Charli XCX feels like she might do something magical this year.
It’s June and she’s already made
So what comes next?
Interview by Peter Robinson
Published on June 26, 2014
Without wishing to sound too dramatic about the whole thing, Charli XCX might be the perfect modern pop entity.
She sounds like a popstar, she thinks like a popstar, she looks like a popstar. She even writes like a popstar, and not the sort of popstar who turns up near the end of a writing session and throws in a couple of ‘baby’s.
During the course of what follows you will hear Charli talking about various things. The punk album she recorded and ditched, the new album she’s nearly finished, the Britney song that nearly happened, and what lies ahead for pop. You will also bear witness to a trick question so disgraceful that it could set back the public’s view of journalism more effectively than a million Leveson inquiries.
There will also be talk of ‘Boom Clap’, a forthcoming single so amazing that we’re going to plug it at the start of the interview (PRE-ORDER ON iTUNES) as well as the end.
Hello Charli! What are you doing at the moment?
I’m rehearsing for Glastonbury, and I’ve been having a meeting.
What was the meeting about?
Lots of things. Lots of things I can’t tell you. But it’s good. It’s all good shit.
Was it a meeting about big important stuff, or just people banging on about social media stats and that sort of bollocks?
Oh no I don’t go to those fucking meetings, they’re stupid. It was a big important meeting about big important things that are great.
Who was it with?
OH MY GOD STOP. I’m not telling you anything about it. But it’s great.
Was it about your career or somebody else’s?
A bit of both! But that’s all you’re going to get out of me, so calm down.
That’s a classic Charli XCX sort of meeting isn’t it – a bit of your career, a bit of somebody else’s.
Do you not think other people haven’t already benefitted quite enough from your hard work? (Laughs) Well I mean I enjoy it! I think I’ll always keep writing for other people, if that’s what you’re talking about specifically. I have millions of songs that I’m never going to sing but someone else could sing a lot better than I could, so I’d rather give them to other people than have them sitting in my brain, festering away.
You say you have millions of songs. What’s a more realistic number?
Probably about 500.
Yeah! I write – since ‘I Love It’ blew up – every day. Every single day. And I’ve been in LA on and off for the past three months and sometimes I’ll do two to three sessions in a day. I feel quite creative right now. I feel like I’m kind of doing something right at the moment.
And this coincides with your profile perhaps opening doors now that weren’t open a year ago, but are you going hell for leather because you’ve never hit this creative streak before, or because you’re worried it’s going to end, you’ll never hit it again and you think you’ve only got another three months before you burn out?
I’ve always been on a creative streak! My songs have always been amazing. But now it’s just like people want to listen to them because I wrote a couple of big songs. I’m excited by the people who are contacting me at the moment. I don’t think I’ll burn out – the only problem is that because I’ve been in the studio so much I haven’t done as many things. I haven’t gone out and… Well, I have partied, but not loads. So I feel like I need to do that then go back into the studio and write about it.
So realistically, can you go out, get completely smashed and put it through as a legitimate business expense? I’d never thought about that but you’ve just given me the best idea. Life itself is a business expense when you do this kind of thing. So yes, I’ll try that.
When you’re writing, do you always start off writing songs for yourself, or do you specifically set out to write for other artists? Some writers find the latter more liberating because they’re not constrained by the question of ‘would I stand on a stage and sing this’.
When I’m going into a session for an artist I’ll think about that artist, but I never write a song that I don’t think is cool. I feel like people ask me to come to sessions because they like what I do and they like my style, so I won’t then change it once I’m in the room. If I don’t think it’s cool it’s not going to end up on the record. I like having my stamp on things – I don’t just want to make generic music that’s not recognisable as something that’s come from my brain.
How finished is your album? Wasn’t it supposed to be out last month? (Laughs) Well, yes. Shit changed.
What shit specifically?
Everything! I was making a punk album! I was over the music industry, I was over all of it. And I went to Sweden and made a punk album. And I think you tweeted something about “oh God it’s noise” or whatever and I was like well OBVIOUSLY you’d say that.
The track on SoundCloud was a bloody racket though to be fair. Although, yes it did have a ring of ‘here’s someone who’s a bit sick of what’s happening’. Which is a valid artistic statement obviously but that doesn’t mean you have to release it. (Laughs) Well yes, I mean I made a record that was like that. There were still elements of pop, but… And pop still is the general vibe. It’s [she's talking about the proper new album now] pop. I’ve made a pop record. I think it’ll be completely finished by the end of July, I’m not doing any more writing sessions now.
Are all the tracks on this new album fresh songs from this year?
So basically you’ve made two albums this year and it’s not even July?
Well yeah. And I still want to put out all the stuff I did in Sweden. That is going to happen at a later point.
You don’t sound very excited by that.
Maybe it’s something for the anthology box set in fifteen years.
Maybe I’ll take your advice on that, although I probably won’t. I mean I’ve probably written five albums this year, really, if you count all the songs I’ve written. But yes, it’s done. It’s definitely a step away from ‘True Romance’, that’s for sure – it’s less electronic, and it’s more live. And I suppose yeah it is punk, but it’s not pop-punk in an Avril Lavigne kind of way. It’s not that. But it’s awesome. I feel like every song could be a hit.
