Allie X Looks Back On 2018, 'Super Sunset' Rollout and the Importance Of Self-Care: 'It's Hard to Stop the Machine'
The singer tells Billboard about her personal highlights from the year.
As 2018 winds down, Billboard is asking some of the artists who helped define the year in music to look back on their accomplishments, favorite memories and pop-culture obsessions from the past 12 months. Check out other interviews with St. Vincent, Anne-Marie, Kali Uchis, Dan + Shay, Swae Lee, Lauv, Old Dominion, Mitski, Sofi Tukker, Jason Isbell, Saweetie and Shea Diamond.
“I am conceptual with my work, maybe to a fault,” admits pop singer Allie X. “I just like to create worlds with every body of work. I like to take the listener on a journey.”
In 2018, few artists embarked on a journey like the one Allie X led with Super Sunset. The project explores the highs and lows of her past five years living and working in Los Angeles with the help of three different characters: Sci-Fi Girl, an exaggerated, alien-esque version of herself; The Hollywood Starlet, a delusional embodiment of show biz desperation; and the Nun, who appears on the cover of Super Sunset and represents the purity of being an artist.
It’s complex, heady material, but for every moment of high-concept extravaganza, there’s another moment in her lyrics when reality creeps in -- the way a flaw in a photo can ruin your mood; the small lies we tell ourselves just to make it through the day. On futuristic synth-pop tracks like “Little Things” or “Girl of the Year,” the contrast between the flashy exterior and the personal details inside can be devastating.
The album’s rollout was also a journey. In lieu of a traditional release -- a lead single and maybe a few other advance tracks that preview an entire project -- Allie X shared Super Sunset over the course of about six months, releasing a new track every few weeks to ensure that almost every song got its due. Instead of bingeing the tracks and moving on, as is now common in the streaming age, listeners could digest them and analyze them -- not just live with them, but in them.
A few days after capping off her year with a cover of Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” Allie X hopped on the phone with Billboard to chat about the behind-the-scenes process of creating Super Sunset, DMing with fans and the importance of self-care.
Looking back on it now, how do you evaluate Super Sunset’s unconventional rollout?
I’m pretty happy with the decision. With CollXtion II in 2017, I think we put out “Paper Love” and then pretty much put out the whole work. CollXtion II helped me progress, and I made a lot of new fans -- it’s a very beloved record in the pop community, that I know, and that’s cool -- but I did find that after a month or two of it being out, it was like, “Okay, when can you start writing again?” It was done!
This time I wanted the songs to have their own moments. The other reason for that is, I didn’t have a standout single on this record. They’re all my babies, and I felt a very close connection to each song, so I didn’t think there was one that should lead the charge. I wanted people to experience them all. And, of course, Super Sunset is supposed to be a telling a story, so I felt like rolling them out overtime told that story as well. When you finally got the full body of work, it wrapped it up. Or at least that was the idea!
I was a fan of some of your older songs, like “Prime” and “Vintage,” but this record really grabbed me, and I’ve thought a lot about how, if you hadn’t rolled it out this way, I might have missed it. There were so many more entry points, both in terms of the actual music and the likelihood of seeing something about it on Twitter.
That’s the first time I’ve heard that directly from someone in the industry, which is really cool. I just feel like Super Sunset was my most mature thing that I’ve written. It was very direct and very personal, whereas my past work has been more abstract and been about uncovering memories and feelings. This is about my last five years in L.A. It came together way quicker than the other records. I wonder how much of [the reaction] is how we put it out, versus the actual body of work itself.
I was particularly blown away by “Little Things” and the way it captures those anxious inner monologues that can float around in our heads all day. At the end of the song, you basically start shouting the lyrics, as if you just hit the breaking point the song was building up to. How did that part come about?
“Little Things” seems to really speak to people. It’s about getting lost and depressed over the nuances of life, being bogged down by silly things and not ever seeing the bigger picture. Structurally, it’s cool, because that last part, the climax of the song, it’s just the verse, and I’m singing the harmony in full voice. The production intensifies as well. That was just one of those magic studio moments. I forget how we came upon it. I think I just sang it so hard, and we were feeling it so much, that [producers] Captain Cuts just kept layering it until it became this big thing. Things like that are so fun, when the magic just happens out of nowhere in the studio.
The other thing about “Little Things” is, in the original version, that first day we wrote it, it was just an A and a B part. It went from “I put my head on my shoulders” right into “It’s the little things I get mad about” -- there was no pre-chorus. For a while, we went back and forth on my team: It’s too short! But it’s so good! It’s too short! So I wrote the pre-chorus, the B part that’s in there now. The first reaction was like, “This is wrong!” and I was like, “No, it’s right! Because if you don’t have a pre-chorus, then the chorus sounds like a pre-chorus!” There was a whole argument. Sometimes people just get demoitis, but eventually we all agreed it was good with the pre-chorus.
