Meet The London Teenager with a Rave Past and Dark Pop Future
UK’s Charli XCX has risen into music blogosphere phenom status recently, armed with a lo-fi aesthetic and incredibly catchy, decidedly excellent pop tracks laced with fuzz and darkness. Her mixtape Heartbreaks and Earthquakes is a fusion of club beats, hip-hop, and dirty avant-electronic pop that made everyone look twice when they found out she was only 19.
Given her classically-based compositions, and the fact that she’s been partying in east London since age 14, and that she’s already working with Fever Ray’s and Robyn’s producers, one might expect a disaffected bitchy teenager with an ego coming out of her ears (though that wouldn’t be un-earned exactly). When I spoke to her on the phone, however, I was surprised by a very down-to-earth, wise-beyond-her-years, very open person who isn’t afraid to sing Britney Spears songs into her hairbrush one second, and flow over Drake the next. World, meet the future of pop.
Are you in London right now?
No I am actually in the country at the moment, seeing my family. We are watching 90s YouTube videos and having flashbacks. Remember that band The Shamen, and the song “Ebeneezer Goode”? We sat around listening to that.
Do you often sit around with your family watching YouTube?
Not really, it was just me and my boyfriend just messing around. And I was just asking on Twitter ‘if you could be in one band which band would it be?’ And we’re getting amazing answers like that.
What does XCX stand for?
Well I gave that name to myself when I was really young. I wanted to have it to stand out from the other Charli’s on the internet, but it really means kiss Charli kiss. In the beginning I said I wanted to change it, I said it was shit, then it seemed like something X rated. But the abbreviation is something that’s quite graphic and it looks really cool.
Do you ever wonder what it would be like to just be a regular 19 year old and not have a clue what you wanna do and be a waitress somewhere and go to university parties?
I don’t know, not really, I’m pretty normal. I don’t have famous friends or go to glitzy parties and things like that. I went to art school for a year but I had to defer just because it was getting crazy. Yeah I did dumb shit like that, and I don’t feel like I’m any older than 19. I feel like I am a 19-year-old and doing the 19-year-old thing. I think I’m doing it in a different way but I love all that shit too.
What did you go to art school for?
I was studying fine arts. I was making a lot of video art and installation. One of the pieces I did I sang into a hairbrush “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and I covered Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez and more Britney — the students must have thought I was bizarre. So yeah it was cool. I did that for a while, and art work is really important. I like to have a lot of involvement in the videos that I make.
Growing up in the party scene, what does it mean to you now? Did you get it out of your system early?
Kind of. Don’t get me wrong I still love to indulge sometimes, no doubt, and it feels like it was really eye opening and good to see that stuff. I was only 14 when I started playing the east London rave scene. At the time I was so captivated by everything. I didn’t ever wanna progress out of that scene. From where I came from which was a countryside town, I’d never seen or heard of anything like that — the costumes, the musicians that were playing were just insane, like some crazy fucked up robot glitter dream. I had no idea that even existed. I think that definitely shaped the performer I am on stage now. But I do feel like now I’ve been out of that scene for awhile. I look back on it now and feel like it’s sort of insular, whereas I want to make music that everyone can appreciate — where everyone can be super emotional and hyperreal.
You weren’t alive in the 80s but you’ve got a lot of the aesthetic. What is your relationship to the 80s?
It’s actually quite funny, because a lot of people say that to me, and it’s not intentional. I’m kind of all over the place. I love Kate Bush, I love bowie, but also a lot of the Ed banger group — Uffie, Justice, SebastiAn, people like that. It ranges a lot. But I do appreciate the 80s as an era, the general sounds and aesthetics of the era. The Cure, that whole kind of image is really kind of amazing I think. The power ballads and how everything sparkles and words are really dramatic. Huge drums, things like that. I do really find it inspiring. When writing the record I was thinking much more about Kate Bush and Bjork. but also blending Ed Banger, some grunge stuff, then just some kind of 21st century pop music that I’m listening to.
Hear Charli XCX’s mixtape Heartbreaks and Earthquakes
Who in the 21st century?
I’m inspired by artists like Robyn, just because she writes amazing pop songs, and they’re not throwaway. When I listen to a Robyn pop song, I don’t feel like she’s just kind of saying something and not thinking, I feel like it’s really emotional. I went to a Robyn show, I started crying because I was so overwhelmed by everything. The crowd was jumping up and down because it was a ravey song, but there I was crying. Then there’s The Knife. I think they’re incredible and they inspire the darker side of my album.
Gotta love the Swedes.
Oh yeah, definitely.
You’ve mentioned that pop is being taken more seriously again. What are some of the more palpable differences you’re seeing between when you were growing up, and now?
Um, I just feel like the times are kind of changing. Yeah there are a lot more artists who want to convey emotions in their songs rather than just get smash hit #1. People like Niki & The Dove and Grimes, and myself, even Lana del Rey, that’s when shit started changing. She was making pop songs, but they were beautiful and ethereal. Artists like that make people less embarrassed to say they’re a fan of pop music. I’ve never been embarrassed because I loved Britney Spears and the Spice Girls,I just feel like some people are scared to say it. But I think it’s becoming darker.
And the internet helps.
Yes totally, I feel like the world’s going through tough times at the moment. With so much genre-crossing on the internet, I’m hoping that it will all implode on itself and there will be a ‘rip it up and start again’ attitude.
Did you meet Drake for his appearance on Heartbreaks and Earthquakes?
Oh, I didn’t, I just used that track. The whole mixtape was me living out a dream. I just ripped from the tracks that I liked at the moment and did my thing on it. I’m sorry Drake! But I think it’s really cool! I just wanted to do that because I had this fantasy of being a rapper when I was younger…I would never say I was rapping on it exactly because that would be insulting to people who actually rap, but I think it sounds really cool. I wanted to use Drake’s song, and I think Jai Paul is a really great talent as well.
Tell me about your singer/songwriter acoustic days.
When I was younger that was the only way I knew how to write a song. Whenever I write a song I still set up a piano because I’m a technophobe, I don’t understand Logic or anything like that. I write things classically because that’s the way it comes out. When I was younger I was a rave kid trapped inside a singer/songwriter’s body. but I kind of figured my way out because I started making these really terrible beats on this Yamaha keyboard that my parents got me for my 10th birthday. When I first started listening to Uffie and the Ed Banger music and Busy P, I began wanting to write beats and I got into this warehouse rave scene. But I do feel like being a singer/songwriter was important, it’s a good thing I can do. I don’t think a lot of artists can do that.
When can we expect a full length?
I’m putting out my record at the end of the year. My EP came out in the states, but I think the full length is going to be towards the end of the year. It’s basically done. It’s actually me, Patrick Berger, and Ariel Rechtshaid. It’s a pretty small crew, and we work tightly together. So yeah, and there aren’t any features or anything, just me. So I’m excited.
Watch Charli XCX’s video for “Nuclear Sessions”
Top Photo Credit: Jessie Jenkins