Charli XCX is making space for the pop music we deserve

In an interview with The FADER, the pop utopian reveals how she came to believe in the concept of an album again, and made Charli, the most defining work of her career.

Photographer Sophie Schieli
September 19, 2019

Read our Charli XCX / Issue 105 cover story here and order Issue 105 or the poster from The FADER Shop.

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Two years ago, Charli XCX was unsure if she’d ever make a record again, at least in the traditional sense of the word. “I don’t know if I’ll even put out an album,” she told us back in 2017, following the release of her mixtape Pop 2. “Is the album even valid for me as an artist anymore? I’m not sure.” Her disenchantment was justified — earlier that summer, her long delayed third LP was leaked and unfurled across the internet by insatiable fans. But amid the ash and dust of that project, her craft sharpened, her songwriting grew boldly confessional, and her vision expanded to encompass the community around her.

Her hard-earned new album, aptly titled Charli, validates every last bit of the five years leading up to it as worthwhile. Recorded in the spur of the moment with A.G. Cook in Los Angeles, it was initially intended to be the third in a trilogy alongside Number 1 Angel and Pop 2. Instead, it morphed into her most definitive work to date, a project that both nods to her past and blazes past it, leaving a cloud of magenta smoke in its wake. Even with the album’s staggering roster of guest artists — no less than 13 of her contemporaries appear on the track list — Charli has never sounded more like herself. On the album’s release day, we caught up with Charli in her New York hotel room to discuss why she decided to give the album format another go, working with Sky Ferreira and Christine and the Queens, and finding power in vulnerability. Watch the conversation above, and read the full, unedited interview below.

Charli XCX, thank you so much for being with us here today. Third album!

Today is the day, Friday the 13th. Spooky!

Next Level Charli. How does it feel?

Good. Yeah.

Is it real yet?

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Yeah. It's like, you know when you make an album, it's like it's already made. I'm excited. I'm supposed to be like, "I'm so excited. It's the best day of my life." It's cool, yeah. It's out. I want to make the next one.

But it's existed in your world for so long at this point.

Yeah. I mean, it's definitely not been one that I've been sat on for ages. We kind of made it in the beginning of the year was sort of the main body of work was made. So yeah, I'm really like ... I listen to the music that I make every day when I'm making it, so I've heard it like 100 times now. But I am very happy it's out, yes, and I feel like it's kind of the ultimate version of me. So, I'm happy it's out there, and I think people like it. I mean, I don't care if they don't, but I hope they do, you know?

Right. But this particularly is a huge moment because the conversation about your third studio album has been one that's gone on for quite a long time. I mean, we go back to when you were on the cover of The FADER back in summer 2016, back when you were working on an album called XCX World.

It didn't have a title. Everyone else just kind of gave it a title. People made artwork. Yeah, it was never really a fully formed thing. So, that's kind of all the decisions of fans, actually. But yeah, sure, it was called XCX World. Cool.

Take me back to that time.

Yeah. I mean, it was cool. I was working on an album, which I loved and still love. I didn't feel like it was my decision to not put it out. The decision was kind of out of my hands, because someone hacked me. So, it just kind of felt like my work got taken from me and it was no longer mine, and that was really sad. I didn't even get to process it much at the time, honestly, because it was just so shocking that it had actually happened. But yeah, I love the songs that are on that album, and it's such a shame that I didn't get to complete it the way that I wanted to.

Watching that album kind of leak into the world... the fans were ravenous for it, but that's got to be kind of an intrusive feeling to see your work that you put so much time in just kind of spread across the internet.

It's really hard for me to think about. But it was sad, because I was going to release that music, and I had really specific thoughts and ideas of how I would do it. It's just, the second it's been taken from you, it just doesn't even feel like yours anymore. That was really sad, because I'd put so much time into it, and money and love, and so had all the people who were working on it. Yeah, I had shot artwork and was about to shoot videos, and then it just kind of wasn't even mine anymore. So, RIP those days.

Would you ever resuscitate any of that stuff?

No, it's been ruined for me. Even though I think the music is still brilliant, it's just that time is really tainted because somebody hacked me. So, it's on them. It's their fault, not mine.

The year that album was supposed to be released, you ended up putting out two huge mixtapes. But it kind of felt like you were disenchanted from the idea of an album as a format that was suitable for how you want to put out your work. Why did you felt that way?

