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Obsessively repeated tracks on the radio, in the club or in our playlists form intimate rituals in our lives – a favourite song can soundtrack a romance and later evoke heartbreak, and like addicts we keep going back for more. Charli XCX is one of those artists who consistently hits the charts, plays sell-out shows and commands an impressive online space with 3.6 million followers on Instagram. Ritual listening can lead to worship, and that’s the case for Charlotte Aitchison’s musical persona, Charli XCX, followed by her debut True Romance. We chat about her latest album Charli, the modern feminine voice and reconnecting with nature.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 42. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
The breakthrough of London-girl Charli started with her vocal demo playing on Icona Pop’s I Love it and her later writing and vocals on Iggy Azalea’s Fancy. Whilst radios hit replay on these tracks in the early 2010s, they ingrained our summer memories with Charli’s confident pop tone. Since then, she has explored more experimental sounds collaborating with pioneers in electronica and rap, including SOPHIE, Brooke Candy, and Tommy Cash, who hybridised her sound without losing her cheeky, party-girl identity. In the same vein, the latest album has an emphasis on collaboration – featuring these three artists again – that gives birth to Charli’s most experimental album yet.

Charli’s streamlined moniker could nod to 21st-century narrowed attention spans, a product of information-saturated feeds glaring on screens worldwide. Collaborator Chris, previously Christine and the Queens, follows this trend too. Undoubtedly, Charli is deep in the modern fervour for accelerated documentation – something escaping to nature can remedy. After our interview she is going straight to the studio. Right now, spontaneity is a key part of Charli’s creative process, and she races to capture every moment. Her timetable leaves little room to breathe; she is busy crafting a coup d’état of modern pop alongside the brain from PC Music A. G. Cook, whose videogame-like robotic musical structures smirk ironically.

In terms of persona, Charli is bright and delightfully outspoken. The artist is like a type cast girl-next-door, she was even videoed recently doing a press release on a flimsy plastic garden chair. To what extent this party animal ruling festival stages and dressed in couture is living in the same world as her fan-base I can’t claim to know, but she has an infectious energy. Is she our Trojan horse into pop or not? I look for my prediction from Mark E Smith’s cryptic and sarcastic comment on mid-eighties punk, “The conventional is now the experimental” (C’n’C-S Mithering, The Fall).


Your career started at a Hackney ware- house rave, a pretty countercultural space for someone topping the charts later in her career. How would you describe your hybrid artist identity?
I think I’ve always straddled two worlds. I did start in a more underground world, and I guess it was very bizarre to me, and sort of out of the blue, that I got onto the radio – especially because the first time it really happened was with the song that I wrote and featured on Fancy (Iggy Azalea), so it came out of nowhere. It definitely took me a while to navigate the idea that I could operate in both spaces. It took a while for the people I work with to understand that as well. Definitely, over the past 5 years I feel like I am in a very unique space, in the sense that I really can be doing both things – I really like pop music, but I’ve always really liked being a freak too! I really enjoy my unique place right in the middle of those two worlds, but I tend to not think too much about it now that I am really comfortable in the space that I am in. I just operate in it and see how it goes.
Did it come naturally to you to blur techno sounds with pop? Since you’ve become so comfortable in this particular unique space, was it something that you cre- ated for yourself or was there an industry influence that ended up hybridising your identity alongside you?
No, I don’t really take industry advice or influence at all and I think that’s how I’ve got to where I am. I think anybody that claims to know what is right for you creatively, especially in the music that you make, is just an idiot. I just don’t trust anybody’s advice when it comes to my own music. I don’t care what other people are doing or suggesting. Honestly, when I’m making my own music I find it really distracting to listen to other people’s music because I feel like it takes me out of my own brain, since if there is a song that I really like I want to replicate it. I just really block myself off from all influence when I am writing my own music and in particular for this album. For me, writing is very spontaneous – I don’t like to overthink; I don’t like to think about the outcome or the final product of the song. I don’t go into the studio and think, I’m going to write a song about this. Everything comes really naturally, and I really enjoy that free, spontaneous flow. Personally, I feel the first idea is the best idea, so I really just want to capture that.
You have really evolved from cute I Love it and Boom Clap to a very club-kid track Click (ft. Kim Petras & Tommy Cash) on the new album. Would you say that Charli XCX could be our Trojan horse to get a more cre- ative sound into the mainstream?
I mean, yeah (chuckles). 
That’s what I’m hoping. 
I just think I’ve always been like five steps ahead. I know that sounds cocky, which it is, but I just have been. I feel like by the time the mainstream cares on a mass way about what I’m doing right now I’ll have moved on to the next three things. And that’s okay, for me, I’m not even really thinking about that. I just want to keep myself creatively satisfied. I really believe all of the artists who are on the album that I have made are really pushing the sound of pop music forward in their own ways.

