Charli XCX is the sound of pop right now. For September 2019, the prolific auteur is guest editing Dazed. Head here to check the fashion brand she’s spotlighted, her dream collaborators, a visit to her home, video of her reacting to fans’ memes, plus way more.
Charli XCX is at once the saviour of pop music, and its best kept secret.
The former title is one that she wears – perhaps only half-jokingly – on her social media, and reflects her unique approach to pop, where she maintains a proximity to industry high rollers (she’s collaborated with everyone from Blondie to Diplo, and toured with Taylor Swift and Sia) while keeping her finger firmly on the pulse of the underground (she’s used her platform to showcase emerging leftfield talents like raunchy rapper Cupcakke and eccentric Estonian artist Tommy Cash, and maintains a Spotify playlist called ‘The Motherfucking Future’, which she updates often with her favourite new songs and recommendations from fans).
The latter title refers to her underdog status in the pop world. As she recently tweeted, she’s become “kind of a chart flop” as of late, with some of her latest singles – like “Gone”, featuring Christine and the Queens, and “Dream Glow”, her collaboration with K-Pop megastars BTS – earning admiration from fans and critics, but not cracking the Top 10. She doesn’t let it get her down too much, though. She ended her post with, “but honestly lol if u think I care”, and followed it with another, more blunt comment: “honestly, I’m fucking iconic”.
If Charli is her own biggest cheerleader, then she’s her most steadfast critic, too. She’ll confess on Instagram that she sometimes feels like an industry outsider, that despite her cultish fanbase – which encompasses everyone from hyper-devoted Top 40 pop stans to new-gen club kids, Guardian journalists and indie music bloggers to Cyberdog freaks – she feels conflicted between a desire for more recognition and gratitude for how far she’s come. “There’s so much comparison between people in the same industry,” she says. “In my case, it can really make me hate myself, because I feel really guilty for even entertaining the idea of comparing myself to somebody else. You get jealous. People think I don’t, because I’m very positive, but I am human.” It’s this dynamic that keeps her motivated as a workaholic perfectionist. She loves living in Los Angeles, she says, because it’s normal for people to talk about work all the time.
It’s at Charli’s home in LA that we’re meeting today, a fairytale cottage nestled in the windy, narrow roads of the Hollywood Hills, decorated with tiny angel figurines, a sprawling Victorian-style couch, and Polaroids of friends strung along a large stone fireplace. It’s far less manicured and sterile than you’d expect from an international pop star, thoughtfully put together with little regard for whatever design trend is cycling around Instagram. Charli, fresh-faced and dressed in workout gear, is in her living room.
Between these glimpses into her inner turmoil, Charli doesn’t take herself too seriously. She calls herself a troll – she says she’s striving to annoy people “about 20 per cent of the time”, and she likes that she’s easily memeable. She starts talking about a phone call she had recently with a couple of friends, one of whom had just had a baby. “We were talking about the words the baby knew, and they were like, ‘He knows the word ‘car’, and ‘dad’,’” she says, with a pause for comic timing. “And our other friend was like, ‘Oh – so he can write all of Charli’s songs!’” She grins, half-cheekily and half-proud about the idiosyncratic brand of party pop she’s created.
“When I was younger and I started making music, all I really wanted was a crew of people” – Charli XCX
As a teen growing up in the UK – an art school student (and future drop out), and fan of punk rockers like The Vibrators, Siouxsie Sioux, and Iggy Pop – Charli recalls feeling isolated in her small town in Hertfordshire, an hour outside the hustle and bustle of London. Like many preteens in the early aughts, Charli, now 27, spent hours on MySpace salivating over profiles which revealed her party-life aspirations, and admiring the vaunted ‘Top 8s’ as if they were a fantasy clique. One such page was Ed Banger Records, the French electronic label whose roster included Justice, SebastiAn, Breakbot, and future Charli collaborators Uffie and Mr Oizo, among others. “I always really loved the music,” she says, throwing back to a time when Cross was on heavy rotation and “Pop the Glock” was the hardest song on every 15-year-old’s iPod. “One of the things I was really gravitating to was the fact that they were this crew – they all collaborated together, it was a fluid group of artists who were always hopping on (each other’s) tracks. When I was younger and I started making music, all I really wanted was a crew of people.”