Do you think about hit potential when you’re writing? Of that catalogue of 500 songs you have, how many are million-dollar megahits?
Probably only like 35.
That’s not bad to be getting on with.
For a minute it was really hard for me not to be thinking about ‘hits’. Because that was the word that was brought up in my life every day.
Because once you’ve actually had a hit, people expect more.
Yeah, after ‘I Love It’ and then ‘Fancy’ everyone was talking about HITS. ‘Keep the hits for yourself’, ‘don’t go into writing sessions because the label will be angry if you give hits away’, all that kind of thing. And after a while it all got a bit, like, ‘you know what, fuck off’. It was stupid. I’ve always done this my own way. I’ve passed up on many a thing that could have made me a big artist or something. Like I was offered a feature on a Christina Aguilera song and I turned it down. It just wasn’t right. She’s cool, but it just wasn’t right. And now I feel like I’m kind of ready to do that: I understand what the world is about a bit more. I’m in a very lucky position now – I feel like I’ve grown up through this so I understand most of the bad things about the music industry now. And I feel like there are people I can trust, and also people I can boss around very easily now, which is cool.
When you say you know what the world’s about, what do you mean?
Well I mean specifically the weird, small part of the world that I’m in. Who’s a good person, who’s a bad person, when something’s real, when I feel like I’m uncomfortable with something… I understand that a lot more now. When I was writing ‘True Romance’, even though I was in very good hands and really trusted Ariel and I love him, I was still figuring everything out. I didn’t really understand how vital my voice was. I think people can tell, even from the difference between ‘True Romance’ and ‘Fancy’ and ‘I Love It’, just how much more confident I am in my own voice. ‘Fancy’ and ‘I Love It’ feel like 100% me.
What percentage you was ‘True Romance’?
When I was making ‘True Romance’ I was really worried about being cool. As most 16-to-18-year-olds are. Whereas now I don’t care about being cool because now I’m cool anyway. In a really weird nerdy uncool way. I don’t care. I’m really into this record I’ve made because I feel like it’s all me.
Who have you worked with on the new album?
So – the list! Weezer, Rostam from Vampire Weekend, Stargate, John Hill… I did a session with [Dr] Luke but that wasn’t for me.
Who was that for?
I can’t tell you! I can’t tell you any secrets, that’s not how it works! You can guess.
No. And that’s it, you only get one guess because I’m not very good at lying and you’ll break me down! But yes, there are a lot of people on the album. When I started working with Stargate I was worried because when I was growing up there was always a stigma attached to those producers and I was still in my (adopts absurd posh voice) ‘I USED TO GO TO ART RAVES!’ phase. But actually I feel very connected with those people: they really understand music, and they really understand how to get the best out of me. I really trust them. We’re writing amazing songs together and I feel like they really want my voice to come out. I never thought I’d be on their side, but I kind of am.
Was it a question of confidence? Is it easier to feel you’re part of that world when you can look them eye to eye as someone who’s also had a big hit?
I guess when you have that success with a hit single people are always like ‘oh I always loved your early stuff’ but with them it felt like they knew what was up – they knew that maybe I didn’t fully get the credit I deserved for that song ['I Love It'], and they wanted me to get that credit. (Pause) Also I’m published by them which was handy. (Laughs) But I think I’ve kind of done things the long way round, and they’re like, ‘it’s your time’. And I think it’s my time now as well. I think I’ve paid my dues. And there are lot of people I want to give a ‘fuck you’ to.
It’s exciting having seen you when you were 14 and all over the place, and not really seeming like the sort of person who could have hits, and then having seen it all gradually change over a pretty long period.
Now here I am.
Do you like ‘Boom Clap’?
You know how sometimes people release singles because they sort of have to due to them being on a soundtrack or something, then a year or so later they go ‘this was shit all along’? Anyway I suppose the point I was leading to was to ask if it’s in any way indicative of what will be on the album.
It’s definitely on the soft side, for sure. But it’s definitely part of the record. Do you know who doesn’t like that record? Which I was really bummed out about because I really wanted to give it to her? HILARY DUFF. Which sucks.
Some people don’t know what’s good for them.
I sent it to her, well I didn’t – Patrick Berger actually sent it to her because his first ever production was a Hilary Duff album track called something like ‘Punk Rock Kiss’. Anyway we sent it over and her people were like, ‘this is NOT cool enough for Hilary’. And now I’m glad she didn’t want to take it.
Maybe they were right though – in her hands it could have sounded quite uncool, whereas because you are actually inverted-commas-cool, you can get away with something uncool? HEY. I don’t think ‘Boom Clap’ is uncool.
No, but you can imagine a shiny pop person singing it and it being too much.
Okay, I take that.
