On a steamy midsummer night at Charli XCX’s L.A. home, a dance party is going down in her living room. “Gone,” the funky third single on the English pop singer’s new self-titled album, blasts from speakers that are near a naked mannequin by the fireplace. Instead of hosting a typical listening session at a studio or in a conference room at her label, Charli is throwing a house party at her fairytale-cottage-meets-Addams-Family-inspired home to preview her third LP and first major label release in five years.
Charli’s invited close friends and a crowd of industry folks, and the place is packed. Bartenders mix cocktails in the dining room, chefs whip up tacos in the backyard, and a foxy blonde rolls thick joints in a nook just off the kitchen where Charli keeps a vintage piano bar. The décor in the 27-year-old’s house has a mid-century antique flair set off by the nearly 15 couches she found at secondhand stores.
None of these couches, however, are actually comfortable. “But they look fucking good,” Charli insists of the seating in her home a few days later while devouring a Picado chicken salad at a quaint café about 30 minutes from her digs. Though she boasts about providing guests with pretty things to look at while at her house, she insists that the party favors were atypical.
“My house parties are never that bougie,” says the queen of rowdy bashes, who famously had a soiree shut down by the cops, leaving pal Rita Ora stranded outside. “We just, like, shut off as many rooms in the house as possible and have a table full of booze.”
But she takes credit for the idea of the LP preview being at her house. “I wanted to play the album in the environment that was so inspirational for creating it,” she explains. “I’m inspired a lot by parties and by my friends. They were all there.”
Charli’s made a career of making music about parties and afterparties that play at parties, even if those hype shindigs occasionally make her feel uneasy. “It was a weird meta-experience when ‘Gone’ came on, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this song is about this feeling, and I feel like that, and I’m listening to this song,'” says Charli over lunch, recalling an uncomfortable moment the night of her party. “It’s about that overwhelming anxiety that sometimes happens when you’re in a room full of people, and you feel so isolated and alone,” she adds of the meaning of the track, which features Christine and the Queens’ Héloïse Letissier. “I get it all the time, like I’m always judging myself or feel I don’t belong somewhere.”
The way she’d moved around her own house during the event makes more sense now. She’d slid between people while in her black miniskirt and Dr. Martens combat boots, her shoulders lifted as if she were attempting to recoil. She’d looked down a lot, her heavy, smoky eyeshadow like a goth-glam mask. “It’s funny because I feel like I’m somebody who toys with loving the fact that I feel like I don’t belong,” she continues, slipping off the tie-dye jean jacket that matches her tie-dye jean skirt and white Comme des Garçons x Nike Shox sneakers. “I think I would hate to fit in because then I’d just be another pop statistic.”
How It All Started
When Charlotte Aitchison started writing her own music, she was just 14 years old. She had been inspired by artists on French house label Ed Banger Records, home to acts such as Justice.
“The discovery of this French electro scene made me feel excited [and] alive for the first time,” she says. “Listening to their music made me feel cool. I wanted to make music so I could feel cool too because I was just a nerd, really. So I tried to start making songs on a keyboard with a drum machine.”
After uploading a few of those early tracks on MySpace, the tunes caught the ear of a London rave promoter who asked the then 15-year-old to perform live at one of their warehouse parties. Charli agreed to do the gig and offered her chatroom screen name, Charli XCX (kiss Charli kiss), when the promoter asked for a stage name to put on the flyer. She was escorted to the show by her parents, who hung with her until she hit the stage around 3 a.m. “My mom was like, ‘We’re going to a rave? Oh my God!'” remembers Charli. “Whereas my dad was like, ‘We’re going to a rave, great!’ My dad, I think, is the wild one and my mom is more tame.”
Charli’s Scottish father used to run a concert venue, while her “very protective” Indian mother is a former nurse and flight attendant raised in Uganda. In the 1970s, Charli’s mom and her family relocated to Stansted, England, with little means after being kicked out of Uganda by then-president Idi Amin. “The way she was brought up, family is so important and should be protected,” adds Charli of her mom. “I think she put that on me a little bit.”
Following that initial rave show, Charli fell in love with the party scene and performing songs she’d written. So she kept writing, recording, and performing, and by 2010, she’d signed with Asylum Records. She put out a few singles and mixtapes through 2012 and gained mainstream success with Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” a demo Charli wrote. The Swedish duo released the track in 2012 with Charli credited as a featured singer since her vocals were still on the song.
“The first time we heard the demo, we were like, ‘Fuuuuuck, we want this one!’” say Icona Pop’s Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt. They added of Charli, “She’s so good at writing pop music.”
Days after the dance hit was featured on Lena Dunham’s Girls on January 27, 2013, it made its Billboard Hot 100 debut at No. 69, and peaked at No. 7 that May. But before the track landed in the Top 10, Charli released her favorably reviewed debut album True Romance, a fusion of dark-wave and quirky synth-pop. Then in 2014, Charli appeared on the hook of Aussie rapper Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” The song went to No. 1, stayed there for seven weeks, and earned two Grammy nominations. It was Charli’s first time at the top of the charts. That same year, she gained her first solo Top 10 hit with “Boom Clap,” a single featured on the soundtrack of the romantic drama “The Fault in Our Stars,” and later on her second album, Sucker. The pressure was on for her to continue to chart high–and she was feeling it.
