CXLOE: dark pop princess searches for a new normal

The pandemic has put Chloe Papandrea on JobKeeper and back to work in her parents’ pharmacy. But her new EP ‘Heavy, Pt. 1’ reveals a pop star in waiting

CXLOE is all dressed up with nowhere to go. The 25-year-old Narrabeen-raised singer has the right sound at the right time: She’s amassed nearly 40million streams over four years and slowly but surely built up her reputation as a Dark Pop Princess™.

Now she’s in the wrong place for a long time… stuck at home with her boyfriend in Sydney’s northern beaches.

“So I came back from LA in March to do the Formula One in Melbourne,” she says. “Then that got cancelled. And I haven’t been back overseas since. So it’s, um, a lot,” she tells NME via Zoom, flopped on her bed, wearing a blue, tie-dyed The 1975 t-shirt. Now, CXLOE – aka Chloe Papandrea – is doing the same thing we all are: trying not to catch coronavirus.

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Our interview is ostensibly about the EP ‘Heavy, Pt. 1’ but like most longform conversations conducted since the pandemic began, things get existential. Perhaps it’s also not a coincidence that Papandrea just saw her shrink pre-interview… but we’ll get to that.

Pre-COVID, Papandrea was based in Los Angeles, co-writing with songwriters du jour: Andrew Wells (Bebe Rexha), The Futuristics (Selena Gomez), Louis Schoorl (5SOS) and Ross Golan (Ariana Grande).

“I’m doing, sorry, I was doing an Australian tour for the ‘Heavy, Pt. 1’ EP. I was meant to be doing the UK, New York and LA. So I’m just on my computer doing lots of interviews this way,” she says. For a bird with clipped wings, she still has a lightness about her, a buoyancy: it’s like she knows something we don’t.

CXLOE’s music is manna for playlists: tautly constructed synth pop dipped in trap and house beats and rolled in yearning, heart-grows-fonder signifiers. The EP’s title track, ‘Heavy’, is a step up for Papandrea, a slamming, funk-smeared mid-tempo jam that’s equal parts Charli XCX and Purity Ring. CXLOE sings like she’s pushing her suitor away with one hand and clinging to him with the other: “You never believe that I’m alone.”

The tyranny of distance was an issue for Papandrea and her boyfriend of seven years, Dan Lakajev, until COVID meant they could move in together. A fortnight ago she posted a picture to her 36,000 Instagram followers of the two canoodling in the reflection of a cerulean-hued window with the caption “til the wheels fall off”.

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“He hates it when I post things about him,” she says with a gleam in her eye. “He’s in advertising, which is good for me, because it gives me a break. I can be like, ‘Oh I got this Spotify playlist!’ And he’s like, ‘Sick. What are we doing for dinner?’”

CXLOE dark pop Heavy Part 1 EP
Credit: Jess Gleeson

After Papandrea’s gig at the Grand Prix was canned the global entertainment industry didn’t so much grind to a halt as slam on the brakes, sending bodies flying through the windshield. “I’m on JobKeeper,” she says. “It’s helped me quite a bit to stay above water, but I won’t lie, when coronavirus hit in March, I started working back at my dad’s pharmacy to get some extra cash.”

“A lot of the younger girls who worked at the pharmacy, their parents were kind of like, ‘No! Get out!’ because it’s a cesspool of people who are sick. So, I put my hand up.” Papandrea did eight years at the pharmacy growing up, but her plucky outlook this year was quickly defeathered.

“It was absolutely mental. I did about two months, but people were quite awful. Everyone was hoarding everything and stocking up on Panadol. I was yelled at a lot of times for [running out of] toilet paper.” Not to mention the accidental burns she copped from the regulars: “My favourite question was” – she imitates a wizened pensioner voice – “‘So you’re not doing music anymore?’ I was like, ‘Ouch’. That was a bit of an ego hit.”

