The xx's Romy talks her solo debut album 'Mid Air'

Interview Romy: Maxximum Exxposure

Having spent almost two decades at the helm of understated titans The xx, Romy is stepping out of her comfort zone and onto the dancefloor for her solo debut.

On paper, Romy Madley-Croft doesn’t seem a natural candidate for pop stardom.

As frontwoman of The xx, her name has always been synonymous with brooding intimacy, evidenced through minimalistic arrangements, abstract lyricism and a quietly understated stage presence. It’s an impression consistently compounded by journalistic profiles prefixing her name with “quiet”, “shy” and an array of other descriptors underscoring her introversion. But just when you thought you had Romy’s rep as a perennially private artist sussed, the 34-year-old’s long-awaited solo debut is set to challenge everyone’s preconceptions.

Created in collaboration with close friends Fred again.. and Jamie xx, plus Madonna / Kylie / Dua Lipa-producer Stuart Price, ‘Mid Air’ foregrounds euphoric floor-fillers, infusing heart-on-sleeve pop songwriting with influences from ‘00s trance and Euro dance. It’s both refreshingly unselfconscious and by far the most personal record Romy has ever released. And yet ‘Mid Air’ is not the volte face you might think. In fact, it’s not too much of a leap to suggest that Romy has been working up to this moment since her mid-teens, albeit unknowingly.

“I started going out to gay clubs in Soho when I was about 16 and instantly felt at home,” she recalls, perched on a sofa in the East London offices of her record label. “I remember feeling a sense of community; that this was a place where I could explore my sexuality and meet like-minded people. And the music in a lot of these clubs was big, bold pop music, listened to without irony.”

Approached to DJ by the manager of the now-defunct club Ghetto, she quickly learned to follow suit, leaning on “songs everyone recognised from the opening notes.” So around the same time as The xx were crafting their arrestingly introspective debut, Romy was regularly out spinning crying-in-the-club classics like ‘Dancing On My Own’, ‘Hung Up’ and the Tiësto remix of Delerium’s ‘Silence’. These formative experiences helped foster her appreciation for “uplifting, emotional dance music,” in turn providing the sonic blueprint for ‘Mid Air’.

Romy first dipped her toes into the pop world writing for the likes of Kelela, Dua Lipa and King Princess. After a decade creating collaboratively within The xx, she found it felt liberating to suddenly switch things up, and to work free from external expectations. “There was no pressure so it became this outlet for my creativity where I could just create ideas that someone else could run with.”

It was through these co-writing sessions that she was introduced to Fred again.., with whom she forged “an instant connection.” Romy recalls opening up surprisingly quickly: “We talked a lot about our emotions, and I ended up writing quite a lot of personal lyrics. Eventually, we wrote the song ‘Loveher’, and Fred said to me, ‘Well, who is this for?’ And when I said, ‘Maybe me?’, that provided the spark for this process.”

A tenderly melancholic house track, ‘Loveher’ makes for a dizzyingly romantic album opener, gradually unfurling in waves of staccato piano chords. Written for her wife of two years – the photographer and director Vic Lentaigne – it finds Romy laying her feelings bare in lines like, “Hold my hand under the table / It's not that I'm not proud in the company of strangers / It's just some things are for us.”

“It’s about these little nuanced moments that you have in a relationship,” Romy explains, considering the lyric’s inspiration. “I've never felt ashamed of my sexuality – and I feel very proud of my relationship [with Vic] – but I am also very aware of the feeling you get as a queer person having to assess whether you feel safe and comfortable enough to be visible. The reality is, sometimes you just have to read the room. And that can take up quite a lot of energy.”

The xx's Romy talks her solo debut album 'Mid Air'

“It’s me getting older and a bit more comfortable in my own skin.”

'Mid Air’ delves into their relationship, from the heady uncertainty of the early days (‘Weightless’) to the intimate connection they now share (‘Twice’). It’s the first time Romy has put her sexuality front and centre in her songwriting, using female pronouns and eschewing metaphor for lyrical candour. Today she credits this newfound style of communication to a couple of different factors.

“It's me getting older and a bit more comfortable in my own skin. Shedding a little bit of that self consciousness, I just felt ready to just remove that barrier between onstage and offstage, and let down my guard a bit. At the same time, I found it very inspiring working with people like King Princess: younger, queer artists that are able to write unapologetically about how they feel and who they love.

