Cover feature: Charli XCX: “I feel like an ice cube floating around in a sea of chill”

​Charli XCX: “I feel like an ice cube floating around in a sea of chill”

Say hello to the UK’s best new pop star.

Ever spotted a pop star? They’re pretty unmissable. Entourage in tow or not, they carry an aura on their person at all times, with star-shaped sprinkles orbiting around the edges. The people turning round and double-taking might not quite recognise them yet, but in a few months’ time they’ll see them again on tube adverts and hear their songs on every radio station. Casually strolling down one of London’s grey streets of taxi ranks and takeaway sandwich bars in a fairly impractical feathered gown and sunglasses, surrounded by a small, important-looking team, Charli XCX has created a stir of this exact variety. A city worker freezes, and then remembers he’s half way through taking a bite out of a baguette. A pair of tourists are frantically taking photos of her crossing the road, and they don’t really know why. Disappearing through a door in a way that seems somehow business-like and razzmatazz, Charli XCX is a pop star, alright.

It hasn’t always been this way, but with Charli XCX it has never been a question of if, but rather when. Most 14-year-old girls circa 2006 were busy frittering their pocket money away in Tammy Girl on diamante slogan t-shirts and camouflage trousers; Charli XCX was far too busy convincing her parents to give her a loan so that she could make an album. She did just that, and made ‘14’, along with her own record label, which she called Orgy in typical haughty style. All of a sudden Atlantic snapped her up. There were two mixtapes in 2012, with a Brooke Candy writer credit, and enough buzzy sampling to short circuit a bumblebee. There was her first major label studio album, too, the highly-glossed alt-pop world of ‘True Romance’. Charli XCX wrote and featured on ‘I Love It’, and Icona Pop made it one of the biggest songs of last summer. She wasn’t a pop star at that point, though, not on your nelly. By her standards, Charli XCX was just getting started.

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“When I grew up I was really worried about being cool. I was never the cool kid in school.”

Charli XCX

“A couple of days ago I was in Washington airport getting a Wendy’s, and this Belgian girl came up to me,” explains Charli, having absconded from the street to take refuge in an American-style diner. “She was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re Charli XCX, can I please have a photo?’ I was literally so fucking tired with my chilli cheese fries,” she laughs, pulling out her best impression of jetlag and recreating the moment vividly. “Shit like that happens to me more now; since ‘Fancy’ [Charli’s collaboration with Iggy Azalea] I suppose. People come up to me on planes asking me to sign shit. I’ll always oblige because I want to make my fans happy, but it is strange for sure.”

“Even just last week I was in three countries in one day,” she says excitedly. “We took a private jet which was fucking crazy. We were all very excited, and probably really annoying to the flight attendant. We got there an hour early so we could just take photos of ourselves outside it and shit.” Being busy, these days, is the norm. “This year has been totally hectic,” she concludes. 

With a one-off show at London’s Heaven pencilled in for 30th October, and endless promotional duties leading up to the release of ‘Sucker’, it’s a frantic schedule that shows no signs of letting up, but Charli feels ready to meet it all head on.  “I’ve been doing this for quite a long time now and I can really feel it; I’ve become more sure of myself as an artist and I feel my music has just got better,” reasons Charli in response to the question ‘Why now?’ It’s certainly a confident answer, but then again, considering ‘Sucker’ bursts into life from a bratty launch-pad of bubblegum popping in a teacher’s face - accompanied by the decidedly radio unfriendly announcement “Fuck you, sucker!” - her matching gustiness doesn’t really come as much of a surprise. Reflecting on her previous output though, she’s her own harshest critic, and it wasn’t really until ‘I Love It’, she says -  “which was literally just me writing a song in a hotel room alone” - that she actually believed herself capable of penning massive pop songs.

“‘True Romance’ was quite a muted and shy album.”

Charli XCX

“I feel like throughout ‘True Romance’ I was quite insecure as a person, as an artist, and very unsure of myself in terms of songwriting, still,” Charli admits. “Even though it was my voice, I feel there were a lot of other voices on that record, too. When I grew up I was really worried about being cool,” she adds. “I felt that pressure. I was never the cool kid in school, and loads of people told me that I was weird, that I dressed uncool and did uncool things, that I was too nice, too happy, all this. All of that made me a bit ‘ugh’, and made me want to compensate for my personality by making quite a muted and shy album, really. That was the outcome on ‘True Romance’. Now I really don’t care what people think,” she shrugs. “ I’ve made this album because it’s what comes naturally to me. I feel less afraid to say that now, y’know?”

This time round, Charli is far less bothered about how people perceive both her and her music. “I’ve already started reading ‘oh, she’s sold out!’” she laughs, “and I’m like, but you haven’t heard the album! The first song says ‘Fuck you’ about 25 times and it’s a two minute song!”

They’ll have to wait a little longer to hear ‘Sucker’ before making up their minds, though. Following this interview Charli announced that she would be pushing back her album release date to January next year, citing the unexpected success of ‘Boom Clap’ as the main reason. “I’m overwhelmed by the love for boom clap & the support from all u angels,” she wrote on her twitter account, “I need to put the date back so I can launch the album properly…”

‘Sucker’, after all, is an album that Charli XCX seems determined to get completely right, and she repeatedly emphasises the importance of releasing something that is “100%” her.  Above and beyond anything else she’s put her name to, ‘Sucker’ does feel and sound unmistakably like an album that only Charli XCX could write. The sheen and polish is gone, making way for something rawer around the edges, exuding more attitude than John Bender with his feet defiantly on the desk in Breakfast Club detention. Her influences range from infectious French yé-yé pop from the 1960s to ‘Feeling Alright’ by The Vibrators, which Charli discovered on a punk compilation she bought in WH Smiths for two quid. 

