Charli XCX: Pull Up to the Party
We’re three minutes into the interview and Charli XCX is making me inspect her insides. “Look at my tonsils!” she croaks, flipping her head back. Christ, wow. They are possibly the biggest tonsils I’ve ever seen.
A few years back, a typical Charli XCX interview might include a rolling backdrop of karaoke bars, cab rides and backstage parties, a few buckets of champagne and a splash of drunk-dialling. Today, in a windowless studio on a north London industrial estate, pop’s patron saint of the sesh – a woman who sings After the Afterparty with autobiographical conviction – is steaming herself over a herbal tea. “I don’t look after my voice at all,” she tries to whisper. “People tell me that I’ll be fucked by the time I’m 30…”
It’s been a long afternoon under hot studio lights and, honestly, I’m disappointed not to be boarding Charli’s party bus and knocking back Moët until dawn. But what our scene lacks in glamour it makes up for in realism. Behind the high-shine, emoji-strewn exterior of Charli XCX: Pop Juggernaut is a fuckload of toil happening on our behalf, as one woman digs her heels in and hauls us all towards the future of pop. It’s a heavy load to bear.
© Yavez Anthonio
Necklace: Alessandra Rich
Earrings: Stylist's Own
Charli is in the UK for 15 days, during which she’ll support Taylor Swift on her stadium tour, give several interviews, shoot a video, say a quick hi to her parents, and – most importantly – play her third ever show supporting Pop 2, one of two career-defining mixtapes she put out last year after finally ripping through the major label red tape (“You have no idea how fucking hard it is to just release a free fucking mixtape in 2017,” she tweeted at the time).
Between them, the mixtapes are Charli’s manifesto for a new pop vanguard, binding her commercial nous and experimental instincts together in an unbreakable double helix. On Number 1 Angel, she brings in a squad of left-field pop artists (Abra, MØ, her Ed Banger-era hero Uffie) to enlarge the XCX universe while her pop songcraft hits delirious new heights; every word is engineered to stick like glue as we hitch a ride in her “beemers” and “limousin-uhhs” between 3am booty calls. Pop 2 takes the formula and doubles the dose with an even bigger army of guests, mixing modern divas (Carly Rae Jepsen, Caroline Polachek) with outsider rappers (Tommy Cash, Mykki Blanco, CupcakKe) as PC Music production mastermind A. G. Cook plugs J-pop, hip-hop, trance and Eurodance into one glowing-hot, fibre-optic-speed pop machine.
Since last year’s non-album single Boys (and its celebrity-packed video, directed by Charli and starring Diplo, Riz Ahmed and Mac DeMarco, among others), another four loosies have appeared: the James Bond-in-the-trap-style 5 in the Morning, ultra-peppy fan fave Focus, bad girl anthem No Angel, and, most recently, the Cyndi Lauper-esque Girls Night Out, a tribute to the silliest, spiciest pre-millennium pop.
Charli Aitchison signed to Atlantic Records 10 years ago, just after her 16th birthday, but the Hertfordshire public schoolgirl was never destined to become a malleable teen starlet. Her pre-fame tracks were cynical and precocious (“You wear glitter on your face, you look like a mess,” she tuts on the endearingly scrappy Art Bitch) and after several years cycling through studios and songwriters, dropping a couple of patchy mixtapes along the way, she delivered 2013’s True Romance – a debut album of hands-in-the-air alt-pop with a scuzzy undertone. Critics liked it, but sales were modest. In the meantime, she wrote a bratty pop tune called I Love It and watched it become the biggest hit of 2012 in the hands of Icona Pop, before giving Iggy Azalea a leg-up to superstardom as a co-writer and singer on the rapper’s 2014 smash Fancy.
The door was open for Charli’s solo breakthrough – so, in typical XCX fashion, she slammed into reverse and recorded a second album of backcombed punk-pop. Propelled by the stadium-shaking single Boom Clap, Sucker did big numbers – but there was no I Love It-scale hit to make her a household name.
Even now, with big singles like Boys under her belt, Charli still hasn’t quite cracked the A-list. When she and Rita Ora featured alongside Cardi B on Girls earlier this year, the rapper introduced them as “not big but soo talented”. Is it frustrating to still be considered “not big” at this point? “Absolutely,” she says quickly. “But to be commercially successful on that level there are sacrifices that you have to make – and I’m not really ready to make those sacrifices.” Being a palatable, media-trained pop darling is not in her repertoire. “I’m just too… volatile to be like that at the moment. I can’t play the fucking game!”
In hindsight, Charli’s contrarian streak has always been her superpower. Her recalibration into the futureshock fembot of Pop 2 began on 2016’s Vroom Vroom, a four-track EP of latex-snapping club pop made with Glasgow-via-LA producer SOPHIE. Coolly received at the time, vinyl copies now go for up to £500. A bond between the two musicians was formed instantly, each of them challenging each other to work faster and harder. “SOPHIE is the future,” gushes Charli. “She’s one of those people who I wanna impress.”
