“Make some noise for your favourite mother fucking popstar!”
Charli XCX is on stage at Birmingham O2 Institute. Standing alone in front of a gigantic silver cube, wearing her first of several outlandishly fabulous outfits of the night, she acts as her own hype-woman, whipping the couple of thousand Angels – the nickname for her fans – into a frenzy.
”My name is Charli XCX,” she tells the crowd, “but you already knew that…”
Having just finished a run of shows in the US, this is the second of Charli’s sold-out UK dates on her first full-length UK headline tour since 2015. It follows the release of ‘Charli’, her third official album and her first in five years, following scattergun releases of mixtapes and standalone tracks. Stuffed full of high-profile collaborations, Lizzo, Haim and Troye Sivan among them, it sees her fusing together wonky electronic beats, ‘90s production touches and hooks that’d make Britney jealous – exactly what we’d expect from the architect of many of modern pop’s freshest sounds, whether under the Charli XCX name or in her role as songwriter for others.
An hour before she goes on, Charli is preparing backstage. Her dressing room – messy, like a bedroom – is strewn with glitzy stage outfits, and there are healthy snacks scattered across the tables. In the background, her manager prepares a vocal steamer.
“I’m more nervous performing in the UK,” Charli says, when we sit down for an interview. Her support act, the upcoming futuristic-pop artist Rina Sawayama, is performing on stage, and Charli – huddled in a massive brown coat to keep warm – is holding my dictaphone right up to her lips to make sure she’s heard. “I think, because I’m from the UK, I’m always worry no one is gonna be there,’” she adds.
She has no need to worry. Charli’s shows turn these mid-sized concert venues into an all-out rave with earth-shaking bass, a ton of strobe lights and a bevy of local drag queens, who join her for new song ‘Shake It’.
The whole thing feel less like a gig and more like a bloody good party, I tell her. “Great! Because I hate gigs,” comes the response. “I don’t want to do a show that isn’t 100% fucking hype. That’s kind of it. The energy of creating this almost cultish insanity is what I want at my shows.”
A cult is a good way to describe Charli’s fanbase, who revere the 27-year-old singer but frequently enjoy a one-to-one relationship with her, too. At every show, she does a free meet-and-greet for the first 50 fans in the queue. Watching the meet and greet in Birmingham, at least one fan is practically bursting with excitement. “Oh my god, I’m going to cry! I’m going to shit myself!” they say. “You can do the first, but not the second,” Charli quips back.
The ravey atmosphere at these 2019 shows is, in many ways, a full circle moment for Charli, connecting her right back to her roots. Back when she was still in school and going by her given name, Charlotte Emma Aitchison, Charli would upload her homemade tunes to MySpace, where she was discovered by a London club promoter.
At 14 her parents were escorting her from their home in Start Hill (a Hamlet near Bishop’s Stortford in Essex) to warehouse raves in East London so she could perform live. Which is pretty cool parenting. Did they ever try and push her towards academia, or y’know, not playing illegal raves as a teen? “No, they have always let me have my own space to do what I want to do and be creative,” she answers. In fact, mum and dad went along to the raves and watched from the back.
At 18, Charli moved to London for art school, but soon signed to Asylum Records (a subsidiary of Atlantic). She had her first taste of worldwide success in 2012 after she wrote and performed on Icona Pop’s no-fucks-given breakup bop ‘I Love It’, an inescapable track that eventually topped the UK charts in June 2013.
Charli’s debut album ‘True Romance’, a collection of slick synth-pop tunes, followed shortly after, before a gear-change with 2014’s punk-poppy follow-up, ‘Sucker’. That same year, Charli had further chart success collaborating with Iggy Azalea (‘Fancy’, nominated for two Grammys) and Rita Ora (‘Doing It’, a Top Ten hit), and her own ‘Boom Clap’, a feelgood banger that featured on the soundtrack for romantic-drama movie The Fault in Our Stars.
Among all this, though, something didn’t feel right. “I did have global commercial success, so I understand what that is and what that feels like, but once I had it, I was just like, ‘OK this is cool, it’s an achievement, but the music that I’m making to get me here doesn’t feel 100 percent me,’” says Charli.
It was in 2016 when Charli’s musical output began to noticeably change, starting with her experimental four-track EP ‘Vroom Vroom’. “Three years ago, I was just like: ‘I’m not going to make sacrifices anymore, because that’s not the kind of art I want to make’,” she says.
Moving away from radio-friendly material towards more experimental electronic-pop that’s now become her trademark, Charli also started assembling a new crew of collaborators – like-minded artists who would become integral to her musical journey.
Growing up, Charli didn’t really talk about her music with school friends and was often envious of collectives like Ed Banger (the French electronic record label that’s home to Justice and Mr Oizo) and the camaraderie they shared. “I think that’s why I always really wanted to have a group or a collective of friends who I could collaborate with, and I think that’s why I’ve sunk so much into it now, because when I started and, really, for the first album, I didn’t have that collective of people,” she says.