So she went looking for one. Thanks to MySpace and Ed Banger, she’d developed an interest in party culture, although she wasn’t much of a party girl herself at the time. “I was so not a part of it when I was younger,” she says. “I was on the outside looking in. I always wanted that for myself.” At 16, she started asking her parents – a Scottish father and Gujarati Indian mother – to drive her to raves in the city, where she’d perform the first iterations of Charli XCX. As well as playing shows around London’s warehouse scene, she was also posting tracks to her MySpace page, eventually attracting the attention of a label in the States, Asylum Records. From there, she found herself being flown out to Los Angeles to co-write songs for Selena Gomez and breaking into the international radio charts with features on Icona Pop’s massive 2012 hit, “I Love It”, a track written by Charli and which she sings on throughout, and Iggy Azalea’s global smash, “Fancy”, which edged out other summer 2014 anthems thanks to Charli’s addictive hook.
To go from relative obscurity to scoring two major hit records would be a miracle for a lot of artists, but Charli was more concerned about how she’d forge her own identity, not just as a songwriter or guest artist. “When I was younger, the narrative around me was always kind of like, ‘Charli, the feature’, or ‘Charli, the opening act’,” she says. “It put me in this role like the underdog, you know? Which I resented for a really long time, because I was always like, ‘Why does collaborating put me in that role? Why doesn’t it make me equally as valid?’”
Charli XCX’s full-length debut, 2013’s True Romance, introduced a moody synthpop artist with buzz from at the time underground music sites like Hipster Runoff and Pitchfork. Her follow up, 2014’s Sucker, was the punk-influenced result of her frustration with her record label – the album gave us one of her most recognisable singles to date, “Boom Clap”, and it was a well-received retort to the executives attempting to control her artistry. Both records shy away from many features. “I think a lot of my albums before had kind of like, a character to them,” says Charli. “True Romance was like, ‘She’s this dark pop girl’. Lo-fi, witch house remixes, whatever, you know? And then Sucker was like, ‘This is angry me, I hate my label, I hate the music industry’. And then it was like, ‘OK – let’s just figure out who I actually am’.”
Charli released two mixtapes in 2017, Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, and enlisted PC Music producer A.G. Cook as her new creative director, signalling a new era in Charli’s career as an avant-pop artist. The mixtapes featured an impressive and multifaceted list of collaborators, from MØ and Mykki Blanco to Carly Rae Jepsen, Tove Lo, and Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, among many others. With time, Charli’s grown to accept the myriad ways her curatorial approach to coworking has kept her at the cutting edge. “I actually think collaboration has been a really key part of my artistry and who I am for a long time,” she says. “Over the past few years, I’ve really begun to own and understand my collaborations a lot more. I really enjoy curating. I think I’m a great curator.” Charli’s got a reputation for working with artists regardless of genre or popularity. More importantly, they’re always incredibly distinctive personalities. “I only want to collaborate with people who I’m genuinely inspired by,” she says. “I think the one thing that unites them is that they are very much unique in themselves. I like artists who are truly authentic, and create their own worlds, and are kind of irreplicable.”
Now that she’s established herself as one of today’s true pop auteurs, Charli has finally got her crew. To name a few, it consists of Christine and the Queens’ Héloïse Letissier, rising starlet Kim Petras (the two met backstage at a SOPHIE show), and BFF-slash-South African pop star Troye Sivan. They first met at one of Charli’s house parties and fast became friends. “We went through this phase of throwing like a fuckload of parties,” she says. “We would just leave the doors open, send out the biggest group texts, and so many people came. Like, the police would come, it was a real nightmare. Our neighbours hated us. All our cars got keyed. We were the neighbours from hell.”