The admiration is mutual. “What I think the world will see more and more over the next few years,” suggests SOPHIE, speaking to Crack Magazine earlier this year, “is just how aggressive and raw she is. When I’ve been in the studio with her it’s just so powerful – the way she feels music, the way she’s dancing when we’re making stuff, the way she’s delivering ideas. It’s coming across more now on all of the music she releases.”
Sensing the chemistry between herself, SOPHIE and Cook – “the trifecta,” as she calls them – Charli started plotting a creative overhaul, free from her label’s interference. Both mixtapes came together rapidly, recorded in miniscule bursts of studio time. “Pop 2 took exactly three months to make, from the moment Charli mentioned it to everything being mastered,” explains Cook over email. “It was a ridiculous exercise.” Both of them share a belief that pop music “can be radical and accessible at the same time”, he adds: “Charli doesn’t really deal with the notion of compromises.” In return, Cook has a “very good barometer for what’s shit”. “He’s someone I will always go to for a first opinion on anything I do.”
As a songwriter, Charli has hit her stride – and she knows it. “Sorry to sound… arrogant, I suppose,” she ventures, “but they’re so good, those mixtapes! No one else could do what we do. No one else can really capture that energy.” But her main talent, she believes, is being “a great curator” – combining the avant-pop impulses of the trifecta with the chart-topping track record of super-producers like Stargate and the Invisible Men, while giving a platform to vocalists like Brazilian drag superstar Pabllo Vittar – new stars who can match her energy.
And the energy is relentless. Even watching her Insta Stories is exhausting – a constant carousel of new cities, parties, performances and photo shoots. But, she explains, “I’m a fucking wreck when I’m not doing anything. One day [off]? Cool. Two days? Cool. Three days? I’m freaking out. That’s when I’ll start ringing people and sending a thousand emails. Sometimes I feel good when I’m stressed, when there’s pressure – I love the fucking drama of what I do.”
Being at the centre of the whirlwind can be alienating too. “Sometimes I feel very alone, even though I’m constantly surrounded by hundreds of people. I still maintain that when I party there isn’t really any sadness behind it, but, you know… there is a comedown. And I do feel fucking emo sometimes,” she says with half a laugh. “Power can be a really lonely thing.”
Despite the 24/7 social media presence, Charli doesn’t always crave the spotlight. She hates being in videos, for instance. “It’s my worst thing. I feel really insecure. I don’t love photo shoots either. When I’m on stage I don’t care what I look like, because I know that I’m so fucking badass that it doesn’t matter. But the second there’s a camera in my face I just feel this pressure to be perfect, and I’m not perfect. I know I’m not supposed to say that – I’m supposed to be body confident,” she scoffs.
© Yavez Anthonio
Shoes: Miu Miu
Earrings: Stylist's Own
“It makes me become all the things I hate – it makes me compare myself and it makes me think I’m not good enough. But that’s just being a girl now. That shit’s everywhere, it’s toxic. So I would rather not be on Instagram and not ever have to do a photo shoot. I’d love to be in Daft Punk – fucking helmet, go!”
In time, and if her voice gives out, she’ll be done with being a pop star and retreat into the studio to write songs for other people. (As a convincing alternative, she’s also considered a career as a party planner: “I’d be so good! I can really work with a budget.”) In the meantime, she’s starting to feel like her status is assured: “If I died tomorrow, I’d be so happy with the artist I’ve become in the last year.”
© Yavez Anthonio
Dress: Raf Simons at Selfridges
Necklace: Alessandra Rich
Earrings: Stylist's Own
In the end, the Pop 2 show feels like a milestone. Village Underground is too small, the fans are too many, and everyone fries in the summer heat. Every song is a hit and there still aren’t enough of them for us. Tommy Cash and Hannah Diamond drop in, A. G. Cook and SOPHIE dance behind the decks, the stage fills up with drag queens. Charli’s plastic trousers rip and she finishes the show in bra and pants. Everything is a mosh pit. Someone throws up on the photographer. “It was a mess down there,” she boasts afterwards.
The show feels like the culmination of years of testing and refinement in pop’s R&D department by the best in her field. But there’s no time to bask in the adulation. After the show it’s the afterparty: Charli’s DJing at Shoreditch House, playing TLC and Gwen Stefani between cig breaks on the roof. At 2am she glides past me, chatting loudly as she hustles a group of fans into the lift with her. The party planner. Tomorrow, she’ll do it all again in Paris.
Photography: Yavez Anthonio
Lighting Assistant: Robin Lambert
Stylist: Rebecca Grice
Stylist’s Assistant: Bongeka Dube
Hair Stylist: Nicole Kahlani
Make Up: Danielle Kahlani using MAC Cosmetics
Girls Night Out is out now via Asylum Records