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Chappell Roan June 2023 Brennan Bucannan 08

On the Rise
Chappell Roan

22 June 2023, 10:00
Words by Matthew Kent
Original Photography by Brennan Bucannan

Raised on the maximalism of early 2010s imperial pop, Chappell Roan tells Matthew Kent about embracing her queerness and reclaiming her identity.

For singer-songwriter Kayleigh Rose Amstutz, Chappell Roan is more than just a pseudonym, it’s a drag character through which she can live out her wildest dreams and create a whole world of wonder and whimsy.

“I started getting dresses that made me feel good,” Stutz explains of the origins of this era in the life of Chappell Roan. Meeting in the centre of London, June sunshine beaming down, it’s been mere days since she played her first international headline show; a sold-out date at The Garage in Islington where fans went all-in on the night’s “Pink Pony Club” theme. Inspired by her single of the same name, which was her first real breakthrough moment, all of her live shows are accompanied by a theme, usually inspired by her fantastical music videos and artwork.

From dirt-bike champions and kinky cabaret clowns to love-interest mermaids, Roan already has a stacked portfolio of signature looks which exist in her orbit. Today’s choice is a skilfully thrifted red prom dress which pairs perfectly with her ambition for our shoot to actually show that she’s in London. “Run me over, it’d be so camp,” she laughs as we head into the middle of The Mall to get some shots with Buckingham Palace, the first of a handful of landmarks on a whistle-stop tour.


In the greenhouse-like ICA café, Roan remembers growing up in the midwest and life before the glam of her self-styled superhero form. “I grew up on Christian rock… And I will say, with my whole chest; it’s the worst music I’ve ever heard.” Aside from giving a pass to Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take The Wheel,” Roan is unwavering. However, she lights up when she starts to discuss her pop idols, reeling off names one by one. “I was a teenager at an incredible time; Lorde had just dropped Pure Heroine, Lana had just dropped Paradise and Born To Die, Kesha was in full swing, and Gaga had come out with The Fame Monster. Rihanna Rated R and “S&M”, Teenage Dream and Drake was just started to gain momentum and I was obsessed with it all.”

Around this time Roan got her first taste of success, winning the Eight Grade talent show and becoming known in school as “the girl who sings.” Sharing covers and original songs to YouTube, it was here executives at Atlantic Records spotted her raw talent and signed her when she was just 17-years-old. Her stage name is a tribute to her late grandfather Dennis K. Chappell, and his favourite song “The Strawberry Roan,” and as fate would have it, her debut EP School Nights just happened to land on the anniversary of his passing.

“At that time it was all about the voice,” she explains simply. “I didn’t have this brand behind me, this whole world took me literally years to develop, and I just had a few songs I had written at summer camp.” Describing her sound then as “very witchy,” she took everything very seriously, but ultimately reveals she hated the music. Even as it was being released, she recalls feeling embarrassed by it. “Whereas now, I love the album, I love making these music videos, I love performing and I learnt to fall in love with my project – but it definitely took about five years.”

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“When I hit almost 24, that’s when I started liking myself,” she remembers, “I became this drag version of myself.” Moving to West Hollywood, it was here Roan could finally be her unapologetic self, something she had struggled with growing up in Missouri. “It was chaos, there were drag queens everywhere, everyone was out and about and I was so shocked, it was so eye-opening because I grew up thinking being gay was a choice, being told being trans is just for attention and all of that knowledge was ingrained in me.”

Confused, a familiar feeling for a lot of queer youth discovering themselves, Roan remembers not understanding the feelings she had for other women. “I didn’t identify it as queerness, I just thought I liked girls better than boys, so when I got to LA I realised everything that I knew was a lie and that’s when I wrote ‘Pink Pony Club’ on Valentine’s Day.” What she saw as a rebirth of her artistry and a reclamation of her identity essentially ended her relationship with Atlantic. Upon its release a year later, the track failed to make the impact they’d hoped just as the global pandemic took hold. “The powers above [her small team at the label, who thought it was amazing] didn’t think it was going to work,” and Roan was dropped.

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“Six months later Olivia Rodrigo asked me to open for her,” and the beginning of this latest chapter had begun. As an independent artist armed with tracks co-written and produced by Dan Nigro, who’s also worked with Rodrigo, Caroline Polachek, Conan Gray and Sky Ferreira, Roan was determined to make things work. But as she says “bad things sometimes turn out to be blessings in disguise.” Putting everything not only into her music but into chaotic posts on social media and as the creative director of all her art, she used a team of her dearest friends and former summer camp buddies to really forge her own pop princess identity in this time. “I really embodied my inner child who loves sparkles, who loves costume jewellery and big makeup,” she adds.

In the six years since her initial project a lot has changed, and she continues to tease a debut album she hopes will unveil the bigger picture. It’s a picture that only came into focus towards the end of 2022, following her time as an independent artist – where she supported herself working in a donut shop, a drive thru, as a barista and a nanny too before landing a publishing deal as a songwriter. “I would go from the donut shop to a writing session and I kept pushing myself harder and harder, I felt so burnt out, all the time.” As she remembers that the team only settled on an album as a firm idea back in September, she smiles “we worked and worked and worked and it’s done now, it’s really crazy to say that.”

The record’s closing track “Guilty Pleasure” manages to bridge the gap within its walls, capturing the raw vocal talent which first captured her peers’ attention at school and the progressive, chameleonic pop grandeur of this latest evolution. “That song is a representation of the whole arc,” Roan explains, “it starts out all sombre, but then you’re in this weird pop world and by the end there’s the bridge where I’m literally yodelling.” The yodel is an unexpected, yet joyfully unhinged moment which really captures the chaos and unpredictable potential she embodies.

Another new track, and fellow album standout, “Super Graphic Ultra Modern” is the result of a different way of working, starting with a title. Created around the phrase ‘super modern, ultra graphic’ which caught the lyricist's attention in an Architectural Digest video, she reached out to Mike Wise (Charli XCX, Allie X) to help the track reach its full potential and pull it across the finish line. “It was a really hard song to finish,” she reveals, “I didn’t know what I wanted it to sound like, but I knew I wanted something feels like a fucking gay club, something that’s undeniably dancey.” It is the most bombastic track on the record.

Admittedly she’s also been test driving new material on the road, with “Hot To Go” already a fan favourite thanks to the genius audience participation Roan has devised. Essentially the new “YMCA” when the song drops in her live set, she encourages fans to spell out the track’s title with their arms. “It’s just so inclusive,” she grins, “playing live feels euphoric and it’s my favourite part of the job.”

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The live show is the heart of the Chappell Roan experience, “it’s always the top of the pyramid, with whatever I’m doing, the question is always ‘how do we make this support the live show?’” From visuals through to the songs themselves, she explains, “in ‘Femininomenon’ I wanted [a moment] where I could point the microphone to the audience,” so what is achieved via gang vocals in the recorded version of the track then becomes a call and response moment between the fans, screaming back that “it’s a femininomenon!”

As the rise of this midwest princess is set to continue, Roan is still managing to keep herself grounded. “I teach at a summer camp, I’m a cabin counsellor because I love it and this job sweeps you away with the tide. It’s so easy to feel that this is your whole world and there’s nothing going on outside, but working at a summer camp where I just help with the dishes. It’s just so grounded.”

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