NME Radar: Breakout

Wallice: future alt-pop hero with dark wit and cinematic ambition

A childhood spent in and around the acting circles of LA has lent a Hollywood-style sheen to the Dirty Hit signee’s fizzing and frank pop anthems

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

Wallice found inspiration for her forthcoming EP, ‘90s American Superstar’ (due May 6), in a treasure chest filled with artefacts from a bygone era. Well, sort of. When the 23-year-old singer and guitarist was visiting her grandparents’ house in southern Utah last summer, she came across an old drawer of videos of hit films from the 1990s. The discovery turned out to be pivotal in the EP’s creation; the California native soon came up with a songwriting game, and challenged herself to fit as many movie titles as possible into the lyrics of the title track.

And on the first verse of recent single ‘90s American Superstar’, Wallice achieved the goal she set herself: over a breathless burst of slippery guitars, she namechecks Dude, Where’s My Car?, Dazed And Confused, Breaking Point, Clueless, Escape From LA, and – phew – 10 Things I Hate About You. “I’m LA born and raised, so film and the idea of Hollywood has always been a big influence on my music – particularly this new EP,” she tells NME. “I grew up acting and I love delving into different films, it’s like escapism.”

The rest of the five-track collection certainly crackles and pops like a VHS montage, too; every space stuffed with distorted, neon-streaked sounds and pitch-shifted hooks, her voice skittering gorgeously across these songs with a looseness reminiscent of Madonna’s ‘Ray Of Light’ era. ‘90s’ American Superstar’ is a multiple personality, big pop project that allows Wallice to envision herself as a fictional celebrity; booming closer ‘Funeral’, for example, sees her illustrate a burial service with as much animation as if it were a festival headline slot. “Don’t forget the camera crew,” she quips over synthy undertones.

It makes for a sparkling progression from Wallice’s woozy debut, 2021’s ‘Off The Rails’. That EP landed her a deal with Dirty Hit (home to The 1975 and Beabadoobee), and marked out her radiant alt-pop sound, where the flashes of her personality were subtle but inventive. And now, with two ace releases to her name, Wallice is looking ahead to her debut UK shows and The Great Escape appearance next month. As she prepares to hit the road, the emerging star hopped on a Zoom call with NME to explore how her new project came to be, adapting to life as a young musician in LA, and her dream Rina Sawayama collaboration.

Where did the idea come from to model your new EP around a fictional celebrity?

“I believe that each album or EP should have a solid running theme or concept, so I wanted ‘90s American Superstar’ to be based on the life of a fake rock star. I wrote the whole EP within one week on a writing trip to Utah, and in the back of my mind. Each track has its own vintage inspiration: ‘John Wayne’ is about the man himself, and I bring a lot of similar cowboy-related visuals into my photos and videos, too. A lot of people ask, ‘Why do you love cowboys so much?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know, they’re just a vibe!’”

Why have you started inhabiting characters in your songs? 

“Whenever I’m writing, I think about how a music video could look for the song I’m working on. That method of working always brings me to make the characters bigger and wilder; crafting these big stories definitely is a fun way to escape. I mean, I grew up acting, so I’ve always loved playing characters – it’s fun to just play dress-up sometimes.”

The EP’s lead single, ‘Little League’, depicts a ruthless baseball game. How competitive would you say you are in real life?

“Ha! I think I am really competitive, to be honest. I love games; if I’m hanging out with my friends, I’m like, ‘Do you guys want to go bowling? Do you want to play a board game? Maybe mini-golfing?’. They’ll usually just want to chill instead, but I like a little bit of competition. I don’t usually win, though; if you’re so competitive that you always win, no one wants to play with you.”

wallice singer dirty hit
Credit: Nicole Busch

In what ways has growing up in LA shaped your music?

“I have no idea what it’s like to grow up anywhere else, but the city is so creative that it always made me believe that I could succeed in any form of art – it’s literally the Film and Television capital. My classmates’ parents and siblings were famous, too; Tyler, The Creator’s sister, for example, was in my ballet class. I’m really grateful that LA has made my dreams attainable.”

How do you deal with living in a big city and not letting its pressures affect your identity as an artist?

“In LA, it’s really easy to find people who have just moved here and want to be famous on TikTok – there’s definitely plenty of clout chasers around. It gives the city a bad reputation, or makes its creative community look fake, but there are groups of us that grew up here and befriended each other over the years. Smaller, indie artists including myself and spill tab have always looked out for each other.”

“People ask, ‘Why do you love cowboys so much?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know, they’re just a vibe!’”

Your background was originally in jazz music, having attended the New School in New York. What prompted the pivot to alt-pop?

“I grew up listening to rock, alt-pop and indie stations in the car, so I have always loved that kind of music; honestly, my taste hasn’t changed since I was 12. I always knew that [alt-pop] was the kind of music that I wanted to make, but I decided to study jazz because I just knew it was better to learn some technical skills. You can’t really learn how to construct and record pop music, but my classical jazz course taught me more about music theory and made me a more versatile musician overall.”

Did people take you seriously as a musician while you were balancing modelling and acting?

“I don’t think I was successful enough as either a model or actor for my career to be affected greatly, but the worry was definitely there. I did random commercials to make extra money, and they were super fun; a lot of young people [in LA] do the same thing while focusing on their music or art. Recently, I saw a TikTok of Phoebe Bridgers in an old Taco Bell advert, which must have been filmed before she became successful as a musician. While watching it, I was like, ‘I get it! I’ve been there!’”

wallice singer dirty hit
Credit: Nicole Busch

A few months ago, you signed with Dirty Hit. Why does the label feel like the right fit for you?

“Honestly, when I was younger, my dream was to sign with Interscope just because I love Lana Del Rey so much. But when it came down to choosing an offer, I realised that a major label is just like a huge machine that you could get dropped out of easily, or, as a rising artist, you could get put on the backburner if someone else is doing better. When I had my first meetings with Dirty Hit, they gave me the exact answers that I wanted to hear. They’re so supportive.”

Have you reached out to any of your labelmates yet?

“I’ve met Beabadoobee before because we played the same festival last year. But I’d love to get to know Rina Sawayama, too, as I think she’s so cool and inspiring. There’s not that many Japanese – even Asian – indie artists like us, so she’s really paving the way for others. Her sense of showmanship and the visual element to her work are also both groundbreaking.”

Would you like to collaborate with Rina one day?

“Yeah, for sure. [Rina] just did her [‘Beg For You’] collaboration with Charli XCX, and it’s just so cool. I mean, I’m not a straight-up pop artist, but I think it is really hard to have two female pop artists on a song together. It’s not easy for these artists to collaborate when they are carving out their own individual creative identities, but Charli and Rina did a really great job.”

What do you want to achieve in the future?

“My way of measuring success is, at any show, if people are singing along to the songs then they’re clearly connecting with my music. Performing live is huge for me; one day, I’d love to headline the venues that I grew up going to see my favourite artists at, like The Wiltern in LA. Also, it’d be cool to play like a stadium in the future, though indie artists don’t necessarily get to that level… maybe I could change that!”

Wallice’s second EP, ’90s American Superstar’, will be released on May 6