Popping Up: Charli XCX

Popping Up is our recurring look at new artists making noise on the music landscape. Because, hey — Madonna and Britney were once unknown, too.

Just two years ago, Charlotte Aitchison, aka Charli XCX, was the youngest of a burgeoning number of young female dance music singers, cracking the shell of the US music scene. The youngest of these trendsetters — then just 17 years old — Aitchison was making music described as having “pouty raps, fuzzy bass lines.” Well, a lot can change in two years.

Since she got her start playing in East London raves at the tender age of 14, the energetic songwriter has grown up both literally and metaphorically, and is now poised to break into the mainstream as one of electro-pop’s power players. While she no longer does much rapping (although there are echoes of her spoken-word past on slow dance staple single “Stay Away”), Charli XCX is not your typical pop princess either. Her songs can sound like a cross between a Spice Girls ballad and a Kate Bush anthem, but her signature style is more goth than bubblegum — think, tons of eyeliner. She’s undoubtedly still a girl, though, and if her first singles are any indication, Charli XCX has just started to explore the depth of her talent. All will be revealed when she releases her debut full-length on IAMSOUND Records later this year.

FULL NAME: Charlotte Aitchison

AGE: 19

HOMETOWN: Hertfordshire, UK

SOUNDS LIKE: In her own words: “Dark, magical pop music with these beautiful cinematic lyrics, and this golden sort of sheen over everything, making some of it sound sort of heavenlike. Some of it sounds black and dark, and then other parts are quite pop and bubblegum-ish — an ’80s bubblegum vibe.”

DREAM COLLABORATION: “I guess it would be somebody like Kate Bush — or Gwen Stefani would be amazing. I think she’s incredible. Actually, The Spice Girls as well. Even though I’ve been saying that they’re like, shiny pop and that whole idea, I never felt like they were selling out, and being sexy for the sake of sex. I think they were completely doing their thing and I think that’s pretty rad.”

RAVE ON: Charli XCX, the latter part of which stands for ‘kiss Charli kiss,’ used to attend raves in East London as a young teenager, often with her parents in tow. The transition from just attending to performing was easy, as she had begun writing her own songs at age 8. “I would stand on speakers or crates, and would sing these nursery rhyme, rap songs” she says. In those early days she would wear children’s outfits and bows in her hair, and affect a squeaky baby voice. She even brought her pet dog on stage with her from time to time. It seems like a far cry from the Charli XCX the world is getting to know in 2012, but to her it was a natural evolution.

GROWING PAINS: As a 14-year-old club singer, Charli “didn’t know how to form a sound, and was just dipping [her] toes into different kinds of water” musically. Her upcoming record and her first EP Nuclear Seasons (out in May) represent, in her words, “a coming-of-age sort of record from a 19 year old.” The new songs show her not dipping her feet in, but diving head first into dark beats and glimmering melodies. This is most apparent on her biggest single “Stay Away,” a dance-ready love song with lyrical and vocal depth. In this live version of the song, Charli’s look, though striking and severe, barely distracts from her strong and pleading voice as she implores her lover to “stay away” but really yearns to be closer.

Charli XCX “Stay Away”

BURSTING THE POP BUBBLE: Though it’s unlikely that there will be a super-produced, auto-tuned Charli XCX single any time soon, she fully intends for her music to take its place in the annals of pop. “R&B, Pop Top 40 of today — I know that’s not me,” she says. “I want to make pop music, but my aim is to do it in more of a classic way, and in a way that I think people like [Canadian electronic artist] Grimes are doing as well. It’s still pop music, but it’s along a different track.”

Unsatisfied with the results of “polished, squeaky clean” radio-pop, XCX is making tracks that appeal to the more visceral emotions and that seize on the grittier parts of life, like vulnerability and control. “I think for us to come from a more messed up angle is more genuine,” she says, adding, “I feel like now pop music has been pushed to almost this sort of X-rated, porn sort of image in some places. But now it’s sort of like, lashing out in this new way, with girls dressing head to toe in black, stuff like that. It’s all about being boyish, and kind of grungy, and tough, and bringing that back into it, and not all about being sexy.”

WHAT’S NEXT: Charli has a freshly inked record deal with IAMSOUND Records, the label behind one of her major influences, Salem, as well as Little Boots and Florence + The Machine, and put up breakout performances in New York and Austin’s South by Southwest Music Festival last March. In preparation for her debut full-length, XCX is being selective about the speed at which she releases new music and just premiered her new video “You’re the One” on MTV Hive.

Charli XCX, “You’re the One”

What do you think of Charli XCX? Tell us in the comments below, or on Twitter and Facebook.

— by Maud Deitch