactly the same person that you are now if anything had gone differently, you know?

That’s a tough one because that is one way that I made my life a lot harder. I mean, the funny thing is I just made it through that and then I basically, like, collapsed into the summer after graduation. I was supposed to go to Boston Conservatory actually and I couldn’t, so I took a year off. Then I ended up going to my local college and studying musical theater. The whole idea of going to Interlochen is getting into a prestigious conservatory or college. I did, but then I deferred and I didn’t go, and then I ended up in L.A. anyway. I don’t know. I definitely made my life a lot harder and I was studying classical music, which if anything I’m just trying to forget it these days. It doesn’t help when you’re trying to be a pop musician, if you have classical training. If anything, I’m like trying to get rid of my vibrato and like not sing so high and bright. [laughs] So I don’t know. I feel like if I had the choice if I could go back, I think I would probably change how I did things, yeah, in that case. I’m a no regrets person but I also [feel] like, “Fuck, that was hard. It could have been so much easier.”

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In America, we kind of epitomize being in high school and being 18 or 19 as “the best time of your life.” You’re older now, and you were looking back at that point in your life and writing about it [for Cape God]. I think that was kind of a risky, or a very audacious choice for you. I feel like with women in pop music, people are always yelling at them to “Act your age.” Or “You’re not 22. Why are you writing songs about parties?” And we don’t necessarily treat men in mainstream music that way. Whereas with women, I think of Taylor Swift, all the time people are like, “You know, you’re gonna be 30…” I was really struck because I thought it was risky because of the way that we hold women to that different standard.

Yeah, that’s an interesting perspective. I mean, I think I tend to feel like, in pop music, there can be a lack of honesty and an over-eagerness for commercialism and generic sort of stuff. And I am against that. I feel like what makes my “party songs” work is that they’re dark and that they’re honest and that they’re focusing on a time where I was really young. It’s not really focusing on my current life and being like [singing voice] “I love to drink Patron and wear my blah, blah, blah.” You know, I couldn’t do that. [laughs]

Right, I understand what you mean because it’s party music but there’s the darkness of substances, [like] drinking and opioids. And speaking on that, you were inspired by the documentary Heroin: Cape Cod, USA.

Yeah, have you seen it?

I haven’t, which is kind of surprising because I’m from Massachusetts. I’ve lived here my whole life so I should probably see it.

Do you feel like, the presence of that, living in Massachusetts? You’re the first journalist I’ve spoken to that lives in Massachusetts. I’m curious.

You mean opioid addiction?

Yeah, yeah.

Yes, not in necessarily people I know personally, but actually with my experience here in Central Massachusetts, when there’s not as much to do, we do have a big opioid problem, and also in Southern New Hampshire. I’ve personally never read headlines about Cape Cod although obviously it exists. But for me [and what I’ve seen], definitely there’s a huge problem in the parts of Massachusetts where there’s not a ton to do, so I think people fall into that, unfortunately.

I wanted to ask if you could tell us a little bit more about your first reaction to when you saw the documentary. I know it, obviously, very much shaped the record, but what are your general thoughts about it?

Well, it shaped the record in a very abstract way. It was sort of a launch pad for me back into my own memories and struggles. And in an abstract way, I’ve had various addiction problems, but it’s never been like, [a] substance. It’s not like I saw that, and I was like, “Oh, I remember when I had my substance or my painkiller addiction.” It wasn’t that at all. I related to being that age and being from that demographic — from a white suburban “nice family,” you know? I related to the detachment that they felt and the sort of day-to-day survival that they felt, and the uncertainty about the future. It wasn’t even until later that I realized that that was sort of why I felt so connected. Basically, I saw it and I was struck by it, and I was still thinking about it a few days later — which normally, I watch a lot of films and even if it’s a good film, I’m not really thinking about it.

The whole thing started because I was still thinking about it. I was putting lyrics to a song, and I was a bit stuck so I was like, “I’ll just try writing from the perspective of this one character in the film.” That was what launched me into my feelings and it was very easy to write when I was thinking of it that way. I was just like, “Oh, I tapped into something here.” When I was in Sweden on that first important writing trip, I did the same thing, but then it started to be half describing from someone else’s perspective, and then half me just speaking from my own personal experience. By the end of the process I was no longer really even thinking of her, I was thinking about the other “her,” which was me in high school. I think Cape Cod became Cape God, which was almost like a visual landscape and a mood to set the songs. It’s all very abstract. But that’s the human brain and that’s how I wrote it.

Was that hard with that blurred line between a character you saw on the documentary and you? Or on the flip side, I could see that being freeing because, if someone listens to it [and wonders] “Who is she referring to? We don’t know.” What was your experience with that abstractness?

It’s really all me. I don’t know if you write fiction or if you’ve ever heard this expression, but people say that when you’re writing fiction, you’re actually writing biographically, and when you’re writing non-fiction sometimes you’re holding back details. And I think that’s really true in this case. I think writing is such a strange and abstract exercise in and of itself. Yeah, I think just the exercise of putting myself in someone else’s shoes automatically put me into my own experience, even right off the bat. Certainly by the end of the record, the whole thing felt extremely personal, and not like I was doing anything fictional anymore, or documenting anything. It never really felt like, “Oh, I’m documenting someone else’s life,” even that very first time I tried the exercise.

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You’ve mentioned before that you think that Cape God is some of your best work. I was curious as to why. And also your song “Regulars” you felt is some of your strongest music to date. Why is that?

I mean, it’s kind of hard to answer a question like that without sounding like, really full of yourself. [laughs] I don’t know, I just think it’s my most honest work. It’s my most singular work. I think it sounds fresh to me. And lyrically it’s just very honest, it’s very raw. I think it’s taken me a while to get to the point where I can be vulnerable like this. I think in “Regulars,” it’s just the best song, I just know it’s the song that I really, really connect to. I’d probably call that song my personal favorite on the album. Although, I don’t think that’s many of the fans’ favorite song.

You had helped Troye Sivan with his record — you co-wrote some of the songs on his record a couple years ago — and now he’s back on your album. What it was like working with him again, and what’s your working relationship like with him?

We’re very close. I wrote about half of his first record and about half of his second record. And we’ve written for a Netflix movie together, and we wrote, “Love Me Wrong” together, which is the song that he features on [for Cape God]. We have the same management company. We’re friends. Oh, and we wrote a BTS song together that just came out. So Troye and I have a long history together and he’s a wonderful person.

How did you know that you wanted him on this record? Or since you’re friends, was it just like, “Hey, come on over”?

We’ve been talking about doing some sort of feature for a long time and this just felt like the right song and the right time because he’s not promoting a record right now. With a big artist like that, you have to be considerate of their schedules as well. It just lined up really well.

In your name, the X is kind of a variable, an unknown. What unknown did you find out about yourself when you were working on this record? What did you discover about yourself when you were working on Cape God?

I think just that the best way to say it is I discovered a pride and a sympathy for my younger self. Whereas I used to feel shame and fear mostly, I find myself at a place in my life now where I discovered a deep sympathy and compassion and a real confidence about who I am now and a pride about how that experience made me who I am now. If nothing else, this record has been a very therapeutic and liberating experience for me as a person. It’s a privilege to be able to express that pain, you know? There’s a lot of difficult sides about being an artist, but that side of it is a real privilege.

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