From Mess to Magic: Inside the Mind of Brooke Candy
Ahead of her official debut album, we spoke to the club-rap-turned-pop artist about drugs, sobriety and queerness in the era of Trump.
It was a spring day, in a west London hotel last year, when I first met Brooke Candy. She'd been brimming with energy all afternoon, stomping her bare tattooed feet over the plush white carpet, excitedly showing me her collection of multi-coloured wigs and blasting her newest demo out the iPhone speakers. "Do you like it?" she'd asked, turning up the volume. I did – it was what was to become "Paper or Plastic", a camp, shiny pop track with a jagged, robotic chorus, co-written with Sia, and set to appear on her upcoming debut album Daddy Issues.
Now, almost a year has passed, and this time we're speaking over FaceTime. She's called me from her flat in Hollywood, where's she's sitting cross-legged on her bed, makeup-free and wig-less, dressed in a casual navy sweater with an alien face printed on the front. "The last time we met, I was actually feeling kinda… weird," she says, looking at me through the cameraphone lens. "During that trip I felt so fucking crazy the entire time; so fragmented. It was like I couldn't grasp who I was, as if I was a million different people. And then I got back here and I just... was not working," she pauses, before adding, "You know, I ask myself every day 'How happy are you? Are you happy today? No? Then what do you need to change?"
After landing back in the US from that trip, Candy tells me that she bumped into an old friend, who asked if she wanted to try some ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogenic plant brew that clears out the deepest corners of a person's psyche. She agreed to give it a go, if only to see if her strange mood could be shifted. "I went to this friend's house with a shaman and a bunch of rad women," she explains. "And you know what? It was the best thing I've ever done in my life. It was more profound, I think, than getting sober; even than making music. It was like my ego was gone, like I wasn't Brooke Candy anymore; I was just energy existing in this sacred, geometric, breathing, womb-like orb. I've never felt more blissful in my life. It took away a lot of that emotional trauma, and suddenly, I felt like a whole person again. Doing that ceremony really calmed me down."
Although I can only see her flat through the rectangular confines of my iPhone screen, it looks very tranquil. She offers to show me around – there are fairy lights wrapped around the bannister, artwork adorning the white walls, potted plants unfurling in every crevice, and one of her favourite bejewelled catsuit costumes pinned up and glinting in the sun. "Here is another one of my prize possessions," she says, gesturing towards a huge poster of The Cramps beside her sofa. "This might be the coolest band poster ever." In her bathroom, she has a pink Himalayan salt lamp carved into the shape of an angel, and next to it lays a collection of ginormous, sparkling crystals. As she walks back to her bed, I notice that above it hangs a huge painting of the words "FUCK YOU" in black block letters. "My friend Sean made this; it's pretty rude," she says, raising one eyebrow and stifling a laugh.
While her current home embodies the beautiful, trashy aesthetic she's become known for over the years, it hasn't always been this way. The 27-year-old Californian spent the first two decades of her life in a place so sanitised it could have been lifted from the screen of Desperate Housewives, white picket fences and all. "I grew up in the suburbs, in this place called Agoura Hills just outside of LA. It's full of tract homes, and all the women drive SUVs but they're just driving in them alone – it's very Stepford Wives, very boring," she says, rolling her eyes. "I hated living in the suburbs. I hated how weird and different I felt. For me, to find culture was such a fight; I always knew that I wanted to be an artist, but growing up where I grew up, I didn't have that creative outlet. They don't encourage you to be eccentric."
As soon as she hit 17, she and a mate – "the only openly gay boy at my school, so of course he was my best friend" – bundled all their stuff into a car and drove up to San Francisco. She spent the next five years living there, crashing on people's couches and floors, immersing herself in the art and club scenes at a time before gentrification had really hit the area hard. It was in San Francisco that she discovered she wanted to dedicate herself to performing and making music – and that, actually, she was really good at it. "I got pulled into the gay scene there, and then I met all these drag queens, and just found my community. It was like 'oh OK, cool, this is life, that back there was just a weird glitch in the matrix."
It wasn't all plain sailing, though. Upon returning to LA, she moved back in with her mum for a while, but was kicked out after coming out as queer. And so, at 22, she found herself effectively homeless, with no belongings apart from a few bags of clothes and a small white Toyota, in which she would sleep at night. "Basically, I told her 'I'm queer. This is what I am,' and she could not compute. She was like 'uh… uh… uh… get out!' From there, it was like, I literally have nothing; I don't have a degree, I don't have any skills other than making art – what am I supposed to do right now?"
But Candy has always retained a fiercely entrepreneurial streak, and from then on, she began stripping at a local West Hollywood club called Seventh Veil, honing her craft as a performer, while also earning some extra cash; money she would ultimately funnel into her music. "It was a cool outlet for me," Candy says when I ask about the stripper years. "I was smart enough to not get myself into any peculiar situations. When we would strip, our friends would take up all the main spaces [in the club], so that when I was dancing it was them that we saw. It was very safe. That's why I'm always like, 'I did it for a reason, and it worked for me', but I wouldn't recommend it to a young girl. I'd never be like 'you should totally be a stripper, it'll help you with your performance art… no, no, no."
