Charli XCX Pauses the Party to Get Real

Charli XCX Pauses the Party to Get Real

“I feel so unstable, fucking hate these people, how they’re making me feel lately,” Charli XCX sings on “Gone,” one of the best singles from her newly released, long-awaited third album Charli, a dark, pulsing song about feeling anxious and isolated. It’s a far cry from the bubbly, hyper-produced party music she’s been cultivating her entire career, from the pop-punk tracks of her breakthrough Sucker to her latest mixtapes Pop 2 and Number 1 Angel, each filled with non-stop bangers dedicated to fast cars and fembots.

Charli XCX’s sound has changed significantly over the course of her career ever since she ditched attempts at glossy, mainstream production (she can make a chart-topping hit in her sleep, as she’s done in the past for others with songs like “Fancy” and “I Love It”) and hooked up with visionary producers like SOPHIE and A.G. Cook. But the vibe of her music has largely stayed the same: she makes music for an insanely good time, designed to be played on blown-out speakers in the corner of a crammed house party. But considering her releases are chock full of collaborators and artists like CupcakKe, Kim Petras, Lizzo, and Haim, Charli XCX packs a party into each of her records.

But Charli, her third official album in the label designation sense—even though her two previously released “mixtapes” are certainly albums—is a surprisingly vulnerable release for an artist who’s been proving that over-produced, fantasy-driven pop music is a valid art form. “You know I’ve got a suit of armor on/You’ll never see me cry,” she sings on a new song, “White Mercedes.” “I hate the silence, that’s why the music’s always loud.” On Charli, she finally turns down the volume a bit on, for a collection of songs that speak more to her insecurities than ever before.

Jezebel spoke with Charli XCX about fake confidence, Instagram, finally finding creative collaborators, and why she’s really like Gandalf, just trust her.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

JEZEBEL: You previously said this album took three months, which is the longest you’ve spent working on an album. Why did this project take more time for you?

CHARLI XCX: I think it was just that I had the time to write. I didn’t take longer because I was stuck. It was more just like I had the time in my schedule to actually take the time to write. Like with Pop 2, for example, I had like two weeks. I decided at the very last minute I was going to drop Pop 2 and I was going on tour right afterwards. But with [Charli], in November 2018, I thought, okay, I want to do a third mixtape. So I called up [my producer] A.G. [Cook] and we did two weeks of writing, and then by the end of it, I was like, This doesn’t feel right, I think we should make an album. We’re at our peak; Charli, A.G., collab-ing, let’s do something bigger. That’s how we decide to do an album.

This album was originally going to be 20 songs, and then I cut five because I was thinking it’s too long for people to engage with. Whether those [five songs] become part of next album… they probably won’t, they might become something—I don’t really know, but I’m just ready to start making the next album and have been for two months now.

Was there a specific moment where you felt like, “This is our peak,” working with A.G.?

I think we just understand each other so well in the studio now. It’s not that I think the songs on the album are better than the songs on the mixtape. All of the songs I’ve been releasing over the past two years have been very good. I mean, I make them, so I would think that. I also felt like maybe people expected me to do another mixtape, so it was kind of fun to be like, haha I’m just kidding, it’s an album!

What is the difference for you between what’s an album and what’s a mixtape for you? Because the songs sound cohesive.

Honestly, it’s a logistical thing. [My] mixtapes are like 10 original tracks. It’s essentially an album; there’s artwork, there’s features. But just by calling it a mixtape, it immediately relieves the pressure from my label’s perspective because they’re like, okay, we don’t have to figure out how to fit this album into the release schedule just because it’s not an album. Being signed to a major label, it’s very hard for me to just be like, hi, I’m making an album, I’m starting tomorrow, and it’s gonna be finished in two weeks!

Was it just a pacing thing or did you feel like you could pull things off creatively in your mixtapes that you couldn’t do in an album.

Maybe when I was younger, yeah, but I’ve definitely worked hard on my confidence to truly make the decisions I want to make. I feel very creatively free now when I’m making anything.

I’m paying everyone, I’m paying my friends, like have I become that cliché of a person who’s living in the Hills in L.A. with a load of people on the payroll around them?

When you say worked on your confidence, how did you do that?

