Interview: Allie X Talks The Creative Process Behind ‘Cape God’
Allie X has been creating elaborate worlds in her music since emerging on the scene. 2018’s Super Sunset for instance found the pop auteur telling the stories of characters ranging from a nun to a Hollywood starlet. Talk about range. However, everything she’s done in the past pales in comparison to the world she rendered on Cape God. Out Friday (February 21), the album goes above and beyond. Why? Because it tells Allie’s story in a way she’s opted out of doing in the past. It also continues to prove that the Canadian talent is in a class of her own with its tight melodies and thoughtfully composed lyrics.
Preceded by singles including outsider anthem “Regulars,” “Rings A Bell” and “Love Me Wrong” (her first true duet with frequent collaborator Troye Sivan), we already knew this was going to be a compelling listen. However, nothing prepares you for the moody splendor of tracks like “Madame X” (yes, Allie’s aware of the Madonna comparisons the title may spawn) or the euphoria of “Super Duper Party People.” This is the hitmaker at her best. And it only scratches the surface of what she’s been up to lately. The same day Cape God dropped, she landed on the tracklist for BTS’ soon-to-be chart-topping MAP OF THE SOUL: 7.
With the assistance of Troye, Leland and Bram Inscore, she helped co-write album stand-out “Louder than bombs.” The rising star is also poised to embark on a headlining tour. It’s a full schedule. But last week I had the opportunity to catch up with her ahead of the album’s roll-out. Allie opened up about her feelings going into release week. More importantly, the “Focus” siren took me through the creative process behind the LP and its witchy visuals. In the process, she spilled some tea about the history of “Love Me Wrong” and “Super Duper Party People.”
We also talked about some of our favorite songs in her discography and words of wisdom shared by none other than Cyndi Lauper. Dive into the full interview below to get all the important details.
As it stands, you’re only a few days away from the release of Cap God. How are you feeling going into the week?
I’m excited and nervous. As you said it, I was like “Ahhhh.” But I guess it feels like a really monumental record for me. Like one of the things I’m most proud of. I’ve just been sitting on it for so long. Well not sitting on it, but it’s been a very slow campaign. The fact that it’s actually happening this week is a little surreal. I also feel thrilled for the world to hear it as a body of work because that’s really how it should be heart. This was not an album of singles. This was a conceptual start to finish story. Body of work.
I’m really excited for that. Really excited for my fans to hear it. I think when people hear this record they’re going to understand me better. And I’m ready to be vulnerable in that way. But it’s also nerve wracking. Lots of feelings. But I’m very proud.
You should be. I’ve been listening to the album all morning, and it has such a great sound. It’s interesting to see how you’ve evolved sonically having been a fan since COLLXTION I. I’m really interested in where things have been going.
Wow. Yeah, it’s definitely an evolution sonically, isn’t it? It wasn’t planned. It just kind of happened on a writing trip to Stockholm. We just went into writing with… I don’t know. Usually you’ll start a session, and you’ll play a reference song. Or you’ll play songs that you’re already working on. You have sort of an idea about a groove that you’re trying to accomplish or whatever. There’s usually some sonic starting point. With “Fresh Laundry,” which was the first song that we wrote at that time, there was really no blueprint for the direction we were taking it.
I just had the lyrics and the melody to the verse of “Fresh Laundry” in my head. I sang it a cappella and Oscar just started playing that baseline in the verse. It just took shape. By the end of the day this new sound had evolved. And I was like “this feels really fresh and really interesting.” So in the days following we kept working with that palette of sounds. And we wrote “Rings A Bell,” and we wrote “Regulars.” At the end of that trip I was like “shit. This is good.”
I didn’t say it to them yet because I didn’t know if Oscar would be able to do the whole record, but it felt to me like we had a body of work in the works. So that’s kind of how it all started.
It’s awesome that those three songs introduced the era, too.
Yeah, I felt like they needed to. Like “Super Duper Party People” is one of my favorite songs on the record, but if I put that out first it doesn’t really represent the world or the record as a whole. It’s more of a departure. I feel like there’s a few songs like that. They’re all very much conceptual and in the Cape God playground, but I felt like “Fresh Laundry” was my introduction to it. And I wanted it to be the fan’s introduction to Cape God as well.
