Music

Charli XCX Has Leveled Up

When the musician sang "I don't care" in her breakout hit with Icona Pop, it was a warning. Seven years, two albums, and a plethora of collaborations later, the 27-year-old Brit returns with 'Charli,' one of her most raw and impressive projects.
Reading time 7 minutes

Photography by Hannah Diamond
Styling by Lauren Anne Groves
Hair by Nicole Kahlani
Makeup by Danielle Kahlani

"I like it when it's feverish," says Charli XCX. On this hot day in June, in a photo studio in North London, a team of five people bustles around the pop star. She is about to pose for Hannah Diamond, who is primarily a singer but also possesses a photography gift. The two artists know each other well: they worked together on "Paradise," a track released in 2015 on XCX's EP Vroom Vroom. The project was a sonic and underground turning point in the artist's career, which, until then, had been geared towards making titles for the mainstream pop scene. In particular, we owe Charli XCX for the hits "I Love It," which catapulted her to stardom when she wrote it for and performed it with Swedish duo Icona Pop in 2012 ("I don't care, I love it," they sing on the catchy chorus), and "Fancy," in 2014, with Australian rapper Iggy Azalea.

Although XCX was only born in 1992, she already has an extensive career behind her. She got her start when a rave organizer on MySpace discovered her and invited her to make her first appearances in the London warehouse scene. In 2008, Charlotte Emma Aitchison, who already possessed the stage name Charli XCX, was only 16 years old.

"I was making beats on a keyboard. They were trashy, bubblegum rap beats," she explains. "I don't really know, it was bad!" Performing at raves and warehouse parties opened her imagination. "I grew up in the countryside; I didn't know club culture or gay fashion," the star says of her upbringing. "When I arrived at those shows, I felt totally immersed and inspired." 

"I don't care to be a pop star, I don't care to be in the spotlight, to sing songs that will go on the radio."

Two albums and some mixtapes later, on September 13th she released Charli, a demanding and adventurous album, which effortlessly navigates between dance and experimental titles, synthetic pop anthems, pure ballads, and rap features. The album takes an approach that reveals the artist's taste for daring pop.

"I don't care to be a pop star, I don't care to be in the spotlight, to sing songs that will go on the radio," she says, in the spirit that guided her album. "What's important to me is to create an atmosphere you'll never forget, being raw. My show will be the closest to a rave I have ever done." 

In a tradition of well-chosen features, the star invited inventive pop artist Christine and The Queens to collaborate on "Gone." "We spent a week in a French studio, the warmest," she tells us. "So many pastries, wine, and cigarettes." The album also features Sky Ferreira, Estonian rapper Tommy Cash, Cupcakke, and Lizzo, whose latest album, Cuz I Love You, is a concentrate of energy and soul and was the soundtrack of the summer.

The Charli collaborations only add to an already prestigious list. Among the artists with whom XCX has collaborated are stars like Mykki Blanco and Miley Cyrus. More underground artists the musician has worked with include Mr. Oizo, SOPHIE, and Mura Masa, who has signed tracks for Slowthai, A$AP Rocky, and Damon Albarn. Over the summer, she and Diplo released "Spicy," a remix of the Spice Girls' iconic track, "Wannabe." A project that happened "by chance," she explains, was the result of a ten-minute recording session and aimed to bury the hatchet of a quarrelsome friendly relationship.

"I want to work with artists who are truly unique, who are the only ones who do what they do," XCX says of her choices in collaborators. "No one can emulate Sophie; no one is such a fierce rapper as Cupcakke." The pop star wants to base working with other artists in her personal relationships rather than commercial potential. "The label is not involved in the decisions I make for my music," she further clarifies. "I work with people because they inspire me, not because they will help me have streams, which is not the basis of many collaborations."

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XCX firmly believes in girl power. She has created a documentary on feminism in the music industry titled The F-Word and Me for BBC, released a mixtape only featuring women, Number 1 Angel, and manages female pop group Nasty Cherry.

"I am attracted to [working with] women," the musician says of her tendency. "When I write songs, there is this immediate common denominator between us. In the music industry, we go through the same fights. The women I work with are strong, but not afraid of their emotions. It's powerful."

"I don't care, I love it," the unforgettable chorus of her first hit, seems to be a good mantra for the artist. In a pop landscape that often focuses on success, XCX is exploring the confines of the genre as she goes. After the mainstream success of first album True Romance in 2013, she ventured into more punk sound for Sucker the following year. In 2015, she released Vroom Vroom (named in tribute to her love of cars) on PC Music, an English electronic label that exaggerates the most artificial of sweet pop aesthetics. Diamond, in fact, is one of the label's leading figures. Through her work with PC, XCX has ventured into darker and edgier sounds, borrowed samples from Pulp Fiction, and pushed the BPM with elements of Eurodance and trap.

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XCX was spending time on forums when she came across Diamond's Pink and Blue, sparking a lasting creative interest. "I thought it was so good," she explains. "It was the kind of music I was trying to make when I was 16 years old, without knowing how to get there."

As a teenager, the young artist took significant inspiration from Ed Banger's French house music. "This was the first scene I found really exciting," she says. "When I discovered PC Music, I felt the same way. The same excitement about the possibilities of directions and sounds that pop music can borrow." She enlisted AG Cook, the label's founder, as a close collaborator, and together they eventually would produce Charli. The duo worked together for three months on the album, spending most of their time in a Los Angeles home they had transformed into a studio. 

"Our work is emotional, but we don't talk about it; we prefer to move forward," XCX says of what happens when collaborating with Cook. "When you start thinking too much about pop, you get bored. You say things that have already been said. I prefer to be instinctive: the first intuition is good." From the unconventional sound of her raw and bold pop, we couldn't agree more.

 

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