Watch the Milwaukee artist shift between queer utopia and real world gloom
Photo by FreakishNerd
Lex Allen, an artist, songwriter and member of the Milwaukee-based DIY collective, New Age Narcissism (NAN), has been delivering infectiously danceable soul and r&b infused pop songs for almost three years now. And although he has found his niche, his new video shows he’s ready to bust out of his comfort zone.
“Cream and Sugar” is Allen’s second visual collaboration with filmmakers Damien Klaven and Cody LaPlant, and while their newest project is just as delicately crafted and aesthetically pleasing as their previous joint effort, we find Allen delving into previously unexplored and slightly darker territory. The video bounces back and forth from a loft that Allen and friends (including some of the folks from NAN) repurpose into an intimate, idyllic queer landscape—the sexually-fluid and liberated dream world of “Cream and Sugar”—and the gloomier real world, which is inhabited by a zombie-like version of WebsterX who emerges from the depths of Lake Michigan to greet Allen and drop a couple verses.
I talked with Lex Allen, along with fellow NAN members Q The Sun and WebsterX, about the beginning stages of the song and video production, the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, duality, doing away with self-restriction, and Allen’s plans for the upcoming months.
NAYELI PORTILLO: There’s a lot going on in the video for “Cream and Sugar.” Could you all just walk us through the storyline of the video and what’s going on?
Lex: The whole video is basically like the light and the dark…pleasant memories and pleasant dreams, the pleasantries of life and sexuality. And then there’s a switch up, when it goes to Web [WebsterX], it’s more of that darkness…
WebsterX: It’s romanticized a little bit but still pretty dark for the most part. It’s just a complete switch up pretty much, just to kind of match up the voice I brought to it to, you know?
Lex: It’s that inner light and those inner demons that we all have and how we just have to work through them, how people deem us just by looking at us on the outside. Like they see that fluffiness [and] they see the smiles, but then they don’t see you fighting waves, like Web’s ass literally was in the water.
And this is another project you did with Cody LaPlant and Damien Klaven , who usually works with your videos, right? The production is so well done. It really looks great!
Lex: That was so important. Especially coming out this year and just…wanting to give people a bit more. Like I’m sexually fluid. I like to play around, and I want people to see that. I don’t want to hide that anymore, you know? I’ve got the street but I’ve also got the glamor. You’ll see a little bit of all of that. [laughs]
How did this idea come about? Did all of you [in NAN] work as a group to create the visual aspects or was it something you had wanted to do for some time now?
Lex: I wake up in the middle of the night and I write a lot of things down. And this was just one of those things. I knew I wanted to be in a home. I knew I wanted to have a lot of shit going on. And Q [Q The Sun] is a big fan of having a lot of things going on in videos, so we all met in the middle. I came up with the concept. I woke up and was just like, I need to write all this stuff down that I’m seeing in my head for this song. It’s crazy to just watch the video and see pretty much everything that I wanted to have in it. Except for the car scene. [laughs] We wanted to have a car scene but I figure we could save that for something new. But yeah, it was fun. It was a fun collaboration!
WebsterX: I randomly popped into it too.
Yeah! Was that planned from the beginning or was that by chance?
Lex: It was so random!
WebsterX: Not at first. I think Q played it for us while we were at one of the NAN meetings, and of course I was just bugging out because the switch [in the song] and everything was super dope, but I was not at all thinking that I wanted hop on it. And then the next week I heard it, Lex was like ‘You should just jump on it.’ All of a sudden, I lay down my verse right in the middle of the room. It was just all in the moment and just came out so naturally.
Q: Yeah, the song didn’t even have those last two parts at first. When we first made the song, it was just the part that you hear in the first half.
So almost half of the song just happened by chance too?
Q: We had the hook. We’ll all send each other like—
WebsterX: Voice memos.
Q: We text each other voice memos. That song “This Is Our Year” came out of a voice memo too. Lex texted me the melody of him singing it. Then I texted back with me singing the melody and I’m playing the piano.
Lex: I was like, “I’ll be right over!” [laughs]
Q: It wasn’t a fast process for actually making the whole song but there was always a naturalness that came to it.
