Exactly three years ago today, Troye Sivan, who had just turned 21, released his debut album Blue Neighbourhood. You might not have noticed at the time. Back then, Troye was mainly recognised and worshipped by millions of young people on the internet, many of whom had followed his YouTube account for years on YouTube; he was still little known elsewhere. After Blue Neighbourhood, though, others started paying attention. These were catchy songs. Colourful and sensitive and bright, with one foot in honey-sweet pop and the other in something fresher, more electric. The album sold millions, becoming certified gold in four countries, and certified silver here in the UK.
If you take a closer look at the writing credits on that album, one other name appears almost as frequently as Troye’s himself: Alexandra Hughs. Or, Allie X, as she’s commonly known. Allie X is a pop artist in her own right. I first heard of her back in 2014, when she released a glitchy DIY track called “BITCH” which was getting shared on blogs and passed around Soundcloud. She had been playing in indie bands for years around Toronto before then, and had already perfected an easily recognisable stamp: soaring choruses, paired with alt-pop weirdness. When she wrote for other people, like Troye, you could hear that stamp all over their songs too.
In the years since, a lot has changed. Troye has become one of the most recognised faces in music. His 2018 album, Bloom, a 12-track collection of immaculate forward-facing pop, was one of the best of that year (again, Allie co-wrote a large portion of those songs with Troye). Allie has also released a bunch of her own material, including last year's Super Sunset EP, a masterclass in how to come up with sticky earworm hooks and infectious melodies. “Driving to the restaurant / While my lipstick dries,” she sings in “Science,” injecting a simple scene with movie-level drama.
Today, Allie announces the release of her debut album Cape God. There's a Troye Sivan duet – their first ever – on there too. “Love Me Wrong” is a rich, sumptuous slice of pop, filled with layered synth and lyrics that take bittersweet turns (“I heard you talk about me in the kitchen / you didn't know I was listening”). Instead of chatting to them both separately though, we thought we'd just get them on a Skype video chat together – Allie in Madrid, at 7PM, and Troye in LA at 10AM – and see what happened.
VICE: I’m interested to hear about the beginnings of your friendship, and how you both know each other.
Troye Sivan: We’ve written together for four or five years. Allie has been instrumental. She’s written all of my most important songs with me.
Allie X: Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but yeah – Troye and I have had a long working relationship. He’s sort of been my guardian angel throughout my very up and down journey in the music industry. We always had a really good chemistry. We were never trying to force anything.
You’re both pop nerds in different ways. What do you reckon makes a 'perfect' pop song?
Allie: I’m always looking for an instrumental hook and a catchy groove and some amazing interplay between bass and drums. I’m also a sucker for a soaring melody, a chorus that explodes. Which is becoming less and less popular. In the 90s, with Mariah and Whitney, those huge ballads got me into the pop structure.
Troye: Pop music is often simple, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to make. And that’s what always been exciting to me – when you make it feel effortless and communicate true emotion and something the audience has never heard before. That challenge is what’s appealing to me. When you get that perfect pop structure that we’ve all grown up listening to, and you manage to make people feel something new – that’s when it’s magical. I think of “Dancing On My Own”: it fits the pop structure, but feels special.
Allie: I think when you take a complex universal emotional and boil it down to one hummable phrase… that’s difficult and magical. That’s the thing which amazes me about pop music.
Troye: It’s like Body Talk by Robyn… she always felt like a real student of pop, in the same way a lot of our peers are, so it’s fun to listen to those songs and break them down and realise that she manages to be so effortlessly cool and fresh, while also adhering to these perfect pop structures.
Allie: Channel Orange by Frank Ocean also felt like a turning point in, what, 2012? That moved people in a different direction, away from the Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry sound. It brought a sub-genre of pop along that is still really being embraced.
In what surprising ways have you noticed each other grow or evolve in the time you’ve been working together?
Allie: When I met Troye he was a little boy. He already had such good instincts, not only musically, but a strong business sense too. I always love, Troye, how when you started you were never looking for a hit song, you were never saying you wanted to be on the radio. You wanted to make cool music. And you already had a built in fan base, so there was nobody pressuring us. But I guess it’s just been wonderful watching someone be brave with their instincts, and then have success come from it. I feel like you’ve been so loyal to all your friends. I think about you as being one of the few pure, kind people in this business.
Troye: Thank you.
Allie: You don’t have to match that, haha.
Troye: When I think back to our first writing session, I felt like I had ideas but I didn’t know how to get from point A to B in a way that felt genuine. And then I went into the studio with you and I’ll never forget… the first song we wrote was called “Hologram Hearts” and I was whispering into the mic. There were things I really wanted to do but didn’t have the courage to. I attribute so much of my writing, growth, process, vision and curation to you. Allie is doing all of that flawlessly. This isn’t shade, but I can’t think of anyone around at the moment whose acting with such intention and vision. I wouldn’t be nearly as fearless had I not met Allie when I did.
The music industry has the propensity to chew people up and spit them out. What’s one thing that you both wish you’d known about the industry before you entered it?
Allie: So many people talk about this industry in a bad way, before you get into it, but until I was in it, I didn’t understand how soul-crushing it could be. I’m lucky in that I get to make a living doing this, and I’m surrounded by a wonderful team. But it’s something I could go on about for hours. Maybe if there’s one thing I’d say… instead of having your lawyer read out your contract, have them explain the worst case scenarios very clearly before you sign something. That would be one tip to any young person before getting into this.
Troye: I don’t feel like I’m in a position to speak on a lot of these subjects because I’ve been very lucky. I think the only piece of advice that I can give, and even this is coming from a privileged place, but it’s all about people. About finding good people who you trust with your entire gut. You know what I mean? That’s the only thing you can do, and it’s hard when you’re first starting out. I mean just look at what’s happening right now with Taylor Swift and how badly she needs all of our support. So find people you trust. Everything from there onwards, you can deal with.
Allie: I think you got lucky but it’s also who you are and who you attract as well. Give yourself some credit there, Troye.
What’s one thing you can tell each other that nobody else knows?
Allie: My middle name is Ashley?
Troye: I did not know that. Let me find something random…
This is this character from Spirited Away called No Face. His name is Kaonashi in Japanese, which is what we named my dog after because he’s got a little white face. So we’ve got this little statue of the original character. Wait, tonight’s your last show right? How are you feeling?
Allie: It is, I’m supporting Marina [Diamandis]. I feel grateful for this tour. Marina’s wonderful; I got to tour Europe, which I’ve never done before. But I’m also exhausted. So after this I’m going to Asia, then I’ll be done for a bit.
Troye: I’m heading in the studio now. I was in Sweden the other day and wrote a really cool song and was supposed to work into it the next day, but I ate a bad chicken burger and spent the entire day puking my guts out. So I’m going into LA and try and finish the song – we’ll see what happens.
I’m going to leave you both to it. Thanks for chatting!
Troye: Thank you, it’s been really fun. And miss you Allie, see you when I get back.
Allie: See you when I get back! Bye guys.