Charli XCX talks pop music, the genre she's redefining
Since releasing her debut album in 2013, the British pop star has always been ahead of the pop music curve, but now, she's shaping it.
Header photo and all in-article photos taken by Sean Finney.
Go behind-the-scenes of our exclusive Charli XCX feature with more images by Sean Finney HERE.
Ever since releasing her debut album True Romance in 2013, Charli XCX has always been doing things a little differently. Compared more to Grimes and Marina & The Diamonds than the leading pop stars at the time, the British musician – born Charlotte Aitchison – arrived with a darker and more synth-driven sound that many wouldn't have initially expected from someone tipped to be the 'next big thing' in mainstream pop. She was mixing "moody 80s synth-pop, sassy turn-of-the-millennium girl groups, and state-of-the-art contemporary producers" (according to Pitchfork, who named it Best New Music), to create music that at the time, introduced us to an artist who doesn't stick to the curve. Instead, she's in front of it, shaping its every twist and turn.
Skip forward to present day and everything about Charli XCX feels like the future. Her music swerves between sleek, forward-thinking pop produced by Max Martin protégés and elusive PC Music producers alike, enlisting some of the world's most diverse and exciting musicians to join her above quick-paced flurries of darting synth and playful sampling (Germany-raised trans musician Kim Petras, rappers CupcakKe and Mykki Blanco, and Brazilian drag queen/musician Pabllo Vittar are just some of the names on the critically successful Pop 2 mixtape). Even on the 'industry' side of her music she's ahead. Since 2014's empowering second album Sucker, Charli has been defying the outdated trend of bloated albums, sometimes spanning over 90 minutes in an attempt to fight the Spotify market. Now, she's releasing mixtapes, independent EPs, singles and two-sides - such as her recent, heavily-requested No Angel/Focus release - whenever she pleases, a move far more appealing to both her fans and the music she makes. They're short, punchy bursts of party-starting energy that you want to repeat again and again and again.
Looking back, the journey into Charli XCX's futuristic experimentalism started with Vroom Vroom, a four-track EP that, although unlike anything else Charli had done in the past, felt like gazing through a twisted, warping crystal ball into her future (and the future of pop music as a whole). Armed with the dizzying and raucous production of the then-elusive Scottish musician SOPHIE (who Charli admits is her favourite musician around), Vroom Vroom introduced to us to the chaotic side of Charli XCX that she's continually pushed ever since, with many of SOPHIE's peers – PC Music head maestro AG Cook an obvious example, among many other PC Music producers – aiding Charli as she darts between fiery pop-rap and airy, autotuned ballads with ease.
Her early-2017 mixtape Number 1 Angel reinforced the future-pop charm of Charli XCX while also birthing her obsession with collaboration. 3 AM (Pull Up) saw Charli and MØ soar above a chiming production from AG Cook and fellow PC Music figure Easyfun, while Babygirl gave us a nostalgia-tinged highlight that unexpectedly featured Uffie's first appearance in five years. Lipgloss, the rapid-firing mixtape closer co-produced by SOPHIE, saw Charli team up with CupcakKe – now billed as one of hip-hop's most exciting new flames – while Dreamer saw underrated pop music weapons Starrah and Raye swirl above another left-field AG Cook production.
Pop 2, her second 2017 mixtape, gave us everything Number 1 Angel did but somehow better, solidifying Charli XCX's place as one of pop's most daring and dynamic in the process. MØ returned on the King Henry-co-produced Porsche while CupcakKe was joined by Brooke Candy and Pabllo Vittar on the thumping, sweat-inducing highlight I Got It. Carly Rae Jepsen joined the party for a collab that made pop fans implode on listening, as did Tove Lo, ex-Chairlift vocalist Caroline Polachek, Mykki Blanco, Kim Petras and Korean rapper Jay Park. It was, as perfectly put by Pitchfork, "a vision of what pop music could be." It's fun, energetic, inclusive in every way and just flat-out brilliant; giving a masterclass in what pop music could look like if the A&Rs and label heads stepped aside and promoted freedom and musical expression.
