“I like to go really far left field”: An interview with Chappell Roan

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      There’s an edge to Chappell Roan that you might not expect. At first glance, her debut album, The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess, hews to a certain kind of nostalgic Americana: the young pageant queen, complete with crown and bouquet, stares wistfully from the cover art. But, like everything else from Roan’s mind, it’s all camp. The artifice, the excess, the aesthetics: everything is deliberately heightened so that it can be skewered all the more delightfully.

      “I like to go really far left field,” Roan reflects over a video call. “It’s really fun to create the worlds. The aesthetic comes really naturally.”

      Roan—real name Kayleigh Rose Amstutz—is preparing to kick off her fall tour, and a stack of outfits behind her are waiting to get packed up. Like her songs—each one a bittersweet bubble of polished pop strung on the record’s pearl necklace—her performance looks are carefully curated.

      Every show Roan plays has a theme inspired by a song on the album. She’s one of the only artists with a social media-suggested dress code that changes night to night.

      “Super Graphic Ultra Modern Girl” calls for Houston and Seattle audiences to embrace space, much like her cosmic alien visualizer for the same track. “Pink Pony Club”, meanwhile, encourages Toronto fans to come out in Barbie-core cowgirl that contrasts with the song’s dark pop melodrama-and-bondage vibes (which helped mark her as a star when the track debuted in 2020). And her Vancouver show, themed after melancholy piano-led ballad “Kaleidoscope”, is an even simpler style imperative: rainbow everything.

      Yeah, it’s extra, but that’s the point. Roan isn’t interested in being palatable. The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess tracks the contours of her desire across a map of America: bad dates with men in the Bible belt; a shitty situationship in New York; wild nights of baby gay abandon in the queer embrace of California. It follows the burgeoning acceptance of her queerness, backdropped by growing up in Willard, Missouri—where being gay wasn’t just difficult, but outright impossible.

      “I went to church three times a week, and it was very much instilled in my brain that as a woman, it is important to remain pure for a man,” she muses. “I think the pendulum just swung so far that when I let it go, it just had to go over there. It’s still a part that I struggle with, because me as Kayleigh is not as hypersexual as my character that I play.”

      Both sides are apparent in Roan’s music. Much has been made of the way she talks about sex.

      “Casual” is almost banal in its portrayal of carnality without commitment (“Baby, get me off again/I fucked you in the bathroom when we went to dinner/Your parents at the table, you wonder why I’m bitter,” Roan laments), while “Red Wine Supernova” trends flippant and flirty. “I heard you like magic/I got a wand and a rabbit / So baby, let’s get freaky, get kinky/Let’s make this bed get squeaky,” she teases.

      “It’s really lewd; [it’s got] some really inappropriate parts,” Roan says. “That’s where I feel the punk comes in. We’re just like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be obnoxiously queer and sexual.’ ”

      And yet, there’s an undercurrent of uncertainty through the record. “Don’t touch, I’ll never cross the line/So I pushed you down a million times,” she sings on “Naked in Manhattan”. The aforementioned “Pink Pony Club” thrums with tension: “Don’t think I’ve left you all behind/Still love you and Tennessee/You’re always on my mind.” It’s even more obvious on the album closer, aptly titled “Guilty Pleasure”, which navigates its way through a euphoric fumble with a folky twang and gloriously ’90s beat: “So shame on me, shame on you/I fantasize what we would do/And how would it taste, the way you move/Oh, some good girls do bad things too.”

      “It’s very much a shame and guilt thing that’s underlying with the album,” Roan summarizes.

      The exploration of first times makes sense for an initial full-length record. “You can only have a first one time, so you can’t write another album about this!” she says with a laugh. It feels adolescent, the way teen movies serve you a specific kind of dream of being in high school: the thrill of crushes, stolen kisses, overdramatic hickeys, sleepovers, the explosion of huge feelings that are too hot to touch directly.

      “But I don’t feel that way anymore,” Roan reflects. “I have a girlfriend. I don’t think I can write from that perspective anymore.”

      The persona of Chappell Roan isn’t someone struggling with their sexuality. It’s hyper-cool, confident, infused with the camp theatricality of burlesque and drag. Local drag queens are set to open at every one of Roan’s upcoming shows, and it’s clear she’s adopted more than just a larger-than-life stage name from the culture.

      “As Chappell, that is kind of my outlet where I let myself be that version, and experience and talk and walk and wear what is sexy and makes me feel powerful,” she says. “It’s like Chappell Roan is my drag queen name, and a drag project.”

      So inviting attendees to get dressed up in animal print or slumber party chic isn’t just a way to make lineups of fans before the show really obvious from a block away. It’s building community. The world is dark and scary, but a Chappell Roan show is somewhere to come exactly as you are.

      Chappell Roan’s The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess is out now. She plays the Hollywood Theatre on November 10.