It was working with electronic producer SOPHIE, who wrote and produced ‘Vroom Vroom’ and has appeared on countless Charli tracks since, that Charli felt she’d found the beginnings of a squad. “SOPHIE gave me that feeling that I had when I was 14 on MySpace watching the Ed Banger crew – I felt so inspired,” she says.
Charli’s gang now includes some of the most exciting and unusual artists working in the pop sphere right now, including Kim Petras, Troye Sivan, Tommy Cash and Brooke Candy. All the above appeared on ‘Charli’, and she’s always available to return the favour – she sang backing vocals on Tommy Cash’s last album, and featured on Candy’s ‘XXXTC’.
When it boils down, Charli is simply of the opinion that she just wants to work with people that inspire her. “It’s never really a strategic streaming move or anything like that. It’s about being inspired by the person and being into them,” she says. “For me, the most important thing is that you’re a fucking rock star and you’re captivating and your personality is smashing me in the fucking face.”
While Charli is now creating more experimental music, she’s still writing international hits like ‘Señorita’ for Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, which topped the charts in over 35 countries worldwide this summer. Does she ever regret giving away songs like these and losing the chance to have another massive hit of her own?
“No, not recently. Not really ever,” she says. “I think when Selena Gomez did ‘Same Old Love’ [in 2015], I really liked that song a lot, but I just knew that it would be so much more powerful coming from her than it ever would from me. She’d just come out of one of the most high-profile pop culture relationships [with Justin Bieber] and was singing those words and it felt really powerful and it was really real to her. So that was the only time I was like, ‘I love this song’, but as soon as I heard her sing it, I thought: ‘This is amazing and it belongs to her’.
“Songs like ‘Señorita’, the second we wrote it I was like, ‘This isn’t for me’. Not because I don’t like it, I just knew that Camila Cabello would crush that song way more than I ever could.”
Aside from her writing for herself and others, Charli’s got her fingers in many pies. She has her own management company, she recently modelled for lingerie brand Agent Provocateur’s Christmas range, and she just unveiled her latest venture, a new Netflix series titled I’m With the Band: Nasty Cherry.
Charli first formulated the idea three years ago, inspired by all-female bands like The Runaways, and brought together four of her mates to form Nasty Cherry – the kind of band she wish she’d had when growing up.
“Debbie [Knox-Hewson] was my drummer, Chloe [Chaidez, guitarist] had opened for me with her other band Kitten, Gabbriette [Bechtel, vocalist] has been in a couple of my music videos, and Georgia [Somary, bassist] is a friend of mine who I’ve known since I was 16,” Charli explains.
Once the four women had agreed to join the band, Charli moved them into a house in LA together to see if they’d gel. In the documentary we see Charli setting up writing sessions and live shows and offering the band advice, but largely she leaves it down to them to find their own voice. “I definitely introduced them, but I don’t think it’s like a svengali-type situation,” Charli says.
The band played their debut UK show at NME’s Girls To The Front night in September, where the band were full of praise for their mentor. “She’s always there, but not in our faces too much,” Gabbriette said. “Learning from her is like a fucking dream.” Georgia described Charli as their “agony aunt, confidante and biggest cheerleader.”
With so many plates spinning at once, it’s not surprising to hear that Charli finds it hard to relax. “I get very restless if I’m not doing shit,” she says. “On holiday, generally, I get three days in and I’m having a breakdown, or I have three days to think about all of these ideas in my head and I’m like, ‘I want to make a documentary, I want to form a band, I want to do a side project with this person’ – and it all comes out in, like, 50 emails and my team are going, ‘Fucking fuck you! Get her on tour, she’s thinking too much!’”
Charli gives the impression of someone who has everything mapped out – and of an easy-going approach to her success – but before ‘Charli’ dropped, cracks were beginning to show.
Ahead of the album’s release Charli posted a video of her in an inconsolable state on Instagram, and tweeted saying: “can’t stop crying”. Fans were instantly panicked, wondering whether it was a reaction to the reception of new music or the pressure of releasing her first album in five years. Was she worried about how ‘Charli’ was going to be received?
“I just think I had a low moment,” Charli explains. “I don’t know that it was about the pressure of the album. Maybe it was subconsciously, but I wasn’t like ‘Oh, the album’s gonna flop’, because I don’t really care about stats.”
Not even a little bit? “I don’t create to be Number One,” she says.
Speaking to her backstage at Reading earlier this year Charli had admitted she was feeling a little nervous about the record’s release, but in a way that was manageable, saying: “Whenever an artist puts an album out they freak out.”
She now thinks of her social media outcry as an accident. “It wasn’t something that I thought: ‘Oh my god, I’m crying – where’s my phone, let’s put it on Instagram’. It just sort of happened. And then I was really embarrassed. I was like, fuck, I shouldn’t have done that’”.
Social media is a huge part of Charli XCX’s day to day life – on Twitter and Instagram she’s relentlessly honest, and uses it to chat with fans and update them on all aspects of her life (and to get them to spam her with hearts).
