Charli XCX: ‘Labels are desperate for artists to be liked, otherwise you’re bad, evil and wrong’ | Charli XCX

You used to get one shot in the music business: the wrong marketing, the wrong song and you’d never be heard from again. This was not the case for Charlotte Aitchison, better known as Charli XCX, who posted tracks on Myspace so long ago she invited comparisons to Kate Nash. Still just 31, and living between London and LA, she has written countless hits for other people – Icona Pop’s shouty I Love It, the slinky Señorita, sung by Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes – as well as carving out a niche in experimental pop. Her songs can be brash and bombastic (you might know Boom Clap) but her personal vibe is dry and knowing. Her last record, 2022’s Crash, was a concept album about becoming a mainstream pop star: when it went to No 1, and she scored a song (Speed Drive) on the Barbie soundtrack, it seemed that she’d made it for real.

While most people under 30 know very well who she is, much of the world doesn’t, and this strange state of “famous but not quite” inspired one of the songs on her new album, Brat.

She behaves, in some ways, like a megastar. This interview nearly didn’t happen; date after date was proposed and cancelled. She was in London and so was I: I could do wherever, whenever, I said, desperately. When we eventually speak – on Zoom – she is in the front seat of a car, on a wobbly phone, in a brown vest with her long hair draped over the seatbelt. She is on the way to try out her PARTYGIRL show at Radio 1’s Big Weekend. “I’m so sorry for being difficult,” she says. She is soft, eloquent and deadpan. There is a lot of irony with Charli XCX, but it’s not the occasional raise of an eyebrow – rather, an almost permanent cast, so consistent that she sounds sincere again. The phone cuts out. It comes back and forth across the M1 to Luton but, eventually, we get there.

“The industry’s changed a lot,” she says. “I’ve been told for so long that I’m an outsider and I never really felt accepted into the British music scene. The press has perpetuated that narrative of me. I’m this girl who straddles the underground and pop music, and that, for some reason, is really difficult for some people to wrap their heads around.”

Charli XCX says she has always thrived on the idea of living a double life. She is half Indian and half English, for a start: her mother, Shameera, came from a Gujarati family in Uganda, forced to flee in the 1970s under the regime of Idi Amin. Weekends were spent with Nana and Appa in Crawley, watching Bollywood films, but she knows no Gujarati other than the phrase for “hurry up” (“jaldi-jaldi!”). She thinks she wasn’t taught it because her mother had had a difficult transition to the UK: once, someone threw a milkshake over her in the street.

Charli XCX, centre, in the video for her song 360. Photograph: YouTube

On the one hand, the teenage Aitchison was “uncool” at school, on the other she was listening to Justice and 2ManyDJs, dreaming of making dance music. At 15, she announced she was leaving home to live with a man she’d met on Myspace who promoted illegal raves. Her parents were relieved when she went off this idea, and just asked to play the raves instead. She recently found flyers for the Peanut Factory in Hackney Wick and the Resistance Gallery in Bethnal Green, some of her earliest shows in 2008 in London. As she was underage, her mum and dad came with her, and kept at some distance in the crowd, her “wild child” businessman father reliving his youth.

She blagged her way into the Slade School of Fine Art – “Not to take away from the artists who attend art school, but I do think that a lot of it is about the gift of the gab” – but she struggled with its traditional environment, dropping out after the first year. “I found it very intimidating,” she says. “I just felt like a loser the whole time. I didn’t feel eloquent enough, I didn’t feel well-read enough.” The experience was good practice, though, for stepping up to the next level in the music industry. “You’re around people who are a lot older than you, who will tell you that they’re right and you’re wrong. I think going to art school and facing that in a lower-stakes environment was helpful, because it taught me to stand up for myself.”

While still at the Slade, Aitchison did a piece of performance art dressed as Britney Spears, lip-syncing to …Baby One More Time in front of some Justin Bieber posters. That was 2010: then, in 2013, there was her debut album, True Romance, which, while critically acclaimed, sold, in her words, “around 12 copies”.

You can’t understand Charli XCX without understanding the scene she then immersed herself in for the better part of a decade: the label PC Music, which housed Danny L Harle, Hannah Diamond, GFOTY and others, many with very strange names. The label was the brainchild of Goldsmiths graduate AG Cook, who once claimed he was promoting people who didn’t usually make music and “treating them as if they were major label artists”. In pop’s metaverse, where everything has been done before, PC Music made Technicolor postmodern “hyperpop” inspired by early 2000s eurodance, full of nostalgic references to the earliest days of the internet (the “XCX” comes from the name Charli used on Messenger when she was a pupil at Bishop’s Stortford College).