Definitely. 
I think that it is really beginning to show through. I think that pop music is such an interesting and diverse space right now that there is room for so many different types of artists, from all different types of places. And I also think audiences are beginning to get more open-minded. So, I’d say anything goes in pop right now, but I do think I am ahead of the game, I know that sounds really cocky, but I really do believe it (laughs).
I think that as an artist you need to have that kind of faith in your work in order to keep going. So, speaking to Crack magazine you said you’re not interested in performing the sacrifices to become commercial. You’ve already mentioned some of the non-sacrificial rituals you perform: following that first idea and trying to keep riding on your own creative wave. Closing off from influence seems more sacrificial. Are there any other ritualistic habits that you have while making music?
Yes and no. I’m not someone that needs to be in the same space to write a song, it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s day or night. For me, writing music is definitely about spontaneity and also, I just want to do it quickly. I think speed is part of the ritual for me – I don’t like to take my time when I’m writing a song, I always feel like it sucks the life out of it. But, funnily, I also feel like I’m quite an OCD-person in some ways. Less so creatively, and more in my everyday life. I think I’m definitely a control freak, as most artists are. I suppose there are rituals of control that I follow unconsciously.
It sounds to me like you want to break away partly from a stereotypical ritual of production and you deal with that through ritualistic behaviour in your day-to- day life, away from the artistic world.
Possibly, that definitely could be it.
In any case, sacrifice is difficult to avoid in our everyday life. We sacrifice our time for work, we sacrifice sleep for partying or also for work, and we sacrifice the planet to maintain our modern lifestyle of relentless consumption. Would you say we need new rituals to connect with ourselves, with the planet we live in and to live more consciously?
Yeah, I think it is definitely good to live more consciously, whether that is protecting the planet or whether that is protecting your own mental state. I think both of those things are really important. And I think, like you said, we live in a world where we are so focused on our own consumption and our outward pres- ence to the world – what people think of us, the way we are perceived – that sometimes it’s very hard to be in the moment. I definitely struggle with that.
Do you struggle with social media? That makes me think of the ritualistic habit that our generation has: checking our phones constantly. It can really disconnect us.
Yeah, we are totally in this cycle, our generation and the next generation. We are so focused on our phones and very focused on how we are perceived. Life is a video game; Instagram is a video game, and every- one is playing it. It’s just constant. I do think it’s really good to check out of that. What you see on Instagram is not real life – it’s not real. It’s tailored and it’s edited, and it’s been pieced together so it’s like the perfect, most likeable, engageable image, and that’s just not what real life is. Real life is fucked up, and real life is a mess, and no-one looks perfect and no-one is perfect and that’s great. So, I do feel like it’s really good to reconnect and spend some time in nature and realise what is really important to you. If your phone got thrown away and the Internet went down forever, what would you do? Who would you hang out with? What conversations would you have? I think it’s important to be present every once in a while, and realise we’re all going to die anyway, so have a good time with the people you care about.

