“It’s quite simple,” says 19-year-old shooting star Charli XCX. “We need to reboot British girl power, but this time with edge!”
A bold claim, but if there’s anyone whose fingers are best placed to hit CTRL-ALT-DEL on pop, it’s Charli. Believe all you read about breaths of fresh air and you’d half expect a force ten gale to be blowing through the music industry but here, we have the real deal: a singer songwriter liberated from the acoustic guitar fixation that preoccupies so many; a teenage popstar with a good head on her shoulders and a sharp mind in her head.
Charli’s live performances, like her music, are raw but multi-layered, sometimes stark but with a beating human heart, and her collaborators – Ariel Rechtshaid (Major Lazer/Usher ‘Climax’), Joakim Åhlund (Robyn), Patrik Berger (Lana Del Ray), Alex Metric – have helped unlock a unique talent. All pop is here, from Siouxsie to Spiceworld, The Knife to Nirvana. To achieve her intricate, post-apocalyptic pop with its evocative titles like ‘Stay Away’, ‘Nuclear Seasons’ and ‘End Of The World’ she is almost a pop lightning rod, pulling influences out of the sky and channeling them into the synthetic beats, fuzzy melodies and idiosyncratic perspectives that combine in the richly absorbing multi-media output of this compelling new artist.
Charli’s world view is splashed in vivid colours across her artwork, her videos, her Tumblr, her personal style which she describes, somewhat accurately, as “Wednesday Addams meets Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice meets Baby Spice”. Whilst monochrome at times, her colour-soaked stylings are reminiscent of Pierre et Gilles and David La Chapelle, just two of the names whose work she fell in love with at art school. “I love hyperrealism in every aspect of what I do,” she says. “I make my lyrics as strong and as bold as possible.” Which also means Charli can make really cool videos.
In an era when overnight sensations clamber across each other in a struggle to present their momentary freshness to a new-obsessed world, there’s a reassuringly chunky back story to Charli XCX’s pop takeover. Flashback to 2006 and you’ll find see the sketches that have come to life in the fully-realised, self-created pop proposition before us in 2012. Back then Charli was 14; she’d been performing since she was seven, and her live performances, usually arranged through MySpace (as most things were in those days) were, in her own words, “nursery rhyme-esque rap things with me shouting ‘DINOSAUR SEX!’ while standing on a crate in a warehouse”. There was, as you might have guessed, quite a lot of tutu action, and it was all quite silly in a deliriously bonkers sort of way. “I was completely overwhelmed by and immersed in the east London party scene I suppose,” she smiles in the cold light of 2012. As a live promoter her dad had, once upon a time, booked acts like Bob Marley and Siouxsie & The Banshees at his club nights, but even he couldn’t prepare Charli for the parties she found herself performing at. “Call me sheltered,” she says, “but at 14 I’d never dreamed that I’d be singing while people were running around half naked on ketamine squirting each other with glitter guns.”
Her life split in two. During the day she’d be at school – she loved art, hated music lessons (“an awful dictatorship”) – and afterwards she’d write songs in the bedroom of her parents’ house, situated somewhere in the Stansted Airport flightpath, that kind of busy place where not very much ever happens. By night, she’d be in London in a “colourful glittery bubbleworld that didn’t really mean that much, but never claimed to either”.
It might have been insular and silly but people took notice and with her self-released singles Charli, these songs called things like ‘Art Bitch’ and (in reference to a crap girl from school) ‘!Franchesckaar!’, created quite the buzz soundtracking numerous catwalk shows from Donatella Versace & Stella McCartney. At one point, for Interview magazine, she was photographed by David Bailey in a skintight Pam Hogg creation (“I had no idea what I was doing, I left my pants on so there’s a huge knickerline”). Charli also earned the centerfold in Rankin’s ‘Destroy Rankin’ project where artists were photographed and then reworked the photos into their own pieces of art. These were exciting times, and then… Well, then she’ll admit it now – she just didn’t have enough decent songs. The buzz buzzed off, as it does. In the unforgiving world of next big things, most people thought Charli XCX had disappeared. “So did I!” she roars today. “I guess from being this sort of warehouse hit and being young and expecting that to translate to the world, and then to that not happening, well that was quite annoying and frustrating. I had a period of just asking myself, ‘how do I get out of this rut?’.”