I think my first two albums are great. True Romance, in particular, I think is really good. But I think I still felt very nervous as a writer and an artist. I was 17, making all the decisions. I would doubt myself a lot and sort of lean on other people. I also was just was not a hundred percent fully confident in my sound, particularly on Sucker. Whereas now, I feel like I make music that I want to hear out in a club or a party. With Sucker, it wasn’t that I was making music I didn’t like. I just hadn’t found that ultimate sweet spot. I think when I met [the producer] SOPHIE, it was like from that point onwards, I did find that sound I had been so desperately looking for.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about doubting yourself because when reading press from that era, True Romance and Sucker, you come across as an extremely confident artist.

Well, I think I always felt like I had to be. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t like a mess. I think when I was younger I just thought, okay, I have to look really confident all the time. And now, even though I am very confident in the decisions I make, I would say once every three months I have a day where I’m like I’m a mess and I’m like not good. I’m really vulnerable and volatile, like emotionally volatile, and I don’t hide from that anymore. I don’t pretend, I’m like, I don’t fucking know what’s up today! I feel like shit and I feel like I am not supposed to be here, I feel like I should give up.

Sometimes I have that kind of thought process privately, and other times I have it publicly on my Instagram. I would never have done that before when I was like 18, because I [thought] if I’m emotionally vulnerable people won’t take me seriously. People will think I’m weak. That was my fear, I suppose, but now I just don’t care. You shouldn’t run from it. I doesn’t make you a weak person; it just makes you human.

And I think you can definitely hear that on Charli. I’ve always associated you with really great party music, but on this record you’re singing about feeling unstable, about your anxiety. You have the line on “Thoughts” where you sing, “Are my friends really friends now?” Which I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone express in a pop song. Where did that come from?

That song is the most honest. I was really going through it that day. We were working at Flume’s studio, A.G. and I, and we had like two weeks to write, but I had to fly in and out of L.A. to do a load of shit most of the time, so I think in the end we actually had five days. I was so frustrated because I was feeling like all I wanted to do was write and couldn’t. I was getting all these calls. I’d be in different places at different times, and my brain was gonna explode. My two managers, who I absolutely love, are my best friends, but on a day like that when I’m so low I’m like, who the fuck are you! Why are you here! Like, do you care about me?! And I’m in L.A. I live there, I love L.A., but it makes me think, walking around Hollywood, like, who are these people? I’m paying everyone, I’m paying my friends, like have I become that cliché of a person who’s living in the Hills in L.A. with a load of people on the payroll around them? What’s real, what isn’t real?

A.G. had these four chords ready like on a loop. I was like, okay, put the mic on, I have an idea. It’s so funny, this sounds like something like that movie Glitter. [Laughs] I just recorded most of the melody and some of the lyrics just free-styling it. The song came together in half an hour.

I’m kind of like the weird wizard that comes in. I’m not going to say I’m Gandalf, but I’m wise. I’ve been around, I’ve done the things, now I’m on some weird shit.

You mentioned being more open on Instagram. I remember there was something you posted like a month ago, where you said, “Sometimes I feel like I have this complex where I feel like I deserve more and I should just be happy with what I have.” What spurred that?

I can’t remember the exact specifics, but when I get like that, when I feel like tired, depressed, that’s when I doubt myself. I compare myself to other people, other artists. I’m like, why don’t I have that? I feel like I deserve more recognition. I get really sucked into it, I don’t know what triggers it. [I think] if I just gave all my songs to other people, I wouldn’t have to go through this. I could just sit in my house and if the song became a hit it would make me money and I’d just stay in my house and never get dressed every day and live a great life. But I wouldn’t feel creatively satisfied if I did that, you know? I can’t play the game where I become something I’m not.

A large part of your narrative as an artist is being described as this “pop underdog,” and I wonder if it ever gets annoying.

No, I mean I am one. I’m like, totally underrated. [Laughs] It’s cool, I’m not really happy in my space. I’m underground, but I’m also pop. I don’t know, I’m trying to think of the role I’d play in a movie… I’m not the lead character, and I’m not the sidekick. I’m kind of like the weird wizard that comes in. I’m not going to say I’m Gandalf, but I’m wise. I’ve been around, I’ve done the things, now I’m on some weird shit. Please don’t make the title of your piece that I compared myself to Gandalf.

I think that since you started first making music, your sound and style has changed a lot, but pop music in general has changed a lot. The days of being a pop artist and singing solely about being beautiful and happy and going to parties are kind of over now, and songs about depression, anxiety, like the kind you’re making now, have kind of taken over. I’m curious where you think that shift comes from.

