Charli XCX always bared her emotional lows to her fans as often as her highs. In doing so, she combats the notion that artists and celebrities are always pristine, always happy, all the time, a fraudulent standard she might’ve once felt pressure to maintain. In her how I’m feeling now album, recorded with just the DIY tools available to her and her goto producers A.G Cook and BJ Burton in quarantine, she yields even more to her followers who call themselves “Angels”. Not only is Charli giving them the raw soul-baring updates they’ve come to expect, she’s also integrating them into the recording process of her new album. Charli makes every step of the way public, even its unrefined stages, echoing her long toted reminder that the glistening end product takes unglamorous work to get to.
Charli’s “Angels” have already influenced how I’m feeling now’s sound, lyrics, visuals and contributed their own artwork to each track. The music video for the first song in the album, “forever,” which Charli co-directed with Dan Streit, is the culmination of over 5,000 clips contributed by her listeners. The album is slated for release on May 15th, but the loose process has seen its second track “Claws” (ft. official artwork by her friend and artist Sara Cwynar) hit earlier than expected on her whim. Likewise, she planned to shoot her “Claws” video on April 23rd, but an allergic reaction put it off to another day. These effervescent digital spills: “forever” floaty, “Claws” sharp and jutting, are recorded full sprint & mastered in just a handful of days. In between it all, she virtually performs. Recently, she DJ’d a set for Club Quarantine and performed in 100 Gecs’ Square Garden (a music festival inside a Minecraft rendition of Madison Square Garden on April 24th). And with all the increased engagement from her fanbase, Charli has turned their attention towards supporting The World Health Organization and the LA Alliance for homelessness.
In many ways how I’m feeling now epitomizes the doctrine Charli’s always sought to demonstrate in her career. At 14, she uploaded songs from her expressive debut album 14 on Myspace and went on to make her social media platforms a public diary as much as they’re a public forum. It also rages against the pressure to conform Pop music to nagging, money-making earworms in the way she’s sworn against since she felt the pressure to chart high with “Break The Rules.” With her recording process stripped of its usual high-production adornments and executive overhead she only has her own—and her Angels—vision to fulfill.
Ahead of how I’m feeling now’s release, Charli XCX talked with L’Officiel USA about her sound, her fans, her process and how they’ve all been affected by the quarantine.
Are you watching or listening to anything strange in quarantine?
I don’t know if it’s strange, but I’ve been listening to a lot of ambient music during this time. At the beginning, I was watching a lot of movies, but now I’ve been watching The Sopranos instead. There’s so many episodes and seasons that it’ll keep me going for a while. And then I like to do some painting as a fun activity.
What are some of those paintings like?
[laughs] well, I’ve actually gotten into painting rocks. I’ll go collect rocks from my garden and paint them. But when I’m painting on canvas it’s an abstract with some kind of manga elements added in. I painted a cigarette the other day. I’m not a good painter. It’s not something I take seriously. It’s just something that I feel I can really switch off to.
Because you’re recording how I’m feeling now from your home it feels like you have no rules to play by.
That’s essentially it. I think that’s the only way I could make it because we’re in a situation right now where we don’t know what’s going to happen each day. It’s very free, very flowing and it’s a very open process. I’m feeling very inspired right now. I just want to suck in as much creativity and influence as I can. I’m actually getting that from my fans and other people.
Will you take anything you’ve learned from this DIY process into your music on the other side quarantine?
It’s made me question why I’ve never recorded like this. Pre-quarantine, I didn't really live in my own house. It was just this place that I’d come to sometimes to sleep. It wasn’t a place to be still, or to relax and be present. But now I really feel a connection to the place that I live and I feel grounded. Recording at home isn’t something I’ve done since I was 14 or 15. It really challenges you to explore the skillset that you have. When you strip back so many of the things that you have around you it’s like “Okay, what can I make? How good am I? How much do I need to lean on other people? How much is my network supporting me?” I think it’s nice for me to realize that I do have some of the skills I thought I was lacking. I can really lean on my collaborators and they can count on me to still make incredible art even if we’re not in the same country or same room.
