One can forgive Charli XCX for losing heart back in 2013, when her inventive and critically acclaimed major label debut, ‘True Romance’, went on to sell badly. But instead, she’s liberated.
Only months later, a song she had written for Icona Pop quite symbolically toppled ‘Blurred Lines’ from the UK number one slot, and sat atop a lofty success of over 400,000 sales and counting. Then earlier in 2014, she co-wrote and featured on ‘Fancy’ with Iggy Azalea, to take the US number one slot for seven weeks. Yes, it’s safe to say, she is liberated by these successes.
She’s liberated by the fact she didn’t really change anything to achieve them. And she’s liberated by not giving a toss about an industry she was once so servile to. As she states during our interview, “I always thought my songs were cool.”
There is a notion that once you start placing culture as high or low, you’ve already lost your credibility. You don’t understand culture by segmenting it into ratings of what is highbrow and what is trash, but by understanding many different things from many different angles, and identifying with what you enjoy and what is important. XCX’s disregard for these rankings liberates her to create something that roller-skates along outskirts of trash culture impulsivity, at the same time as celebrating her emancipation from trying to be ‘on trend’. After all, she used to do lip-sync’d Britney Spears-based performance pieces at art school, she once made a Justin Bieber shrine so she could spray paint “Britney lives on!” all over it, and she champions Westlife’s ingenious and effortless method of standing up during the key change to make people go wild.
Yet, at the same time, she can detail the yé-yé pop structures of Serge Gainsbourg and Sylvie Vartan, fiercely argue for pop femininity, and generally holler “f*ck you” at anything she doesn’t fully agree with. Which, from our conversation, seems to be the music industry as a whole.
To Charli, not being cool anymore is pure, because it removes any overly conscious decision-making. And, this is a girl who set up her own label, self-released her debut and gigged London’s illegal warehouse rave scene all between the ages of 14 to 16. So, if she knows anything, it’s what she wants. This liberation of expression and attitude makes XCX – Charlotte Emma Aitchison to her birth certificate, born in Hertfordshire in the early 1990s – a new rebel warrior in the movement of anti-front pop, attacking any traditional industry ideology that assumes female pop stars are, or even should be, simply the face of a project. Where a pop star like Sia tackles this conceptually, Charli targets it more traditionally, by just telling things how they are.
With a number one single to her name on both sides of the Atlantic, and a new album, ‘Sucker’, on the horizon, we begin...
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‘Break The Rules’, from ‘Sucker’
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I don’t want to be with boring people at a party somewhere and feeling like I want to die. I’ve done that shit, and it’s exhausting…
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What is it like to be Charli XCX in 2014?
When I was younger, I cared about fame, success and celebrity. Now, it’s unimportant to me. I don’t associate myself with ‘It girls’, tabloid culture, or people who do nothing but become successful. I don’t care about being cool, or being seen. I just want to be in the studio. I don’t want to be with boring people at a party somewhere and feeling like I want to die. I’ve done that shit, and it’s exhausting. People looking over your shoulder, wondering who to talk to next. Nobody cares about you. One of my pet hates is cool people who give limp handshakes. Just grip my hand! You can do it! It doesn’t make you cool; it makes you a dick.
I imagine the American chat show circuit to be especially strange…
I loved being on TV in America. It’s so f*cking weird. I didn’t wear a bra on The Today Show and they were freaking the f*ck out. They were like, “She needs Sellotape!” Before I went on stage, I’m taping my tits. And someone is like, “Patricia Arquette is here!” and I’m taping my boobs and trying to shake her hand. Then I went on and my nipples were still showing and everyone was upset, but I was like, “It’s cool guys. Tits are great!”
Do you feel like you learned some lessons from your major label debut, ‘True Romance’, that you take into ‘Sucker’?
Pop music is constantly changing and, coincidentally, it’s changed to a point that my music is regarded as mainstream. I think if ‘True Romance’ had come out now, it would have been more successful. I think I learned more from doing ‘I Love It’ for Icona Pop than I did from my own record. It opened my eyes to the realities of the music industry. People coming out of the woodwork saying, “We’ve always been a fan! Let’s do a track together!” And I’m like, “Whatever, dude! I remember trying to hit you up back in the day and you were like, ‘I’m busy.’” I felt angry, because I always thought my songs were cool. And, I was continuously being asked to make an album like ‘I Love It’, and I was like, “No!” If I wanted to do that, I would never have given the song away in the first place.
