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Cover Story: Charli XCX

| December 2, 2014


At last month’s American Music Awards, held at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, British diva Charli XCX did not nab any actual physical trophies. But her appearance there was nonetheless a personal triumph, as she strolled out in a powder-blue prom dress, then tore it away to reveal a punky latex miniskirt and matching halter top, as she sang “Boom Clap”– her Top 10 single from the soundtrack for tearjerking flick “The Fault in Our Stars”– and her latest hit, “Break the Rules,” a sinister synth stomper with the rebellious chorus of “I don’t want to go to school/ I just want to break the rules.” The songs – coupled with her duet with Australian rapper Iggy Azalea on their chart-climber “Fancy” – prefaced the December release of her new album Sucker. It also signaled the end of a long dark period for the singer, and the beginning of a bright new year that will most undoubtedly belong to her. Next November, she’ll sweep those AMAs.

Born Charlotte Aitchison, the singer – only 22 – has made a rollicking, on-point follow up to her texturally-diverse 2013 bow on Atlantic, True Romance. Sucker opens on the woo-woo-draped title track, and her inquisitive, almost rhetorical question – “Do you get me now? Dear God, I’m a killer now.”

Indeed, she is. It’s followed by the irresistible “Break the Rules,” then several other numbers, any one of which could be a monster Billboard hit. There’s the huge, handclap-punctuated anthem “Breaking Up”; a guitar-grinding rocker called “Famous” (which mocks the quest for notoriety for its own sake); the Queen-elaborate chant “Hanging Around”; a classic Bic-flicking power ballad, “Die Tonight,” destined to light up stadiums as a set closer, and a punk-fueled powerchorder dubbed “Body of My Own,” an apparent ode to masturbation (“I’m into myself, don’t need you/ I can do it better when I’m all alone.” And – as the old female-empowerment adage goes – A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

Who, exactly, is the Sucker? The lady laughs, wickedly. “I guess partially it’s my cynical critique on the music industry as a whole,” she growls. “And it’s partially about all of the people who told me that I was not going to be able to do this.” She pauses, then sighs. “And I guess it’s partially me, as well. Because even though I’m very aware that I’m critiquing the pop circus that is the Top 40 world, I’m also very aware that I’m kind of becoming part of that now. So it’s partially also on me, too, you know? So there are quite a few finger-pointers in that song.”

Explaining “Famous,” the star is momentarily at a loss for words. “What’s funny with “Famous” is that song wasn’t something….” she starts, then stops. “The thing is, when I write my songs, I’m never thinking about how they relate to me or really what I’m saying  — I just write the song, and maybe subconsciously, it’s linked to my life. But I only really realize the link to it afterwards, after it’s done. Afterwards, I’m like ‘Oh yeah! Shit! That could be about something that I’ve been keeping inside for awhile, but I’ve never really realized it!’ So “Famous” was just something that came out – it was me and (collaborator) Greg Kurstin just doing our thing for a couple of hours, and that came out of it.”

Other co-writers on the record? Weezer mastermind Rivers Cuomo, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, and Swedish Svengali Patrik Berger, who chipped in on four separate songs. Believe it or not, Aitchison reveals, at her lowest moment, to cheer herself up, she flew off to Stockholm and disappeared into Berger’s studio. “I started making punk music, and I was even covering songs by Patrik’s old band Snuffed by the Yakuza,” she explains. “And I kind of found my voice again, I suppose, and I got out a lot of aggression . And I think it kind of put me in a better place.” A good deal of those in-your-face recordings are just sitting around, awaiting future release. “I wouldn’t say it’s a whole album, but it’s definitely an EP’s worth,” she adds. “And they’re all pretty cool songs, and all two minutes long. A couple of the more pop songs from that session made it onto Sucker. But there are at least three others that I’m going to put out eventually.”

On the surface, Charli XCX’s life looked almost like a fairy-tale. She had started composing and posting songs in her early teens – awkward sentiments like “Art Bitch” – and she even signed to the swank Asylum imprint, although her 14 debut disc for it was never officially released. She tried art school for a year, but boomeranged back to her key passion, songwriting, eventually arriving at the eclectic mix that would comprise “True Romance,” like the Cocteau Twins-ethereal “Nuclear Seasons,” a Lene Lovich-eccentric “You’re the One,” and Siouxsie Sioux-sleek Gothic experiment “Black Roses.” Then came her composition “I Love It,” which was fortuitously pounced upon by Swedish girl duo Icona Pop; It went on to become a worldwide smash, and XCX even appeared in its video. Aitchison’s career looked red-hot from the outside. Inside, however, it was colder than the tomb.

