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Upfront: Charli XCX is running pop purgatory

An anti-pop star in the process of redefining pop music

Posted by Mia Besorio

Charli XCX is an anti-pop star in the process of redefining pop music. The idea of ‘Anti’ is a confusing proposition to articulate in the music industry for a proven hit maker who explicitly idolises Britney Spears. With a trifecta of commercial radio hits ‘I Love It’, ‘Boom Clap’, and ‘Fancy’ with Iggy Azaelea, Charli XCX quickly catapulted from her Tumblr infatuated bubble into a visibly commercial narrative almost immediately.

And while she had not her envisioned her importance in the future of pop from her early rave days, now that she’s here she isn’t afraid of it. And she sure as hell isn’t ashamed of it. Her proven track record for chart toppers has given her ammunition to push back on the industry and do things on her own terms, as heard in her genre-bending EP ‘Number 1 Angel’ and witnessed in her incessant push to champion PC Music production. Charli XCX might be in pop purgatory, but make no mistake: she’s running it.

You were signed at a very young age; do you feel you were ready for the industry at that point?

No, I probably wasn’t ready at that point. When I got signed I was still in school and afterwards I went to art school. At the same time, I was taking trips to LA and writing with people and still doing my underground shows. I feel like I was living a double life, but I think if I had given up everything and left all my friends I would have gone crazy. I did have some aspects that were still grounding me, like the world I grew up in, which was important. Going out to LA a lot really trained me and taught me a lot as a songwriter. At the time, I really hated it but now I’m thankful for that I got to write with a lot of people and learn a lot from it.

I first encountered you on Tumblr and you’ve always struck me as someone who’s quite authentic to yourself. Did making music feel different for you before commercial interest came into play?

Not really, I feel like I’ve always been very true to myself and done what I wanted. Of course I’ve had more commercial moments, but I’ve always been a really big fan of pop music. It’s not something that I’ve tried to shy away from. Growing up I loved The Spice Girls and Britney Spears and that was my world. Having big pop songs is a dream, but also being able to do things on my own terms is very important to me. I like to have the best of both worlds.

Regarding those commercial moments, with ‘Fancy’ charting the way it did, do you feel it added a lot of pressure from the industry to deliver hit after hit?

The combination of ‘I Love It’, ‘Fancy’ and ‘Boom Clap’ together put me in a position where people expected something big every time. Sometimes you can’t write those types of songs all the time. There’s so much stuff that comes into play to make a song big—it’s about timing, luck and the moment. It’s kind of out of your control. I try and do things that make me happy, so that when I’m close to death I won’t be ashamed of it.

I remember thinking bands like Salem and Crim3s felt so future in 2013, and how much I loved that you would reference them in interviews. I felt similarly when you started pushing and collaborating with PC Music. Has it been challenging for you to bring these relatively obscure artists into a commercial space?

I really enjoy doing that and finding new people that inspire me. I love bringing them into my world as well as dipping into their world. The PC Music stuff has been really great as they have such a huge love and understanding of pop music as well as really great pop writers. That whole collaborative process has been easy and fun because we like the same things. It’s not about us trying to change each other. It’s more of a straightforward collaboration. It’s never hard to work with people that you’re inspired by.

Outside of the PC Music camp, are their any other songwriters or artists that we should be paying attention too?

I really like this girl ALMA, she is someone I’ve been working with a lot recently. She’s from Finland and she is such a superstar. She is such a cool person and she really knows how to party which is very important in my book. We’ve been writing a lot of stuff together, I don’t know if any of it will come out or not. I kind of wish I had a role model like her when I was growing up. She’s unique and special. I love her whole vibe. I got really into Tommy Cash recently as well, he’s this cool Estonian rapper who directs all his own music videos.

I did his first Australian interview and I remember seeing a photo of you two the day after that, which was wild. In your cover story with The FADER you said that you wanted to write the best pop release of 2017. I feel like you basically did that with ‘Vroom Vroom’ leading into your ‘Number 1 Angel’ EP. Even now they feel very ‘next wave’. Do you feel you achieved what you were after with those releases?

With ‘Number 1 Angel’ I just wanted to make music that I really wanted to make. There wasn’t much intention behind that apart from it being very therapeutic for me. That wasn’t me thinking about what my fans like or radio, none of that, it was me being very spontaneous. Those songs were written over a couple of months in total but were finished in two weeks, so it felt they were made in real time, which was cool. I’m proud of that mixtape, I feel like it’s my favourite body of work, but everyone says that about their latest thing so maybe it doesn’t count.

You had six features on that who were all female. Is that important to you to bring up other female contemporaries?

It’s really that I like collaborating with people and I really love collaborating with friends. It’s not about helping anyone out or anything because all those women on that mixtape are totally killing it in their own right.

This is a good segue into your new song ‘Boys’ and the video you directed for it. I love the way you distorted the male gaze in the narrative. What was the rationale behind video?

The song is about having loads of boy crushes and thinking about boys. For that reason I wanted the video to mean something more. The video is really important to me, and something that I directed. I was listening to the song and I thought about this idea, the first way I saw it was when I saw Joe Jonas being really sexy, eating stuff. Sorry Joe. It kind snowballed from there and I started asking people I knew if they’d be down and so many of the guys were really into it, they were totally aware of the style concept and the underlying narrative of reversing the male gaze. So, it started becoming a reality. We really enjoyed shooting it and it was cool and they all really got it. There were no divas, just a good vibe.

How long did it take to put together?

Honestly, so fucking long. We started shooting it in April and finished a couple weeks ago in early July. In total I think we have 57 people in it.

Is this an indication of direction for your next album? Do you have a specific direction for it or are you piecing it together as you go along?

I do have a direction, and a lot of the songs are done but it’s probably not going to come out until next year. For me, it’s easier to not think about it until there’s a release date. I write a lot, and there’s always a new song I want to put on it. I try not to think about it too much until I literally need to put it out… otherwise I’ll just go crazy.

‘Boys’ is out now via Warner Music. Charli XCX is touring Australia with Sia in November, more details here.

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