Watching a high-profile pop musician chase self-expression instead of fame isn't something you come across regularly, and often when stars have gone down this path, it's led to their commercial demise. Charli XCX, however, doesn't only define this trend, but she's encouraged many musicians to go down their own routes of self-exploration. SOPHIE's debut album OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES saw her embrace her public image after years of being kept 'mysterious' and since Vroom Vroom, she's worked with acts including Vince Staples, Rihanna and Lady Gaga. Danny L Harle met Carly Rae Jepsen for a euro-dance ballad Super Natural that you would never see a pop musician agree to even a few years prior. Many of Charli's mixtape collaborators - CupcakKe and Kim Petras especially - have become their respective genre's most unique and exciting. Refreshingly, she's a musician whose taste-making skills out-match those of many A&Rs and editors.
While others are encouraging the experimentalism of pop music too - Ariana Grande collaborator and producer Cashmere Cat among them - it'll be hard not to pinpoint Charli XCX as of the genre's most revolutionary. Her more-family-like fanbase (which is incredibly LGBT-dominated in comparison to many other musicians her ilk) follows her every move with collaborator suggestions and memes (Charli has a song that's pretty big in Germany, in case you're unaware), welcoming her club-focused Pop 2 shows with an energy that even pop music's biggest and most adored would dream of.
If there's one artist in particular defying the trends of pop music, taking it to places otherwise unexplored by the big guns, and doing so with success - it's Charli XCX.
So to kick this off, what are your earliest memories of pop music?
My earliest memory of pop music was probably just like being obsessed with the Spice Girls - that was definitely the first big pop thing for me. That, and Britney Spears. I remember seeing the Hit Me Baby One More Time music video on the news and that sticking with me. Those were definitely the first pop I remember.
I was reading that you don't get emotionally involved with music easily. Is there any emotional connection that you have with that time of pop music?
Probably not really an emotional connection back then, more just having fun and being carefree. I wasn't really overanalyzing music then. I was just being a kid. I think the emotional connection to music came right as I got older.
Was there anything in particular that created that connection or was it just simply getting older and being involved with music more?
I think it was escapism. The first music I really loved was like a lot of French electro...
Like, Ed Banger stuff?
Yeah, that was definitely like escapism for me. I would put on that music with headphones in and imagine I was at a club or a party or something, or I would kind of pretend I was in a movie - that's how I thought of that music. So that was emotional I suppose, because I was kind of using it to fantasise in a way.
So 1999 - is that looking back and being nostalgic about that time and living a carefree life, being young and what not?
I mean yeah, I suppose that's kind of what the song is about. But, it's more just I thought 1999 was a really fun and pop thing to sing about. I mean, yeah, sure, I was a kid then. I didn't have an Instagram and I probably wasn't overthinking every single fucking thing I did. But I don't really want to go back to when I was seven, you know? It's more just that I thought it was a cool title for a pop song with lots of potential for a cool music video and stuff.
Yeah, because I've seen a lot of people that have been like "in 1999, you were seven years old and Troye was four years old. Why do you want to go back to that time?" But it's just like, "it's not that deep guys, come on!"
Yeah *laughs* it's really not that deep.
So back in 2013 when you released True Romance, pop music was obviously a lot different to what it is now. What have been some of the differences in your relationship with pop music between 2013 and now?
Pop music has become broader and more controlled by artists rather than labels, which is great and just more free I suppose. Like there's so much blending of genres and stuff now that it feels like a very free space, and it feels like artists are more in control of pop music than ever, you know? It's great.
Is that something that influenced your transition into Vroom Vroom and being really experimental and more relaxed with your releases?
Maybe subconsciously, but not really consciously. I never really think about what's going on around me or the landscape of pop music or anything like that. I always just do it in the moment. I just do what my instinct says and I don't really think about the consequences or whether people like it or not. It's very selfish in that sense.
Was there anything then that influenced the transition into what I guess becomes the current era, the more experimental era, of Charli?
I think it's just sort of having confidence in myself. That was a big influence. Also realizing that I didn't want to just play the radio game because it didn't make me happy, you know? Like, having a song that is successful on the radio is really fun and really great, but it's also, if you don't love the song, really not that great.
Yeah, you're stuck playing it at shows for the rest of your career and things like that.
Yeah, totally. Don't get me wrong, I really do like aspects of the songs that I had that were on the radio, but when I made Pop 2, that was music I want to go out to a club and listen to. I don't really want to go out to a club and listen to Break The Rules, you know? So it just put things into perspective for me. I realised that I think I'm better at making experimental pop music than I am at making classic pop music and I just have more fun doing it.