It was around this time that Candy directed and self-released her first video "Das Me", followed by "Everybody Does" and "I Wanna Fuck Right Now", which, bolstered by a starring cameo in Grimes' "Genesis" in 2012, quickly racked up millions of views and gained her a cult following online. I may have been living 5,437 miles away in east London at the time, but personally, as a teenage girl who was just beginning to understand my own queerness, and who was also dying to embrace my life's true calling as a total slut, to see this brash, openly queer woman swing her neon pink braids around like a propellor while sticking her middle finger up to the camera, bouncing on cars in metallic silver platforms, and spitting "you say that I'm a slut / it ain't your business who I'm fucking with" wasn't just fun – it was empowering. She was like Gwen Stefani meets Lil Kim for the Tumblr generation, but louder and even more camp – if such a thing is possible.
It's also worth noting that, although this was only half a decade ago, the aesthetic and style of music she was making was way less common than it is now. These days, it feels as though the lines have blurred; there's more room for bold, messy weirdos in mainstream pop culture. But back then, there was no Kim Kardashian being shot by Petra Collins for Wonderland. FKA Twigs wasn't surprise dropping visual EPs starring a gold-grilled Michelle Lami. Carly Rae Jepsen wasn't casually teaming up with Lil Yachty for a cover of "It Takes Two" in adverts for Target. Sure, artists like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry had reigned supreme for years, but as Candy herself said back in 2013, these were artists who had the propensity to "come off weird and take from the underground culture, but were never really a part of it". Candy was an artist who came fully-formed from the LGBTQ club scene, refusing to sanitise her sound or image for a radio that wouldn't play songs with the word "clit" in them.
If anything, though, these past few years have seen Candy take it down a notch. This is something she attributes to focussing on her health and happiness, instead of getting wasted, partying all the time and burning herself out. "Oh my god, man. I was such a fucking manic tornado mess; I was like the Tasmanian devil personified," she tells me, casting her mind back to a time when she'd have blunts for breakfast. "I'd always be the one who didn't want the party to end; I'd keep it going for days. But in my head I thought I was free; I'd do whatever I'd want, whenever I want, and that's how I rationalised it in my head. It felt like freedom."
After sobering up – which she wrote about extensively for Noisey last year – her musical output momentarily slowed down. And that's why her debut album has taken a while to arrive. "I've just been re-acclimatising to everyday life. I've been taking my time. It's important that you feel whole, and you feel centred and grounded, and that you love yourself before you make any art. Maybe not for everybody, but for me, it's important that I'm 100% in who I am, and where I am." One indication of this lifestyle change is her neck tattoo, which used to read "op-u-lence", but now has a cross through it and "nevermind" inked in squiggly letters above. "I'm not into opulence, I'm not into that lifestyle anymore," she explains. "If everyone could live minimally instead of senselessly consuming everything all the time, we'd be able to conserve the environment; we'd be able to conserve our resources, we'd all be so much happier."
These days, Candy has been embracing a poppier sound, with less rapping, fewer flying braids and lyrics about jiggling tits and dicks, and more soaring, candy-coated choruses – perhaps a result of working so closely with chart-smashing behemoth Sia on her debut album, or perhaps just the result of being happier and evolving as an artist. "I love to jump on stage and be that 'in your face', tense, righteous rapper chick, and that's actually what comes out more naturally; I don't have to think about it, it just flows out of me and it's very raw. I'll always want to do that," Candy tells me. "As for the change of sound, it was more of a move to potentially gain a bigger fanbase and spread the message to more people. It's just the natural trajectory of the art."
As our interview draws to a close, our chat inevitably lands on the subject of American politics; a hard topic to avoid if you've been alive and awake over the past year. When speaking about women's and LGBTQ rights, and the poisonous views of Donald Trump, Candy immediately sits up and becomes more animated, waving her iPhone around wildly. "I'm excited about the revolution which is coming," she says, her eyes widening. "There needs to be a radical shift, right? I went to the women's march in LA the day after Trump was inaugurated, and it was cool to see so many people who were fully awake, conscious and aware, but also peaceful. There was so much love, and you could feel it, you could feel the energy – that's something I'm excited to see more of."
When I ask her about the changes she'd like to see, she speaks slowly and carefully, as if she'd like each word to be soaked up. "I'd like to see people stop mass consuming; I'd like to see people live more minimally, I'd like to see us work towards to saving the environment – I think that's the number one priority in this life. And obviously, I want to see the LGBTQ community and women become more empowered – that's something I need to see: unity and freedom."
In many ways, we need artists like Brooke Candy now more than ever. She's effervescent, charismatic and fearless, and the freedom and enthusiasm she expresses is contagious – her existence representing something many factions of society are desperately trying to contain. The playful nature of her music, on a surface level, might appear as if it's just freaky music for the club, but actually, party tracks like hers are bristling with genuine political power, particularly during a climate ruled by those hell-bent on sucking the fun out of everything, sniffing out then neutralising any scent of rebellion or anarchy and turning the volume down on certain communities.
As we say wave goodbye, I apologise for not returning the favour and showing her around my own flat – it's just that it's in Dalston, in east London, and thus pretty skanky. "Listen," she says, throwing her head back and laughing. "You're literally talking to THE QUEEN of the skanks. It's me."
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(Images provided by PR)