“I’m definitely not putting things online that I don’t feel comfortable with,” she says.
Do you ever find being so accessible overwhelming?
“The pressures of social media is what I find to be quite hard, because it’s like a drug,” she says. “One day the high is really good and the next day you’re defeated, it’s this constant chase for validation. And when you get it it’s great, and when you don’t it’s really sad, and I hate that. I hate that I play into that myself,”
Do you think you’d be happier not using social media?
“For me it’s a tool that I kind of have to use. But if I didn’t have to use it, I probably wouldn’t. But I try my best to just make it as fun and light as possible. Apart from when I go really depressed and then I’m like: deep dive, emo, here we go, crying.”
After ‘Charli’ came out, the singer did read some of the reviews (“I like it when journalists get really fixated on some odd thing – somebody compared the ending of ‘Click’ to two monster trucks having sex!”) and found herself checking fan reactions on social media.
Charli stans are known for being some of the most avid out there. They share memes of her online (“I think they’re funny!”), queue for hours in the cold for her shows, and shout about her online. Charli’s Angels are totally intertwined with her story, and while the support is entirely well-meaning, there is a flip side to it.
In the past, fans have shared versions of leaked tracks (Charli has said in the past that her music being leaked has really affected her) and jokingly demand their favourite songs are released. Are these requests ever overwhelming? “Yeah, it is overwhelming, but it’s also become such a part of my narrative that it would be weird if it wasn’t there. And it’s just funny the mythology that surrounds certain songs.”
Before our chat in Birmingham, Charli was at the aforementioned meet-and-greet when a fan asked her to hold a bottle of party drug poppers up to his nose for a picture, which she declined. He then asked her to sign an anal douche, which, in the moment, she obliged. Watching the meet-and-greet from the other side of the room it was rapid interaction, which didn’t see Charli pontificating over whether she should sign it or not.
Afterwards, the fan posted a picture of the signed object online, and it went viral. The Twitter outrage engines were fired up and comment pieces were published considering whether Charli’s fans were taking advantage of her.
Meeting me in the bar of a West London member’s club the day after her Birmingham show, Charli brushes the incident off: “For me in the moment it wasn’t a big deal. And I think it’s sort of upset my fans more than it has upset me.”
“And, like, look: do I want to be signing intimate objects all the time? No, I don’t. But do I think that this is what some of some people online are saying that it is – like sexual harassment and abuse? Personally, no. I don’t. I think it’s just an example of internet culture and Twitter culture becoming this extreme world, where everything is so right or wrong. Honestly, after I left that meet-and-greet, I didn’t think twice about that.”
Eventually Charli was forced to issue a public statement where she shut down the think pieces – saying they were all wrapped up in a brand of “fake wokeness” – and affirmed that she didn’t think her fans had been abusive.
In the past a picture of Charli posting with a fan’s mum’s ashes has also gone viral. Does she ever feel any pressure to bend to her fans’ will and be their best mate? Does the “cultish insanity” of her shows spill into her everyday life? “I do feel close to my fans – but I don’t feel pressure to feel close to them. I want to communicate and interact with them,” she says.
What becomes evident throughout the chats is that you’d be hard pressed to push Charli to do anything. She feels no pressure to sign anything she doesn’t want to any more than she does to release music for the sake of chasing hits.
When asked what the biggest misconception people have of her, Charli says: “That I’m just this person who parties every single day and is really confident and loud and gets drunk all the time. And that’s part of it, but also I’m a business woman, and I can be really shy sometimes.”
Nowadays Charli has to plan when she has a big night for fear of getting sick midway through a tour. But when she does go out, she goes hard. “The only time my mind is not thinking about work and new ideas is when I’m partying. That’s why I party so hard – because it’s like freedom.”
The rest of the time, Charli will always be thinking of new ideas, making long lists of promo ideas on her phone, working on new material and considering what her next career move would be. Any ideas for what she wants to be up to in ten years’ time? “Oh god, fuck, I don’t know, everything is possible,” she says.
“I think what I’d like to do is achieve a really successful 180 in ten years, like, ‘I’m a musician, I’m a musician and then – BAM! – I’m now a writer and I write fiction books, and it’s not one of those awkward moments as I’m really good. But it’s not a writer – a successful 180 is what I want to achieve, but I haven’t decided to what.”
Later in the week, on October 31, Charli plays a sell-out show at London’s Brixton Academy. Filled to the rafters with fans decked out in their best Halloween garb, the revellers are treated to guest appearances from Brooke Candy and Christine and the Queens and another unbeatable performance from Charli herself.
Before she steps on stage, the crowd start chanting her name, just as they did in Birmingham. Does that ever get old?
“No, it’s great,” says Charli. “I’m like, ‘Fuck! I’m a fucking popstar.’”
Charli XCX’s album ‘Charli’ is out now. The Netflix series I’m With the Band: Nasty Cherry is now available to stream