On stage in Arizona, 2018. Photograph: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

The label, which stopped releasing new music last year, transcended genre, its heavy use of Auto-Tune and pitch-shift turning some of its singers into childlike, otherworldly avatars. “Thus far,” says Aitchison, “any collaborators I’d worked with had at points thought of my ideas as silly or childish, or not eloquent. It took some people who were willing to think quite drastically outside the box to make those ideas reality, and that was what I found in PC Music.”

The most famous artist (beyond Charli XCX) affiliated to the label was Sophie, the Scottish producer whose songs (such as Lemonade, or Hard) set cosmically cute voices on emotive, abrasive melodies. Sophie died in 2021 after falling from the roof of her apartment while trying to see a full moon. She is the subject of the tender, halting song So I, on Brat, which contrasts her warmth and humanity with Charli’s reticence (“You said come on stay for dinner / I said no I’m fine”). Sophie produced Vroom Vroom, one of those “childish” ideas for a song: “I said: ‘I want to write a song about fast cars and I want the track to feel chaotic, but sexy and fun and dark, all at once.’ Sophie totally understood that.”

“People were so perplexed by PC Music, but it’s unbelievably simple as a concept,” she concludes. “All of the people who are signed to the label, their character is very similar to the music they release. It’s just a jacked-up, amped-up version of the real person. People thought it was a gimmick – ‘Oh, these people aren’t really like that’ – but they are!”

I first met Charli XCX six years ago, making a radio show for the World Service about this developing cult pop star. She was already based in LA much of the time – living out of a suitcase but always in a five-star hotel. She was tired, and sulky, but she turned up for work. She told me she’d had media training early in her career, “but the teacher said I was the worst person she’d ever encountered. I actually think I’m a great interview.”

She was, in a way. One of the most commonly asked questions of musicians who write songs for other people is whether they wish they’d kept hit songs for themselves. “If I don’t keep a track, it’s because I don’t like it,” she said bluntly. Could she tell when something was going to be a hit? “Never.” Her worst nightmare, she told me, would be someone hearing what she sounds like without Auto-Tune: when she’s in the booth, with the cans on and the software pulling her voice up to the right pitch, she is in her happy place. But if you were listening in the room it would sound “crazy. I mean crazy. I have to say: I can’t sing but trust me it will be good.”

With her fiance, George Daniel, drummer of the 1975. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Vanity Fair

It was hard to work out what kind of a pop star she was. At her show the following week, at London’s Village Underground, fans had queued from 6am: one was doing his master’s degree on PC Music. The gig was a giant dance party for the initiated: she hosted dozens of other acts on stage.

These days, Charli XCX is part of an LA scene – along with Caroline Polacheck and Christine and the Queens, with whom she’s collaborated – where some of the most experimental sounds are being made. Her wonderfully strange lockdown album, How I’m Feeling Now, was nominated for a Mercury prize, and she is uniquely placed at the intersection of pop and alternative music. Last month a satirical video for her latest single, 360, featuring Julia Fox, Chloë Sevigny, Hari Nef and other immaculate female celebrities, imagined a quest to find “the new hot internet girl”. Also present is Gabbriette, lead singer of the all-girl punk band Nasty Cherry, which Charli put together for the 2019 Netflix docuseries. The video locates her at the cutting edge of internet culture. It is almost designed to make people like me feel old.

“More than ever now, people are rewarding the niche,” says Aitchison. “Finally, it seems fine that I’m just myself, and suddenly people like it. It’s good to finally be accepted. I’m happy with the winding path I’ve taken, and with my status as more of an outsider, because sometimes I feel a bit awkward being in the club. I’m at peace with it all. It’s all cool.”

She now lives in the Hollywood Hills, in a house formerly owned by Scottish DJ-producer Calvin Harris, and is engaged to George Daniel, drummer of the 1975. In a music world ruled by one or two artists who barely speak to the press, Aitchison’s directness is invaluable. “I hate the traditional LA approach to songwriting,” she says. “Having a kind of therapy session at the beginning, talking about what is going on in your life, then turning a sentence or two of that into a song – that’s my nightmare way of writing,” she says. “It produces very flaccid songs in my opinion.”