As it turned out she wasn’t in a rut; her music was just growing up and, like she says, “music industry or not, you change a lot in that time”. She didn’t get it right straight away. By 2010 she was working with loads of writers and loads of producers. It was a bit all over the place. But nothing made sense together.
And then one day, near the end of 2010, she said: THIS HAS GOT TO STOP. The first step on her current path was made during a 3-hour session with Ariel Rechsthaid whilst in LA. That’s all it took to pen and record the track that put Charli back on the map: the future classic ‘Stay Away’. Their creative relationship has gone on to shape the whole album. Another moment of clarity came on a trip to Sweden. “Before I went to Sweden I was like, ‘pop songs, whatever, let’s do that in London’,” she laughs now, “then of course I went there and it hit me full on. These guys are AMAZING.” She was in Stockholm to work with Patrik Berger, who’d just had a hit with Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’. Berger sent Charli over some backing tracks the day before they were due to meet for the first time. “He was like, ‘tell me if you like any of these’,” Charli recalls. Instantly, one of them jumped out at her. “I was like, ‘wow, this is so dope’. I became obsessed with it.” She’d been planning to go out that night. Instead she sat in her hotel room, wrote all night, and the next day turned up to meet Patrik with ‘You’re The One’, now set to be Charli’s first major-label single a firm live favorite, and barely changed since that day.
Between starting and finishing the album she found herself listening to acts on the fringes of pop like Salem, Hercules & Love Affair, Grimes, Art Of Noise’s ‘The Seduction of Claude Debussy’, and through collaborating with Ariel, Charli had discovered the darker sound she’d been heading towards for the previous years. “It was more mysterious in some places,” she says, “and more melancholic in others. But it was still beautiful and it was still pop.” Once easily frustrated in the studio, she found a sense of liberation. “I can’t explain music,” she says. “Some people can’t grasp that – I end up explaining things in terms of colours and shapes and objects and they just stare at me.’ Make it sound more like a fridge, more orange.’ Ariel and Partick Berger got it immediately.” Case in point: Charli sees ‘Nuclear Seasons’ as “purple with a space landscape. It’s floating through space, decaying, mouldy old swamps. And then as with all my songs there’s a burst of colour and glitter. It’s a dark pop song, with a roller disco sort of neon moment in it”. And that is, actually, exactly what it sounds like.
Once Charli hit her stride the songs started coming more easily, and she grew to realise that her early stuff – the parties, the songs, the jumping up and down shouting about dinosaurs – wasn’t a false start, it was just something that meant right now she could hit the ground running. She’d been able to make her mistakes when nobody was looking. “If I’d put out more songs when I was younger I know I’d be regretting it now,” she admits, “but I know that I’ll never regret ‘Stay Away’.”
She sees herself slotting in alongside artists who grew up in the shadow of the Spice Girls, and who seem inspired by the useful bits of girl power. “90s kids are pretty fucking cool when it comes to music,” Charli notes, “and pop’s being taken seriously again now, which is exactly what it deserves.” All British pop really needs is someone to head it up and – although she just slightly too modest to suggest herself – Charli XCX is our brightest hope.
2011 was all about perfecting the sound, and honing her impressive live show. The Alex Metric collaboration ‘End Of The World’ created the right ripples in the right places, while the low key release of ‘Nuclear Seasons’ (complete with a self-made video that brought Charli’s vision to life in broad, epic strokes), as well as contributing a song on the soundtrack of upcoming British movie Elfie Hopkins starring Jamie and Ray Winstone, have put Charli in just the right position to strike in 2012. “Some of my music is still very teen orientated – I’m still a teenager – but there’s love in there and darker thoughts in terms of relationships,” she says of her debut album due out later in the year. “And there are still a couple of fuck you songs on there – I have a lot of up days and a lot of fuck-the-world days, so there are party jams and dark warped depressing songs.”
“Five years ago people didn’t really get it,” she says, “and maybe I didn’t either. Now the whole vision makes complete sense. I wanted to be part of a shift in pop music, and now things are getting less Disney and more like a Shane Meadows film. I wanted to tell cinematic stories through pop music, and now everything I stand for is in there. Shocking people is pointless – the trick is to make people take notice.”
If there’s one person it’ll be hard to ignore in 2012, it’s Charli XCX.