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Maybe I just wasn't sure people wanted it from me, honestly. Also, I'm signed to a major label, so the second you call something an album, there's all this stress and fear and pressure and scheduling. They're like, "Oh, she's putting an album out. When's Ed Sheeran releasing his album? We got to make sure it doesn't go anywhere near that," and all that. It's like a schedule. The second you just change the language to mixtape, nobody cares. So, I was just like, "Cool, I'm doing mixtapes then." Then it was just like there was no kind of logistical stress, even though it's the same thing. I mean, it's 10 original songs, it's artwork, it's features, it's whatever, it's the same.

Charli XCX is making space for the pop music we deserve

You still hold obviously Pop 2 and Number 1 Angel as kind of peers to all these other albums.

Yeah. I think the process is the same when it comes to creating them. The process is exactly the same. Now, in hindsight, I mean, I don't see them as lesser bodies of work. I actually see Pop 2 as one of my most important bodies of work, as I think my fans do, too. So yeah, I guess that proves it doesn't really fucking matter. No one actually cares, you know? My fans are never like, "Oh so, what's the difference between the mixtape format ..." That's like you. That's you and the label. So, I think listeners just want music, doesn't fucking matter how it comes to them, really. Maybe I'm wrong, I don't know.

No, I think that's valid. At what point did you kind of start thinking, "Okay, now we get to go into the album?"

Well, A.G. and I were going to make a third mixtape. We wanted to do a trilogy originally. So, it would be like, Number 1 Angel, Pop 2, and something 3. We started making the mixtape in November 2018. We rented a room at Flume's studio in LA, and we were there for like two weeks just kind of starting some ideas. Then, I just said like, "Don't know. It feels like we should be doing an album now. It feels almost like predictable to do the third mixtape. It feels like we need to step it up and make a bigger statement and do a bigger project." A.G. was actually thinking exactly along the same lines, so that's kind of when we decided to just start working on an album. I mean, it was funny because nothing changed. We were just like, "Cool, okay. Let's just continue doing what we're doing." Literally, nothing changed. But that was when we decided that we made the big jump.

Did you stay in Flume's studio?

No, we moved. We moved out of there. Great studio, by the way. No shade, no drama. Great, great. Thanks. Shout out, Flume. Yeah, we moved to this house in Eagle Rock, which I rented, and we rented that for like two and a half months, from the middle of January until the end of March. What was so weird, I was watching this Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen show. That's the house.

What? No way.

That's the house recorded Charli in. Have you seen that show? That's the house. It was so weird. I was watching it and I was like, "Wait, I know this house. That's the fucking house I made my album in."

So, was the entire record made there?

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Pretty much. There was some stuff ... I mean, one song was made at Andrew Watt's house, a song called "White Mercedes." That's where I made that song. Then, a couple at Flume's place. Most of the writing and production was done in the Maya Rudolph house, let's call it. Then, A.G. and I made one song for the album a few years ago, actually, when we decided to try and make an album in a day, and we spent like 12 hours just making songs. One song, "I Don't Want to Know," was the last song that we made when we were doing our album in a day. So, that ended up on the album, too.

But most of it, it seems like it was really fresh.

Yeah. It was really very much in the moment, very spontaneous, very there. Yeah, really just capturing the feelings that I was feeling that day.

That seems to be the most conducive working style for your creative process.

Yeah. I just don't really like to think too much. For me, the second I start thinking about the decisions I'm making is when it begins to feel a bit contrived, and the songs just become not special. They become kind of ... I don't know. I start to think about what other people would do or something if I kind of try and plan. If I'm like, "I want to write a song like this," and play a reference, it just never goes well. So, everything has to be very kind of spontaneous and off the cuff, and really just kind of have no idea what is going to happen.

I want to talk about naming the album Charli. Did you go into it thinking that that was going to be the title?

No. I'm actually really bad with album names. I mean, I named True Romance. I named Sucker. I mean, I named Vroom Vroom. But Pop 2, Tommy Cash actually named Pop 2, because I was like, "What should we call it?" Tommy was like, "Hey, it's future pop. You should call it Pop 2." We were like, "Great, all right, cool." So, with Charli, I was throwing around all these names and nothing felt right. I don't know, I was considering tying in the 3 aspect still of like, Number 1 Angell, Pop 2, something 3. I don't know. Then, I just couldn't figure it out at all, and A.G. was like, "Just call it Charli, because it's you." I was like, "Ah, fuck. I did it again."

