Charli XCX Talks Sofia Coppola, Pretension and The Immediacy of Pop Music.
Weird as it may sound considering that she's but 21 years of age, it's true: Charli XCX's April-released major label debut, True Romance, was a long time coming.
For a full two years prior to that album's release, influential music bloggers from across the globe were already salivating over the young, London-based singer-songwriter with a taste for dark pop, as well as her formal entry into the scene. Her potential was palpable: In those early-released singles — a number of which would end up on one of three versions of her 2012 You're The One EP before making their way onto True Romance — Charli XCX had well established herself as an artist with impeccable taste, one capable of appealing to both the pop and edgy inclinations of the music-blogging elite.
The release of True Romance, it seemed certain, was only going to cement her position as perhaps the pop starlet of the future.
But a funny thing happened on the way to impending superstardom: Before her own album's release, another song that Charli XCX (born Charlotte Aitchison) penned blew up huge. Thanks in part to prime placement on the hit HBO series Girls, Icona Pop's “I Love It,” which Charli had written and given to the Swedish duo, quickly established itself as one of 2013's biggest songs.
On Icona Pop's album, Charli XCX was listed as being featured on the cut; but, in the eyes and ears of the radio-listening public, the song wasn't really hers. It's tough to say if that's a good or bad thing — these days, Charli is adamant about not regretting passing along that song — but the track, for all of its likely one-hit-wonder markings, almost certainly would've provided Charli the name recognition in the States that so many had predicted she would sooner than later boast.
Still, her star shines quite brightly at this point: Charli XCX may not be a household name just yet, no; but, in the ears of America's more discerning pop listeners, she remains a talent with a hugely exciting future laid out before her. The infectious True Romance assured listeners of at least that.
And her somehow-still-underground celebrity does provide her some intriguing opportunities for the time being, too: On Monday night, rather than headlining a show at one of Dallas' bigger clubs, Charli will perform a set in the more-intimate setting of Club Dada as part of a calculated tour of such venues, most of which were hand-picked by the artist and her management team as a way of ensuring her bubbling-under, alternative appeal.
In advance of that performance, we recently caught up with Charli XCX over the phone to discuss myriad topics — including “I Love It,” her off-day hobbies, her interesting connection to one Dallas-based producer and her realization that her best songs are the ones she writes most quickly.
Check it out below.
I know I'm catching you between tour dates. Where are you at the moment?
I'm in London — for once, which is cool. I have a couple of days off, so I'm just doing this and kind of chilling, which is nice.
I imagine you don't get home too often these days, what with the tour and everything. What are you doing on this time off?
Usually, I just stay on my Skype. I talk about happy things with my manager, write songs and then record. So it's kind of like not real days off, not exactly a complete day off. I'll watch TV — that's what I really like to do. Just watch movies. That's what I love doing, that's kind of my hobby.
Seen anything especially good lately?
Well, I just re-watched The Bling Ring. That's my jam. Sofia Coppola is one of my favorite directors.
I haven't seen it yet; I'll have to check that out.
Yeah, you should. You really should. I'd heard it's not that good. I don't know — I'd heard mixed reviews on it. But I loved it.
And people seem to be loving you right now: Your album's earned some great reviews and you just generally seem to be doing really well these days. I know you're back home in London right now, but — and pardon me if this is an obvious question — how have the States been receiving you compared to back home? How is the culture change and everything? Are you handling that OK?
I actually love it. Y'know, I feel like the USA understands me as an artist more and likes my album more. I love playing in the States. I feel like that's where things have gone best for me.
Why do you think that is?
I don't really know. I'm not sure. I have no idea, but that's just the way it is. I'm always scared to play in the UK, particularly in London — just because that's where I live. It's just kind of weird. Everyone thinks London is really cool, but it's kind of really snobby as well. So it kind of scares me playing shows in London. I much prefer the States just because I think everyone's way more chill about stuff.
You think there's less pretension?
In the States, I haven't really experienced [any pretension]. When I played in New York for the first time ever, I was like, “Oh, it's gonna be really bad, the crowds are gonna be rubbish.” But I had a great time in New York when I did my first show there. I thought it was really cool. So, I don't know. I think there is less pretension.
Well, one thing that I did want to ask you about — and this seems to be the case in the States, for sure — is that you seem to have two pretty distinct fan bases. You've got a very kind of alternative, edgy dance fan-base that's maybe a little older. Then you also have a pretty strong youth fan-base as well. How do you balance those two?
I don't know. I don't come from the world of being the perfect pop star, being the perfect person. I don't believe in that. When it comes to my young fans, I never worry about offending their ears or anything like that because they bought the album. I'm guessing they probably saw some of my pictures. That's, like, what we live in right now. So they know what I'm like, and I really celebrate that. It's like, whatever, that's not what it's about; I just say what I want to say and, if people want to complain, if parents want to complain, then I just think that's not the world that we live in now. So I don't know. I don't really think about balancing it too much. I'm just being myself, and that's just fine. I feel like that's the best way to live your life. Otherwise, it's just confusing, having to spend all of your time being two different people and probably [lying about yourself]. Y'know what I mean?
