Charli XCX was seven years old when she had her first cataclysmic pop epiphany. ‘I think it was on the BBC news it was such a big thing at the time,’ she explains, about the kerpow moment of conceptual pop that blew her little mind as she watched Britney Spears strut through High School to the strains of Baby, One More Time. ‘I wasn’t sat there thinking, I want to be a pop star or, I want to be famous. I just wanted to be like Britney Spears, which I suppose was both of those things.’
Maybe it was neither. Times change. People change with them. At 26, Charli has framed a career for herself as one of the most respected, connected and commercially bankable songwriters in pop’s rainbow spectrum. She flits effortlessly between roles as irresistible front-woman, storied backroom girl and, on several acutely memorable occasions, the wizard behind the curtain of Oz pulling the puppet strings on stone cold/red hot millennial bangers, ‘I Love It’, ‘Boom Clap’, ‘Fancy, ‘After The Afterparty’ and ‘Boys’.
Her intricate and intuitive musical awareness led her to head up a biweekly show for Beats 1. Her sociological frankness meant the BBC asked her to front a documentary on Feminism. Between the side-lines and moonlighting gigs, a pop star of unique distinction has percolated at her own pace, on her own terms.
‘As I got into the music industry,’ she says now, ‘I realised that I wanted to be more than a pretty face singing a nice song. I wanted to really have my hands all over the industry, my fingerprints everywhere in terms of not just the songs I release but the ones I write for other people, the music videos I put myself in, or direct for others. I didn’t want to become just another electro-pop girl.’
At 14, Charli’s MySpace page turned her into the most promising young British teen pop-star. Dazzled by the lights of London’s East End nightclub shows, as New Rave twinkled briefly in the spotlight, she learned the power of pop at its coalface, under a mirror-ball, alongside DJs, party promoters and the children of the night.
Charli thinks you probably have to get on the pop conveyor belt in order to know when to step off it. That was her experience, anyway. When she was first picked up for the major label grooming process on the back of all those riotous Nu Rave appearances, she was sequestered to LA and Scandinavia, sent to a succession of ten hour writing camps. In and out, see if it works, boom clap. She says she can’t even gauge whether a song she’s written is a hit or not. ‘I Love It’, the smash hit she scripted for Icona Pop was written in half an hour over a rusty beat sent over by the pop wizard, Patrick Berger, to her hotel room when she was too nervous to go to the studio to meet him. ‘Writing a song with someone is like having sex with them,’ she says. ‘It’s so intimate.’
Because pop perceptions still fester in antiquated, pre-digital times, it was presumed Charli didn’t write her own music when she fashioned the first of her string of sparkling pop gems. ‘I was an artist and people assume you don’t write your own songs if you’re a girl, which is literally mental.’ Maybe this was why she turned herself into the renaissance pop star of her age, the one who bucked the industry gold standard achieved when Madonna smashed through its glass ceiling to become the Elvis for girls and gays. ‘At the time, I hated it so much. When I got my GCSE results, I had an In‘n’Out burger at 1am with my manager, sitting on a sun lounger, feeling miserable. It was at that point I realised how much power you could have as an artist, if only you had the guts to take it.’
When she took the reigns of her career back, Charli found a new fearlessness. She’s fronted two full albums [True Romance and SUCKER] and mix-tapes [‘Number 1 Angel’ and ‘Pop 2’] since of her own splendid composition, fashioning a pop super-genre that has always adhered to her three golden songwriting rules. ‘My thing is to not make boring pop music, to not follow pop trends and not to make pop music that has been made before. They’re the three things I will actively push against.’ She’s written for countless others circumnavigating the demimondes of hip hop, pop and digitized disco, clocking up dizzying Youtube, socials and old media stats along the way. But Charli has lived something of her career in reverse.
In the shifting sands of the new pop stratosphere, one unhindered by geographic boundaries and learning to unclamp itself from stifling genre rules, the LA-based entrepreneur has maximised all her opportunities and lost the Fame thing as a driving force. ‘The whole Britney Spears theory I had at the beginning is something I now find not that appealing,’ she clarifies. ‘Those levels of fame don’t matter. I care more about having a good reputation within the industry. I like to be respected as a songwriter, I enjoy working - I enjoy being connected.’
