Charli XCX holds her phone out for me to look at. "I know you're a journalist and all," she says, an iMessage exchange open on the screen, "but tell me, isn't that an absolutely insane price for MDMA?" She's wearing a cropped, baby blue sweater identical to Liv Tyler's in Empire Records and we're riding together in an elevator at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn. And while I've planned to interview the budding superstar about how she manages her mass of curly hair, I quickly realize I can ask her about pretty much anything.
Upstairs, Charli warns me about her messy room, and she's not exaggerating. Half-empty bottles of whiskey and stray hair extensions are strewn on every visible surface, and she shoves two old pizza boxes off the unmade king size bed to sit for a photo. This kind of frenzied disorder—the evidence of a touring lifestyle where mornings spill into nights and back again—isn't surprising. Charli's had a beast of a year. In the hook of Iggy Azalea's "Fancy," the English singer-songwriter ordered us to remember her name, and after the ubiquitous Clueless-themed music video went viral in March (380 million views and counting), no one could forget it. June brought the gum-smack of a mega-hit, "Boom Clap," as well as the powerful Ryn Weaver single, "Octahate," which Charli co-wrote. In the fall, she opened for Katy Perry on the Prismatic tour, and this month she's releasing Sucker, her sophomore full-length.
“That should be my pre-show rider,” she says. “Sex and pizza."
Being around Charli XCX feels like spending time with a character from one of her songs. Intimate confessions and expletives flow more easily than practiced anecdotes: She tells me about getting drunk at producer Benny Blanco's birthday party, dressing her dancers in "fuckloads of Claire's accessories," and having sex right before a show. "That should be my pre-show rider," she says. "Sex and pizza." Charli admits sometimes she parties a little too hard. "There are definitely times when I've gone over the edge, but that's just life," she tells me. "I don't want that to become my brand—fuck brands, anyway. That's not something I'm interested in." What Charli is interested in, though, is a deep commitment to teen girl iconography: to big feelings, bigger hair, and upholding the mantle of what she calls the true "90's bitch."
Charli's earliest memories are of "music and boys"; everything's a blur, she says, before her teenage years. And as her sound evolves, the way it did from the moody synths of her 2013 debut True Romance to Sucker's brash singles that sound like Veruca Salt on candy and Adderall, a youthful candidness remains. The songs she writes and the visuals she picks to represent them are all concerned with adolescence. On True Romance highlight "What I Want," she remembers playing board games and watching horror films with a cute boy, while "Break The Rules" flirts with broad American high school clichés, and, of course, there's the "Fancy" video, and its loving homage to Clueless.
"In everyone's life, there's a moment where it clicks and you're just like, 'You know what, fuck it."
In her creative process, too, Charli—who signed to her first record label at 18—seems preoccupied with the idea of suspended adolescence. She waxes nostalgic about the unburdened creativity of her teen years, pre-success: "Everyone thought I was just another fuckin' kid with a record deal," she says, "so it was easy for me to go to my living room at my parents house and write a load of songs. There were no expectations at all." Just four years later, the stakes attached to her creative productivity are significantly higher, but she finds comfort in inconsistency, in being a new kind of artist within the pop machine. "I never had a hero," she tells me. "Maybe the Spice Girls, for a bit, but I've never wanted to replicate someone's career—I think it's impossible to actually replicate a career in this day and age." She's just as uninterested in retracing her own steps, saying, "After [Icona Pop's "I Love It," co-written by Charli] people were asking me to replicate that song. I was trying to, but it just wasn't working. I don't have a routine, and I think if I did I'd begin to really freak out."
Charli thrives in changing things up and, she says, by not worrying what anyone thinks about it. "Part of the reason that things have gone well for me this year is because I've really begun to not care what people think about me—at all," she says defiantly. "In everyone's life, there's a moment where it clicks and you're just like, 'You know what, fuck it." In a year's time, it's possible Charli will be an even bigger star, one who doesn't let writers up into her hotel room before it's been cleaned, or ask them for insight on their city's going rate for MDMA. But for now, this is who she's happy to be.
At the Wythe, I pull out an instant camera to take a quick photo. Legs folded like a fawn on the unmade king-size bed, Charli pouts for the shot. When I put my camera down, she throws her hair back and smiles broadly, her lips lacquered a bright cherry red. I ask her what she's thankful for. "I'm thankful for 2014," she tells me. "2014 has been, like, my best friend."