Charli XCX interview: ‘I never thought I’d be able to sell out Brixton’

‘I remember just never thinking I would be able to do this,’ says the pop star behind hits such as ‘Fancy’, ‘Boys’ and ‘Boom Clap’, talking nervously but with a non-stop chattiness.

It is almost as though Charli XCX knows she really should hold on to every moment, giving it every ounce of energy she has. People have called her the sound of the future, but the first thing to say about the woman sitting in an anodyne dressing room in Brixton Academy is that she is just very ‘now’. As an artist working with an array of multitalented colleagues, a pop star with a passionate internet fan base and a woman making it in the industry on her own terms, it’s harder to get someone more 2019. That much is clear when we meet on the afternoon of Halloween, hours before one of the biggest gigs of her career.

‘I never thought I’d be able to sell out Brixton,’ says the woman born Charlotte Aitchison in Hertfordshire 27 years ago. ‘And now I have, and I’ve done it actually making the music that I love the most rather than making music that I think everybody else will like and will get me on the radio. And it’s, like, the weird music. So that is really particularly cool, you know?’

As preparation for tonight’s gig builds and her fans queue up outside in the cold, Charli XCX is cleary jittery and a tad guarded. She is dressed down, wearing a huge black fleece over a black T-shirt spelling out ‘DAISY’ in rhinestones, and a dirty pair of chunky white Comme des Garçons trainers. It’s very Charli — a girlie-Gothy two-for-one. But whether singing, writing or producing, her ‘weird music’ has nevertheless created a relentless number of hits over the past decade, those under her own steam and then a slew of collaborations and co-writes, too. Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It’? She wrote it and featured on it. Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’? Same. Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s latest smash, ‘Señorita’? She wrote that one as well. All three shot to No 1. At Madonna’s Oscars party this year, the artist spotted The West Wing’s Alison Janney dancing on a sofa, singing one of her songs. ‘I went up to her and I was like, “I wrote this song! This is MY song!” and she was like: “Aaaahhhhh!”’

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However, Charli XCX has found a whole new level of success with her ‘weird’ music. Her latest album, Charli, was a world away from those Top 40-bait efforts, even if it confirmed her status as pop’s premier collaborator. Released in September, it is both current and determinedly avant-garde, boasting a daunting role-call of the very best of 2019 alt-pop: Lizzo, Christine & The Queens, Sky Ferreira, Haim or Troye Sivan. In a nutshell, if you ever hear someone trot out that tired line about modern pop stars being safe and boring, please kindly direct them to Charli XCX; she and her cohorts are serving up big chunks of uncompromising, thrilling 21st-century pop.

The Charli XCX story starts, naturally enough, with a rave. Back when she was 14, the only child of well-to-do parents (father English, mother Ugandan-Asian), she was posting songs on her MySpace; her artist name was her ID on MSN Messenger — the ‘xcx’ standing for ‘kiss, Charli, kiss’. A promoter spotted her online and invited her to come down and perform at a party in Hackney Wick. She was both clueless and keen. ‘My references for raves was Skins,’ she chuckles. Her parents were supportive but insisted they had to come with her. So all three drove down to run-down east London and waited in the car outside. She was told she’d go on stage at 11pm; she went on at 4am and they got home at 6. It was, however, an epiphany for the singer, who fell hook, line and sinker for the nu-rave club culture of the time: the music, the fashions, the chaotic energy. 

And were her parents cool with all that? ‘Oh yeah,’ she shrugs. However, ‘I had a strict upbringing in the sense that I had to, like, go to school, get good grades. It wasn’t, like, “make music and go to the rave”.’ So she started a slightly odd double life, doing her GCSEs and A-levels even while she signed a record deal at the age of 16. She even started studying for a BA at Slade School of Art, but dropped out because she has only ever wanted to be a pop star. I actually don’t know if Charli XCX is nervy today just because of the gig; I think that is just her day-to-day energy. A self-confessed workaholic, she is absolutely obsessed with every single thing that she does. When she went to Miami alone for her birthday once, ostensibly to relax, she completely spiralled and was told to come home after three days. ‘I love what I do so much,’ she admits. ‘I don’t want to stop doing it, know what I mean?”

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Success would seem like a given, then, but instead it has come in stops and starts. Misfiring singles have, over the decade, alternated with mega-hits such as ‘Fancy’ or ‘Boom Clap’. Charli is her third album and each one has been distinctly different; you could say that record labels have always known her potential but not always been clear on what to do with it. You could also just say she’s grown up on record. She just rolls her eyes and adopts a Hollywood grande dame drawl. ‘I’ve done it alllll, sweetie!’ But she says it was always obvious she’d dodge ‘that whole, like, female artist clone machine.

‘I mean, I think when you meet me as a person, you just immediately know I’m not gonna give you that. Because I can’t play that game of being really overly excited about anything. That’s just not my steez, you know?’ Back in the day, the main note she’d get from frustrated A&R executives would be: ‘Brush your hair more, because you look crazy!’

