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Charli XCX: suck my left one

Whether she's penning her own mega-hits or collaborating with the A-list, the "Fancy" star is the sound of pop's future

Pop’s better off with Charli XCX, whose catchy-as-a-cheer chant songwriting crashes onto the radio with the force of a freight train. Whether she’s throwing a “Tumblr IRL” launch party for her new album or showing up to the VMAs looking like Pebbles Flintstone (via Jeremy Scott), she makes being one of music’s hottest, most multi-faceted properties look like a breeze – even if, as today, she hasn’t slept in 72 hours.

After hopping off the last of “12 planes in three days”, XCX, real name Charlotte Aitchison, is snoozy but chipper as she devours a falafel wrap on a bright, cold day in east London. All those air miles aren’t just promo for her forthcoming air-punch of an album Sucker (out this month in the US, and January in the UK) – she’s been scheduling a cluster of songwriting sessions around appearences ranging from “really boring” industry events to her full-on prom queen “Boom Clap” performance at the AMAs. Yet it’s no surprise that XCX is as comfortable behind the mixing desk as in the vocal booth: despite releasing her excellent debut album True Romance in 2013 (and doing shows in London’s warehouses since the nu-rave days), the 22-year-old really shot to global recognition for her work behind the scenes, first by writing Icona Pop’s 2013 summer smash “I Love It”, and then by pouncing into public view with her her stroppy, self-aware hook on Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”, where she sneered “classic, expensive / You don't get to touch, ow!”. No surprise that this pop renegade played Tai Frasier to Azalea’s Cher Horowitz in the video.

XCX is setting the bar for what it means to be an independent 22-year-old pop artist, whether she's managing rising leftfield artist Ryn Weaver or writing for mainstream artists as diverse as teen girl-group Neon Jungle and balladeer James Blunt. To misquote one of her own songs, the really rule-breaking thing about Charli XCX might be how seriously she takes care of business. “I think over the past year, I’ve realised that my favourite thing about what I do is being in the studio, by myself and with collaborators,” she says, sipping a Diet Coke. “I’ve started thinking about the third record.” On the day we meet, she’s been emailing PC Music’s hyper-pop mastermind A. G. Cook about a potential collaboration on her next album, and she recently laid down a track with Sky Ferreira that sounds like t.A.T.u. (Ferreira’s claim). Next year, she’ll feature on Giorgio Moroder’s star-studded comeback album, and sprinkle some of her signature glitter on the new release from Gwen Stefani, a singer XCX idolises.

In the meantime, though, she’ll release the album of 2015 in Sucker, on which she swerves from the Desperately Seeking Susan sparkle of “Doing It” to a punk-ish punch on “Break the Rules”. “My feet are in two worlds and they always will be,” she admits. “I could have gone down the road of making something extremely commercial… But the first song on my record says ‘fuck you’.”

The first time I saw you play was at Koko in 2012. You were supporting The Maccabees, and you walked on holding a massive boom box. In recent performances, you seem much more aware of your body and the way you’re moving. Did you ever have lessons?

Charli XCX: Never, I’ve just toured a lot – I’ve done so many support tours with Sleigh Bells, Coldplay, Ellie Goulding, Marina and the Diamonds, Paramore... Also, it’s just growing up and figuring out what I think is sexy. When I was younger I didn’t care about singing – I cared more about the ‘warehouse-crazy’ impact and was less worried about the songs because at the time they weren’t so tight.

Looking back, does it feel like that was armour?

Charli XCX: It definitely was. Now I just feel so much more confident in the music, and I want to be able to access it live, rather than just being this ball of fire screaming at (the audience) for half an hour.

The videos you made for your first album (True Romance) were quite gloomy and conceptual – “Fancy” and “Break the Rules” feel so different. Why did you switch up your aesthetic?

Charli XCX: With “Break the Rules” the lyric is “I don’t wanna go school…” so the (high school theme) fit perfectly. As well as Jawbreaker (1999), that video was based on my favourite photo of Marilyn Manson – the David LaChapelle one of him as the bus driver. There are a lot of videos to come from this record, but what I’ve discovered about myself is that I’m quite blunt as a person – and that’s the way I write songs. All my favourite pop songs are the most stupid ones, the ones that are the most obvious.

Like “Mickey” by Toni Basil?

Charli XCX: I love that song – I think songs like that are the most difficult to write. So I guess I’ve realised that’s the reason why (my music has) moved on from a darker sound, although on the record there are still emotional and vulnerable moments.

“Need Ur Luv” is a great example of that. It has the darkness of 60s girl-group ballads.

Charli XCX: Yeah. When I began writing the album I was influenced by French pop, yé-yé… I still see this record as dark because of the title and the way the whole music industry is. I feel like I’ve changed into someone more cynical than I was on the first record.