Lex: I think I was actually in a car and someone said ‘…your cream and sugar all in one.’ And I was like…[starts singing melody] ‘my cream and sugar all in one.’ We were driving around and I just thought ‘I have to send this one off to Q.’ So yeah, a lot of this just kind of happens. It just pops in your head and you shoot the melody to Q. He gets all into it.
Do you want to talk more about the ‘cream and sugar’ part of the song and what it is, what it’s alluding to?
Lex: For me the cream and sugar thing is like can you have your cake and eat it too? Can you like a guy and can you like a girl and still be yourself? I can. I have and I do.
That’s what I also got from it. Sexual fluidity. Also you had said something a while back about the demons that we all have?
Lex: Yeah, just like the dark and the demons in our dream world. We have these pleasant dreams and then we have these nightmares. You’re looked at differently, even in your own LGBT community at times. They’ll look at you and say ‘You’re not this,’ or this whole ‘gold star’ thing. For me, I have to experience something to see if I like it or not. So it’s also about having that conflict of having to choose something to please someone else—should I be something for them or should I be something for myself? You have to battle yourself sometimes.
Also, there’s almost a sense of temporality. There’s this fantasized queer geography and dream world aspect where so many different forms of sexualities and gender expressions are being presented and, like you’re saying, sexual fluidity. You have to conjure up this dream world to access this feeling of openness, this dream world where you can do whatever you want, be whatever you want. Then towards the end, you’re forced back into reality and the kind of ‘real’ world where you can’t live this out.
Lex: Yeah, that’s reality for a lot of people. Wherever someone is in life, they’ll gravitate more to one part [of the video] and will be like ‘Shit, that’s my life right now.’ Or that transition stage where everyone’s dancing—it’s almost like you can look at it like if the video is going backwards. You know, this guy might wanna wake up and he’s going through that dark stage and now he’s trying to figure out who he is or realizing ,‘Damn, this is who I really am.’ The beginning is actually where I’m at, not the end situation. It’s all about perspective. That was one of the biggest things about making this video, the perspective. When you hear the song, I feel like people are not going to [imagine] this visual.
Yeah. There’s some moments of darkness in the video. But listening to the song by itself, they’re almost opposites and conjure up two different responses.
Lex: Yes. And isn’t that what human beings are? You get the sweet and sugary in the front, that’s the surface. And then it’s like, oh shit. There’s your dark side. I feel like people will get it and hopefully that they’ll gravitate towards it. I’m hoping people will see themselves in it and see the restrictions that they put on themselves for the world, for the show of the world really. And I wanna put on a show of me. That’s my biggest statement for this year—showing truly me.
And isn’t that what human beings are? You get the sweet and sugary in the front, that’s the surface. And then it’s like, oh shit. There’s your dark side. I feel like people will get it and hopefully that they’ll gravitate towards it. I’m hoping people will see themselves in it and see the restrictions that they put on themselves for the world, for the show of the world really. And I wanna put on a show of me. That’s my biggest statement for this year—showing truly me.
For a second I also read the last minute of the video as sort of a nod to WebsterX’s “Lately.” Are they at all connected or no?
Lex: No. That last part in the [“Cream and Sugar”] video is a kind of washing away. I feel like all of us in NAN grew up as these introverted and kind of geeky kids at times. The box that Web’s opening…it makes us all come to life [in the video], that’s why we all twitch. Before, when we were all separate, me personally, I just didn’t feel alive. I didn’t know who I was in a sense. My sister kind of said [in a way that was] dope as fuck the other day. She was like, ‘I bet all of y’all had the same upbringing or something. Watching all of y’all it’s like you came across each other in a past life.’ It’s really crazy hearing someone from the outside looking into what we do. That’s how I felt, like that box. The opening of that box is like adding life into the world again, to me. Like when everyone got ripped out of the bags, that’s how I felt inside. Just ripping out—I can have my light with my dark and I can still be a person.