“It's exciting to be more open about my sexuality,” she enthuses. “When I was growing up, I was always seeking out lesbian love stories and other bits of representation in the media. It was hard to find that, especially within the dance world. So I was excited to put my storyline into electronic music, even if it took me a little bit of time to believe I could embody this music in a live setting.”

Though still far from an exhibitionist, it’s startling to square this quietly self-assured artist with the timid 20 year-old that won the Mercury Prize back in 2010. Always a “pretty quiet person”, Romy admits that back then she found the intense public scrutiny tough to navigate. “Having a light shone on you suddenly, I froze up a bit. I didn't really know how to be, so I definitely held back.”

And those feelings of disorientation were wildly exacerbated by the fact that she was simultaneously enduring the very toughest of personal circumstances. Having lost her mother at the age of 11, her father passed away unexpectedly while The xx were playing in Paris.

“It was just this huge contradiction of the shock of my dad dying, with the adrenaline of the tour,” she recalls. “And my cousin, who I was really close with, also passed away that year. So I was experiencing this rollercoaster of grief while the band was doing incredible things and connecting with people in a way that we never expected. It wasn't until we finished touring the first album that I was able to process anything.”

Over a decade later, these experiences helped inform ‘Strong’, an unabashedly emotive trance track that feels like a nod to ATB’s ‘9pm (Till I Come)’ and that is inspired by her own emotional journey, as well as that of her late cousin’s son Luis. In the opening verse she coos, “You've been so strong for so long / You learned to carry this on your own / Let me be someone you can lean on.” The accompanying music video was directed by her wife, and depicts Romy embracing Luis on the dancefloor.

“I was experiencing this rollercoaster of grief while The xx was doing incredible things.”

'Mid Air’ started life back in 2019, with Romy continuing work remotely through lockdowns, from the home she and Vic share near Brighton with their rescue dogs Mouse and Pacha (named after the iconic Ibiza superclub). With songs from Madonna’s ‘Confessions on a Dance Floor’ dominating her reference playlists, Romy’s record label suggested she get in touch with that album’s producer, Stuart Price, for a potential collaboration.

Reaching out with her’s and Fred’s demos, she was struck by Stuart’s passion for the project. “He was so inspiring to work with,” she says. “As a fan, it was very cool to hear about those behind the scenes moments [making ‘Confessions’] and to use the same microphone that Madonna used on that album.” In a neat bit of synchronicity, one of Romy’s fondest memories of her late father is him going through a Madonna phase, and playing ‘Hung Up’ in the kitchen.

Robyn was another musical hero who helped shape the sound of ‘Mid Air’. “We had a conversation midway through this album process that was really helpful. And without her the song 'Enjoy Your Life' wouldn't exist, because she took me to see Beverly-Glenn Copeland in Stockholm.”

The song is crafted around a vocal sample from ‘La Vita’, in which the cult ambient pioneer croons, “My mother says to me, ‘Enjoy your life’.” It was the exact same lyric that moved Romy to tears the first time she heard it live in Stockholm, and its inclusion provides a full-circle moment, acknowledging just how far she’s come. Created with help from Jamie xx, ‘Enjoy Your Life’ forms the first part of a euphoric one-two that closes out the album, concluded by ‘She’s On My Mind’.

With its buoyant beats and syncopated, ABBA-esque piano chords, the latter successfully conjures a sense of joyful abandon. She explains: “I wanted it to feel like the song that comes on at the end of the night. You know, where the lights are on and the pressure’s off? I think I was willing myself into this state of release. Like, the song literally ends with me saying, ‘I don't care anymore.’”

The lyric forms a striking contrast with the very first words uttered on the album, which is a recording of Romy meekly asking Fred, “Can you turn it up a bit more? Thank you.” And this spiritual journey is embodied by both the album’s title - which seeks to evoke the feeling of emotional weightlessness that pop music can offer - and its artwork. Depicting Romy looking directly at the camera, it represents a giant leap forward for an artist who once told the Guardian she wouldn’t appear on her own album sleeves.

What would the Romy of 2010 make of the woman she is now? “I think I would be shocked,” she laughs. “People have asked me, ‘How do you feel about this diary-like album going out in the world?’ Obviously I wanted to remove that barrier, but now it’s finally coming out it does make me feel quite vulnerable.” She pauses and smiles, “But at the same time, I think I'm OK with that.”

‘Mid Air’ is out now via Young.

Tags: Romy, The xx, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

As featured in the September 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

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