NME Radar: Breakout

Chappell Roan is becoming the queer pop icon of her dreams

The LA-based musician's forthcoming debut LP is inspired by the characterful and inclusive community she has fostered

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

Pop supernova Chappell Roan grew up listening to the “anthemic pop queens” of the early 2010s – think Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and Carly Rae Jepsen. “And oh my God, Katy Perry‘s ‘Teenage Dream’ [album] came out when I was 13,” she gushes. “Like, it was just perfect pop.”

You can really hear this colour and excitement in Roan’s own music, which combines skyscraper choruses with lashings of drama and fun, in-your-face queerness. ‘Pink Pony Club’, a dazzling synth-pop banger that became Roan’s breakout hit in 2020, is a riveting tale of a strait-laced Tennessee girl who moves to LA – “a special place where boys and girls can all be queens every single day” – to become a stripper.

Born Kayleigh Rose Amstutz – Chappell Roan is a stage name that honours her late grandfather, Dennis K. Chappell – she grew up in a “conservative and homophobic” community in Willard, Missouri. Roan embraced her queerness after moving to LA to further her music career, but says her relationship with her sexuality is “always evolving”. Like so many LGBTQ+ people, especially those raised in less accepting environments, she fully understands that “it’s really hard to rid yourself of internalised homophobia”.

There is no doubt, though, that Roan is intent on giving Big Gay Energy as well as Main Pop Girl Energy. She books local drag acts to open for her at every show and encourages fans to send them tips. “For me personally, it’s all about giving back and re-distributing money,” she says. “Like, a portion of every ticket on my spring tour went to a Black trans charity. I told everyone at the show, like, ‘You’re not just coming to have a fun night – you’re here supporting the queer community.'”

NME meets Roan the day after she smashes a London headline show that features opening numbers from local drag stars Crayola the Queen and Mahatma Khandi. It’s an especially exciting time for Roan because she is gearing up to release her debut album – with more details to be revealed soon. Due later this year, it will include existing fan favourites such as her sex-positive new single ‘Red Wine Supernova’ (“I heard you like magic / I’ve got a wand and a rabbit”) with a brace of new bangers including one specifically written to “do poppers to”. But first, we settle down to hear her fascinating origin story.

NME: Where did you get the idea to book local drag performers for each show? 

“I got the idea from Orville Peck because I saw him in 2018 and he had local West Hollywood queens [on his bill]. And I remember thinking, like, I have to do this. So we just made a submission form with questions like, ‘Show us your TikTok, show us your Instagram, can you do intimate pop?’. And we got submissions from queens in every city.”

How do you go about picking the performers you actually book? 

“The most submissions we got on the spring tour was from queens in Toronto and Salt Lake City. And Salt Lake City is, like, very Mormon, so that surprised me. But it was so much the right thing to do – like, I think this every single night. I mean, it supports the local queer community and a lot of people have probably never seen drag as an opener, or even at all. But in terms of what I’m looking for, it’s the outfits, their energy on stage, what songs they choose, their dancing. I just want someone who can really bring it.”

Where does your own urge to perform come from?

“Originally, I thought I was gonna be an actress and singing could be a way for me to get a foot in the door. I wasn’t, like, a savant at music or anything. But then when I was about 15 or 16, I went to songwriting camps – like, summer art camps where I met a lot of kids like me. And [the teachers] were like: ‘Here’s some techniques you can use, here’s some books you should read.’ And that was really helpful.”

And that led to you putting out music?

“I put a song out that I actually wrote at a summer camp. And that’s what ended up getting me signed. I was 17 and still in high school – I was a literal minor. It’s so crazy, but thank god for the summer camps because they got me where I am today.”

That must have been a lot to take in at 17…

“I was just thinking about this in the car. Like, there’s only one Lorde. She was 16 when [her debut album] ‘Pure Heroine’ came out and that makes me think, like, how did she know what she wanted? For me, it was really hard and really depressing for many years because I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know what I wanted. The scariest thing as an artist is not knowing what you want, because then you’re stuck and you can’t tell anyone else what to do. Honestly, in that situation, you’re screwed.”

chappell roan
Credit: Ryan Clemens

How did you figure out who you were as an artist? What was the turning point?

“I had to hit rock bottom. To figure out who I was, like, was to lose a lot of stuff.  I got dropped and ended a four and a half year relationship. I lost all my money and had to move back in with my parents. This was 2020 and I was working at a drive-through. I was like, ‘Oh my dear god, this is it, but I’m gonna give it one last hurrah.’ And that is how I found myself – out of necessity. A lot of my outfits were thrifted and I had to learn how to do my own drag makeup. If I wanted to do a photo shoot, I had to ask my friends to help me. Thank God, I didn’t give up. But I was very, very close.”

Being dropped at such a young age must have been absolutely shattering. 

“That’s why I was so picky when I signed again. I met with nine labels and I went in with the attitude [of], ‘This is what I need – the only thing I need right now is money’. So if you don’t give me this, this and this, I’m just not going to sign with you because I can keep going on my own. I was very picky and I had a fuck ton of leverage.”

“I had to hit rock bottom to figure out who I was”

So, why is now the right time to release an album? 

“I mean, it’s been four years in the making. She’s ready – she’s like, ‘Get me out, it’s time’. I’ve taken my time with it. I did not cut corners. I respected the art and let it breathe. I mean, ‘Red Wine Supernova’ took three years to write. And it’s also just, like, we need the party right now. The world is on fire, so let’s just party.”

What song on the album do you think people will be most surprised by?

“Probably ‘Super Graphic Ultra Modern Girl’. Because I literally just wrote it to, like, do poppers to. I wrote it with [the idea] ‘What sounds fun in a gay club? What feels best?’ It was written for the gays.”

chappell roan
Credit: Ryan Clemens

Do you get to go to gay clubs at the moment, or is it too much when you’re on tour?

“I just got off tour, but I’m about to go on tour again in the fall, so it’s just impossible. My body can’t take it, my mind can’t take it – it’s too much. I wish I could go out after a show, but I’m just too exhausted. Because [my show] is cardio. I’m not just sitting up there. Like, I’m running in place for 90 minutes.”

Finally, what do you want people to think when they hear the name Chappell Roan?

“Like, if I hear Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj on a playlist, it instantly takes me to this place of ‘Yeah, party!’ And that’s the place I want to take people to as well. I want to give them that emotion of ‘We’re here, bitch, we’re here and we’re queer’.

Chappell Roan’s new single ‘Red Wine Supernova’ is out now


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