Q: Our friends are all really open-minded. I’m really interested to see what happens once we release this. I think it’s going to be shocking in a lot of ways, even the first half, and that’s because the second half is supposedly the darker half. What goes on in the first part is regular stuff for us, but it’s going to be a lot to take in for other people. From the outfits to the sexuality. There’s people in drag. There’s a lot going on in there. These are all our friends in the video. So to me, that’s a big part of it too. And it relates to what Lex is saying about us fearlessly putting ourselves out there. We’re not trying to be shocking, but it’s going to be seen as shocking, us being ourselves.
Lex: Being a darker brown-skinned person in the LGBT community—you’re gay but in a lot of situations, you’re seen as being at the bottom of the totem pole in the gay community. People will still look down on you at times. I don’t think people are expecting this to come from us. I don’t think they’re expecting this.
Definitely. There can be a sense of conflict when it comes to intersectional identities, specifically being a person of color and being queer, and not always seeing yourself represented in queer communities or within your POC community.
Lex: And even showing people that there is different sides to being gay and to [gender] expression – there’s the feminine side, there’s the more masculine, there’s some people that are a mix of both. I feel like I fall in the middle of that. We’re comfortable here and we’re ready to show that comfortability. With that, I’m hoping and wishing that people will be able to be comfortable with themselves.
Q: It’s one thing for people to see [Lex] with a bun or in crop-tops. But it’s another thing for people to see Lex in bed with a man. There’s a huge jump. It’s all about having the courage and the support to do that.
WebsterX: Lex is straight up out there with it and this all happens in the first couple seconds.
And even showing people that there is different sides to being gay and to [gender] expression – there’s the feminine side, there’s the more masculine, there’s some people that are a mix of both. I feel like I fall in the middle of that. We’re comfortable here and we’re ready to show that comfortability. With that, I’m hoping and wishing that people will be able to be comfortable with themselves.
How did you all like shooting the video?
Lex: Well, I’ll let Web go first because, yeah, you got the brunt of it. Having to come out from underwater over and over.
WebsterX: That part was actually fine. The whole shoot, I had a great time doing it.
Q: For me, it’s just always awesome, when you show up at a shoot. And it’s like, ‘Wow, this is what we actually talked about doing. We’re in this condo right now.’ That’s always the most exciting, to see the vision actually come together how it’s supposed to.
Lex: For me, it was crazy to show myself how I am at home sometimes, laying in bed. I’m comfortable and that level of comfort, it goes to show that when you’re comfortable in that setting, everyone else will be comfortable too. Because they’ll see and they’ll be like ‘I can be myself and I’m not gonna be judged.’ I think the whole thing for me was that and not being judged—being able to wear makeup, twirling on the table and wearing high heels. You didn’t really get to see the high heels. [laughs]
Are there any other projects that you are working on or events coming up? I saw that you took part in a fundraiser for MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools] a while back.
Lex: Yeah, we did the hip-hop benefit show. That was so much fun! We raised $1,500 for Arte Para Todos, who raise money for the MPS art programs. They raised money for Free Space as well. That was pretty dope. That was a great way to end the year.
Do you have any other releases coming up, Lex? Are there any other artists or musicians that you’re planning on working with in the coming months?
Lex: Yeah. There’s gonna be a remix of “Cream and Sugar.” I’m going to be working on a piano ballad and I’ll probably release it on my mom’s birthday. It’s a song that I wrote about her. That’s pretty much my next track. And after that, it’s just pushing, and working, writing, recording, getting everything lined up. Just making sure everything is in order.
Q: Sound-wise, at least with what Lex and I are doing, we’re going to be pushing a little bit further to like…[to Lex] would you say maybe a little more grimy territory?
Q: Just sonically and musically. A lot of Lex’s material up until now has can be seen as Pop and Soul thing. But now we want to surprise people.
Lex: This year I’m leaving it really open. Mostly I want to work with more LGBT artists. I think that’s one of my goals this year, to help push other LGBT artists, especially young and just starting LGBT artists and help them find their shit, find their voice and be comfortable with them saying what they want. I have a track that I’ve been working on and it’s the first track that I wrote that blatantly speaks to a man, you know? So there’s gonna be some journeys for myself and for others.