Charli XCX Talks Collaboration, Mixtapes, and Her Exciting New Album

Matthew Howland

Charli XCX is both a cult anomaly and major pop star. The 27-year-old musician, vocalist, producer, songwriter, and music video stalwart has been a key contributor to the ongoing acceleration of pop into outer realms. Since the release of 2013's True Romance, Charli has occupied a central yet contingent place within the modern pop music landscape, both ubiquitous in her collaborations and musical output and also given necessary space to adapt as a recording artist.

The restlessness of Charli is readily visible on her albums and mixtapes, which veer between pop legibility and a demonic streak that shares DNA with frequent collaborators PC Music. All this is captured on 2019's Charli, which is both a step further into the spotlight and a refusal to entirely assimilate her pop vocabulary with de facto requirements for pop success.

Collaborators on Charli include the similarly ubiquitous Lizzo, Christine and the Queens, Troye Sivan, HAIM, and Kim Petras, as well as Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Yaeji, Clairo, and executive producer A.G. Cook. The reclusive Sky Ferreira hazards an appearance on "Cross You Out." The majority of these artists, Charli included, function as gay icons. They are a group culled from different corners of the internet, each with a corresponding die-hard fanbase that overlaps with that of Charli.

In this sense, her records feel like family reunions, gatherings of the best (or most) of the party landscape, overflowing with ideas, hooks, and styles. Charli deserves sincere praise for her sense of excess and distinct personality, both of which flourish in her chosen artistic formats. In a recent conversation with KEXP, recorded just before the new album's release, Charli discussed her process of collaboration, ongoing personal growth, and avoiding the pressures of being a major label artist.


KEXP: Has touring with other musicians, such as Taylor Swift or Sia, changed your approach to songwriting or performing?

Charli XCX: It hasn’t, it hasn’t really. I think it definitely didn’t change my approach to songwriting at all. Both Taylor and Sia are excellent, amazing songwriters, but I don’t think we write similar songs at all. I’m not really sure what their process is and maybe it’s completely different. I’m very much in my own zone when it comes to how I write and the music that I want to make. I don’t really take inspiration from people around me at all. I try to not listen to that much music while recording because it distracts me. Especially if I hear a song that I love, I’m like ‘oh my God I want to make a song like that,’ and I’ll get frustrated that I didn’t write it myself or couldn’t do something as good. So I try to block all of that out actually.

In terms of performing, with the two artists you mentioned, we have extremely different styles of performance. I think going on the road with both of them, it was really amazing to see them do their thing and be in their space. Both of them are two artists who have worked from the ground up, playing small venues to no-one, then playing clubs, then playing arenas and stadiums filled with people who are there to see them. That’s a really inspiring and amazing journey, and maybe one day I’ll be like that, I don’t know. But I think we perform very differently. I’m very erratic… I’m not a very put together performer, I’m very hectic. I think we are very different on that level. It was nice to enter that world, but I couldn’t do they what they do, and maybe they couldn’t do things the way I do them.

Is collaboration similar for you? Do you do significant research before entering the studio with someone?

Yeah, with collaboration, I’m not getting in the studio with anyone who I don’t know personally or don’t like. Every artist on the album is someone I love and respect and know a lot about their music. I’m a fan of their music. It’s definitely not, ‘oh let’s see if this would work’ — I really love that artist and I think that they’re brilliant. The reason I collaborate with the people I collaborate with, especially over the past several years, is because I think the people I’m collaborating with are truly unique. I enjoy artists who are a little controversial, a little bit jarring, people who really have their own message, people who can only do them. No-one else can do what they do. That’s how I choose my collaborations. I’m very aware of their work, or otherwise I wouldn’t be in the studio with them.


Do you find pop music to be a potentially subversive medium in how you approach it? 