The connections she’s assembled in her almost decade long experience in pop’s most rarefied confines have taken upward twists in the past two years. She released the executive, unprompted mixtape ‘Vroom Vroom’, a collaboration of her instigation with meta-pop scientist Sophie from PC Music, herself and super-producers Stargate. She book-ended 2017 with her mixtapes ‘Number 1 Angel’ and ‘Pop 2’, receiving praise around the world and starring collaborations with her favourite artists’ of the moment including MØ, RAYE, Cupecakke, Caroline Polachek and Tove Lo. The BRIT and Grammy nominated star co-wrote and featured on David Guetta and Afrojak’s global hit ‘Dirty Sexy Money’ last winter, which led to a show-stealing performance at MTV’s European Music Awards. This kind of experimentation, mixing high and low cultures, from the margins and the mainstream, is how pop should think about fashioning itself in the future. ‘It’s important to move around between people that you find,’ she says. ‘That’s how you get inspired. Not by hearing someone at a label telling you that this is statistically the most likely person to get you where you want to be. No. I’ll get there my own way.’
She’s collaborated with two early heroines, first Blondie, who recorded her song ‘Gravity’ for their Pollinator album, then Uffie, the Ed Banger star who represented Charli’s sophisticating stage as an adolescent after her early pop awakenings. She worked tirelessly on a mission statement in the summer of 2017, which placed her exactly where she wanted to be in the industry, casting her gaze all over it with the revolutionary video clip for her single, the propulsive slow-jam, ‘Boys’.
‘I was on a radio tour of America,’ she says, explaining the story of its conception, ‘which was bringing me down so hard. I listened to the song in the car and I immediately was seeing hot dudes doing hot things. It started with Joe Jonas, who I did eventually get for the video. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, this is a concept. Guys doing all of the stereotypically sexy things that girls are asked to do in films, in adverts and in music videos.’ In keeping with her BBC documentary, The F Word and Me, Charli decided to stamp her feminist footprint on the most macho of genres, the pop video clip. She knows the tropes well. ‘The car wash, the paddling pool, pillow fight. Eating provocatively, all of that shit. The puppy, the cuddly toy, anything totally infantilising. I started saying to people am I fucking crazy or is this actually a good idea? I became determined to make it happen.’
Charli began putting in calls and pulling in favours from the rolodex she’s assembled in ten years of establishing herself at the top of the pop tier. ‘I just started to hit people up.’ Most of them she knew. Eventually, the yeses started cascading in, an assemblage of modern pop stardom willing to be put under her individual gaze. Diplo, Stormzsy, Theo from Hurts, Dan from Bastille, models Cameron Dallas and Jack Guinness, hip hoppers G-Eazy. Joey Baddass, Khalid, Wiz Khalifa, indie kids Mac DeMarco and Carl Barat, comedy giants Riz Ahmed and The Fat Jewish. The roll-call of Charli’s casting couch is testament to the friendships she’s built both in front of and behind the scenes of a spectacular pop life. ‘They all got it, straight away. They were down with reverting the male gaze. Let’s do it.’
‘Boys’ was pop music with meaning. She expected some backlash. ‘I’m aware that a girl surrounded by 58 boys in a video isn’t exactly the most relatable/friendly depiction of a girl. But even sat behind the camera I wondered what would be said about it. It’s interesting because sometimes as a women you can’t win in pop music. There’s always a backlash. I’m fine with that. I’ve been doing it long enough.’ No backlash came.
Now, more than ever, is the time to embrace Britain’s slow burning pop giant, to take her fully to the national heart. Heading to her home studio at any given opportunity, Charli hasn’t, and won’t, stop making music. Is there sign of an album? ‘When I’m ready,’ she says, fully aware that in the shifting patterns of the new music industry, building your world is a bigger business than one mission statement. ‘The best pop music is about excess, another world. It should be a place where fantasies come true. For me, it’s important to get a message across. But I also want it to be unashamedly fun.’
Landing a world tour with one of the biggest artists of a generation, Taylor Swift, its hers for the taking.