“This is a strange thing to say, but it would be crazy to commit suicide from here.” Charli XCX is not suicidal, it should be noted. She’s dramatic, yes. Her songs, her clothes (on this particular day: purple tie-dye spandex, giant platform sneakers and heart-shaped sunglasses), it’s all dramatic. In the fun way, not the exhausting, “Ugh it’s always something with this girl” way. So it maybe makes sense that, just a few weeks before the release of her debut album True Romance, the British singer’s first thought upon gazing out the panoramic window of her label’s Manhattan headquarters was about busting through the glass from 26 stories up.
It was strangely reassuring to see her playfully juggling flippancy and earnestness in person, to see that it wasn’t just some aesthetic front for her songs. She’s “authentic,” it would suggest. Which is perhaps why pop kids and indie snobs alike are drawn to her music. “When I was getting this love from, like, the ‘cool’ indie fans, I was very surprised,” Charli told me. “Because I don’t think I’m a very cool person. I’m a bit of a weirdo.” Well then, a self-aware weirdo, which is the only type of weirdo that can pull off platform sneakers without looking like a complete wanker. But part of the 20-year-old’s appeal is taking the so-called “weird” and refracting it through the lens of normalized pop.
“Some of my references are really pop-tastic. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, all the ’90s pop icons,” she explained. “But then I also draw from cooler, left-fieldy kind of stuff. I’ve just made the music I want to make.”
It’s one thing to say you’ve stayed true to your vision, but Charli’s debut, out April 16, would seem to confirm that most ubiquitous of artist claims. While the record includes her breakthrough singles “Nuclear Seasons” and “You’re the One,” quite frankly those sound more mainstream than anything she has recorded in the year-plus since, including the new LP tracks.
“I had all that shit about, ‘Oh my God, who am I? Do I need to be Katy Perry?’ ages ago when I was going around and just making all these songs that were great for other artists, but not for myself,” she admitted. “By the time I was actually putting stuff out there, I felt ready.” At 20, Charli is an elder statesman of the emerging pop pool thanks to this background as a songwriter, and before all that, as a 14-year-old club rat attending and performing at raves. “I know who I am now. Because I came into this industry quite young, not in a show-bratty way, but in a really odd way, in the underground rave scene. Even though it’s the polar opposite of the Disney world or stage school world, they’re very similar, in that it’s very narcissistic and everyone’s so fucking insecure. So I went through that shit then, when I just wanted to be cool. And then I was like, ‘Fuck this, it’s so pointless.’”
Still in her teens and using the credibility (and capital) she had built up from “Nuclear Seasons” and from writing songs, Charli went off into a musical k-hole to figure out exactly who she was and what sound she was looking for. The result of this journey was a pair of mixtapes showcasing her relaxed confidence and ear for atmospherics. The hooks were smothered with gurgling synths, there were more vocals in that gray area between singing and rapping.
“There was no real thought process behind the mixtapes. I just wanted to put something out. They were much more, like, just vibes,” Charli said, immediately confessing that she hates that particular “V” word. “But they’re vibes, whereas ‘Nuclear Seasons’ and ‘Stay Away’ are true songs. True Romance is kind of a blend of both. It’s a pop album, but it’s done on my own terms and it’s based out of this weirder world.”
What ties it all together, then, is the romance. She makes bedroom pop with big emotions. (Or is it big pop with bedroom emotions?) “Every song on this record is about love, whether it be falling in love, having a childish breakup, a complete obsession or one night of crazy lust. There’s a lot of heart imagery, ocean imagery, stars and galaxies and all of these beautiful things I think about when I think of love.”
I asked what she’d write about if she didn’t write about love. “Taking E,” she laughed. “One of the songs is about that. Well, it’s about taking E and falling in love.” True romance, indeed.
The nearly two years between Charli’s first buzz single and this album release is a big enough gap for the hype cycle to build up and kill off entire careers (e.g. Kreayshawn), or for the industry to shuffle an artist through various personas with varying degrees of success (e.g. Skylar Grey, Sky Ferreira). In this fickle environment, Charli is an unexpected beacon of patience and consistency. Again, it comes down to her sheer confidence in her own vision, and the exactitude of that vision (both factors illustrated by her decision to pass the now-hit “I Love It” to her pals Icona Pop simply because the song didn’t quite fit with her vibe, for lack of a better word).
Charli also says she has weathered the jump from Internet to iTunes because she has surrounded herself with people she trusts. “I’ve been working with the same people since I was 15, so they know me.” She even lives with Ryan Andrews, who has directed all but one of her videos. “They have allowed me to take my time and be in control of my project. They’ve let me make the album I want to make. And now I know that, if it all fucks up — which I don’t think it will because I’m really proud of the record — it’s on my back. It’s like my first child, you know? I’m proud of it. I’m like, ‘Yeah cool, this is a good baby right here.’”
Charli smiled, before adding, “You only get one first record. So why bother making it if you’re gonna make it shit?” It was just about the least strange thing she could’ve said.
Charli XCX’s debut album, True Romance, is out April 16 and you can stream the whole thing now.