It’s definitely a space where that is completely possible. For me though, I am not consciously trying to do that. The second I think about the work I’m creating, like whether I’m trying to be political or trying to subvert something, it never feels authentic. For me, I really have to flow, whatever happens happens. I don’t think about it, it's not part of my process— I really just make what’s on the tip of my tongue, what’s in my brain. I’m not trying to fill any type of criteria. I’m really just trying to make music I want to hear. When I put it out, and my fans read into it in a specific way, that’s really amazing. If they have a certain connection to a song that I hadn’t thought of, that’s amazing and I love that. I’m not thinking about the consequences, what people will think about it, I’m just making it for me.

Do you think that music videos are a central part of your creative expression?

Oh definitely, for sure. Music videos tell the story of the song, and they can really direct the audience into the position you want them to hear the song from, help explain what’s going on. For some of my songs, I think about the videos before I’ve even done the song. That was definitely the case with “1999”— the idea for the video came way before the song.


Do you think that living in Los Angeles has had an impact on the music you’re recording now?

Yeah, probably. I’ve lived here for four years, and I choose to live here because I love that I can work with people pretty much constantly. I really love driving, and I talk a lot about cars in my music, and L.A. is a driving city so I spend a lot of time in cars, I’m moving a lot. That probably has an impact on the music I make, I’m not really sure how. I also think L.A. is a place where there’s a house party culture, and parties are definitely something that are inspiring to me. So, yes and L.A. life definitely does have an effect.

Have you interacted with an equivalent in L.A. to the rave culture in the U.K. that you once found really inspiring to your creative expression?

Yeah, I’m not sure whereabouts, but they definitely do have that world here. My friend throws some parties sometimes, really fun rave parties, that I find to be really great and inspiring. They really remind me of London. I’m really glad I still can have that hardcore party moment when I want it.

What draws you to the mixtape as a format?

Honestly, to me, the mixtapes were albums but I called them mixtapes because then they were easier to release quicker, you know? I feel like the second you say ‘an album’ to a major label they freak out and say it’s such a big deal, we have to promote it and put money into it and sell it. Whereas if you say ‘mixtape’ they suddenly don’t really care. For me, I used that terminology to release things quickly and in more low pressure situations.

When you decide to put the pressure on and release an album, is there a different intention that comes with that?

For me, no. For them, probably. For me, it’s like, I don’t care… I’m such a rubbish major label artist because I don’t really care about all the things that they care about. I’m very happy they care about that kind of stuff. I don’t care about radio really, if it happens it happens, but I’m not going to kill myself over it. I don’t really care about the charts… I just find that whole world, if you start caring about it and your life becomes that, then where’s the fun? I just want to make music that I love, and sometimes that music will absolutely never ever ever end up on the radio, and that’s cool. I don’t want to not be able to make that music because I’m so worried about it. So, I don’t really know, I guess there is pressure with an album, but I don’t really feel it. They probably feel it.


Do you think that your new album is the closest you have come to capturing what could be called your authentic voice? Do you think of it in those terms?

I think that actually Pop 2 was very good at capturing that voice. The reason I think that is that was the period I felt the most connection with my fans, and I feel like they really cared about what I had to say on Pop 2. I think it brought us closer together, because they realized I was being extremely true to myself and true to what I loved. I think they really loved that. That felt like a very authentic moment and voice, and I’ve really continued on that journey since then. Hopefully they will have the same sort of feeling towards this next release.

Are you able to identify the ways in which you have grown as a songwriter or producer on this new album?

I think as a songwriter, definitely. As I get older, as a person I’ve grown more confident in my ideas across the board, whether that’s in music or videos or in life. I’ve just become more confident at opening up and being more vulnerable, honestly. I think being more open and talking about my insecurities and feelings in a lot more depth than I’ve done before. That is what’s happening on this album, and I think that definitely shows some sort of growth.

Charli XCX just embarked on a sold-out American tour that continues into late October, and concludes with two dates at Terminal 5 in New York City. For more information, and to view future tour dates, visit the artist's website

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