Does the disconnect of not collaborating in the same room make for a different sound?
It’s definitely different. Things move slower. For me, when I’m in a studio, I like to start a song and finish a song on the same day. Whereas now, there are like five songs all being made at once. Different parts are being made and worked on. The way that I’m recording affects the process and the outcome.
Have you enjoyed doing live stream performances?
Doing the live stuff has been cool just because I’m asking for direct feedback from my listeners. That’s something I don’t usually do. I don’t usually take a listener into account whilst I’m writing a song. I’m usually very selfish and only write what I want to hear. Whereas the other day I wrote a verse on a song on my Instagram live with the feedback of the people who were watching. That was a completely new process for me. It felt pretty interesting, scary and kind of unique.
Has any fan interaction stood out as particularly influential to the album?
It's all been interesting. The fact that they’re making so many decisions with me down to the artwork and the songs that are coming out is really cool. The most special part to me has been the lyric writing process, which we did the other day. There was this fan named Genevive that was giving us some ideas and I changed a few of the lyrics from the list of ideas that she had written to me. I thought that was really special.
Any funny fan interactions?
Honestly, a lot of the zoom conferences that I’ve been doing have been really fun and amazing just because the comment section goes crazy. I just got off a zoom conference with Paris Hilton and the comments were insane. Just constantly rolling rolling rolling. I’ve also been doing zoom parties, particularly this one called Club Quarantine, which is a queer night based out of Toronto run by these amazing people who are basically putting on a club night every night. There’s a costume party dance, they have music performances and queens performing and DJ sets. It was amazing that I got to perform in it. So fun. All of these people dress up and they’ve got their backgrounds on their screens. It was amazing to see how creative people could get from their living rooms. I found it really inspiring.
And you’re doing a performance inside Minecraft in the game’s rendition of Madison Square Garden.
It’s going to be so crazy. I literally don't even know what Minecraft is. I’m going to be lost in there but I’ve got a friend who’s going to help me so hopefully I’ll be okay. I made a set and I might drop a couple of new song ideas. But we’ll see if I can even get in there.
What can we expect from the music videos for the forthcoming songs?
The next one will actually be kind of different. I’m actually going to try to shoot some stuff for it today. I’m going to do some stuff on a green screen and I’ve also got one of those green [screen] suits. It will be funny. It will be quite a weird one I think. I’ll probably have people make choices about what will go on the green screen. We’ll see how it goes. It could be a disaster. [laughs]
Are you interested in exploring your biracial family background lyrically?
If it feels natural then yes. It’s obviously something I’m more than happy and willing to talk about. My mother’s story is something that’s very interesting to me. That she grew up with such different experiences than me despite us sharing the same heritage. It’s something I mull about every day, and whether that can be vocalized in a song I’m yet to know. But I’m definitely not anti it. I think it could be really interesting if I found the right story to tell.
Do you think social distancing will accelerate the popular DIY “bedroom pop” genre into greater dominance?
It’s definitely possible because this is how we can make music right now. But I think it’s interesting to see how we can challenge what bedroom pop is. Let’s make it evolve so we can expand into new tools and new things.
You’ve really fought to get to this point in your career where you’re making the music you want to how you want to. How’d you get there?
It’s really been a part of my career. I think when I started I was very independent and only making music for me. Then I dabbled with the idea of playing the pop game and doing what people wanted me to do, what I thought people expected of me. I didn’t enjoy it as much. I didn’t feel as creative. I didn’t feel like the work was representative of who I am. So I kind of explored both things. Now I realize for me to be happy and for me to be my best work, it really has to be me controlling it. That’s something I’ll never sacrifice. And whether that makes me difficult or a bitch, or scary, or hard to work with I don’t really care. I know it’s my vision and my art and I can’t compromise that. Luckily I work with a team who’s very understanding of that. Sometimes that’s hard to obtain, particularly being a female in the major label pop world. It is a fight for us. But I’m not afraid to say what I need to say to get what I want. [laughs]