Absolutely. You mentioned that the album as a whole works as a concept. Can you talk about what that concept is that you’re exploring?
This is how Cape God happened. I saw a documentary on HBO, this would have been early 2018. It was called Heroin: Cape Cod. I was really take by it for whatever reason. I didn’t know at the time but to the point where I was still thinking about it a couple days later. I should explain what it’s about. Heroin: Cape Cod is about the abuse of heroin and fentanyl in the US but specifically in Massachusetts. And even more specifically in Cape Cod. So the documentary focuses in on I think there’s six or seven real-life characters in it. None of them really come from desperate situations.
They’re all white, and they all come from good families, and they become addicts. A few of them have even overdosed, and they’ve passed away. The whole thing just struck me to the point where a few days later I was trying to put a lyric on a melody that I had. I was like “maybe I’ll try writing this lyric from the perspective of one of the characters in the film.” Just as an experiment. It resulted in a really interesting lyric. I was kind of like “oh that’s interesting. I’ll keep that in the back of my mind while writing in the future.” Cut to that writing trip that I mentioned earlier in Stockholm. When I started writing “Fresh Laundry” it was from a lyric that I had written a long time ago. “I want to be near fresh laundry. It’s been too many years of not folding.” That was written when I was sick and in my bathtub in my Hollywood apartment. It just looked really dirty and gross in the bathroom.
I kind of missed how fresh my towels were growing up and how my mom would always keep everything smelling really good. I wrote from that perspective but then in the studio that day I was also thinking about that girl again and how she might write a lyric. The lyrics ended up being a combination of my personal feelings and also placing it another person’s head. And I didn’t even tell James and Oscar who were in the room that I was thinking that way. But I kind of continued to do that the next day when we wrote “Rings A Bell” and also the next day when we wrote “Regulars.” I guess what I’m saying is I started to delve into…
It was almost like watching that film and thinking from that character’s perspective was a portal to my personal experience as a high school student and as a young adult. I guess I figured out that I related in a lot of ways. Not that I ever had a problem with fentanyl, but I was very dissociative. I was very detached from my feelings and emotions. I was dealing with a lot of illness myself during high school. My experience in high school was very isolated and very sort of… My future felt very foreboding. I dove into all these feelings that I had for a long time. They probably carved me out to be the person that I am today, but I hadn’t actually written about.
It seems like Cape God, a sort of fictional place, was the appropriate title for the record. Because even though it’s deeply personal, I did add an element of fantasy and detachment to write this record. Cape God is kind of like a liminal space that I went in to to explore a lot of these feelings that i’d bee writing for a long time.
So it’s kind the meeting place between your personal life and the documentary?
In the end I got further and further away from that documentary and more and more into my own feelings. Into my own world. But the documentary is definitely how it ended up all happening. It was a spark of creativity. It’s like when you read a book or see a movie or experience any kind of art that it makes you relate. It sort of brought up feelings that might not have been brought up otherwise. Like in a therapy session of something.
That’s really cool. Can I ask what the first song that you wrote from the person’s perspective?
Oh yeah. Well it’s unreleased. There’s a song that I wrote called “Night Moves” that when I was trying to finish Cape God I was trying to keep that on there. But we had very limited time, and it wasn’t working like every other song. Every other song was super seamless. So when that one was feeling like a bit of a challenge I was just like “oh I’m going to save this for the future. I’m not going to put this on the record.”
There’s always time to come back or hear it after the project’s back.
Yeah. Yeah. I had a few more songs that I had in mind for Cape God. But I just kind of let… If something was easy and it made sense then I left it on. And if something was feeling too difficult I was like “it’s not meant to be this time.” That’s not an approach I’ve ever taken before, but it felt good.
I love that. I think it’s something we all need to think about when we’re being creative. Just come back to it.
Totally. Let it go.
