Charli XCX was on the road for the better part of 2018, one of the three support acts who joined Taylor Swift’s record-breaking Reputation tour. Between Taylor’s dates, Charli released a string of stand-alone singles—some of the most joyful music of her career—without an album in sight. That was until January 3rd, weeks after our meeting, when she announced her sole New Year’s Resolution would be to give fans an official studio album.
The morning we met, Reputation had landed in Melbourne for a few days before heading to Japan. Charli arrived with a trio of friends: twin sisters Danielle and Nicole Kahlani—her makeup artist and hairstylist, respectively—and Henry Redcliffe, her behind-the-scenes photographer. “Taylor is so global,” Charli reflected, tucked away in a corner of the cavernous photostudio where we’d just wrapped shooting. “She plays in stadiums, and on my own, I could never do that.” (Ticket sales from a single Reputation show routinely grossed more than $6 million dollars). In many ways, Charli’s Reputation experience was as close as she’d gotten to a traditional mass audience since 2014, when two songs she’d written cracked the Billboard 100 top 10. ‘Boom Clap’ peaked at eight, and Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’ spent seven weeks at number one. Reflecting on the mega-hit, Charli laughed “I’m really happy I co-wrote it, because it paid for my house.”
At the same time, between Taylor’s super-shows, Charli was playing her own smaller headline dates, and throwing Pop 2 parties in tiny nightclubs supported by local queer performers. The parties’ namesake mixtape, released December 2017, is full of progressive and challenging pop recorded with icons like Kim Petras and Mykki Blanco. “The fans are a little older and mainly people from the queer community,” she said of the club events. “It feels more like a house party than a show.”
A few years ago, there might have been a clearer demarcation here: between Reputation Charli and Pop 2 Charli. Or maybe a sense that the weird, pop mad-scientist Charli would have to sever her ties to the underground to reach the mainstream heights her talent warranted. That idea feels incredibly distant today, particularly to Charli herself. “I never solidified myself in either one area or the other—at the time, that felt really negative. Now, that feels quite positive because I can really span between the two.” And this year, she’s ready to record the album where she does it all.
This tour started in May—the year’s almost over now, and you’re still not finished. At this point in your career, are you used to spending the better part of a year away from home? I suspect that around month six on the road I might throw a tantrum.
I am used to it, but this is different. It’s the longest tour I’ve done in a while. And this wasn’t my album. It [does feel] really long. It’s funny, I don’t really get homesick that much. Sometimes, maybe, but I think I’ve been pretty good on tantrums. I do have really bad temper, and it can just fly off the handle. For the past year and a half, I’ve been really trying to keep it in check. I had a heated conversation the other day, but I don’t think it got [out of control]. But I used to storm out of restaurants. I’d do loads of fucking embarrassing stuff. I couldn’t express myself without getting overly emotional. I’d start crying and then I’d be shouting and then I’d feel embarrassed. But I’ve managed to keep that in check a lot.
Thinking about the reception of your recent singles, it’s probably fair to say that you’re more celebrated by the queer community today than at any point in your career so far. Have you felt a surge of support?
I really feel it. I’ve always felt support from the queer community, but I would say since I released Pop 2 it’s become more overwhelming, in the most an amazing way. That release in particular spoke to that community, and really engaged a lot of people from that community. I’m so thankful for it. It’s such an intense love. I really wouldn’t be the artist that I am today without the queer community. I just wouldn’t.
Pop 2 played around the outer limits of pop, much like your previous work, but it was particularly well received by critics. Do you feel better understood today? Both as a Pop Star and a more underground, experimental curator?
I think that when I was first releasing music—True Romance, for example, that was critically acclaimed but not commercially successful at all. Then I went on to have numerous commercial hits, I suppose. I never solidified myself in either one area or the other—at the time, that felt really negative. Now, that feels quite positive because I can really span between the two. It’s really hard, and this is not a new story, but it’s really hard to be a female in pop music. And I’m a political person but I’m not particularly political in my music. My visuals are fun and very pop. I sing a lot about partying. I party a lot. It’s quite hard to be taken seriously when I surround myself with that, when my language is talking about driving fast cars and drinking champagne. You know, on the surface, that feels very vapid.