“I can’t do the same thing twice. I’m not a machine and I think that’s what people wanted me to be” – Charli XCX

Do you feel jaded from doing more commercial things?

Charli XCX: No… I mean, that’s where my heart lies. When I was making my first record (True Romance), I wasn’t trying to make a cool and weird album that only 10,000 people would buy. That’s what pop music sounded like in my head at the time. I’ve always wanted to make a pop album. I think the process of “I Love It” becoming such a big song opened my eyes to sides of the industry that I’d never been aware of, which I wasn’t so into…

A more exploitative side?

Charli XCX: It was less exploitative, but more about how I saw people change. I saw people change around a hit, how money affects people and how egos can just appear. It was just a weird time for me. There are instances when I’ve shocked people after achieving something because I’m a woman. With “I Love It”, people are like, ‘You wrote it with Patrik (Berger).’ But that was 100 per cent me, sitting in a hotel room in Stockholm and yelling into my laptop for half an hour. After that song it was like, ‘Can you write that again for our artist?’ I can’t just do the same thing twice. That’s not how it works. I’m not a machine and I think that’s what people wanted me to be.

From doing more stuff in America, have you become aware that your voice is quite different from the majority of pop writers? 

Charli XCX: My voice is different, but I don’t think I’m the only one with a different take on pop music. I've met a lot of people in the past few weeks who have a really interesting angle on pop.

Like who? 

Charli XCX: Obviously, Lorde has that interesting perspective on pop, and this girl Ryn Weaver who I’ve been working with, she’s an amazing artist. We did “OctaHate” together. I met her through Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat and Michael from Passion Pit, we were just writing songs at their place and we did some songs together in Jim Morrison’s old house.

Did you always envision you’d be a pop star?

Charli XCX: I think when I was younger I really wanted to: I was obsessed with Britney Spears. But I don’t care as much about it as I did when I was making True Romance, and feeling more insecure. I don’t really feel like a pop star now, even though I do pop-star things. Like, the other day I went on a private jet for the first time. It was amazing.

You grew up in Bishop’s Stortford. What were you like at school?

Charli XCX: I had best friends called Millie, Twiggy and Grace and we’d just go to the art department all the time. I made video art for quite a long time, and I made this video covering myself in burgers and dancing to Major Lazer and doing covers of Britney Spears songs… I can’t remember how I got there, but my teacher said he’d have to fail me because it had mild nudity.

How did making art segue into performing?

Charli XCX: The music came before the video art. The music began when I was 14 or 15 – I began posting stuff online and playing in London. My first ever show was at the Peanut Factory (in Hackney Wick). I was scared – I didn’t know what a warehouse party was, I was 15 and not from London, so I got there at 9pm and didn’t play until 4am. I just thought I’d get there early in case I was late. I had no idea!

Did you stop performing for a bit before you got signed to Atlantic? 

Charli XCX: No, I got signed and then I stopped afterwards. It was a development deal, but I wanted to finish school and I’m glad I did, and then I went to art school for a year and a half.

Even though you were signed, it didn’t feel like you were biding your time?

Charli XCX: No. I mean, I was learning about songwriting. I was going to LA and doing random sessions with random people, and never really feeling like I made anything that I liked. But in hindsight, that was such an important time for me, because it led me to meet Ariel (Rechtshaid). We met the day I was leaving, we were in the studio for about two hours and that’s when we wrote “Stay Away” – and that’s when I thought ‘I want to do this forever,’ because it really clicked. It was before he blew up as a producer, and that was the first thing that anyone noticed properly in either of our careers. It was quite an interesting time. 

I read that you react to music in colours sometimes?

Charli XCX: Yeah, Britney’s were always pink, songs like “Lucky” and “Everytime” I see as being baby blue and crystal-sapphire.

What colour is your new album?

Charli XCX: Red and pink. It’s not really something I can explain, but songs that I don’t like are often green or yellow or brown – I see dubstep as being green.

When you were interviewed by Dazed in 2009 you said: “You don’t have to be this big pop writing machine to be successful, you can just do whatever you want and you will be fine.” I wonder what you think about that now? Were you very sceptical about the commercial side of the industry?

Charli XCX: I was. I just wanted to perform in warehouses at that point. I am aware that songs I’ve released recently are my most commercial – that’s been something I wanted to do – but I’m never going to make a middle-of-the-road pop record just to get a number one. At the moment I’m really interested in a lot of punk and 60s music and The Slits. I’ve actually done a cover of “Train in Vain” by The Clash with Viv Albertine – which was originally written about her. I’m sure it’s on Soundcloud somewhere.

Sucker is out on December 15 (US) and January 26 (UK)