“I feel a lot of the time being an artist is very self-serving, which doesn’t sit right with me”

Papandrea isn’t easily discouraged. She entered The X Factor in 2014 and reached the Home Visits stage, re-entering a year later where she didn’t get past the Chair Challenge. But a breakout moment was coming: She gigged around dive bars in Sydney then put out the breathy ‘Tough Love’ in 2017, which peaked at Number One on Spotify’s Viral Chart. Her next single ‘Monster’ led to a deal with Mushroom Music Publishing and signing with Niche Talent Agency.

Papandrea then snared a co-writing session with Sam Farrar of Maroon 5 who produced her breakthrough banger ‘Show You’. She supported Adam Levine and co. on the Red Pill Blues Tour and followed up with more streaming gold ‘I Can’t Have Nice Things’ and ‘Low Blow’.

From the get-go, CXLOE has seized the Dark Pop Princess™ tag with her music and a bruised-but-beautiful aesthetic. Well, sort of. “It has taken me a while to embrace it wholeheartedly because for so long, ‘pop’ was a dirty word. And I found myself always putting the word ‘just’ before pop.

“I wanted to lean into it conceptually and sonically with dark synths and crunchy bass,” she says, becoming animated. “I kind of went on a big journey to get to this EP. I started out doing pop and then I was like, nah, I don’t want to do this, then I went into R&B,” she says, circling her index finger slowly, “and then acoustic folk, and then I came back to dark pop, which felt more genuine to me.”

NME must mention the baggy-panted elephant in the room: the undisputed heavyweight champion of the genre, Billie Eilish. CXLOE gives credit where it’s due: “Oh, it made me so happy when her album ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ came out, because it was getting radio and playlisting. For so long before that I would be writing songs and be like, ‘Is this gonna fit with pop or radio?’ [Eilish] has eliminated that completely.”

‘Heavy’ boasts a clip where CXLOE is giving herself side-eye, filming her two personalities, ‘Chloe’ and ‘CXLOE’, with an old-school camcorder. It comes across as an undergraduate FKA twigs. Papandrea, on her part, prefers “Banks, Tove Lo and I’m super into Grimes. The 1975 are my favourite, favourite band. I love how they put weird concepts with like, pop melodies? It’s so jarring. ‘Did he [Matty Healy] just say that?’ It gets you out of nowhere.”

Healy has had his share of public meltdowns, addiction problems and mental health struggles. Some of these themes Papandrea explores on ‘Heavy, Pt 1’. Her unfortunate vice is self-sabotage. “I’ll ask, ‘What am I doing? This sucks. Like, I may as well quit now’,” she says, shifting uncomfortably on the bed.

“I literally just came from a therapy session. It’s good to keep the engine well oiled,” she says. Papandrea has set up all-important boundaries so she’s not too available to her fans: “I’ve had to move my app icons around on my iPhone. I’ve set timers on Twitter and Instagram. My emails are probably the worst one because I’m a control freak.”

“My favourite question was ‘So you’re not doing music anymore?’ … That was a bit of an ego hit”

In July, CXLOE finally inked a deal with Sandlot Records (Lady Gaga, Charlie Puth) and a global partnership with AWAL Recordings. She released ‘12 Steps’, her eighth single and also the track that opens ‘Heavy, Pt. 1’. Papandrea pledged the first week of ‘12 Steps’’ streaming earnings to crisis support charity Lifeline. “Addiction needs to be spoken about and not treated as a taboo topic,” she said at the time.

When asked to elaborate, she pauses. “I feel a lot of the time being an artist is very self-serving, which doesn’t sit right with me, especially with my family running a pharmacy and helping people who are sick,” she says. “‘I’m an artist and I just posted this photo today and it got THIS many likes’. It makes me feel ill.”

2020 is supposed to be CXLOE’s coming-out party, but instead she’s staying in. So what’s a girl to do? A devilish grin spreads across her face, although it’s unclear whether CXLOE or Chloe comes up with the idea: “Maybe this is the time I release some nudes.”

‘Heavy, Pt. 1’ is out now through Sandlot Records/AWAL

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