I can’t agree more. Thinking back to social media be- ing like a video game, do you have someone who manages your social media or do you manage your own?
I post all of my own stuff. I have someone who manages it logistically, if I’m going on a plane then I’m not going to have any service. If I’m releasing a song I plan, okay, at 5pm, can you post this? I don’t have any- body advising me on what to post and what I shouldn’t post.
That’s healthy. As a feminist, how much does social injustice inspire your music and creative output? For example, I read that Gone, your music video that you put out with Chris (Christine and the Queens), is about be- ing tied to the male gaze (Pitchfork) since you were tied to these cars.
 I think for Chris and Collin, who directed the video, that is what the video is about. But I suppose for me it’s less about the male gaze and more about feeling restricted in day-to-day life and feeling insecure and uncomfortable and isolated and having those moments in life when you break out of that. That’s what the video is about to me. I have made music videos that are specifically about the male gaze. For example the Boys video, which is the one I directed, is very much about that.
How much does social injustice, as a woman, inspire my music? Not at all, really. But I am very vocal about my opinions on feminism and social injustice online and in my daily life. Maybe a couple of times it’s entered my music, but it’s not like I’m consciously trying to talk about it or not in music. Like I said, I’m very spontaneous when I write, so often the things I write about are moments that have happened in my life im- mediately, right there and then, less overarching subjects. I’ve been lucky to work with people who are very respectful of me and my process and I haven’t come across anything in my working relationships to be deemed that negative, but I am an outspoken person and a proud feminist, as are all the people I work with.
Why don’t you feel a responsibility to put socio-po- litical comments into your music?
I just feel like my music is a space where I am free to discuss whatever I would like, and one day that might be a really social, political song and some days it might be a song about friendship or love or a break-up or what Gone is about – feeling this insecurity and talk- ing about mental health. I had never felt a responsibility to talk about mental health, but it just felt right in the moment. I’m not saying that I won’t ever do it.
For me, I think, the way that I express my social and political views is via the collaborators that I choose, and the strength of them and our collaboration, and what it means to be collaborating with all these incredible artists from different places all over the world, people who identify differently, people who have come from different communities – the LGBTQ community for example. The way that I present my work and the artists who I choose to align myself with is the way that I am ex- pressing my political and social commentary, I suppose. I feel a responsibility to talk about feminism in my inter- views, like I’m doing now, to tweet and write about in- justice and feminism and I feel a responsibility for that because my fans are looking at me for that. Just the same way I feel a responsibility to talk about the LGBTQ community in my interviews and in my day-to-day life, and I feel a responsibility to support the community. That’s why Troye Sivan and I put on the festival Go West benefiting Glaad – because I owe so much to the community. When it comes to my music, I don’t feel responsible to talk about anything. I’m not thinking about responsibility – I am just in the moment.
Back to the album, your stance on the cover makes me think of a nude Virgin Mary, with your arms open. Since our theme is rituals, I wanted to ask about your concept.
Yeah, it’s cool that you thought about that be- cause I was thinking about that too.
Amazing.
It’s funny – the whole concept for the album cover came together sort of last minute. I feel like with most album covers, previous ones included, I’d get together with my creative director last minute and think, shit, let’s figure out the album cover. This one I felt like we didn’t even talk about it – I told him, I want to be nude on the cover, it’s my most honest album, it makes sense, and I want there to be some kind of 3D body art- work that could kind of represent an armour but could also be something really feminine. When we were shooting it, we played around with that pose, not really thinking too much about it. But afterwards I thought, oh shit, it does look kind of like religious iconography. And that’s cool because I have this joke with my fans that I am the saviour of pop music, but people who dis- like me find it really annoying, so I thought it would be fun to use that as my album cover. The people who are in on it get it, and the people who get it but dislike it can get really angry, which I find funny. So, that is definitely a part of it, for sure.
That’s really cool. Your up-and-coming album releases some violent femme-bot beats we could get a glimpse of before in Pop 2. Do you think there is a shift in what the industry is accepting from femme artists?
Yeah, I feel like pop music is really broad right now and there’s room for so many different people and sounds. I think that the industry is changing as well, the power is more in the hands of the artist and also the fans, especially with streaming. I feel like there’s room for many more different types of emotions. There’s room for so much more anger, there’s room for darkness and particularly now the metaphorical head of pop music has multiple faces and they don’t have to be smiling all the time, do you know what I mean?