Icona Pop went to number one in the UK with ‘I Love It’, but their album only reached 86...
Well, maybe they should have gotten me to write more songs for them. I was there, waiting: “Hey guys!” They were like, “No.”
Were you commissioned to write that song for them?
No, I was in Stockholm writing the ‘True Romance’ record at the time. I asked the producer, Patrik Berger, to send me two beats that he thought were cool, and he sent me a rough version of ‘I Love It’. I wrote it in my hotel room in an hour. He thought it was good. I thought it sounded like the Village People. To be fair, our version sounded a lot different to how Icona Pop changed it. I had heard their song ‘Manners’ and thought it was cool, so I was happy for them to have it. They took it to a place I wouldn’t have taken it to, and did well. After that whole thing, I got quite angry with the music industry, and shut down to it. I decided not to speak to my label or anyone. Me and Patrik just stayed in his studio for two weeks, writing songs, listening to music and getting f*cked up. It got out all my anger and I felt in control again. F*ck all this needing-to-write-a-hit shit.
Tell me more about the influences that surround ‘Sucker’.
So, this record started off by being inspired by lots of ’60s influences, like French yé-yé pop. I was inspired by Brigitte Bardot, France Gall, Serge Gainsbourg and Sylvie Vartan. The structures of those songs were inspiring and there are still elements of that in there. I mean, it isn’t ’60s like some Duffy shit would be, but there is definitely something. Then there is some Bikini Kill, which reflects me writing loads of punk songs and then trying to modify them into a pop format. I really admire people like Britney Spears and The Spice Girls, but in my eyes they are presented as perfect and clean pop stars. I’m not like that; I’m messy. I wanted to do something that was 100% me.
I remembered this band, The Donnas, who play the prom at the end of every ’90s American high school movie. I wanted to play the proms like The Donnas. And, I wanted to write something that simultaneously says f*ck you to the pop world while also trying to change it. This is aggression, but in a positive way. Positive feminine aggression, in the colours of red and pink.
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Some people will hate 'Sucker' but I don’t care. I like hating people’s records. A good album divides opinion…
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Was it fun trying to toy with this hybrid of punk and pop?
Yeah! My last album was consciously cool. Now, I don’t give a f*ck about that. Being cool is not cool. I’ve realised that what I find cool, and the music I find cool, is so on the line of becoming the worst thing in the world that it’s actually awesome. I like dumb shit. But, in pop music, the dumbest, most simple hooks are the cleverest. I’ve always been really inspired by Bow Wow Wow’s cover of ‘I Want Candy’ – that song is so dumb, but it’s actually genius. Just listen to my song ‘Break The Rules’? It is so on the line. You’re like, “What the f*ck is this song?” But it works. Some people will hate on it, but I don’t care. I like hating people’s records. That happens, it doesn’t annoy me. A good album divides opinion.
You’ve written with some special people on this album. How did Rivers Cuomo (Weezer) get involved?
I mentioned Rivers to a few people and they reached out. He really loves ‘Boom Clap’, so he came down to watch me cut the vocals for that song. He’s really interested in pop formulas, and wants to work out how to write a song in a certain way. You can hear that a lot in ‘Hanging Around’, which we did together. I wanted him to sing on it, and I’m trying to persuade him to stop working on Weezer albums and just come on tour with me. I’m like, ‘Rivers! You know this is more important. Leave your family and your band and come play guitar on the road for me!’ He said no.
And what about Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij?
(Laughs) We first met at South By Southwest at 3am, outside a hot dog stand. We became friends and hung out from time to time. We had four or five days once, where we were just together the entire time. We were married – sleeping in the same bed, cuddling, watching TV. He’s brutally honest with me, and it’s good because not a lot of people are. When it comes to my label, I’m quite bratty. I think I know best, and I always shut them down. Whereas, he does that to me. He tells me to shut the f*ck up when I need it. Sometimes, though, he drives me crazy because he likes to take his time. He’ll sit for 20 minutes considering if we should change the word “fire” to “flame”.