“I think I’ve always been very inspired by Paris,” she states. “With my first record I was very inspired by [dance label] Ed Banger. With this, it was 60s pop, and this whole idea of Lolita; the way that the music all sounds so child-like, but really sexy and feminine at the same time. That inspired me a lot, and even the way that the vocals are cut in those songs; the gang-like chants. That was something I was thinking about pretty much straight after ‘True Romance’ came out.” She pauses. “Following ‘I Love It’ I pushed away from all pop music and felt very inspired by punk. I remember towards the end of last year I was in Sweden, with [collaborator] Patrick Berger, and we were writing songs. Both of us felt angry and aggressive about being asked to replicate ‘I Love It’, and we both wanted to fuck everyone off for a while; not tell people where we were, what we were doing. I was just covering songs from his band, Snuffed By The Yakuza, to get out our aggression, and I think through that I was able to fall in love with pop music again.”

The roll call for ‘Sucker’ is a diverse one, featuring the likes of Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, and Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend. She nearly did a song with Pelle from The Hives, too, she adds; “it was cool, but didn’t work out in the end.” Having the freedom and confidence to work with whomever she likes, and write however the hell she fancies on any given day, Charli agrees, is hugely important. “I’ve always been in control of everything that I’ve done, but now so more than ever,” she nods, “I feel 100% confident in my own vision. I have discussions and ask for opinions, but at the end of the day it’s me making the calls and calling the shots. This wasn’t something curated by my record label. If I wanted to do a session with someone, I’d reach out to them and go do it. I do feel more confident, though, yes, and it comes across on the album,”

“I think the best artists are the ones who constantly change,” adds Charli. “Madonna, Bowie. This idea of building a brand seems to have come about super strong in the past ten years, but I don’t understand that so much. I don’t think it makes for interesting art, I think it makes for selling a product. I’m less interested in that, and more interested in challenging myself and my audience.”

‘Sucker’, for all intents and purposes, is huge. It’s also a self-aware pop record, and stomping its own path through a chart already crammed full with stars and big names, ‘Sucker’ seems to clear a new space. Having previously informed DIY that this is an album written for “for girls, and for everyone on the planet with a pussy,” Charli is delighted at the suggestion that ‘Sucker’ is sexy, albeit in a way that feels honest and real. “Absolutely!” she exclaims slapping a hand onto the table in agreement, startling a nearby customer.

“A lot of young girls are quite lost. I was. In parts I still am.”

Charli XCX

“I think it’s a feminine album, and a sexy album,” she expands, “but when I think about what the stereotype of sexy is, to the average person, I don’t think it is that. I feel sexy singing these songs, and I hope that inspires other girls and other women, because you can totally be confident and feel amazing in your own skin without having to try and conform to what Heat magazine, or FHM or any guy says is sexy. I think what women think is sexy is what is sexy.”

“Girls eating pizza is massively sexy,” she announces abruptly, “that turns me on.”

She pauses to offer round the onion rings, clearly pleased with the appropriate comic timing. “I really just want to change the way that women think about themselves,” she continues. “A lot of young girls are quite lost. I was. In parts I still am. I think it would be cool for women to feel like they connect to someone who is also a bit scruffy. I’m not clean-cut and perfect, I say dumb shit and I fall over, and I want girls to know that’s cool.”

Not afraid to speak her mind, Charli XCX isn’t going to pass media-training for the Disney Club, and she doesn’t especially care for celebrity culture. “It’s all about rules, and what you can say, and what you can’t say,” she sighs, ”gossip, reality and celebrities. It’s not about iconic moments in music history.” Talk turns to the MTV Music Video Awards. “I was kind of bored,” she puts it, quite bluntly. Riff Raff and Katy Perry’s denim homage to Britney Spears’ and Justin Timberlake’s matchy blue ensemble from 2001, she says, in the interest of fairness “was the best thing about them! That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

Charli has a plan to up the ante, however. “I’d like to arrive on my school bus with an army of punk ten-year-olds spray painting the step-and-repeat [red carpet backdrop],” she laughs. “That’d be tight. That would be amazing, like the ‘Break The Rules’ video, but permanently. My band would hate me, though, there’d be no beds, they’d be just sat up the whole time. I’d love to roll around in a school bus, though, uh huh.”

Although she jokes that she’d love to blow everything on making her live show like a “Japanese gameshow,” Charli recently bought a house, instead, which you’d think would make her feel rather sensible and adult. “It makes me feel grown up, the fact that I have a house,” she grins, “but when I think about how I’m doing it up it, makes me feel like a child. There’s carpet all over the walls and hanging chairs and glitter curtains with tiny mattresses and dens on the floor, so it’s like a playhouse. That makes me feel about 12. My neighbours are all super old and they’re like, oh god, who’s this girl who knocked down all the walls in her house on day one?”

Will Charli XCX be hosting elaborate parties at her new madcap pad? She looks a little sheepish for a moment; “Um…” she hesitates, before laughing. “I mean, probably. Yeah. It’s going to be hard not to.”

Private jets, VMA parties to attend, and Hot 100 billboard topping singles to her name, Charli XCX must surely feel like a pop star by now? “It’s funny because I guess I’ve just really shut myself off from the idea of that now,” she reasons. “I feel like an ice cube floating around in a sea of chill. It’s not something that interests me. I really do just want to be in the studio or on tour all the time, and everything else is just beginning to freak me out.” She looks around and a nearby punter quickly looks away, pretending not to be at all affected by the fact that Charli XCX is sat in a feathery dressing gown eating onion rings on the next table. “I guess that’s what being a pop star is, you know?”

Taken from the October issue of DIY, out now. Charli XCX’s new album ‘Sucker’ will be released on 26th January via Asylum Records.