Hyper real princess CHARLI XCX has been literally amazing at making music since she was breaking bedtime curfews to DJ raves. MICHAEL CRAGG chronicles her credentials as the first out’n’out pop star to be born of bits of Tumblr with a forthcoming debut album that has us so excited we’ve started seeing in gifs.
WORDS: MICHAEL CRAGG
PHOTOGRAPHY: JAMES MORIARTY
ART DIRECTION: HIDDEN AGENCY
STYLING: ALEXIS KNOX & DANIELLE WEBBER
HAIR: PAUL DONOVAN USING BUMBLE & BUMBLE
MAKE UP & NAILS: HARRIET HADFIELD USING MAC & CIATE
When Charli XCX was 14 she received a message via Myspace from a guy called Chaz. He’d heard some of her early demos and wondered if she might like to come and play some songs at a warehouse rave he was organising in east London. Charli, fuelled by the ecstasy-tinged frolics of the beautiful teenagers on Skins, said yes she was very much interested and travelled to London from her home in Hertfordshire, parents in tow. They arrived at 9pm for a 10pm start. By 11pm nothing had been set up. By 2am they were ready for her to do her set. None of them got any sleep before 6am. “My parents loved it,” she laughs. “They dressed up and everything, it was really funny.”
Charli’s forays into the dingier ends of Hackney didn’t last long however, and not just because of the appalling timekeeping. “I thought that what I was doing [at the time] was the best that I could ever be doing and the warehouse parties I was playing in, I thought that that was the tip of everything,” she explains. We’re sat in a photo studio and Charli’s having her make-up done; over-sized brushes and lip pencils prod and pull as her answers tumble out in lengthy streams of consciousness. “I thought that was the coolest it was ever going to get and I was really stubborn about it. It was just because I was very much in awe of this scene because I was from the countryside and I’d been growing up around TV shows like Skins and I do think you start getting absorbed into that culture of like ‘oh wow, this is so amazing, I’m being so bad’, you know. And I kind of realised that actually after being in that scene for a couple of years and growing up during it, I was kind of like ‘this isn’t that cool anymore and it was kind of boring and very narcissistic’.”
I put it to her that that’s a fairly perceptive and grown-up way of looking at it all. “It took me a long time to realise that because I was a complete dick during those times,” she laughs as a mascara pen nearly gauges her eye out. “I was like [puts on bratty voice] ‘mum, dad, I’m going to live in a squat in east London, that’s my life’. I just didn’t know what I was talking about and then by the time I wrote Stay Away I’d done sessions with people and I’d just broadened my own mind a bit I guess.” In fact 2011′s Stay Away – all clomping, growling echo-laden beats and half-spoken, half-sung lyrics about being at the end of one’s tether – is often cited as the true start of Charli XCX, the popstar. While her early singles such as the clattering Art Bitch or the charmingly DIY Emelline, both released in 2008 and heavily influenced by Uffie and the Ed Banger label, were full of attitude and spark, you get the feeling Charli would rather forget them, which is hard to do with the whole internet thing being quite popular (there’s also an album called 14 locked in a box under her parent’s stairs that she can barely bring herself to talk about). “They’re good songs I guess for a 12 to 14 year old to have written,” she mumbles, “but it’s something I don’t want associated with my name, I moved on from there you know. Some of the songs aren’t good.”
Signed to a major when she was just 16, in her own words she wasn’t “a package that was ready to go. I was a really weird creature who had a lot of stuff to be worked on.” At first she struggled to find the right sound, travelling between producers who had worked with the likes of Dr Luke and Benny Blanco. Suddenly the bratty, DIY urchin of old was being pushed into all sorts of glossy dance pop shapes and it wasn’t quite working. “Then I found [Diplo associate who has worked with everyone from Usher to Sky Ferreira] Ariel Reichstadt and we literally wrote Stay Away in a three hour session before I had to get on the plane and fly back to LA,” she explains, beaming. “I listened to it the whole plane journey home and I knew it was what I’d been waiting for. It was just perfect.” Like much of what makes Charli XCX so special, the creative pairing was ignited by a mutual love for the imperfect and for letting gut instinct drive things forward. “Arial’s a cross between Napoleon Dynamite and Dopey from the Seven Dwarves. We just got on so well and I didn’t feel pressure to be showing off knowledge about stuff I didn’t know anything about,” she explains. “It was very much like ‘I don’t know how to make sounds but can you make it sound more blue or more squelchy’ and he was like ‘yeah, I know what you mean’ and it was amazing. Other people were like ‘oh, you mean you want me to add another lead patch?’ and I’d reply with ‘huh’.”