Yes, and I think that’s a very reassuring image. So, in terms of censorship, which can be bleeping out swearing or covering a nipple in your album cover, I wonder, to what extent do you have freedom of speech as an artist?
I have full freedom of speech as an artist. It’s pretty cool, I’m on a major label but I operate like an artist who isn’t and that’s really exciting for me be- cause I’m kind of left to do what I want. That comes from working with the same team on my label since I was sixteen. Also, two of my managers are my best friends from school – we’ve known each other since we were 11. The team around me really understands and trusts me, and knows what I want. I feel like I have freedom of speech and sometimes that gets me into trouble, but it’s good. What’s life without a bit of trouble?
Yeah, we need it. I don’t know what the repercussions were of you tweeting back at Neil Portnow, the president of the Grammys who asked women to “step up” in January 2018, but I think it was a baller thing to do for you to uplift women with the stage that you have. Thanks for having that kind of attitude. 
Thanks! I think more and more artists are re- ally vocal. It’s kind of like a gang mentality sometimes with artists. Once somebody says something and it goes down well, everybody else can say something and it’s sort of okayed. I think that’s a good thing – fucking speak up, say what you want to say.
Okay, getting a Grammy is probably very cool – I’ve never had one. I’ve been nominated, but I’ve never had one. Sure, if I got a Grammy I’d be super happy, but also I don’t think it’s the be all and end all of everything. I think it’s really cool that when Dua Lipa won her Grammy she made a little comment in her speech about that. I thought it was great – because like you’re on the fucking Grammys stage and she’s still speaking her mind and referencing that moment. I thought that was really cool and really good. And that’s what I’m saying, the power is more and more in the hands of the artists, not record labels, not the industry but the artists, and it’s really great. Speak up and stand up for what you believe in.
Then, do you think that being more politically en- gaged is becoming fashionable? In reference to ritualistic behaviour there could be a leader who creates a cycle of people realising, oh shit, I can speak up. Has being outspoken started a ripple?
Yeah, but I think that’s happening anyway. Both our generations are very vocal, and that’s really good. There’s quite a lot of angst in both of our generations and we thrive off that, and we create really good art from that. Also, I think we’re very self-aware and smart, so it is common for people to speak up – and that’s great. It feels like we’re all very vocal. I think it takes a lot of bravery sometimes to be vocal for things like the #metoo movement and the Time’s Up movement; it takes a lot of bravery to be vocal in that kind of space, and it takes time. I think that all the people who spoke out in that movement and continue to do so are extreme- ly brave, as well as the people who maybe haven’t yet – you are still very brave, it’s a process. I think it’s great that we live in a generation in which voices can be heard.
The Internet has really facilitated that. Finally, what’s your favourite ritual when it comes to self-care?
My favourite ritual when it comes to self-care is getting out of the city that I’m in and going into nature. I recently just went up the coast to Big Sur, California right after my birthday and it just feels so good to be in a place with not that much signal. Although I did post a lot on my Instagram story, but I did want to do that. Anyway, just to be so connected with nature and to be in the trees and walking around barefoot... Even just the smell of nature feels very grounding, and the sound of nature feels very grounding. I don’t do it enough. It’s definitely something I feel is very important.

Words
Bella Spratley
Photography
Ira Chernova
Styling
Star Burleigh
Hair
Darine Sengseevong for Art Department using Orib
Make up
Bridget O’Donnell

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