Charli XCX on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Pop Stardom


Charli XCX on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Pop Stardom

Photo by Dan Curwin

Last April, Charli XCX dropped True Romance, her long awaited debut record that was packed front-to-back with ideal, spacey electro-pop. Until then, the 21-year-old UK native was perhaps best known for co-writing Icona Pop’s world-beating hit, “I Love It,” but Romance proved that XCX had not just the talent, but also the star power, to be a significant pop star. Then, just five months after her debut hit shelves, she surprised everyone by dropping the upbeat love song “Superlove”—complete with ultra-endearing video—which the singer said is a kind of lead single for her still-under-wraps sophomore album, which, according to her, is heavily influenced by punk music. We caught up with the pop singer just before the new year discuss how the surprising success of “I Love It” changed her life for the better and for the worse, what makes good pop music, and how her next album will evolve her trademark sound.

With 2013 coming to a close, have you taken the time to reflect over the past year and all your success?
You know what? Not really. I haven’t really tried to reflect, I’ve just been so crazy, especially with “I Love It” taking off worldwide. That was kind of a crazy thing. It was a really weird part of my life; really unexpected. Then loads of weird shit started to happen and then every kind of animal after that. Some of it was cool, and some of it not so cool. With my own stuff, I’ve been writing my second record and doing it in a really intense way. Also my song “Superlove” getting played on the radio for the first time was pretty amazing. So yeah, I haven’t really reflected. I haven’t had the time. I’ve just been caught up in the craziness.

A moment ago you mentioned events that happened this year that weren’t exactly cool. What were some of the negatives?
I mean, it’s not like bad. I think when you have a song like “I Love It” that’s that big, it kind of changes things around you and people treat you differently sometimes. I feel like after “I Love It” was released, I had my first real experience with the bad side of the music industry and how people can change and how it can become like more of a struggle. It wasn’t a very enjoyable experience. When it should be a time for celebration it’s never really been that nice. It was kind of odd to me because I thought it would be all like, Wow, everyone has a number one hit, but people were really strange about it. I never realized a song like that could do so much damage as well as do so much amazing things for someone.

Do you ever feel like you want to distance yourself from the success of “I love It”?
I feel like I’m not that associated with it anyway. Most people don’t think I sing on the song, which at first was really annoying, but now I don’t really care so much. For me, I love being associated with it in terms of a writing way because that song got me so many opportunities as a writer, and I felt like that showcased my skills as a writer for other artists. And it’s been cool to see the girls [Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo of Icona Pop] grow up, and seeing them do all these crazy shows and being like, Wow, that’s cool. I contributed to that. But sometimes it’s annoying when it’s not a show of my own, like at a festival, and people are like, PLAY ‘I LOVE IT’!

Between you and artists like Lorde and Sky Ferreira, do you feel as if the sound and structure of pop is shifting? And do you think you’ve helped contribute to this shift?
Yeah, totally. Even though my record wasn’t a chart success, I feel like it is a record that people take from. I’ve always said that I just want to do my part and make something that was going to be referenced. It’s cool to inspire someone else. Just to see my fingerprints, and the fingerprints of my peers, on other music is really interesting to me. I think of myself and other artists around me who are making pop music really emotional again.

I read in an interview that you didn’t want to take True Romance down a plastic pop route. How would you define plastic pop?
I think there are two types of plastic pop: I think there’s good plastic pop, like some of Katy Perry’s older stuff, which I love and I think is great, like “California Girls.” It’s so plastic; the lyrics are so pop. I love that song. It’s brilliant. And I think there’s sad plastic pop, which is pop that tries to be that [cool plastic pop] but doesn’t succeed. It’s just lazier and the lyrics aren’t as good. I don’t really like Flo Rida. I don’t really think that’s plastic pop, per se, but I just don’t feel challenged by that; I don’t feel excited.  When a song is lyrically boring and the music video isn’t amazing, I feel like that’s not cool.

So your view is to make pop music exciting but challenging as well.
Definitely. I couldn’t think of anything worse than making a record that everyone is expecting me to make. I don’t want people to be like, Oh, Charli XCX is making a synth-pop record. I find that whole thing so boring. I’d rather do the unexpected. Even if some people hate it, I’d rather do something that no one was waiting for me to do. So this next record is way more live. It’s very punk-inspired. It’s also inspired by a lot of yé-yé- pop [French bubblegum pop] from the ’60s, and French pop singers like Brigitte Bardot, Sylvie Vartan, Francoise Travis, and people like that. I also like new wave bands like Bow Wow Wow, The Waitresses, The Flying Lizards. And right now I’m listening to loads of Weezer and The Hives and Ramones, so the record is really raw and aggressive and punk. With the way I’m recording it, everything I do is super-fast. The first take is actually on the record. It’s the best music I’ve ever made for sure.

Have you been listening to punk for a while?
I actually got into punk when I was about 14. I used to go to this record shop in my town and get all the £1, bargain-bin CDs, and I remember there was this punk compilation CD with a song by The Vibrators called “Feel All Right,” and it was my favorite song. And then my dad got me really into the Sex Pistols and I was really fascinated by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood and their shop, SEX [a London clothing store in the ’70s] and that entire era.  I’m also really inspired by Bikini Kill and Kathleen Hanna. So I mean, the new album is still a pop record.  They’re still pop songs, but punk. Like, the way I’m doing it is punk. It’s not thought out. It’s very spontaneous.

You’re basically drawing from the music that inspires you and making it your own.
I feel like I’m drawing more, as I usually do, from visuals, from music videos, from movies. I’ve been watching Robert Palmer music videos lately because for some reason the color schemes on videos like “Addicted to Love” and “Simply Irresistible” are really inspiring to me right now. I’m seeing the whole record and seeing it in the color red. I’m really inspired by Jean-Paul Gaultier and vintage Gaultier and tailored Dior suits. I’ve been in this really red mode for a moment and it’s kind of cool.

Is there an era in fashion that you admire the most?
I’ve always admired the ’90s. About a year ago it was a lot of witty, pop-tastic, Spice Girls-kinds-of-things. Right now I’m really into tailoring. I love Tom Ford, Gucci and ’90s Versace with the double denim tailored skirts. I like Winona Ryder and people like that.

Speaking of beautiful, the red clothes you wear in the “Superlove” video are gorgeous. Does the use of red throughout the video tie in with the way you see the album? And also, what was it like shooting your video in Tokyo?
Yes. I wanted the color scheme in the video to be red and I wanted the clothes to be red and neon pink without anything too hot because we had to shoot the video. I was wearing this Jean Paul Gaultier candy-striped dress and some vintage Chanel and a Chanel blazer. And in terms of the video, we got to shoot with the Bosozuku biking gang. They’re like a real actual gangster biking gang. And the whole concept behind “Superlove” was the idea of running away and falling in love. My boyfriend actually directed the video, so it felt like we had run away to Tokyo for 36 hours. And that’s kind of like what the song is about.

So what else can you tell us about the upcoming album?
“Superlove” is going to be on the next record. It’s definitely the most pop song I’ve written for it so far. I’m actually really excited for people to hear the next single, which I can’t say the name of yet, but I feel like that really sums up the record well. I know that everyone says this, but I really do believe that I’m more excited than anyone. It took me like, five years to make the first one, and I really want to put this out and have it be fucking awesome.

And do you have an idea of when it might come out?
I think it’s probably going to be released in the middle of next year but it’s kind of vague at the moment. I can’t wait.