Charli XCX with Camila Cabello and Taylor Swift (Getty Images for TAS)

She finally hit her groove when she started collaborating in 2016 with the achingly cool AG Cook, of PC Music, whose signature sound is kind of 1990s rave and bubblegum pop blended together, pumped with steroids, shoved in a time capsule and hurtled towards 3021. It has gained her both critical kudos, and a rabid internet-focused fan base who follow her every move. This has pros and cons. The week we meet, there is a bizarre furore online because one of her fans got her to sign his, umm, douche. Some people thought it was a laugh; but in another corner of the internet something of a Twitter storm broke out about Charli XCX being ‘taken advantage of’ by her fans (another had also asked her to sign a container of their dead mother’s ashes). She doesn’t want to dwell. ‘I didn’t think he was disrespecting me, and you can read my post for further comment on the internet being stupid,’ she sighs, referring to a statement in which she called any concern about what she was being asked to sign ‘2019 fake wokeness’.

Either way, her fans support her unconditionally but also feel a sense of ownership. In 2016, she had a nasty shock when an obsessive fan hacked into her computer and published all the songs she’d never released. They liked to think they were ‘freeing’ her; she felt it as a huge violation. ‘That was not great, that time,’ she says slowly. ‘I feel more comfortable talking about it now because at the time I felt so scared to talk about it, that it would happen again. It just really felt like an invasion of my life, my personal space, my personal property,’ she says. ‘It was just really sad, and I was really hurt.’

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That said, Charli XCX isn’t one to moan: she loves her fans and she loves her job. It sounds as though she is having more fun than ever, especially as she works with so many different artists now. Do her collaborators always end up being her friends? ‘They have to be friends,’ she replies immediately — she can’t imagine any other way. The ‘work-life balance’ is a foreign language to her. She still lives with her managers, who are two of her oldest friends from school and who she’s known since she was 13. Meanwhile her long-term boyfriend, Huck, is fully on board with the project, too (he was once a music manager). ‘He has really good taste, which is fun,’ she says. ‘He’s the person actually who has introduced me to so many of the people who I’ve gone on to collaborate with.’

We rattle through just a few of these mates. She adores Lizzo, whom she met at a house party a few years ago: ‘There is literally not one bad word to say about her. She’s really great and I’m really happy that she’s having this moment.’ She is, says Charli, ‘the biggest pop star but she’s also punk’. Rita Ora, whom she worked with on her previous album, is ‘a dream’, and ‘just a really solid, 100 per cent good time, genuine fun party buddy’. As for Christine & The Queens, who now goes by Chris, they connected on a different level. Their duet on Charli, ‘Gone’, is a song about feeling anxious and insecure at a party: inevitably, though, it’s still somehow a banger. Charli XCX views Chris as a kindred spirit. Recently when they had dinner in LA, they bonded over the fact that what they love about the city is the stuff that most people usually hate, ‘which is that every conversation ends up being about work. We love that,’ she smiles. ‘I don’t want to sit down and talk about the restaurants we could go to. No! Let’s make some f***ing shit happen!’

Charli with her boyfriend at Wimbledon (Getty Images)

Home is very much LA for her now, although she still has a bedroom back at her parents’ and is connected to what is going on politically back here. ‘American people ask me all the time, “What’s happening?” I don’t have an answer for what should be done and honestly I don’t think anybody does at this point. 

‘I think that’s one thing that’s very important, that I use my platform to encourage the younger generation to vote because having a vote is an incredibly powerful thing,’ she says. ‘And even though people sometimes think, “Oh, I might not, like if I don’t vote it won’t make a difference,” it actually really will. If everybody thinks like that, then nothing will change.’

Politics and ‘making shit happen’ aside, there is one place she allows herself to let loose. ‘Partying is the one time when I cannot think about work and it doesn’t stress me out at all,’ she admits. ‘I’m just so blissfully in it and happy and losing myself in a good way.’

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Aside from Madonna’s party, she tries to remember some other good ones she’s attended recently: the maddest one sounds like super-producer Diplo’s, after the latest Grammys, where she drank out of an actual Grammy (probably Diplo’s) but which then ‘kind of got shut down — it was like Fyre Festival’. The most starstruck she has been wasn’t at a party at all, actually, but in a hotel lobby where she bumped into Bill Murray. ‘He was like, “Hey I like your shoes,”’ she recalls, ‘and I looked up and I was like’ — she does a petrified whisper — ‘“Bill Murray!” And then I just ran in the opposite direction.’ 

She gave so many parties one summer with Sivan, another of her collaborator mates, that her car got keyed, by her irate neighbours, she thinks. She’s a lot more cautious about having people over now because she has some nice artwork she’d like to protect. So, is she growing up? Maybe. She certainly is more at peace, in a buzzing kind of way.

‘I think I’ve just understood what I want as a person and an artist, which is not necessarily commercial success at all costs,’ she says. ‘And not any desire to fit in or be on the radio. If that happens in a natural way, then that’s great.’

Later at the gig she’ll storm the stage trussed up like a kind of cyberpunk Barbarella, to an Academy full of her fans and to her parents, who rather sweetly came in Halloween costumes, too. And she’ll say pretty much the same thing again, but a bit less politely. ‘I’m f***ing ahead of my time, but no one knows it apart from you!’ she yells at the crowd. As the whole room screeches back, it’s clear that people are finally catching up.

‘I’m With The Band’ is on Netflix. ‘Charli’ the album is out now 


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