I was also hoping to talk about the visuals. I think that since the start of your career you’ve created very thoughtful imagery that resonates. But what you’ve been doing this time is very different. What were you thinking as you were putting that together?
If I went super literal with creating imagery from when I was in high school it would have been a little too sad for me. It would have been me looking really weak and wearing huge bulky clothes to hide my tiny little body. It would have been the Canadian Gray Winter. I didn’t want to take it that direction. I wanted to represent all that but in a more beautiful way. I was seeing the color blue while I was writing the whole record. And I was seeing this East Coast imagery. Light houses. A shore line. I was seeing a lot of ice as well.
Then I stated to reference as I was writing this photographer named Gregory Crewdson. Whose an American photographer. Like a gallery photographer. Really incredible stuff. This kind of mundane East Coast settings with some sort of surreal element happening a lot of the time. Sometimes they’ll be just a nude person standing in the corner subtly. His photos really tell a story. That became my visual reference and what I mood boarded as I was wiring the music. When it came time for me to make my own images, I actually did contact Gregory Crewdson, and he was not available. So I had this other photographer that I loved and had been aware of for a while named Brendon Burton.
He’s an Oregon-based photographer. Twenty-five years old. Since he was younger he’s been traveling around by himself in the states and shooting ghost towns. And shooting derelict buildings and abandoned houses. Stuff that feels kind of exactly what I wanted in the album art. I wanted this sort of gothic Americana feeling. Brendon’s also really into the idea of liminal space. The thing with Brendon though is he hasn’t shot a lot of human subjects before. Occasionally, but I wanted an element of fashion as well. So the whole thing was kind of experimental. What we did was rent a cottage in upstate New York, and I drove out my makeup and hair team from New York. And my stylist. Brendon came, and I had a coupe other people helping out.
We just went around to all these crazy locations, and we inserted me into the location. Lastly I wanted to have this sort of young feeling. So a lot of the styling is kind of almost like school girl or something. It was a combination of all those things. I feel really proud of what we got out of it. It was a real team effort that a lot of thought went into. A lot of hard work, long days long hours. Yeah, I think we got a really unique-looking result.
I mean they’re so stunning. There’s kind of a witchy quality to some of the photos. Especially the ones of you in the forest. I think this is some of my favorite artwork that I’ve ever seen you do so it’s cool to hear how it came together.
Thank you. Thanks so much.
Of course. We already talked about a couple of the songs that have already been released. But there was one more I wanted to touch on. That’s “Love Me Wrong,” which you did with Troye. You two have been working together for years now but this was your first true duet. Why did this feel like the right moment?
I think you’re always kind of waiting for the right song. We’ve been talking about featuring on one another’s things since the beginning on and off as I recall. But never really had this song the we felt was right for that. When we wrote “Love Me Wrong” it was actually for a film. And it just happened to be exactly the concept that I ended up writing this record about. Which is being an outsider and being isolated and being misunderstood by people around you. So the film didn’t end up using the song so I snatched it up right away. I said “I want this on my record.” Then it was just as simple as asking Troye if he wanted to do it. And he was just like “yeah I’d love to.”
He and I both kind of always loved that song. We always thought it was an important kind of specific message that you don’t hear. Like “Love Me Wrong” isn’t just about being loved wrong as you’d think upon first listen. It’s really about loving someone intensely but missing the connection at some point. And how deeply hurtful that can be. Yeah, we both really loved it, and he agreed to do it. It fit in his schedule in a good way. Pretty simple.
There’s a certain quality to the song that is bound to resonate with the LGBTQ+ community. Is that something you discussed while working on it?
Absolutely. The film is Boy Erased, which Troye is in.
Yeah. Well it never made it into the film, but we wrote from that perspective. Of someone who is… You know he is really close to his parents and his parents love him. They’re doing what they think is right by sending him to get conversion therapy. In the song I’m saying “you love me, and I know you love me because of all these things. But that’s not the right way to love me. And I’m not that person taht you thought I was.”
You mentioned that you guys had been toying with doing a collaboration for a while now? Are there songs you both have released as solo songs that could have been duets?
Yeah, but I can’t really say.