So yes, we went for Charli, and it just felt right, and we'd been, I don't know, at the time we named it, I was figuring out fonts for the album and that kind of thing and we were seeing my name a lot, and it just felt right. I guess most unoriginal statement ever, it's like my most personal body of work. So, it does make sense. I think encapsulates everything that I've done. There are elements of True Romance. There are elements of the mixtapes. There are elements of Vroom Vroom. Maybe even elements of Sucker and it's most pop moments. So, it kind of just feels like everything that I've been experimenting with over the past 10 years, whatever it is, however old I am, I can't remember.

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Charli XCX is making space for the pop music we deserve
Charli XCX is making space for the pop music we deserve

I'm intrigued by the idea of separating Charli from the XCX. How would you define Charli?

I suppose it works because it's the most human version of me. I don't even feel like I'm an artist who puts on a character and then it's like performing a character. I'm very real in the sense that if you get me on a bad day, it's a fucking bad day. Like you asked me at the beginning of the interview, "You excited for your album?" I was like, "Yeah, cool." I'm not going to be like, "Yeah, baby, it's fucking Charli season." No. I'm just, it's another day and there will be another album. I don't know. I'm not that person. So yeah, it's just like Charli works because it's my fucking name, and these songs are representative of the emotions that I felt whilst I recorded them. Separating it from the XCX, I don't know, man. You can theorize it as much as you want, it's just my name and it's on the album and it's sick.

Do you feel like you ever have a pressure to maintain a sort of veneer of always being this fearless person for all of your fans and all these people? Especially since Pop 2, and kind of watching you embark on this new path of your career.

No, I don't. I mean, I have very public emotional moments, so I don't feel pressure to be on all the time, at all, or to be positive all the time, because I'm not. I'm very volatile when it comes to day to day life. Some days I am so up, peak, cocky, arrogant. Fucking feeling myself, don't come for me. I'm the shit. I'm the best popstar in the world. I'm blah, blah, whatever. Other days it's like I just 180 and it's so, "I hate myself. I'm not good enough. I'm an emotional wreck. I'm crying on Instagram." I don't care. In the moment, I just don't even think about it. Some days when I'm like that, I would hide in my room, whatever. Other days, I decide to post it online. Then sometimes I'm like, "Why did I do that?"

But I don't feel pressure to be perfect or strong or whatever. I mean, I definitely am a strong person. But I think I have learned that what's best for me is I just want to feel my feelings. I think it's okay to be vulnerable. I think that's kind of what I've learned through this album process. I didn't set out to make it about my vulnerability or my kind of emotional state or anything. It just happened that way. But yeah, it feels just natural to kind of, I don't know, to just say what's on my mind. I hope that people who are watching me or fans or whatever, they can see that it's okay to be vulnerable and to feel your vulnerability. We're all human and we have good days and bad days. I think Instagram is so about the good days, and sometimes, when you're having a bad day and you see everybody else curating their best days, living their best life, whatever, it's really hard and you feel like, "What's wrong with me? Why don't I ..." But nothing's real. It's not real. This is a hole I could really spiral down.

I think it's really appreciated when you do get to that —

Yeah, because when I ... Sorry to cut you off. When I posted, I was in Zürich, and I was really low. Honestly, I don't even remember what triggered it, but it was like the lowest I'd felt for a really, really long time. I felt really, really upset and sad, and I was crying all day. I literally couldn't get out of bed. I posted about it, and I actually had some really great conversations with peers, friends, fans that day, who totally understood where I was coming from and had totally been in that moment, but hadn't kind of vocalized it because they felt like they didn't really have the right to.

I feel like, as a creative person, especially if you're doing what you want to do for a living, no matter what area of creativity, it's like we are so lucky to be creative, because some people really try all their life to make their creative passion their actual job and don't succeed, even though they're probably extremely, extremely talented and deserve that. But some people just can't manage to do it for whatever reason. So, when you do get the opportunity to live your creative dream and be able to make the work, the art, the music, the painting, the writing, whatever it is that you're making, sometimes I feel like people think you can't complain about it. Like, "Shut up, you're doing your thing. If you don't like it, don't fucking do it." I get that, because we're very lucky, but sometimes there's a lot of pressure around that, too. There's a lot of competitiveness in creativity, I think, sometimes.

