The proper thing on the mind of 20-year-old shooting star Charli XCX is an album long in the making, one which finally sees the light of day in 2013. The wait has been as agonizing for Charli as it has been for her fanbase - rapidly swelling on both sides of the Atlantic ? but patience has paid handsome dividends. The debut album she releases in 2013 - perhaps unlike the album she could have released in 2012, or even 2011 - finds XCX's vision fully realized. Sweeping synths, crunchy beats, emotive vocals, coy raps, spiky and persuasive lyricism and big ideas about life, love and everything else: The album tracks (and soundtracks) Charli's journey from teenager to young woman, but deftly swerves coming-of-age clichés.
"There were all these questions while I was making the album," Charli recalls. "Like how can I twist something mundane to something really amazing that's never been done before? How can I make beautiful pieces of pop? How can I just let my mind go and let all the colors flow out?" Many of the answers have only really appeared in the last twelve months as Charli's vision has finally come into focus. And now the album is finished, its ample vindication for one of Charli's most firmly-held beliefs: “We need to reboot British girl power.”
Honed during support slots for artists like Sleigh Bells, Santigold and Coldplay, Charli’s live performances, like her music, are raw but multi-layered, sometimes stark but with a clear beating human heart. Her collaborators - Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Usher, Alex Clare, Solange Knowles), Patrik Berger (Lana Del Rey, Robyn), J£zus Million and Blood Diamonds - have helped unlock a unique talent. All pop is here, from Siouxsie to Spiceworld, The Knife to Nirvana. To achieve her intricate, post-modern pop with its evocative titles like ‘Nuclear Seasons’, ‘Stay Away’ and 'You (Ha Ha Ha)' she is a lightning rod, pulling influences out of the sky and channeling them into the crunchy beats, fuzzy synths, bittersweet melodies and idiosyncratic perspectives that combine in the absorbing multimedia output of this compelling new artist.
Charli’s world view is splashed in vivid colors across her artwork, her videos and her Tumblr but with a dark edge. Her personal style she describes as “Wednesday Addams meets Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice meets Baby Spice”. She obsesses about Pierre et Giles and David La Chapelle, just two of the names whose work she fell in love with at art school. “I love hyper-realism in every aspect of what I do,” she says. She'll also look to her favorite films - The Craft, Carrie, Party Monster, Clueless - for inspiration. The brilliant but brutal 'How Can I' is directly influenced by Carrie. "I think of John Travolta being a dick, and that sweet guy with the terrible hair dancing, and the moment when she goes apeshit at the end. It's like 'how can I fix what I fucked up?' Well, Carrie, you can't. You are now dead in a grave with your hand poking out'."
As we know, Charli XCX’s story is no overnight success. In 2006, when Charli was 14 she organized her live performances through MySpace and regaled crowds with "nursery rhyme-esque rap pieces with me shouting 'DINOSAUR SEX!' while standing on a crate in a warehouse". As a live promoter her dad had, once upon a time, booked acts like Bob Marley and Siouxsie & The Banshees at his club nights, but even he couldn’t prepare Charli for the parties she found herself performing at. “Call me sheltered,” she says, “but at 14 I'd never dreamed that I’d be singing while people were running around half naked on ketamine squirting each other with glitter guns."
Her life split in two. During the day she’d be at school - she loved art, hated music ("an awful dictatorship") - and afterwards she’d write songs and produce raw demos in the bedroom of her parents' house. By night, she’d be in London in a “colorful, glittery world that didn't really mean that much, but never claimed to either”. Soon songs called things like 'Art Bitch' and (in reference to a crap girl from school) '!Franchesckaar!', created quite a buzz even sound-tracking catwalk shows in London and New York for the likes of Marc Jacobs and Victoria’s Secret. For Interview magazine, she was photographed by David Bailey in a skintight Pam Hogg creation (“I had no idea what I was doing and left my pants on, so there’s a huge knickerline!”). These were exciting times, and then... Well, she’ll admit it now - she just didn’t have enough decent songs. The buzz buzzed off, as it does. In the unforgiving world of next big things, some thought Charli XCX had disappeared. "So did I!" she roars today, laughing her head off. “It was tough, and frustrating. I had a period of just asking myself, 'how do I get out of this rut?’.”
Charli met Ariel Rechtshaid on a trip to LA and wrote and recorded 'Stay Away' in their first morning together. The song marked a turning point, going a long way to defining her sound and causing blog fever when posted on line. Soon afterwards she traveled to Sweden to work with Patrik Berger who sent her some tracks the day before the session. She was instantly captivated by one of them, wrote to it all night in her hotel room, and the next day turned up to meet Patrik with 'You're the One', another key release and now a live favorite (She also wrote the global hit IconaPop song 'I Love It' that same night). As Charli hit her stride she grew to realize that her early stuff - the parties, her diy releases, the jumping up and down shouting about dinosaurs - wasn’t a false start, just a chance to experiment when nobody was looking. "If I'd rushed to put out more songs when I was younger I know I'd be regretting it now," she admits, "but I know that I’ll never fall out of love with ‘Stay Away’."
Between starting and finishing the album she found herself listening to acts on the fringes of pop like Salem, Purity Ring, Hercules & Love Affair, Art Of Noise's ‘The Seduction of Claude Debussy’, and through collaborating with Ariel Charli had discovered the a darker, less transient style she’d been heading towards for the previous few years. "I'm fascinated by pop music being picture-perfect on the outside and warped and fucked up underneath," she explains, and it's a stance that's hard to ignore when immersed in her debut album. For instance there's 'You're The One' ("the ultimate 'wow I'm so in love that I'm exploding from every orifice' song"), but then there's 'Stay Away' ("the flipside, the dark side when it's emotionally heavy and it gets warped and fucked"). And then, she adds, there are "party jams, but not bad party jams that make you hate the world. They're not 'I'm in a club with my ho's', they're 'I'm in a Japanese club filled with amazing neons and I feel like I'm in the 80s but I'm not'."
2011 and 2012 were all about perfecting the sound, and honing her impressive live show. The Alex Metric collaboration ‘End Of The World’ created the right ripples in the right places, while the low-key release of ‘Nuclear Seasons’ (complete with a video made by Charli and her film-maker boyfriend over a weekend in Wales, that brought Charli’s vision to life in broad, epic, colorful-but-distressed strokes), as well as contributing a song to the soundtrack of British movie Elfie Hopkins all added to Charli's momentum. "Some of my music is still very teen orientated - I'm still pretty much a teenager - but there's love in there and darker thoughts in terms of relationships,” she says of her album True Romance, due out later in the year. “And there are still couple of fuck you songs on there - I have a lot of up days and a lot of fuck-the-world days, so there are party jams and dark warped depressing songs."
In 2013 XCX sees herself slotting in alongside sparky teenage girls who grew up in the shadow of the Spice Girls - think artists like Grimes and Sky Ferreira, and who seem inspired by the useful bits of girl power. “90s kids are pretty fucking cool when it comes to music,” Charli notes, “and pop's being taken seriously again now, which is exactly what it deserves".
Any other ambitions? Well, apart from continuing to write and create with people who inspire her, there's also Charli longing to have "these huge industrial fans on stage with loads of streamers that kind of turn and it's a bit epic, and there are glitter cannons and colored smoke that make it completely apocalyptic". So if you see that happening on stage at any point, you'll know everything's going to plan. Until then there's an album of abnormally excellent, forward-facing pop that creates its own universe just as effortlessly as it will fit into yours.