Alt-pop star Allie X: ‘Performing is a lifelong addiction – I realised I could make people love me’

<span>The X Factor … Allie X.</span><span>Photograph: Marcus Cooper</span>
The X Factor … Allie X.Photograph: Marcus Cooper

Perched on the edge of an expensively upholstered booth in a central London restaurant, Allie X – dressed like Wednesday Addams’s older sister in a crushed black velvet dress and round glasses – is rattling off the C-word with giddy abandon. Her latest single, the camp, synth-slathered 80s throwback Off With Her Tits, has just landed on streaming platforms after days of hyperbolic teasing and she’s feeling “unhinged”.

“I’m being really cocky about it, like: ‘This is the best song I’ve ever written,’” she laughs, having earlier described the song on social media as “MEASURING 10s ACROSS THE BOARD ON THE RECTAL SCALE”. However it’s not the word cocky that’s drawing our fellow diners’ attention, but rather the one you’re definitely thinking about. It’s a word her mostly gay, very online fanbase use to describe her all the time. “It’s funny because I used to take offence to the C-word, but the gays and the girls have taken it back,” she says. “If I ever hear a straight man say it then I still find it super-offensive.”

Like a lot of her world-building alt-pop peers – artists such as Charli XCX, Rina Sawayama and Caroline Polachek – 38-year-old Canadian Allie X, real name Alexandra Hughes, has a complex relationship with her fanbase. To them, despite Hughes being championed by Katy Perry and co-writing songs for Troye Sivan and BTS, she’s still frustratingly underrated, an opinion they remind her of daily on social media. Hughes has written a song about it on her self-penned, self-produced third album, Girl With No Face, which bolts huge euphoric melodies to music that recalls New Order, the Cure and Kraftwerk. The song in question, You Slept on Me, playfully skewers her fans’ concerns, as well as ramping up a persona keen to devour the industry: “I’m an icon hunny / This isn’t a chore / And I need to make money / So give me yours.”

Does she feel slept on? “I would rather be that than overrated,” she says. “I like being recognised and appreciated in certain environments and then being completely unknown in others.” She says it’s not that fan culture has got out of hand with its many demands on (typically) female pop-adjacent artists, but internet culture in general. “I’m still figuring out what the balance is when putting yourself out there versus protecting yourself,” she says, fiddling with her huge silver conch shell necklace. “Most artists are pretty sensitive. That’s why I like engaging with gay pop fans, and this rhetoric of the culture, and stupid Twitter stuff.” She pauses. “Do we even call it Twitter any more? X?” Another pause. “Erm, suing!”

I realised I could make people love me through music. It’s an addiction

The X in Allie X represents “the unknown variable”, says Hughes, and is a way of playing with anonymity. That paradoxical need to be seen and also remain unknowable has played throughout her career, with early photos showing her hidden behind her jet black hair or partially obscured under oversized headgear. Growing up in Ontario, Hughes fluctuated between being chatty and confident and being “so shaky and scared”. At school, she says, everyone thought she was weird or ugly or both. Boys bullied her and girls ignored her. One day she auditioned for a school musical, Guys & Dolls, and landed a small part in the chorus. Rehearsals later coincided with the school’s talent show and suddenly a whole filmic fantasy scene emerged in Hughes’s mind; she’d sing Céline Dion’s version of All By Myself, win over the school and be cast as the lead. She put her plan into action.

“I got up and sang it for the whole school and I did the huge final bit where she’s like, ‘All by myself, anymooooooore’,” she explains, eyes wide. “The whole room stood up, standing ovation while I’m still singing, and then they cast me in the lead! My fantasy happened. It made such a strong impression on me, like this is my way through life.” Everyone – the bullies, the mean girls, the indifferent – suddenly noticed her. “It was insane to watch the power of that. It’s a lifelong addiction – I realised I could make people love me.”

Various arts and musical theatre schools followed before a move to Toronto in 2006 led to her dabbling in the rock scene that emerged around the likes of Broken Social Scene, Tokyo Police Club and Born Ruffians. The indie phase didn’t last long, and in 2011 she started an electro band called ALX before going solo and, after a trip to LA, starting to pick up songwriting sessions. Things really took off, however, when Katy Perry posted about her 2014 debut single, Catch, calling the off-kilter synth workout her “spring jam”. “It was so surreal,” Hughes smiles. “I was living in this tiny apartment in Toronto and it was so removed from that world.” Her debut album, CollXtion II, followed in 2017, as did those writing credits for BTS and Sivan, as well as collaborations with Mitski and super-producer Oscar Görres.

Momentum, however, has been slowed by chronic illness, a fact Hughes kept secret from everyone outside her inner circle until recently. “I’ve been officially diagnosed with complex PTSD,” she says, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that includes some additional symptoms such as dissociation and self-loathing. “What happens when you’re chronically ill is that you have these periods of wellness, and these periods of being incapacitated, and it makes you feel like when you have a good pocket you have to get everything done then. I find it hard to take it easy.”

Keeping such a heavy secret soon morphed into hiding behind various personas and trying to fit into pre-existing moulds. “When I arrived in LA I was 28, which is already old for a pop singer, and also I have this lifelong chronic illness that I didn’t want anyone to know about because it makes me a liability,” she says. “I had this weight of ‘I’m not attractive, I’m too old and I may get sick at any moment.’”

Making Girl With No Face, complete with its shedding of layers, helped shift her perspective. “Now I hope to relieve myself of some pressure to be someone I’m not,” she says. “I want to make a life for myself where I can walk around with my head held high and express the truth of who I am.” There’s still a hefty dose of mystique, however – she’s loth to explain the meanings behind her lyrics, describing the galloping, body horror epic Off With Her Tits only as a parody of “some really dark, torturous thoughts that won’t leave me alone”.

Transforming pain into high-end pop is clearly a job she takes very seriously. “I’m an indulgent bitch,” she laughs, to more glances from our buttoned-up neighbours. “I really am.”

Girl With No Face is out now.