I’m glad that made it in, because those lyrics about feeling calm when something actually goes wrong were a very fitting soundtrack given the state of the world in 2018. A terrible thing would be happening with our country, and I’d find myself completely preoccupied with something inconsequential, then get mad at myself for not being more mad about the other thing.
I’ve had that feeling so many times: You stupid, selfish girl, what are you thinking? This is nothing! Get some perspective! I can’t speak for everyone, but I do think it’s part of human nature to have that tunnel vision, to put your own oxygen mask on before you can put on your neighbor’s. You’re always seeing things through your eyes, not the eyes of the world. That said, I think you can work to grow and get a perspective, and I’ve really been trying to do that, especially as of right now.
“Girl of the Year” was another highlight. The song has this very confident, bad-ass energy, but in the lyrics, you’re actually kind of making fun of yourself and singing about being in denial about how superficial the music industry really is. It’s interesting that a song that can be so empowering one way is so self-deprecating in another. When you perform that song, what are you feeling?
First, I want to point out to you that I wrote those songs two songs [“Girl of the Year” and “Little Things”] with Simon Wilcox. She’s such an amazing lyricist, so I thought I’d give her credit here, because those lyrics wouldn’t be the same without Simon.
When I’m singing “Girl of the Year,” I have the same emotions as well. It’s the only song on the album that’s actually about show business and directly sung to an executive. There’s a real sense of -- I don’t think irony is the right word, but when I’m on stage singing “Girl on the Year,” I feel like I’m in the music video for “Girl of the Year.” I’m singing from that part of myself that is so desperate to be in the spotlight and have that moment, and there happens to be a huge audience cheering me on, telling me I’m in that moment. It’s this big loop of delusion and drama and what is real and what isn’t. I play it up a bit -- I sing from that part of myself that’s delusional and still dreaming really big. There’s a sadness to it, because I’m not singing it in a stadium, I’m singing it in a club.
Right, it’s that combination of fantasy and a reality check at the same time: You can live deeper in the fantasy because you’ve acknowledged the reality, but you can also deal with the reality better because there’s this fantasy you can escape to as well. They talk to each other.
It’s this fun, sad, crazy glamorous little loop! It just goes around, and it definitely makes me feel a lot. I think I tear up sometimes when I sing that. It makes my heart pound. I just think, “Who are the industry people in the audience watching me in real life as I sing this song? What are they chances they’re listening to the lyrics and actually give a shit?”
“Not So Bad in LA” was the first music video of yours that I watched, and I remember having this reaction of: What the fuck is this? But also I love this and want to know everything about this? But will learning what’s behind the curtain ruin the magic? Is this all a joke that I’m in on? Or is the joke on me?
That’s what I was going for!
It made me think about how pop fans and spectators deal with uncertainty. There’s sometimes an obsession with unmasking what’s “real” -- who the singer really is behind the spectacle or character, what songs are really about. But in 2018, artists like Christine and the Queens, especially with her Chris persona, have made me more comfortable with not having all the answers -- sitting with my questions and examining why I feel a certain way can be more interesting than the facts. How do people respond to the mystery of some of your characters and concepts?
My fans are very analytical and like to be almost scholars of what I’m doing, which I’ve always loved. They analyze, they post their interpretations. Sometimes we even have dialogues where I ask what things mean to them, and they tell me, and a lot of the time their interpretations are way more intellectual than I ever intended. But art, I think, is supposed to bring up feelings and pose questions and mean whatever to the listener or observer that it’s supposed to mean. That’s how I think about my stuff. And not to go super conceptual, but the X in my name, that’s what it stands for -- finding your own truth. Becoming X is becoming whatever version of you that makes sense to you.
It’s an interesting time, because millennials are smarter than other generations, in my opinion. They consume in a more intelligent way. At the same time, there’s this real ADD going on where you need to “get” a song within the first 30 seconds, or you’re going to press skip. So I don’t know. I’m not enough of a stan for another pop artist that I would know if other people were confused or not. I think intrigue is super seductive. A lot of artists play off of that, and a lot of fans, at least in pop music, really enjoy it. They really enjoy a mystery. But they’re so smart. They can sniff out when something’s mysterious for the sake of being mysterious. Fans today know the difference between when there’s something with real substance and a Disney character going, like, “I got a new persona!”
Sometimes going more theatrical helps express what you’re trying to get across, even if it’s less grounded in everyday life -- it’s “truer,” even if it’s less “real.” But conceptual stuff can freak people out a bit.
I am conceptual with my work, maybe to a fault, and if I do get criticized for it -- I’m sure I do -- people don’t tend to post that on my page. Maybe people do think that I’m too much concept and not enough Top 40 pop, I’m not sure. I just like to create worlds with every body of work. I like to take the listener on a journey. I think I need myself to go on a journey in order to birth these bodies of work. I need to really understand what it is and what it looks like and what it feels like and what it smells like and what it looks like live. That’s just how I work.
What music were you obsessed with this year?