“After ‘Fancy’ and ‘Boom Clap,’ I think there was this expectation of me to be this new, big artist,” she says, adding that the weight to produce a hit led her to include the electro-rock song “Break the Rules”–a track she now regrets recording–on Sucker. “I remember when I wrote it, I was in the studio and I was like, ‘Whoever sings this song is going to be so stupid. It’s so bad.’ I ended up singing it because a lot of people around me were like, ‘This song will be really big. You should put it out.’ I was like, ‘OK, let’s do it. I want a big song.’ And I put it out and hated it, and it’s like, ‘OK, you have to go with your gut. You have to do things you love. Otherwise, what are you doing?'”
Except doing what she loves hasn’t consistently awarded her the kind of superstardom that’s often synonymous with hitmakers in the pop world. But for Charli–who has also written for artists including Selena Gomez, and Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes, whose track “Señorita” was co-written by Chari and topped the Hot 100–that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Fame or Nah?
“I get pulled and pushed into this ‘Do I want fame? Do I want commercial success? Or do I want to do my thing, no games, and make music that I care about?’” she wonders. “And more and more, I’m making decisions for the latter.”
While Charli has tasted mainstream popularity, the success of “Fancy” led her into some “real pop-star whirlwind shit,” she remembers. “That allowed me to see the world and travel and go on crazy TV shows. That was amazing. It’s shaped who I am as an artist. But did it bring me happiness and creative fulfillment? No.”
Charli’s manager, Brandon Creed, has been there for the struggle. “It’s Charli’s dedication to her artistry and authenticity that sometimes creates the internal conflict of sacrificing her true vision for what could potentially be bigger for the mainstream,” he says. “I think that’s what creates the enigma that attracts her devout followers on her pop journey; Charli is a force of passion [and] authenticity.”
Still, the singer feels there is some validity to the ongoing narrative that’s followed her for years: Charli XCX is the underdog. “Sometimes I’m just like, ‘Why am I so underrated?'” she admits. It’s a sentiment that has brought her to tears, as she revealed in an Instagram post in late August. “today has been a very difficult day for me,” she wrote. “i couldn’t get out of bed and have been crying constantly … sometimes i just want to quit everything. sometimes i wish I was only a songwriter, not an artist – so i could give my songs to other artists to sing. and then maybe more people would hear them and connect with them.”
Charli feels strongly about the way creatives position themselves to the world, which is why she’ll take to social media and post what read like diary entries. They offer rare glimpses into the psyche of a pop artist: Instead of wrapping things up in a neat bow and shocking the world with rehab stints and seemingly senseless disappearing acts, Charli gives it to us straight. We know where she stands.
“People don’t often talk about the kind of difficulty that surrounds being a creative person,” she says, tucking her hair–which is dyed pink on the ends and styled in a ’60s-inspired flip–behind her ear. “I think there is this sense of like, ‘We are so lucky to be able to be doing what we’re doing. Don’t complain.’ I think part of the reason creative people are creative is because they’re addicted to this roller coaster of highs and lows. But sometimes it can become really toxic. I’m not happy all the time. I’m not stable all the time, and I don’t want to pretend that I am. I want people who follow me and care about my music to know that I don’t feel 100 percent on my game all the time, and it’s OK.”
As a teenager, Charli struggled to achieve this level of self-awareness. “When I was 16, I didn’t know who I was,” she says. “I was lost, and that’s no bad thing. I don’t think 16-year-olds should have it figured out.”
But her young naïveté led to some misconceptions about the music business. “I thought you signed a deal, made an album, and everybody loved it, and that was it, I was Britney,” she remembers. “Then I realized, ‘No it’s not that easy.’ It’s a lot of work figuring out who you are as an artist and as a person.”
Pop superstardom, she’s discovered, is also extremely demanding. Charli saw firsthand the kind of hustle it takes when she opened for Taylor Swift on her Reputation Tour in 2018, and praises the pop star for being “relentlessly hardworking, gracious and professional.”
But she says it took her a long time to figure out she wasn’t going to be a Britney Spears-type of pop artist. “That’s not shade on Britney–she’s still one of my favorite artists ever,” Charli insists. “But I just wasn’t cut out for that because I was gravitating toward things that weren’t part of mainstream culture.”
Let It Flow
For Charli, creativity relies on the freedom to call the shots and make things that look and sound weird, dark, sultry, fun, futuristic, robotic, and beautiful, like on the bold 2018 Tove Lo bop “bitches,” in which Charli featured alongside Icona Pop, Elliphant, and ALMA. On the track, the ladies detail how to eat them out properly. There’s also the video for the second single on Charli, the Stargate produced, dancehall conjuring “Blame It on Your Love.” In it, freeform devotion is celebrated as sweethearts resembling elves, fish, angels, felines, and canines–via prosthetics–love on each other.