I think sometimes it’s hard to see me as this serious artist who writes all of her own music and curates all of her own records with so many artists from all over the globe, who all identify differently. Again, that’s another reason why I feel so happy to be accepted by the queer community. Because they do take the [political] stuff seriously, but they also see my music as expression, rather than something that’s vapid. Whereas I think, until recently, critics have always been a bit like, “that doesn’t mean anything.” I think that partying is such an important part of youth culture. It’s where people find themselves, it’s where people fall in love. It’s a key part of growing up. I just don’t feel like I should be taken less seriously because I like to party.
Do you still feel as if you’re being sidelined, in a sense, by your subject matter?
Well I think that pop is getting taken more seriously as a whole, but I also think that pop is being taken more seriously when it’s a ballad, when it’s a song about romance. Don’t get me wrong, that’s great and those are serious things. I just think it’s funny how sometimes it’s like, “Oh, she’s dumb,” because I don’t sing about those serious things. My work spans both high and low culture. I’m inspired by high art, but I’m also inspired by magazine culture and club kids and MTV. That’s still equally as important to what I do. Funny isn’t it? Reviews are so positive now, it’s almost to the point where I feel like they’re setting me up for a crazy bad review—which I’m kind of excited for. Obviously I’m happy to get good reviews and shit. But when people do a really bad review that’s so brutal. It’s sort of like, fun to read. Also who cares about critics? I’m the only one who reads them. My fans don’t read that shit. [Laughs]
Your fans are in YouTube comments of a leaked song furiously typing ‘evaporate my pussy, mom’. But I can’t imagine that there’s a really bad review coming. You’re safe from Pitchfork at the very least.
Yeah, they’re on my dick.
During the Fancy moment, your voice was totally ubiquitous. You were a very visible artist. And yet, it seems like this mixtape era is what’s really delighted your core audience. How does it feel to experience these waves of attention from different worlds?
It’s weird. It’s different now. Yes, there was a lot visibility back then, but I don’t really know if there are fans [of me] in that sphere, or if there ever were. Even though that song was so huge, I feel like I have more fans now than then. That song was so great, and I’m really happy I co-wrote it because it paid for my house. Also, even though there were some crazy moments during that time, it was really fun to work with Iggy and do a lot of the shit we did together. I think she is a really cool person. And Fancy was her moment anyway. I was happy for that to be her moment and for me to be the supporting role. But, for a long time, that was the narrative of me in the press a lot. Like, “Oh, I’m the underdog.” Or, “I’m the one who wrote the song, never who’s singing the song.” I saw that as a negative thing, until the mixtapes really. It was like being the supporting actor. But now, through Pop 2, I’ve actually realised that’s my strength. I’ve realised my skill is as a curator, and I actually enjoy that. I enjoy not being the centre of attention all the time. I enjoy directing music videos rather than being in them. I think embracing that has made me more visible in the areas I want to be, and more engaged with the people I want to be engaged with.
I think you realised quite early on that the album roll-out system was kinda broken. Years ago you were saying that a full, official studio album wasn’t quite what you want to do.
Totally. I saw this interview with Ariana Grande, who I love—I really think that she’s a great artist—where she was talking about just wanting to release stuff all the time. Just record in the studio and straight away release it. Which I think is great. That kind of thing has been happening in hip-hop for a long time. There’s so many songs and so many releases. I feel like it’s okay to have the ones that work, work and then the ones that don’t are just there, and they’re cool for the people that do like them. I just feel like, for me, whenever there’s so much focus on “Get this song on the radio!” it really strips the creativity and the fun out of the song. Of course it’s nice when your song goes on the radio, but it doesn’t really matter anymore. Because it’s like… do people really listen to the radio? I don’t know. Do they just listen to Spotify? I’m definitely into just putting shit out.
Okay, now I have to ask this. What’s coming next, when are we getting new music?
Honestly, I can’t. I literally have released all the music I have ever made. Either by choice or by being hacked. I don’t have anything up my sleeve.
You get so much stuff leaked! Why do you get hacked so much?
It’s honestly think it’s because I don’t really know about internet security… I don’t have anything hidden away. All my music is out now. But I am feeling very creative at the moment. I’ll probably get back into the studio soon with A.G [Cook] to do a load of stuff. I think I will definitely do something soon. Like some sort of… thing. I don’t know if it’s an album. I don’t think albums are dead, by the way. I just think there’s more interesting ways to release music nowadays. We’ll see.
Photography Constantine Virtanen
Styling Sarah Pritchard
Hair Nicole Kahlani
Makeup Danielle Kahlani
Beauty Direction Georgia Gaillard
Styling Assistant Nat Pluch
Special thanks Y/PROJECT via Slow Waves