I was listening to a lot of older music this year, things like the B-52s and The Cure. I was listening to some old Kylie Minogue recently. In terms of pop artists that are out right now, I’m a big fan of Kim Petras. I know there’s a little controversy around her, and I don’t have any comments on that, but I think the music is just pure, good pop, and she carries it in this really authentic, exciting way. I was a big fan of Robyn’s new album. Even though a lot of references for that album were very retro, it sounded so fresh to me. I always like what Charli [XCX] is doing. She’s always pushing the boundaries of pop music.
But to be honest, I do so much work in pop that whenever I listen to music for enjoyment and relaxation purposes, I just listen to old music or classical music. I just listen to pop music to keep up. Pop more often than not just puts me in an analytical headspace, like, “Damn, I gotta write something as good as this!” Or, “Damn, the music I’m making isn’t cool enough.” I listen to ‘80s music a lot. One of my favorite albums of this year was Little Dark Age by MGMT. I loved Mitski’s album as well.
I don’t know...I’m going to be super vague about the next thing I’m working on. What I can say publicly is: I’ve been working on new music since early 2018, and I’m very excited about what I have coming up. It’s going to be different than anything I’ve ever be done.
What was the best live show you saw this year?
I saw Nick Cave at The Forum [in Inglewood, Calif.], and it was crazy good. Nick Cave was another person I became really infatuated with this year. It wasn’t until I saw this documentary [One More Time With Feeling] about the death of his son and the record about that. I was so moved. I became a real fan. He’s one of the only people who gets older and still gets cooler and a bigger and bigger fanbase. That never happens! I’m so fascinated by it all.
Who’s an artist you’d like to invite to a holiday dinner with your family, and why?
Troye Sivan, because he’s such a lovely little angel! Bring him to any dinner or to meet anyone, and he just hypnotizes people with his beauty and charm.
What was your memorable fan interaction of 2018?
Oh man, there were so many beautiful ones. On Twitter, I got a couple fans asking if they could interview me for their school paper. I said yes every time, and it was just so eye-opening. I did a whole interview about cognitive dissonance with a fan called Marco. I’ve been having these really interesting, intellectual conversations with people that follow me, and I’ve been so amazed about the insight and sensitivity they have at such a young age. There’s so much creativity in my fanbase -- the fan art I see, the questions I get, the conversations we have. I see so much potential for them to go down a creative path, if they choose that.
Do you have any parting words for 2018 or words of wisdom for 2019?
I feel like writing Super Sunset and sharing the stories has let some weight off my back in terms of personal stuff going through this career in Los Angeles. I don’t have it all figured out, but I feel older and wiser after going through this process, and I think my goal for 2019 is just to find way more value in myself as a person, as opposed to what I bring to the table as an artist.
I’ve been really consciously working on that for the last few months. It was only a few months ago that I had this big realization. I really want to get to know myself as a person and not just as an artist. I will always be an artist and express myself in one way or another. I think in order for me to be happy, especially in L.A., I have a lot to learn about myself and how to take care of myself beyond being a workaholic and making stuff that people like.
You mentioned Robyn earlier, and what you were saying just now reminds me of what she said in interviews about the making of Honey this year. She talked about going through a deep depression and how, for the first time in her life, she wasn’t able to just push through it and distract herself with work. She had to deal with it in order to make Honey.
That’s so powerful. Yeah, to hear that, it scares me. I am starting to deal with this already, but that thought -- how do you deal with your feelings when you can’t bury yourself in work? -- terrifies me!
Was there a particular moment that led to this epiphany about taking care of yourself?
There was, actually. I haven’t spoken about this in any interviews, but I got really sick in the summer, which happens to me sometimes, and I was debilitated for over a month. I was seeing this one healer, and I’m going to sound crazy saying it, but she was almost speaking to me from the point of view of myself, from this voice inside of me telling me all this stuff that I knew deep down but never let myself consciously think about. It just made me sob, and I realized the way I’ve been going about my life and my work is so intense that my brain and my body can’t really handle it. So that’s what happened, and then I just decided at that point that I have to change, I have to rethink things if I want to keep doing this and be happy enough. So that’s what happened. It’s been interesting watching myself fall back into a lot of the same patterns, but at least I’m aware now and trying to engage.
Thank you for sharing that. I’m sorry to hear you were sick, and I hope things are okay now.
Yeah, I did get better, and then I started working like a maniac again, not even wanting to! It’s such a control for me. But maybe that will be cool for people who follow me to read: that I see a lot of value in taking care of yourself. There’s more to life than fame and success, and I think I’m really starting to understand that.
I think that’s a message a lot of people can probably use.
In these modern times, we move at this lightning speed, and if you’re fortunate in your life to be busy, as both of us are, it’s hard to say no. It’s hard to not be competitive. It’s hard to stop the machine. But one day, with me, my body just breaks and it’s like, “Fuck, I did it again!” I want all my young fans to know that they can be creative and be successful, but they don’t have to be self-destructive to do so. You can make good art from a calm, peaceful place.