One day maybe! I wanted to move into some of the other material on the album. Is there a song you’re most excited for people to hear?
Every time I start to answer this question I say one song, then I say another song, then I say another song. I’m really curious to see what people respond to the most. I do feel like there’s unreleased songs that are probably going to be the fan favorites. More so than the ones I’ve already released. I know that “Super Duper Party” people goes OFF live. I’ve never had this experience where I perform an unreleased song, and it gets the biggest response of the set. So I ‘m really excited for people to hear that and to do it live when people actually know it. I imagine it will be really a crazy moment in the show.
I feel like “Sarah Come Home” is going to be a favorite. “Learning in Public.” “June Gloom.” Those four feel like my fans will really like them. Let’s see. I don’t know. Which ones stick out to you?
I wanted to talk to you about “Super Duper Party People” because I think lyrically the world-building is just iconic. The first time I listened I was just like “yaaaas.” I was wondering what inspired the song?
That one was actually written before I even started the Cape God process and then finished with the Cape God world in mind. It was just a loose idea. It didn’t have a chorus or anything yet. It’s a funny story. I was with my partner driving in Niagara. Somewhere fucking 2016 I think. And he was like “wouldn’t it be cool if you did a song called ’Super Duper Party People.’” And I was like “yeah! That would be awesome.” We were like “What would it sound like? And couldn’t think of anything. With things like that i’m really good at filing it away in my mind. I know that in the right moment I’ll finish it. There’s been a lot of songs like that. Like “Paper Love,” “Vintage.” A lot of songs where in the moment I don’t know how to finish them, but I keep them filed away and pursue them until they’re done.
Anyway, that was when the initial idea came up, and i just started laughing. Then let’s see, I was in Denmark on a writing trip, and I couldn’t sleep one night because of jet lag so I had my iTunes shuffle on. This beat came up from this producer Ollie Goldstein who’s in Oliver. It was that baseline just on loop. It was really simple and something in my head clicked. It was like “that’s ‘Super Duper Party People.’” So I called my partner. Then we’re on Skype and I’m giddy from the jet lag, I guess. I start doing that like rap. “There’s a man to the left with beer on his breath and his hands in a bowl of nuts.” It was kind of just… written in a jokey way. But at the same time I was like “this is fucking cool.” I did the original recording.
It was so so shitty. I just did it on the built-in computer mic, and it was all out of time. It was so bad that I couldn’t even show it to anyone on my team because i knew they wouldn’t understand what the hell it was. I had that recording, and I thought about finishing it a couple times over the years. Time got away from me. Then cut to like 2019. It’s been like a four-year journey with this song. I’m finishing up all the songs for Cape God. I’m about to fly out to Sweden to finish the record. And I’m like “this is amazing, but it needs a bop. It needs a moment with a bit of a sense of humor because it’s a very melancholy record.” Then I was like what about “Super Duper Party People.”
Because I knew there was a section in the record that is about a party. Like “Susie Save Your Love” is about leaving a party with your friends. “Live Of The Party” is also there as well. Then I wrote the chorus really quickly and the pre-chorus. I went out to Sweden and played it for Oscar the producer. He heard the potential. He was liek “yeah this could be cool.” Then finishing it was also hilarious and fun. Like all those Swedes in the studio. Julius the studio manager got on the recording. He was like “su-pa du-pa” with his Swedish accent. Then I started singing it with the same accent.
That song just makes me smile because every memory that I have associated with it is just pleasant and easy and fun. Then I’ve got all these memories of doing it now on MARINA’s tour. And that was also so much fun. It’s that moment in the set where I just become unhinged and the audience is so into it. That’s… it’s one that’s close to my heart.
It sounds like an all-around party that went into the creation of it.
Yeah, it was a party. And that’s so rare. I feel like more often than not I’m laboring over songs and definitely not laughing my ass off.
This one was fun. I love that. Another one I wanted to talk about because I think it’s interesting is “Madame X.” It’s kind of cool in the pop world because Madonna dropped her Madame X last year. Sonically they’re so different. But I was wondering what it was like sharing a title with the Queen of Pop.
