FROM V MAGAZINE ISSUE 93 THE MUSIC ISSUE, SPRING PREVIEW 2015
PHOTOGRAPHY RICHARD BUSH
FASHION SARAH RICHARDSON
TEXT PATRIK SANDBERG
HOW DID A PUNK ROCKER FROM BISHOP’S STORTFORD, ENGLAND, CRASH THE GATES OF CORPORATE-CONTROLLED, MARKET-TESTED AMERICAN POP RADIO? GO BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE UNPRECEDENTED RISE OF CHARLI XCX
Charli XCX was riding in a New York taxi the first time she heard her song “Boom Clap” on the city’s Z100 radio. “I remember feeling like I was Mariah Carey in Glitter at that moment,” she says. “I wanted to run out of the car and call my mom from the phone box!” The 22-year-old British pop singer and songwriter had already earned her radio stripes with “Fancy,” her certified summer smash with Iggy Azalea, and with the double-platinum “I Love It,” which she wrote and contributed vocals to for the Swedish pop duo Icona Pop, back in 2012. That song had earned cultural immortality in a scene from HBO’s Girls, and achieved such ubiquity that it’s destined to become a wedding reception staple for the millennial generation in years to come. But with “Boom Clap,” the rush belonged to her alone, and was one that came as a particular surprise.
“‘Boom Clap’ was a song that was around for a long time,” Charli says. “I wrote that straight after [my album] True Romance came out, in June 2013. I went to Sweden and was working with Patrik Berger, and we wrote it at a time I had been listening to a lot of yé-yé pop from France. I really liked the way that the girls who sing those songs often use onomatopoeic words in the choruses and they’re all very nursery rhyme-esque and naïve.” Once completed, Charli and Berger decided to offer the song to Hilary Duff, who was accepting pitches for a new album. “We sent the song to her people and I don’t think she ever heard it,” Charli says. “But they were like, ‘This song isn’t cool enough for Hilary.’ And we were really sad about that! So I was like, Fuck it. I’m going to sing it.”
On April 14, 2014, the song hit SoundCloud, heralding the soundtrack for the upcoming The Fault In Our Stars film, based on a best-selling young adult book. The response was favorable, but modest, coming mostly from Charli’s core fan base. But when the film opened in June, the romantic teen drama rapidly emerged as the sleeper hit of the summer, a perfect antidote to the superheroes, CGI monsters, and science fiction odysseys prevailing at the box office over the past few seasons. The $12 million production amassed over $300 million in profits worldwide, shattering Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie’s opening-day totals and earning receipts on par with X-Men. It was astonishing considering the movie’s premise—two teenagers coming of age in the shadow of terminal illness—and on the heels of “Fancy” it amounted to a perfect storm for Charli. “Boom Clap” chimed incessantly over TV and radio spots and became associated with the film as an anthem for the underdog besting the big-budget competition. Boom clap indeed.
“Hilary Duff heard it and she tweeted me, ‘Hey, I really like your song! I wish I’d known that I could’ve had it,’” Charli says, with a laugh. “And I was like, Too late, Hilary. Too late.’”
Though the song may not have made it to radio initially, Charli has come to see its entry onto the pop charts (where it has since cracked the top 10) as a combination of action and reaction. “I’ve never really believed you can preempt that,” she says. “I didn’t even realize that they test songs before they put them on the radio. They get teenagers to say I think this is great or I think that’s bad based on five or ten seconds of a song they’ve never heard before. And it’s those reactions that get them to decide what goes on the radio. It’s really fucked up and weird. I don’t think anyone knew the scale of ‘Boom Clap’ until it began to get more plays. Radio is not something that’s ever been with me before.”
Ed Howard, the director of A&R at Asylum Records who was instrumental in signing Charli, comes across less shocked. “From the very start I saw she had the talent and desire to be a big artist, so her success is not a surprise,” he says. “But the way it’s happening is brilliant and unpredictable, just like Charli.”
Born in Cambridge and raised in Bishop’s Stortford, a conservative market town on the border of Essex, Charlotte Emma Aitchison began to write and self-release songs on Myspace when she was only 14. Streams of her homespun pop demos led to gigs at local warehouse raves, where her parents would accompany her for supervision and support.
“I had heard about her through the grapevine, but hadn’t met her before I saw her play, very late at night, at a pub in East London,” Howard says. “At 15 she already had incredible songs, had the most energy and front of any performer I’d seen of any age, and a really forward sense of style and presentation.” After signing with Asylum Records, Charli XCX (she conjured the name out of her preferred e-mail sign-off) began to work with producers like Berger, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Todd Rundgren, creating gothy synth jams like “Stay Away” and “Nuclear Seasons.” Those two songs featured on her debut LP, True Romance, an album that had her opening for Coldplay and earning solid buzz everywhere from Pitchfork to NME and Rolling Stone. Despite the punk energy of her shows and the dark, fuzzy production of the album, Charli views that period as a full-frontal foray into pop music.
“The very pop way that I think isn’t recognized, sometimes,” she says, annoyed. “I think some people don’t appreciate the Spice Girls and Britney Spears as great, intelligent pop music. They’ll always be like, that’s you coming from a weird angle. And I’m like, No, you just don’t get it. I always wanted to be in the pop sphere, but I wanted to do it on my own terms. I don’t want to follow what anyone else has done before me.”