Of course, there’s always going to be songs about love and partying, but sad is the new happy. I think that’s just a sign of the world that the youth live in. We grow up on the internet, we grow up already with one foot in this extremely fake, anxiety-ridden world, especially people younger than me especially like… Gen Z, is that what they’re called? They’re born onto Snapchat. I can’t imagine going to school when I was like 12 or 14 and having Instagram. It’s like this inescapable hell, you know. Sure, there’s enjoyable moments, but it’s this constant comparison. It’s very vacuous. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-Instagram, but I do think it can do a lot of really bad things for mental health.

There are some really good videos of SOPHIE being on stage giving an emotional speech and then someone will be like, “PLAY TAXI!” and it’s just like, fuck off

People want real. People don’t want contrived. People want to see themselves in people in pop. I think there’s always been an element of that, but I think before pop stars have been like these like alien and kind of unattainable, radio figures. Now it’s like more about being relatable but not in like a cheesy way. It’s actually kind of gone back to a more punk thing. There was the unattainable superstar, polished, How do they look that good; I want that life type star. Then there’s the kind of relatable, My mom loves them too because they’re so nice and kind and smile all the time, they make me feel safe kind of star. And now there’s like the, “I see myself in that person when I feel fucked up,” my parents don’t like them because my parents don’t get me, because I’m a kid who grew up on the internet type of star.

I just think now kids are so clever, and they make their own choices about the music they want to listen to. They don’t have to listen to the radio; they don’t have to go out to a store and buy a CD. They can go on Spotify or Apple Music and be like, oh [mimes clicking on a phone] this, this, this, this, this. Next thing you know, you’ve got like some kid who’s super into really weird avant-garde fucking techno and they’re twelve.

I wanted to ask you about leaks. Obviously, quite a few of your songs have leaked online before they’ve been officially released, or never released. Do you follow what your fans are saying about them online?

Sometimes it just sort of comes my way, but I don’t actively go and search for that shit because it actually makes me really upset. I’m aware that like leaking has become a part of my narrative, but to my knowledge nothing leaked from this album. No, actually I think “White Mercedes” might have leaked a while ago, but that was like the end of the leaking. But the whole thing is annoying. I know that some songs that have become mythical, like “Taxi”—SOPHIE and I will text about it sometimes because there are some really good videos of SOPHIE being on stage giving an emotional speech and then someone will be like, “PLAY TAXI!” and it’s just like, fuck off or whatever she says. If this song ever gets out will the hype just be over? Someone must have it. [Note: You can unfortunately very easily find this song on SoundCloud or YouTube with the right Googling and yes, it’s as good as its mythical status suggests.]

I’m not sure what people want, just for you to release it officially?

I think people just want to want it. I think if I actually released it the fun would be over.

I tend to think of your releases now as like, serious world-building in a way that I don’t think a lot of pop artists do. I know when I hear an album like Charli, I’m going to hear rising artists and producers I’ve never heard of. When did you first decide this is how you wanted to approach your records, pulling in these voices together?

It was when SOPHIE and I were working on this album that never came out. I was kind of curating, like SOPHIE working with Stargate and Blood Pop. It was just this kind of unusual combination of producers and other people coming in and out. I was like A&R-ing it myself. I just realized I’m a really good curator, and I think from that point on I just kind of got more and more confident [in asking] other artists like, “Do you want to jump on this? Do you want to jump on that?” What’s funny is when I was young and I started making music, all I really wanted was a crew of people, a group to collaborate with. I never found it. I tried so hard to find that.

How did you try so hard?

I just always ready to be someone’s friend! I was like fuck it, I guess no one wants to be my friend, you know, be my collaborative partner. Then I guess maybe I kind of stopped looking for it and it sort of fell into my lap. I was actually doing another interview where somebody asked me about like “my community” and “my clique” and I was like fuck, I finally have one, that’s really cool. I gravitate towards artists who speak their own sort of creative language. They’re not watered down.

When it comes to the collaborative process, if I respect you, you can do whatever the fuck you want. If you’re somebody who doesn’t make their own decisions that annoys me and then I don’t really respect you, I don’t care about you really and your creative process. I’ll fucking respect you, because you made all of those decisions and because you came from the ground up and did that shit yourself, you don’t lean on anyone, and you’ve crafted your fucking world.

I wonder if that respect comes from your experiences as an artist working on a major label and, as you said before, having to kind of learn to demand what you need.

I just know the process of making sacrifices, compared to making none, and making none is harder. People don’t get it all the time, but you’re happier and the work is better in my opinion.

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