“I Love It” had grown almost too popular. And although its writer was suddenly being asked to collaborate with others, like Britney Spears (an experience she truly enjoyed), assembly-line requests started pouring in. “There were a lot of people who were like ‘Oh, there’s this new girl band being put together by a label, and they’re basing it on “I Love It” meets (Azealia Banks’ hit) “212,” blah, blah, blah,” she recalls, none too fondly. “And they just wanted “I Love It” meets “212” on all of their songs. And I’m like “okay, well. I can’t really replicate that song – it just kind of happened, and I don’t even know how.’ It all just felt very….very stale, I suppose.”

In retrospect, the artist can see it all too clearly. “I was pretty tied up in the post-“I Love It” craziness. And half of it was eating at me, eating me alive. And another part of it was me actually wanting to capitalize on it, and feeling in a really weird spot. It was the closest I’d ever been to becoming that music industry stereotype, and I really didn’t like it. So I felt just very kind of…kind of down after the success of “I Love It.” Firstly, I felt like I hadn’t gotten the credit I deserved for that song, and secondly, I was getting sick and tired of people asking me to go in the studio and replicate it for other artists. I felt like I was being treated like a machine. So it was around then that I just shut myself away and didn’t really fuck around with the music industry that much.”

Half-jokingly, the singer has said that she stayed indoors, slept all day in bed, and ate as much cake as she wanted. Which couldn’t have been far from the truth. She grew so disenchanted with show business, she actually toyed with leaving it altogether. She could just become a Brill Building-skilled songwriter instead, content to work in the shadows, out of the annoying spotlight. She was also experiencing panic attacks, some so severe they would send her climbing up the studio walls, Literally. “When I get nervous, I don’t know what to do with my body,” she explains. “So I kind of climb shit and move around. I had one bad one, where I actually ran out of the studio, crying – Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat were in there, but I just had to get out. And the next day, Benny talked to me about it, and he really helped me out. He said

‘The next time you feel like that, just hold a load of ice cubes.’ So now every time I feel panicked, I just hold a load of ice cubes in my hand, and it kind of chills me out. And it just makes you focus on the pain of the ice cubes in your hand, and you literally stop panicking.”

By the time she and Azalea’s co-written “Fancy” became big this year, Charli XCX was physically and mentally prepared for it. The pair had campy fun with it, morphing its video into a playful trip down memory lane as the gals recreate characters and scenes from the classic film Clueless. They went on to perform the track live on countless morning-and-talk TV shows, with Charli singing the sugary chorus while Azalea spat the rapid-fire verses. It was a surprise hit that neither artist fully expected. “But I’m glad it did (chart),” XCX says. “I feel very proud of Iggy and really happy for her – I think she deserves all the success that she has right now. But with that song, it was funny – I personally never know when I’ve written a good song, a hit song. I just know when I think something is cool. But I just remember thinking that song was cool – it felt like girl power, like a real Gwen Stefani moment. Which is exactly what I wanted to create. So I’m really happy I did it.”

And Charli XCX (a name nicked from her old MSN screen handle, Kiss Charli Kiss) keeps right on having a blast these days, as in her current clip for “Break the Rules,” which returns to “Fancy”‘s bratty schoolgirl theme. She’s also currently single. Or, as she puts it, “I’m just chillin’.” “I’ve gotten out of my weird sort of low and back into a good place,” she declares. “I feel like I have something important to say as an artist again, even more so than on True Romance. And I was really happy with True Romance – I toured it, and I really loved that record. But I guess people just didn’t feel it so much…

“With True Romance, I was making it while I was growing up,” she continues. “And I still didn’t feel entirely comfortable in the studio. But I feel like this album I’m about to put out is 100% from my own brain, and really what I’ve wanted to say all along. “Sucker” is something that I’m very proud of, and it feels like it’s totally Charli XCX.” She expected to change a lot during the post-Icona Pop process. But when she looks in the mirror, she still sees the same exotic Scottish/Indian features staring back at her, with a girl-next-door innocence. “So I really don’t think I have changed, unless all the people around me are lying,” she laughs. “I think I’m still pretty chill, and there hasn’t been so much climbing on shit.  And I would just like to keep myself in my own kind of world, and my own brain.”

One thing is abundantly clear. Charli XCX will soon be an even greater force to be reckoned with. Both as a performer – since she’s decided to soldier on in that department – and as a songwriter, given that her work can be both cutting-edge and shamelessly singalong, simultaneously. Few composers possess that gift – the ability to please both lowbrow and highbrow masses. And she’s finally beginning to recognize her own remarkable talent.

“I’m very critical of myself,” Charli XCX summarizes. “Or at least, I used to be. I was very critical of myself, I was always consciously comparing myself, and I wasn’t really happy with myself. And around the time of “I Love It”‘s success, post-True Romance, that’s when I was feeling really weird. But now I’ve just really begun to, well…stop caring about success, you know? And I’m just happy simply making music right now, and being in the studio. And luckily, I’m in a place where I think a lot of people could well hear my new record, and that’s awesome. And if one person hears Sucker? Great. If a million people hear it?

Also great.

-Tom Lanham

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