Absolutely. I think there's a lot of kind of cerebral hand wringing from my world about what your role is to pop music. For me, hearing this, it feels like you found a way to create space in pop music, which I think is really important. I mean, talking about a song like "Gone," and collaborating with Chris on that, it's so powerful, and it's so towering, and you hear that song and it feels like a real breakthrough for both of you guys, but it's like because you created that space and you made that opportunity happen. Talk me through that song a little bit.

That song was started really right at the beginning of the year. I went to Stockholm and I was working with Noonie Bao and Linus Wiklund, who are two people who I collaborate with a lot, and we had like five days together where we literally wrote the worst songs in the world. We were like, "Fuck, it's done. We've lost it. Can't do this anymore, better find some new shit to do." It was so bad. Every song we wrote, we were like, "This is great," and then we would listen back and we were like, "This is so bad. What the fuck is happening?" Every song we couldn't finish, the lyrics were terrible, the melodies were bad, the production was awful. We were just bombing constantly, which has never happened to me before. Like I've had writer's block, but I've always been able to, in the same day, come back and be like, "Okay, cool. I like this song." Maybe it doesn't end up being the best song in the world, but I can finish a song. But this was just like five days of it being so hard to make anything.

So we finally got to "Gone," and I had this pre-chorus idea with this lyric, and I had a verse melody, and we had this track, rough track, and it felt cool, and we were like, "Fuck. Okay, this is cool. We can't fuck it up. Don't fuck it up. Let's not even try and finish it." I had been texting Chris. I was like, "I'm just going to send it to her." She loved it, and really, honestly, within 15 minutes, she sent me back a demo of the chorus with lyrics and that was kind of it. Then I sang it, and we were just sending stuff back and forth, really, and that's how we finished the song. I asked her to write my verse lyrics, because I just felt like, I don't know ... I would never write lyrics that she writes, and I kind of wanted to tie it together a little bit. So it just felt right for her to do that for me.

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It's a fucking huge song. It's just so big and so massive. For me, it's my favorite pop song of the year. There's nothing that's going to top that song.

That's cool. Thanks.

But I think it kind of punctuates a lot of what this album is saying. When I hear it, I think of it's a party record about escaping the party, in a way. I'm curious if you feel the same.

Yeah, it is, kind of, yeah. I mean, I think it's funny, because partying has been such a huge part of my life and my inspiration and my world. This is going to sound so cheesy, but I do wonder sometimes, "When will the party be over?" I don't know. Not yet, not yet, but I definitely like, my feelings toward partying are changing, I think as they do when you get older, right? It's not that I don't want to do it anymore. I mean, I fucking love it, but I do definitely feel the sadness a little bit more. I'm like, "Oh, I'm doing this to escape. I'm doing this to escape reality and my problems."

If I feel kind of alone or insecure, am I facing the reality of why, or am I partying to forget? I'm partying to forget, you know? I think a lot of people do that. Maybe some people don't say it, but they do it. I also party for pure fun, as well. It's not just constant like, "Oh, is she okay?" No, I'm partying for a good time, too, but I'm definitely aware. I think "Gone" lyrically, it's kind of about that time when you're at a party and you just feel like, "Fuck, I'm so out of place. I feel so alone. I feel insecure. Everyone's looking at me. People hate me. Why am I here?" Spiraling. When you're spiraling, spiraling, and you're like, "Fuck." Yeah, that. That's what "Gone" is about for me.

Another one of my favorite collaborations on the album is "Cross You Out" with Sky Ferreira. Talk to me about how that collaboration came together, because you and Sky kind of came up around similar times. Your fan bases very much intersect.

Sky and I, we've known each other for a really long time. We put our first albums out sort of around the same time and had worked with a lot of the same people. But even before that, on Myspace, we were like, "Hey, hey." We've known each other. I've always been a fan of what she does, and I do think still she is just very uniquely in her own space. I can't think of somebody who I can compare Sky to, you know? In current pop, left of center pop, blah, blah, blah, whatever, she's very much on her own wavelength. I think people can group me and Kim [Petras] and SOPHIE and Slayyyter into this kind of group. Not saying we do the same thing, we do very different things, but it's sonically like there are a lot of similar touch points. I just don't really feel that as much with Sky. I feel like she's really kind of out there, a little island, doing her thing.