Charli’s also broken habits by consistently appearing moody in photos and putting out EPs, mixtapes, and singles over the last five years instead of releasing a traditional album. She’s never gone off the radar—she just chose to do things on her terms. “Blame It on Your Love,” featuring Lizzo, is an updated version of the dreamy song “Track 10″ from her most recent mixtape, 2017’s Pop 2. “Before Lizzo was on it, it just never felt right to me,” says Charli. “She’s so effervescent and is a really fun and charismatic writer.”
Additionally, Charli—who also produces—does most of the treatments for her videos and often directs them. This was the case for the flirtatious visuals for the bubbly 2017 single “Boys,” which flips the male gaze, putting a group of fellas on display, including Diplo, who plays with puppies; Joe Jonas, who drizzles syrup on pancakes; and a greased-up Jack Antonoff, who does arm curls with a pink dumbbell.
“Defining what success meant to me made me able to liberate myself in the pop landscape,” she says. “I’m an artist on a major label who doesn’t really operate like one. I’m doing the creative. I’m booking my own sessions. I don’t want the suggestions. I have my own identity and thought process. I don’t feel like I have to prove myself or get permission to do anything. I like that because I need my money from my major label to make sick videos, but I don’t want all the fucking crap that comes with it.”
Boss bitch tendencies aside, Charli’s wavering confidence contributed to the gap between LP releases. “I felt, ‘Would anyone care if I put an album out?’” she admits. But the adoration of futuristic pop paragon Pop 2 restored her faith.
“Pop 2 was me doing everything that I wanted to do and not worrying about commercial success, not worrying about what people thought, not worrying about my label, just doing me,” says Charli. “And that is the thing that spoke to people the most. Pop 2 turned me into an artist who cannot be replicated. No one can do what I do when I’m doing that. I think that gave me the confidence to want to make [Charli] and the confidence I have in this dialogue with my fans. I felt like I could be very open because I felt like they cared.”
Fueling the experimental electro-pop on her new album is Charli’s desire to be honest and understood. On the intimate record, she digs into complexities of relationships with friends and lovers, as well as “thoughts and feelings about my mental state and what life is supposed to be as an artist, my depression, and my insecurities,” she says. “I’m being more honest than ever before. It’s been very therapeutic.”
Sonically, the synths on Charli are heavy, and the production is often richly darkwave, setting the tone for pensive threads on tracks such as the lovesick “I Don’t Want to Know,” in which Charli sings, “Kisses fall on her lips/ kisses that should be mine/ I don’t want to know … what you’ve done,” and ballad “Thoughts,” in which she sings about questioning friendships and taking drugs to numb the pain while riding through Hollywood. Elsewhere, island vibes touch “Warm,” a duet with pop-rockers HAIM about hesitating to fall in love, while the club-ready “Shake It” enlists Big Freedia, the vanguard of bounce, and sexually opulent rapper-singer Brooke Candy to fill dance floors.
“There’s harder moments, softer moments, more intimate moments, and there are moments where you feel like your speaker is about to break, which are my favorite moments,” explains Charli. “I’m just trying to make what I feel.”
A large number of features on the album mirrors the way Charli operates in real life: She’s rarely alone. She lives with two of her childhood best friends and producer pal Max Hershenow, and when she’s not working, she’s plotting ways she and her friends can team up artistically. “It’s relentlessly music, work,” she says. “It’s beginning to scare me. I’m beginning to be like, ‘Maybe I should start some hobbies.'”
For her latest album’s purpose, though, that work ethic served her well, as Charli handpicked all 13 of the artists who appear, instead of having her label connect dots. “A personal relationship is important,” she says of how she selects with whom she works. “I don’t like a cold collaboration.”
“One of her superpowers is bringing people together to do great stuff,” add Jawo and Hjelt. “She is a creative force.”
The artists she chose to collaborate with on this album “are truly individual and unique,” says Charli. “They create their own world, and I’m a fan. I feel inspired by them. That is the main thing.”
Big Freedia mirrors Charli’s sentiment. “Like me, she pushes boundaries,” notes the bounce queen. “But most importantly, she creates music that makes her feel good and her fans.”
To create this album, Charli rented a house just up the street from where we’re sitting, and recorded over three months, starting at the top of the year. It was there that Charli went deep on wax, and longtime producer A.G. Cook was present for those moments. The kind of bond they’ve built over the years helped make Charli her most intimate album.
“A.G. understands my brain, and I understand his,” says Charli. “He would never be like, ‘What are you feeling?’ People do that, and it’s gross and cringe-y and weird. I don’t want to talk about my feelings before I’m writing a song. I enjoy being really spontaneous when I’m creating.”
It’s that spontaneity, her need for authentic reciprocity, and the draw to embrace and share raw emotions–whether dark or bright–that will always set Charli apart. As our interview winds down, she flashes a smile. “What have you got on for the rest of the day?” she asks. She seems ready to just shoot the shit and hang now, maybe even form a real connection.
But before we can chat further, she’s urged by someone on her team to join him at his table before she has to jump into another interview and then head to the studio. She gives an “oh well” shrug and offers a goodbye hug. The moment is reminiscent of something Charli mentioned earlier. “It’s a head fuck,” she’d said about being an artist. “But it’s also fun.”