As Stay Away and its follow-up Nuclear Seasons started to make inroads ‘on the blogs’, Charli was tagged as some kind of goth pop princess, her jet black hair, pale skin and propensity for grungy, over-sized clothing (think The Craft but in human form) marking her out from the homogeneous popstar crowd; like an ink blot on a neon pink canvas. Not that she has a problem with the tag to be honest, although she’s already come up with a better one: “Now I’d kind of say it was Angel Pop or something like that. I feel like there is a lot of darkness and there is a more mystical and magical side to what I write but I’ve really got into this etherealness over hip-hop beats and melancholic gangster Angel Pop.”
It’s definitions like that, mixed with the list of collaborators (as well as Ariel, she’s worked with Patrik Berger, Blood Diamonds, Paul White and Woodkid, and wrote I Love It for Swedish popstrels Icona Pop), experimental production flourishes and witchouse-themed early videos, that have seen her songs unfairly dismissed as ‘Tumblrwave’ or ‘pop for people that don’t really like pop music’. While it’s cool nowadays to go on about how much you love old Britney Spears album tracks or the second Spice Girls album while making music that is essentially a fucking racket, Charli’s adamant that her love of pure pop is genuine and that it’s more about channelling the attitude of her mid-to-late 90s pop heroes (she’s wearing a massive pair of Buffalo trainers today for a start). “I feel like I’m trying to write a pop record, I’m not trying to write a pop record for hipsters,” she says, as big sweeps of black eye shadow are applied. “I’m trying to write a pop record that’s on my own terms. I feel like the reason Pitchfork like what I do is just because there are a lot of really good artists that are coming out now who are really great pop musicians and who write pop melodies but it’s just good. It’s not generic and it’s different but it’s still classically pop. Like Grimes, she can write pop hits like every day if she wants, but she does it in a very different way.” But while Grimes seems to spend longer talking about pop music than she does actually making it, there’s a pure pop heart beating at the centre of most of Charli’s songs, especially recent single You’re The One which creaks and moans grumpily for the verses before the day-glo chorus breaks through the fog and transforms it into an instant radio behemoth.
It’s telling that one of Charli’s many pop culture obsessions is with so-called Disney Kids, aka Miley, Selena, Demi etc etc. “Well, maybe not as much now because it feels like they’re all sorted,” she explains, sounding almost disappointed by their relative sobriety, “but like a couple of years ago they were so fucked up. It was dark. I’m just so interested in that. The whole LA scene and this sheen of happiness and etherealness and then underneath it’s kind of like Mulholland Drive kind of vibes.” She’s also got a burning desire to work with Cher Lloyd. “I just think that she is very misunderstood. I think there’s always been this tension of like is she really nice? Is she a brat? Is she a gangster? Or is she really pop? I’d make her wear huge gold hoop earrings and massive braided pigtails and bikinis and have guns and I’d just write some seriously gangster shit for her. I think Simon Cowell would love my ideas.” Perhaps she’s drawn to these pop stars because their careers have been defined by constantly trying to escape the parameters people have placed on them from an early age. Or maybe it’s the mix of shiny pop polish masking a dark heart. But while Demi and Selena have to try and convince millions they’re not still 12-year-old stars of kids TV shows, Charli just has to try and make a clutch of people believe she’s no longer that same 14-year-old running about wearing face paint and a tutu. “This is what I think about all the time; like I came out when I was a lot younger and people expect you to stay that way,” she says, sounding a bit exhausted by it all. “I always get ‘I don’t like her new hair now, I don’t like that she’s wearing black’, but I was 14 when I put my first stuff out. But what were they doing when they were 14? They were probably wearing three belts and skirts over trousers, but you don’t do that now. You wear something else.” This new outfit suits her perfectly.
1 & 3 / Tops: American Apparel | Leggings: Helen Steele | Dog Collar/ Shag Bands / Shirt around waist: Charli’s own | Boots: Buffalo
2 & 4 / Crop Top: Gemma Slack | Jumper: Horace | Necklace: Charlis own | Leggings: IRL London | Boots: Buffalo
5 / Top & Skirt: IRL London | Necklace: Charlis own |Boots: Buffalo
THIS FEATURE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN NOTION MAGAZINE ISSUE 60. ORDER YOURS ONLINE HERE.
ALL IMAGES (C) NOTION MAGAZINE 2012 / NO USE WITHOUT PRIOR PERMISSION