I've always wanted to work with her, and we have spoken about it in the past. We wanted to do like a t.A.T.u. type song. It had always been very vague, and then I had this initial idea for "Cross You Out," and I sent it to her, really on a whim, thinking like she might not want to, because I know she was in a big process of working on her record. But she hit me back and she was like, "Yes, I want to do it." So, she recorded with Linus in LA. I actually wasn't there when she recorded, but she did her thing, she wrote her verse. I was like, "I've done it. I've got Sky Ferreira. Motherfucker, what?" Because that's rare.

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It's huge. It's her first pop song in years.

That's fucking rare. I was like, "I'm the shit. I got Sky. Yes. The internet is going to go crazy." Then she just like, peaced. She went so silent on me, and I was like, "No." Because she was doing her thing, and we have very different processes. I think she takes a lot of time. I mean, I'm a perfectionist, too, but I think she is a perfectionist in a different way from what I can tell. Her process feels very intricate, whereas mine is very messy and blah, blah, blah, go, done. So then, when she went quiet on me for a bit, I was like, "Fuck. I fucked it. Spoke too soon. She's gone away, what do I do?" So then I just kind of sat for a while thinking like, "I'm an idiot." But eventually, she hit me back and she was like, "Love the song." I was like, "Yes, we're back in the game. Cool." Then it happened, and we got together to do the artwork. Yeah. Sorry, was that the question? I don't really know what you asked now. I've just been yelling about Sky.

Yeah, you gave it all. As well,you should.

But yeah, I'm so happy that it happened, because actually, I feel like for both of us, this song is actually a song that feels like it could be on True Romance or Night Time, My Time, which by the way, I've been really listening to. Phenomenal album. Well done.

It holds up!

Holds the fuck up, doesn't it? Yeah. So, good for Sky. But yes, I'm really happy that it happened, because I really admire her, and I think she's a very important voice, and I think she deserves more credit for what she's doing. She's very good. I think she's really talented and really ... Yeah, she's a really great artist.

Yes, absolutely. Ready for Masochism.

Same. Come on, Sky, bring it. We're ready. Slay queen.

This is your 'most personal album yet,' but also there's so many people involved in it. I was thinking about the idea of how the communities around us kind of make us who we are, and that you can be your most vulnerable self on this album. Not because of these people, but I think seeing all these collaborations weave in and out of the album, it kind of has this thread of your peers lifting you up and you being able to get to that place with a little help from your friends.

Yeah. That's actually funny, because the album was going to be called Best Friends. That was a title for a while that we were thinking about, which that's kind of cool you said that. But yeah, it is really that. Like the community that I'm in, and the kind of community that I'm surrounded by, which is basically the LGBTQ community because I really feel like I'm so emersed in that in all aspects of my life. My friends, when I go out, my collaborators, it's really prominent and so important to me. I do feel like I am able to be vulnerable in that space, because I feel so comfortable there, you know? I feel like that is a community that has really embraced who I truly I am and made me feel less afraid to be myself and speak my mind when before I kind of was. So yeah, the collaborators, they really do give me that strength, for sure.

This album would not be possible without them. I'm an artist and I have an ego, for sure, but I can really comfortably say that none of these songs would be possible without the people that I work with, because they are so inspiring to me, and they bring their own worlds and their own flavor and their own insight to the work that I do, and it's really inspiring to me. I never feel threatened. I just feel so ready to learn and listen to people who've had different experiences from me and lived different lives. Yeah, it's really cool. I really love it. The collaborators make me feel very comfortable. Comfortable, but still, I think, allow me to be very progressive at the same time.

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Do you have any hopes for how your fans interpret this project, or where you're going to take it from here?

I hope my fans love this album. If they don't, that's okay, but I hope they love it. I hope that they feel inspired and emotional and joy. I hope they party to it. I hope they play it fucking loud. I don't know, I never really think about the hopes. It's just out now. It's out now. I just hope people fucking like it. But also, I don't care if they don't. I don't know. I like it, that's the main thing. I'm really proud of it. I really like it. Honestly, I know I'm not supposed to say this, I'm supposed to be so in it like, "This album's streaming, buy it now." But I'm thinking about the next one. I'm like, it's done. I'm just like, onto the next.

Next level.

Next level. There you go. Great branding, love it.

Charli XCX is making space for the pop music we deserve

Charli XCX is making space for the pop music we deserve