For Brat, she has worked with few co-writers other than her old friend AG Cook. “I’ve always been very blunt. I’ve taken one step forward and two steps back in terms of being secure in who I am as a person, but I think that’s just a human thing. Right now, there’s this alchemy where I’ve somehow been drawn to making a club record – which feels intrinsically who I am – coupled with this new lyrical style. It’s very much like texts I would send to friends. I wasn’t worried about rhyme, or the traditional things; it’s really just about capturing a feeling of chaos and saying the most blunt thing that is at the top of my brain.”

The album was named in tribute to the unabashed me-centric nature of internet culture, which she both satirises and plays into. It is an unusually intimate record, full of Sophie-inspired minimalism: the tracks that work best are so personal it feels like you’re eavesdropping. Take Girl, So Confusing, which centres on a female friend whose intentions she can’t figure out: “Are you waiting to watch me fall?” The track seems to expand the conversation about female solidarity into a more genuine emotional space, acknowledging how complicated relationships between women can be. “I’m glad you put that so eloquently, because I suppose I’ve been nervous that people would just think that I’m being a real bitch,” she says. “What you’ve said is totally right, and I wish we could just quote you.” Charli XCX is having fun with me.

“We’ve got past the point of the media always pitting women against one another,” she continues. “In the mid to late 00s, it literally sold magazines and papers: ‘Britney versus Christina’, ‘Paris versus Lindsay’. Then feminism became a popular marketing tool. In the music industry, it was distilled into this idea that if you support women, and you like other women, then you’re a good feminist. The reverse of that is, if you don’t like all other women who exist and breathe on this Earth then you’re a bad feminist. If you’re not a girl’s girl then you’re a bad woman.

“That’s just such an unrealistic expectation of women,” she says. “Relationships between women are super-complex and multi-layered. You can like someone and dislike them at the same time; you can feel jealous of somebody but they can still be your friend; you can have the best time of your life on a night out with someone but not be that close to them at all. You can pose with your arms around a person at an awards show, but in reality you’re feeling not worthy, or small – or really cocky, or confident, or a huge multitude of different emotions. One day you can feel completely on top of the world; the next day, you can feel like your career’s over. The song is saying, sometimes it’s really confusing to be a girl, and that’s fine.”

It’s hard work being a pop star these days. You must be across every part of your image – design, message, photography, stagecraft. You have to be able to manage your fans with the right level of intimacy while also keeping the boundaries, because fans, and internet culture, are literally making you what you are. “We used to live in a time where artists could live in a vacuum,” she says. “You could have a great song, even a great album, and not be super-immersed in gossip culture. The internet has broken the distance that a lot of artists used to have. What gets me interested in an artist is when they have – not really a backstory, it’s more like lore…”

When I met her six years ago, Aitchison was holding a “listening party” in Gloucester Road, at which she consulted fans for advice on her next album. Around 15 people under 20 came to a room, with a table set out with crisps and sweets. She played new tracks and asked whether they should be singles. “What do you think of the drop? Is it too late? Should I keep this song for myself or give it to someone else?”

“I don’t think it’s very you,” said one boy, and she accepted it, slightly taken aback. Her lockdown album was also written with an “open” production process, consulting fans on creative decisions, and in 2022 it all got too much when some of them came down hard on her for the singles she chose from Crash. She didn’t fight back, just left Twitter for a while. “These days, labels are really desperate for their artists to be liked, and the currency of niceness is really important in selling records, otherwise you’re bad, evil and wrong,” she says. “You can’t separate yourself from your fans. Unless it’s extremely drastic and distant – and then that almost becomes the culture itself…”

You can almost hear the cogs working, as Charli XCX starts to imagine a new kind of pop star.

“Persona is intrinsic to the modern-day artist, unless you completely reject it and do something alien-like and cold… I can’t wait for somebody to do that, actually. I can’t wait for someone to be really cold and mean and icy. But we’re not in a place where any major artist could do that. I hope someone dares.”

A cold, alien pop star, who disdains their fans?

“Yeah, how fun, how fabulous. I’m up for that.”

This article was amended on 2 June 2024. An earlier version incorrectly said that Charli XCX was creative director of PC Music, and that Sophie was published by that label, rather than affiliated with it.

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