While you like making music fast?
If I’m writing for someone else or over a beat, I just get them to play it and I start singing into the microphone straight away. The more I focus, the worse I get. As soon as I think about writing a pop song, it goes wrong.
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‘Boom Clap’, from ‘Sucker’
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You’ve said in previous interviews that you thought ‘Sucker’ was the best thing you’ve ever done. Is that because you’re in a financially better place to realise your ambitions, or have you just hit a good creative groove?
Definitely the groove. I didn’t hire out any dumb studios and I wrote this in people’s houses. We did do one bougie writing session, actually. We did a writing camp at a disused hotel in the Swedish countryside. It had chandeliers in every room, and was like The Shining. It used to be a hotel, but it’s empty now, so we set up studios in each room. Me, Patrik, Rostam, MNDR, the Miike Snow guys, Noonie Bao and others. We made 30 songs that week. No briefs or any of that shit. Just pure writing.
You mentioned that when ‘Fancy’ went to number one in America, you and Iggy had felt quite up against it. Much of that you attributed to people criticising Iggy for being a white, Australian rapper. Can you expand on that?
I do think it’s unfair that she gets shit because she’s white and Australian. I think she’s a great rapper and that is all that should stand. People should stop trying to find flaws in her just because she is female, white and Australian. I know Eminem never got an easy time for trying to be a white rapper, but that was dropped once he proved he could rap. Whereas people still have their back up about Iggy. Is it because she has a vagina?
I read some bullshit about her having ghost writers. I’ve written a song with her, so I know that is just not true. She writes all her raps. And she’s so inspired! Everything she does has a thousand references. When we did a performance styled around cheerleaders, she made sure it referenced the first ever cheerleader squad from Nevada, who first brought fashion into basketball.
For me, personally, what was so sweet about the success of ‘Fancy’ was that we both felt like underdogs at the time. People were sometimes out to get us, and question our validity. But after seven weeks at number one, we were like, “come question us now.”
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Iggy Azalea, ‘Fancy’, featuring Charli XCX
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I used to get panic attacks and fret about everything. Now I don’t care. I believe in fate, I believe in the stars…
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Are we not moving past the days when sexism dictates the media profile of female pop stars?
I wish I could say yes, but I don’t think so. Maybe it is just a pop music thing, but I don’t feel like it’s changed. Now, more than ever, I get songs sent to me by people who think they should be writing my songs for me. In interviews, people are surprised when I say I wrote something myself. That is frustrating. They automatically assume I didn’t in the first place. Just look at Usher – I have no beef with Usher, but he would never get a question about that. Even credible bands like Vampire Weekend – Rostam co-produced that record with Ariel Rechtshaid and they have other people involved, but it never seems a big deal when it’s guys.
It’s fair to say that not many people talk about Jake Bugg’s numerous co-writes.
There you go. But if a girl co-writes a song, people assume that even that is a lie.
Do you think people assume it is just a token gesture?
Yes, and it’s not fair, because so many females are writing the biggest pop songs in the industry right now.
After ‘I Love It’ and ‘Fancy’ went massive, did you ever worry about new fans wrongfully assuming you were just a feature artist?
Yeah, I did, because I’m an artist. I don’t want to be that girl that just jumps on songs and doesn’t have an identity. I care about the fans I’ve had since I was 14. I was scared, but at the same time, I took on a philosophy of not giving a f*ck. If this had happened two years ago, my hair would have fallen out. I used to get panic attacks and fret about everything. Now I don’t care. I believe in fate, I believe in the stars, and if things want to align, they will. If not, I won’t stress.
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Words: Joe Zadeh
Photos: Bella Howard
Fashion: Lola Chatterton
Collage artwork: Patrick Waugh for BOYO Studio
‘Sucker’ is released on January 26th, 2015. ‘Break The Rules’ is released on October 12th. Find Charli XCX online here.
This interview is taken from issue 98 of Clash magazine. Full details and purchase links here.