I think what inspired me to go down that road was new collaborators too - people who I really clicked with, and the stuff we were making really felt like only we could make that.
That ties in nicely to what I was going to ask about SOPHIE and AG Cook. What drew you to them in the first place as producers? Because they hadn't really had that pop music background - definitely not as much as they do now.
Yeah, with SOPHIE I just wanted to go out and hear that music. I just wanted to party to it and it just sounded like the music I'd been trying to make, in a way. I just was so inspired by her and that really rarely happens for me. So, I got in touch with her and we started making music and it just really worked. We clicked so well. Same with AG too.
I could always hear pop music in what they did, even though they were maybe collaborating with like fewer pop-like artists at that point in time. I could hear that they had this incredible ear for melody. I found that stuff really inspiring.
So between the time of Vroom Vroom into Number 1 Angel into Pop 2 into the singles now, I feel like pop music has become a lot more varied and a lot more experimental. You have people like Troye and Ariana who, even though their albums are completely different, are both very forward-thinking. Also, SOPHIE is working with some of the biggest names in music - Lady Gaga and so on. Cockiness aside, do you think that you have had a part in bringing that side of pop music out?
I think I've definitely had a part in it. I mean, I think there are lots of artists and producers who have pushed certain sounds forward, but yeah, I do think I've been influential in pop and that's really cool. But there are so many other people who have also been really influential. I definitely hear from other people and other artists who have been like "I was really inspired by this. I really loved Pop 2," and it how it's inspired them to do their own shit.
I feel like Pop 2 was very successful with the LGBTQ community in particular, but also with fellow musicians and my peers, which is really cool. So yeah, I do think that I've definitely been a part of it, but I'm not going to take all the credit - there's a lot of incredible, forward-thinking artists nowadays who are making great stuff.
I know you've been working on the infamous album for a while now, but in between that, you've had mixtapes, you've had the EP, you've had singles and you've had the Focus/No Angel two-side. Is there something that releasing that way gives you that the album format doesn't? Is it there's a sense of freedom or something?
Yeah, it's freedom and it's the ability to move as quick or as slow as I want. I write so much, like I write more than... what's an average album length? Twelve songs? I write more than that in a year, you know? So I want to put them out. I can't just have a 12-track album be representative of all the shit I write, because I write like 12 songs in like a fucking two week period. I think that's why it doesn't work for me, but also, I don't really even know what I'm going to do next. It might be an album, it might be a mixtape, I don't know. I'm feeling quite creative at the moment, so it really could go anyway.
Is there any particular way like that you're sort of drawn to at the moment?
I just want to write as much as possible and I think the mixtapes have really shown to me how much I love collaborating. I just want to write as much as possible and collaborate as much as possible - that's kind of it. That's what I really know right now, you know?
So you have a playlist called The Motherfucking Future, and I know you're asked all the time 'who do you think is going to be the future?' and all that, but between artists like SOPHIE and Cupcakke and Rosalía, what is it in those artists that you look at them and you're like "yeah, you're the future."
I think it's just that they're very defiant in who they are and the music that they make. With all three of them, I feel like no one can replicate them, you know? I mean everybody gets compared, don't get me wrong, that's no one's fault - that's just journalism I guess. But I don't know, I think there are some artists who can sing a song and only they can sing it or rap it or produce it and that's definitely how I feel about SOPHIE, Cupcakke, and Rosalía, you know? Whereas there are other artists who are great artists, but that song could be sung by so and so and so and so.
I think these three people that you've mentioned each have such a strong identity that's obviously coming from them and not being put together by a team of people who are trying to sell records. It's coming from who they are, their inspiration, their influences - it's very direct and bold and unforgiving. I think that's what I admire in all of my favourite artists, you know? Not shit that's vague.
To cap things off with a really general question, where do you think that the future of pop music is going?
I don't know. I think I used to be able to answer that question a lot better, but now, I don't know, just because I do think things are so broad. Obviously, there's a really big Latin influence and also hip-hop is really huge. But I don't really know what's next - I haven't really been in that many pop sessions recently, so I don't know what everybody's pulling from. I think it's so broad it could really go anyway, which is great. It's really good.
What would you like to see be the future of pop music then?
Like everybody on my playlists, if they were all like the biggest artists in the world that would be really good.
An entire Billboard top 10 produced by SOPHIE and AG?
Oh my god, that would be amazing.