Sucker, Charli’s sophomore album, released in December, expands her field of vision into the mosh pit. With shout-along choruses, buzzy guitar riffs, and a live show that borrows from the Donnas’ scene in the movie Jawbreaker, the direction is confrontational, at times angry, and addictive in its refrains. “With the way I’ve performed, it’s always been a bit messy and more raw and punk,” Charli reasons. “But I made a load of actual punk songs with Patrik after the success of ‘I Love It,’ because I felt cheated and I felt very alone, and like I’d opened a few doors to the music industry that I didn’t really want to open. In hindsight I’m glad, because it made me wiser to the way people can play you, especially with big pop songs. That’s not a slight on Icona Pop, but the way business was done around that song was kind of messy. I also felt angry about being asked to rewrite that song over and over again. I felt like I was turning into this competitive, Dr. Luke-esque creature who was going into the studio trying to write another hit. And that’s never been my style. So I just got my anger out, and that filtered through to the final record.”
“We kind of needed to get it out of our system,” producer Berger says of their sessions for Sucker. “Then Charli was like, ‘But I want to write big songs.’ The challenge was to write real big songs, and that’s where it went toward pop rather than a full-on punk record.”
“If I’m honest, I’m not even sure if some of my fans are going to like it,” Charli says. “I didn’t make this music to please people…that’s just not why I do it. I don’t think about my audience when I make music. The one thing I’m always thinking about is how I want to constantly change. Who knows what the fuck is going to happen with the radio? Like, I’ve never understood it, so who knows? I’m really proud of this album, and I like it. That’s all I care about, really.”
Album opener “Sucker” sets the tone with bratty verses that recall the lipstick-smeared kiss of ’90s goddesses like Shirley Manson and Courtney Love with a plastic dose of riot grrrl bubblegum, reminiscent of Shampoo. “It’s a big fuck you to all of the people who doubted me as an artist, who doubted me as a songwriter, or who questioned my validity and why I was in the position that I was in,” Charli says of the Justin Raisen–produced track. “That’s me being angry and being a bitch on the record, and I really enjoy playing that song, because it gives me a sense of satisfaction every time.”
Other standouts include “Doing It,” a roller-disco-ready dance gem that evokes early Madonna; “Famous,” a rollicking sequel of sorts to the “Fancy” chorus with an amphetamine hook made for reality TV promos; “Breaking Up,” a kiss-off hand-clapper with a doo-wop sheen; and “Need Ur Love,” a lovesick sugar rush produced with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij. Much of it feels like Phil Spector through the prism of ’90s alternative rock. There’s even a song written with Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, the harmonic West Coast anthem “Hanging Around.”
“I did become kind of obsessed with girl groups for a period of making this record,” Charli says of the Spector comparison. “Toward the beginning I was listening to the Feminine Complex and Ginny Arnell’s ‘Dumb Head,’ which I play when I walk out onstage. I was really fascinated by the way they cut their vocals and the way they perform.” When Charli brought her first headlining tour to New York City’s Webster Hall, the venue transformed into a senior prom complete with streamers, confetti cannons, and balloons that spelled out “PUSSY POWER.” As each previously unheard song unfolded, the sold-out crowd would know (and scream) the choruses by song’s end. Charli then closed out the night with an intimate and laid-back afterparty at the unassuming Lower East Side dive bar 169.
“Going to fancy parties and shit…I’m not good at that. It’s not my vibe,” Charli says. And despite the proclamations on “Famous,” Charli professes to have zero interest in celebrity. “As I’ve been increasingly in this zone I’ve shut myself off from that kind of interaction with people,” she says. “The more successful, or whatever, I’ve become, the more I’ve just come into my own brain. I’ve hung out with my friends and people I trust, and that makes it more fun. I took two of my best friends on tour and it was like being on a weird school trip and I like it that way. Having been in the studio with some pretty big artists and people who I was kind of intimidated to be working with at some point, I’ve found that generally the most successful people are 100 percent fucking nice people. They’re genuine and real, and I admire that.”
“I think she doesn’t overcomplicate things and she has natural-born talent,” Berger says, in an effort to explain what makes Charli work. “Some people just have it. She’s just the most talented songwriter there is right now. If you are able to write stuff like that once, then maybe, you think, it happened like a flash in the pan. But if you’re constantly doing it year after year, and song after song, then you have it and nobody can really take it away. She’s going to do so much good stuff in her career. That doesn’t go away, it’s just there.”
It’s in songwriting that Charli XCX will chart her own success, rather than MTV awards or European tours with the likes of Katy Perry (which she is, in fact, embarking on as we speak). “I’ve always wanted to be the best songwriter,” she says. “When I have my songs all over the radio—not necessarily me singing them, but other people—then I’ll feel like I’ve made it. I want to be known as one of the best songwriters and creators of this time period. I guess I won’t be able to tell until, like, 10 years’ time, but I feel like I’m on track.” Her first test is in bringing Sucker to the masses. “I’m happy for this record to come out,” she says. “It’s going to be cool. I feel like 15-year-olds need some kick-ass in their lives again, and I’m ready to bring them that.”
Charli XCX in London, November 2014
Sucker is available now from Atlantic Records/Asylum