Will it be a hit in the UK? I don’t know. I have a strange relationship with the UK, I don’t know what’s going to happen over here. My new attitude is: fuck everything. Which is the attitude I took when I was going to make that punk album. And when I was making that album I was like, I’m going to Sweden, I’m not going to talk to my record label, I’m gonna turn my phone off and I’m just going to write this album and not care about anything else. And as soon as I stopped stressing and having panic attacks about tiny minute details everything started being cool again. So I’m not worried about anything now. If things are doing good that’s great, but I don’t get worked up.
Do you feel that too much power in the music industry is held by people with little to no taste in music?
I think that’s half true. What I think is that there are some people with great taste, who are at the top of their game, in the music industry. People who enjoy starting trends. But I feel like a lot of people at the top of the music industry don’t keep things moving fast enough. And I understand why it takes such a long time for music to translate far and wide, but I feel like we’re in an age now where things can move so fast that there isn’t a need to be listening to, say, house music any more. That’s not a diss to house music, but do you know what I mean? I feel like things get stuck on a loop and there’s so much more exciting music underneath that might eventually come through but it just takes too long. People are too fixated on replicating trends to a lesser level, know what I mean?
Well that loop you mentioned – the start of that loop is always interesting. So the deep house thing was interesting, but the upshot of that is a load of chart music with no tune that misses the point.
It’s so easy to make music now, as long as you have a computer and the desire to make music, and that’s a great thing, but there needs to be a harsher filter. Also what I’ve definitely learned is that people always talk about ‘taking risks’ but nobody takes fucking risks! ‘I Love It’ was seen as a risk – now when you listen to that song, it just sounds like an EDM song. That song was considered something really different…
But it did sound different though, it only sounds more normal now because it was so popular.
Right, but what I’m talking about is that there’s like, millions of artists who actually sound different. And I know it has to translate to ‘people who like Pitbull’ or whatever but I don’t feel like there are really that many boundaries.
When your stuff didn’t make it onto the Britney album were you philosophical about it or were you a bit ‘oh fuck off will.i.am we’ve given you amazing stuff here’?
Well the thing is, I know this sounds like me covering my ass now, but Starsmith and I were a bit shocked that they wanted us to finish that song for the Britney album. Because we didn’t think it was amazing. It was good, but it wasn’t next level. But we finished it anyway and they were into it, but it didn’t end up on the album. I didn’t actually buy the album – maybe that makes me a bad fan but I liked ‘Perfume’ and ‘Work Bitch’ which I thought was really interesting – but I’m not mad at all. I’m down with will.i.am. I’m really into ‘Feeling Myself’ at the moment, it’s a next level song.
will.i.am has about one great song a year, then four shit ones.
I’d give him more than once a year! To be fair. I don’t know how much he plays a part in his lyrics but some of those lyrics on his songs are incredible, I personally think.
What’s the next corner that pop’s going to turn? You’re probably in sessions with people hearing stuff that’s going to come out next spring, or next Christmas. So what’s pop going to sound like in 2015?
Maybe it’s just me but I’m hearing a lot of kind of dancehall, reggae-influenced songs. So that might go down. Maybe that could be something that’s going on, I don’t really know. I just go into a room and do my thing. Maybe that’s the corner it will turn! A Charli XCX corner!
What’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever seen on one of those lists record labels send round when they’re looking for songs to give to artists?
The one time I actually saw one of those lists was when Lindstrøm’s manager sent it to me – because I was on it! It had ‘Charli XCX – looking for atmospheric tracks that could have been on the Drive soundtrack’. And I was like, ‘hold on! Who’s fucking done this?!’ I got so mad. I think it also had something really funny like ‘Crystal Castles looking for reggae songs’ or something weird.
Just to recap on a couple of points, did that Britney track ever leak?
What was it called?
I’ll tell you what, William Orbit tweeted about it the other day so why don’t you ask him? Hit him up.
Is it alright with you if he puts that song on his SoundCloud?
No. Because I don’t think it’s good, remember? I don’t want that song to be out in the world.
It’s interesting that near the start of this interview you were saying you need to think a song is cool in order to give it to someone, but in this instance you were happy to let out a song you didn’t think was good.
Er… I don’t know. I just don’t think it’s that great. But do you know a song that is great, that I wrote? The Ryn Weaver song! That’s pretty sick. Yes. She’s very cool and that song’s very good, I’m glad people are listening to that.
And what else do you have coming up?
Everything else is going on behind the scenes right now, but I’m cooking up a storm. I have a feeling that I might do something kind of magical this year. That’s how I’m feeling right now.
And how has the Rihanna stuff been going? (Stupendous pause) Fine! (Another pause) I haven’t really done anything for it, so…
No, I haven’t done anything for it.
That was a disgraceful trick question wasn’t it. I didn’t even have any inkling that you had or hadn’t been working on Rihanna.
I haven’t! I haven’t been working on that.
And you’re not going to?
I’m actually not.
And what was the meeting you were in before you picked up the phone?
Oh my God! Please! I’m going to hang up!
Anything to add?
Anything you’d like to retract?
Is this bit all going to go in?
Oh my God. Leave me alone. I’m going to hang up now.