Totally. And I imagine part of it is also is probably your age. You're only 21 years old, correct?
So you're kind of right in between that age group yourself?
Yeah, I suppose. So I guess maybe that's what's tying it together, I don't know.
But, even at your young age, you've already written a massive hit here the States, with Icona Pop's “I Love It.” Your career's very closely tied to that song, and for obvious reasons. You've gone on the record a few times now saying that you don't regret giving Icona Pop that song. Given that you're still such a young artist, is part of you even happy to not have that song as your own? There can be some negative effects that come with a hit that big very early on in your career.
I guess. But I don't regret giving away that song — not because of the potential negative things that can come with it, like “Is it a one-hit-wonder?” and blah, blah, blah. It was more just because it wasn't the right fit for my record. I didn't want to make an album that sounded like that. If I'd done that, then people would've expected that from my album. That's not what I like, though. It's not the music I wanted to make. It's not the album I spent, like, four years making. So you're right. I knew that if I gave it away, it would be a door into the elite song-writing world. It was more about that for me. I've always wanted to write for other artists, so that was kind of the first step for me. Also, I think that song is so Icona Pop. It was more of what [they] were looking for. They kinda found it themselves, loved it and it was a match made in heaven for [them]. And [they're] killing it, so I'm happy for them.
You brought up the careful process of creating your own album. I know it has been kind of a long time coming, having followed your career for a couple of years now. Some of these songs have been around as singles, floating around here and there, for a few years now. I read an interview where you said you were given some great leeway from the label as far as choosing your own sound and following through on that. What was it like to spend that much time crafting your first record, given that you've been in the “machine” for so long?
I wasn't really thinking about it. I wasn't thinking about the record in this calculated kind of way, like I must meet this criteria or that criteria. I just wanted to experiment. It was my first record — I didn't know what the fuck I was doing. I just kind of did it, and luckily it all came together and made sense to me. At the end, my music is whatever was done — and done right. I'm happy I worked with a record label whom I trust and trusts me. They don't hassle me, they're not on my back all the time. They kind of just let me go off and do my thing. Then I'll play shit for them when I want to. If they like it, that's cool. If they don't like it, then that kind of doesn't matter. I know what I want to do and what I feel comfortable doing. Y'know what I mean?
Do you feel fortunate in that regard?
I feel really fortunate that I've been given that freedom. I don't think that everybody has that. I think that a lot of people have people telling them what to do, running their careers for them and people picking their songs for them that have never even heard them before. I wouldn't do this if I weren't in control of my own project. Otherwise, it wouldn't be me doing it. It would be me masquerading around with someone else's ideas. I'm in control of all the things that I put out, from photos to music videos to song mixes — whatever. That's the reason I do it. I love being at that point.
I wanted to ask you real quickly about a mutual acquaintance you and I have. Here's in Dallas, there's a producer named Cory Kilduff, who's part of the group Ocelot. He lives here in Dallas now, but you worked with him in the UK a couple of years ago, correct?
Whoa, that's really weird! That was a long time ago! I remember it was in Sheffield where we were working, I'm not sure. I just remember I was there with him and I think Jimmy was the other guy's name? It was their house, and we were working at the top of their flat, in their attic. It was cool. It was maybe one of the first sessions that I did. I sat down and wrote some lyrics and some melodies. Then that was it, really.
I imagine there are a lot of differences in your recording process between then and now.
Kind of. I didn't really have a process — and that's kind of what works for me. I kind of just write whenever, wherever, on whatever. I don't really care. It's very messy. It's very much just whatever comes out. I find that writing quickly is always better. I find that the songs that were done in like a half an hour are usually the best songs, and the songs that take me a day are usually the worst.
I've heard that from a few artists recently. Do you think that's just part a result of the immediacy of pop music? That it needs to grab you that early?
Possibly. I think it's gotta be spontaneous and not thought through. I wrote “I Love It” in half an hour in a hotel room — and that was the whole song. And those are the [lyrics] that are on that song still.
Is that true of your own LP as well? Are those all pretty quick songs that you wrote?
Some were. Like “You (Ha Ha Ha)” was pretty fast, as was “Set Me Free (Feel My Pain).” Most of them were quite fast. I feel like that's the best way I work. I don't like spending too much time on it. I don't like going back and correcting things and changing things. I hate it. It's so boring.
As far as this tour: You've done some opening dates here in Dallas, I think. But this will be your first headlining show. I know you're trying to play kind of more intimate spaces on this tour. What can you tell me as far as what people can expect of the show?
It's going to be quite raw, with lots of energy and lots of drama. I'm really inspired by the '80s, and I think that's gonna be really present in the show. I have this neon, glow-in-the-dark mic stand, which is kind of super epic, as far as the stage goes. It's going to be lots of energy, very dramatic and fun-feeling.
Cover photo by Dan Curwin, courtesy of Atlantic Records. Charli XCX performs Monday, November 25, at Club Dada.