“Not to say that I’ll always be one step ahead – but, like, I’ll always be one step ahead. And that’s cool. I would rather that than be waiting for the world to catch up” – Charli XCX
All of the above artists are featured on Charli XCX’s latest album, the self-titled Charli, which dropped last week, alongside Brooke Candy, HAIM, Sky Ferreira, Lizzo, Big Freedia, Cupcakke, Clairo, Yaeji – the list goes on. Charli says the album is “extremely multicoloured. I feel like there’s so many different textures and think, for this album, that the people who are a part of it really affect the way I see the song. It’s like a full rainbow spectrum,” she says. There’s a pointed presence of the LGBTQ+ community amongst Charli’s features, something she says wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, but a real reflection of those who she’s “naturally gravitating towards”. “You know, this is the world that I live in, particularly out here in LA,” she says. “Whenever I throw a house party, it’s not very straight.”
Partying is a theme that comes up a lot in Charli’s songs – for her, it’s a way to push past her workaholic tendencies, if only briefly. “I can’t go on holiday without having a breakdown. All I think about is work: music, songs, videos. Everything is just my mind buzzing constantly. That’s why I enjoy partying, because it’s the one time where I’m fully escaping and present in the moment.”
While Charli may be the pop star’s most collaborative work to date, it’s also her most personal. “I’m sure every artist you speak to is like, ‘This is my most personal album’, and it’s the most unoriginal soundbite ever,” she says with a grin and an eye-roll. “I feel like for the first time, I’m really opening up about my mental state. I was really open to writing in those moments where I felt really depressed, or insecure, or sad. Rather than leaving the studio and going home, I would write a song there and then.” Isolation and loss of relationships – “Not necessarily romantic,” she says – are significant themes throughout. She talks about leaving her management company, who had been her team since she was 16, roughly six months before beginning work on the album. “It was a different type of break-up, but my world was totally flipped upside down.” These themes are punctuated by tracks like the slurred-synth heavy “Thoughts”, as well as “Gone”, written with Letissier about feeling lonely in a room full of fake people.
Not that there isn’t humour on such a personal album. One of the joys of Charli’s work is that fans can just appreciate the bops without having to be invested in the tabloid narratives that surround other pop artists’ personal lives. “Gone”, Charli says, is her song of the summer, and solidly ranked among the “favourite songs club” of her catalogue, next to singles “Vroom Vroom” and “No Angel”. “Blame It on Your Love”, with Lizzo, is an upbeat dancehall-kissed piece of pop perfection, while “Cross You Out”, with Sky Ferreira, is solemn, hazy, and swaying, like the creeping tides of a stormy sea. “February 2017” falls within the expected mellow wheelhouse of a collaboration between two of the biggest bedroom pop musicians out there, Clairo and Yaeji, while “Click”, featuring Tommy Cash and Kim Petras, has aptly been described as sounding like monster trucks having sex.
Lead single “1999”, with Troye Sivan, yearns for simpler times, when the Spice Girls were still “zig-a-zig-ah”-ing in our Walkman disc players and Titanic was the number one film in the world, while “2099”, also with Sivan, closes out the album with a more playful message. “It’s basically just us bragging about how we’re the future of pop music,” she says with a laugh.
If Charli XCX is the future of pop music, she’s also its present. From its ultra-contemporary sound and its collaborations with some of the most exciting artists working today, Charli is undeniably the sound of right now – but it points towards a future that Charli is optimistic about. “People can smell a major label plot from a mile off, you know? It happens less and less now, and it puts the focus onto artists who are genuinely speaking their truth and doing what’s unique to them. There’s space in the landscape for that to become the biggest thing in the world, you know, like a Billie, or an Ariana.”
After a pause to collect her thoughts about the world she resides in, both in the frays and the limelight, as pop’s underdog and best-kept-secret, she continues: “I always feel like I will move a tiny bit too fast for pop music. Not to say that I’ll always be one step ahead – but, like, I’ll always be one step ahead. And that’s cool. I would rather that than be waiting for the world to catch up.”
Charli XCX’s new album, Charli, is out now
Photography: Gwen Trannoy
Photography assistant: Melissa Arras
Make-up artist: Bea Sweet
Make-up assistant: Natasha Sultana
Stylist: Rebecca Perlmutar
Stylist assistant: Molly Shillingford
Hair: Lyndell Mansfield
Hair assistant: Jenny Green