I knew it was going to be a moment. But I also knew that I wrote that song a year before. Actually when did her album come out?
Last year. I think later 2019.
I wrote that song with Simon Wilcox and Big Taste pre-summer 2018. So it’s existed for a while. The title’s existed for even longer. Simon is one of my favorite writers in Los Angeles, and she and I always had the idea to write a song called “Madame X.” We didn’t really know what it was about, but we just thought that was a cool title. I mean… I was just talking to Peter from PopJustice, and I was like look. “If Madonna wants to come for me, I’m like I bow down to my queen. It’s fine. You win.”
If Madonna ever wanted to, I know she won’t because I’m such a small artist compared to her, but if there was ever any controversy, I’d be like you win, Madonna. It’s yours.
We need the duet version with Madonna. That’s what we’ll hold out for.
I would die.
Then I really want to touch on this. We recently learned that you Troye, Leland and Bram are on the new BTS album.
I’ve never been the top story on my Twitter feed, and I didn’t think that that was going to be the reason I was. But here we are. I’m really excited that I got to collaborate with BTS. I’m a huge fan. It’s so cool what a phenomena they’ve become.
Two more quick questions. Last month on Twitter you shared your Top 10 songs on Spotify. First of all personally justice for “Prime” and “Sanctuary” which should definitely be on that list. If my streaming was all that counted they would be. But I’m wondering what your favorites are.
My favoite tracks… I’m really proud of “Paper Love.” I’m really proud of how that one happened and how I produced the demo on that one and took this one riff and made it feel really modern and really me. Again the original melody I thought about that and sat on it for a year. I tend to be really proud of the songs I have to fight for and then they come together really well. “Paper Love” is one of them.
I think “Regulars” is one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written because I feel like I found words to describe feelings that I’d never been able to verbalize before. It just feels really liberating to put something out to the world that describes really accurately how I feel.
I love “Prime” as well. I wrote and produced that one. I finished it with a producer named Mike Wise, but that’s a hundred percent song with me same as “Bitch.” That makes me feel really proud. “Too Much To Dream” is another one that I love. They’re kind of like my children. I’m pretty proud of most of my songs.
You can’t pick a favorite.
Right? It’s hard to pick a favorite.
“Prime” was my entry point. I heard it on one of Connor Franta’s collections and that was how I found you. It was so cool.
That’s amazing. Thanks Connor.
Really though! Brining us all together. There was one other thing I was curious about. At Bebe Rexha’s Grammys brunch you met Cyndi Lauper. It was just so many talented women all in that room. I was wondering if there were any discussions about collaborating while you were all together.
I’m sure there were. The stereotypical thing that happens in LA at any meeting like that is “we have to write together. Take my number” and nothing happens. If I want to write with someone I don’t do it that way. I’ll hit them up later and be like “hey I’m serious let’s write together. Here’s the date.” That said Cyndi Lauper did write down my name. She did say that she was going to look up my music, and she had really wonderful advice for all the girls in the room. She’s a true idol of mine for so long.
So that was a full-circle moment. You’re always doubting what you do, and you feel like you’re not successful or not good enough. But when you have a moment like that where you’re like “I’m literally having a conversation with Cyndi Lauper not just as a fan but also as a peer.” I’m still obviously a fucking fan but it was a very affirming, special moment for me to meet her.
What advice did she have that you would say was the most important?
She was talking about… I was saying to her how I really looked up to her because she’s always doing something that was different and found her place in culture. I said I always feel like I’m doing something different, and I’m not sure where I fit in. And she said something along the lines of it’s important to just do what’s natural and what’s different.
Doing something that’s different is way more valuable than trying to emulate what another artist is doing or follow along with what’s popular. That’s not a direct quote, but she said something like that and i was just like “Cyndi!”
That’s such great advice. Thank you so much for sharing.
Oh, you know what else she said? She said you should listen to what’s popular and figure out what’s missing. Then make that. And i was like “yes.”
That is brilliant. Words of wisdom from a legend. Thank you again for taking the time to talk to me!
Thank you so much!