"WHUT. ARE. YOU. WRITING? WHUT IS SO IMPORTANT? LET ME SEE. NO, GIVE IT, GIVE ME YOUR FUCKING—AGH!” Charli XCX is grinning, a drink in her hand, pushing my drink into my face, spilling vodka on us both as she tries to steal my iPhone. It’s sometime after midnight in a back room of Baby’s All Right, the South Williamsburg, Brooklyn club the 21-year-old has just shut down with a DJ set. Covered in sweat and alcohol, she has the phone in her hand, and types away furiously in my notes. “Put that in your article,” she laughs, shoving it back at me. She sashays out the door of the club, friends in tow, on her way to a victory cigarette.
I should’ve seen it coming. When we first met, 12 hours earlier, she approached me in the middle of her cover shoot and tapped my shoulder.
“Hi, I’m Charli,” she smiled, extending a palm out of her pink kimono, a plate of meat and potatoes—literally, just meat and potatoes—from a nearby catering tray in her other hand. “Want to chat a bit while this thing goes on?”
Ten minutes later, she starts telling me about her period. “I’m kind of obsessed with it right now,” she says, grinning. “Periods are really punk.” She’s sitting in a makeup chair in a sun-soaked photo studio in Williamsburg, having her hair taken out of rollers between setups. “I want to have tampons as merch that say ‘PERIODS ARE PUNK.’”
She mentions recording sessions she did in Sweden, where she went to record some of the hundreds of tracks she has stored away, a few of which she describes as punk songs (“two minutes long, not a lot of words”). If she were to release them and tour with them?
“I’d call it The Tampon Girls,” she laughs again. “That’s such a sick name for a punk band.”
Like most of the next 12 hours I’m about to spend with Charli XCX—the songwriter and featured voice on global pop smashes like Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” songs so popular you’d have to be clinically deaf to not have heard them in the Western World by now—I know how we got here. But it’s still difficult to believe.
After all, artists in the highest echelons of the pop charts aren’t supposed to be this forthcoming, or frank. Or legitimately funny, charming, and disconcertingly brilliant. They’re not supposed to be anything, really, but popular. In 2014, pop music is dominated by people whose images are calibrated to precise degrees, either by their own designs or those of freakishly controlling label executives. Charli XCX has by and large been an outlier in that group of people. She’s almost universally a critical darling. She’s spent as much time behind the scenes—helping write other people’s massive, global smash songs, and delivering their hooks, too—as she’s spent in front of them.
That looks like it’s all about to change. Over the summer, the hazy, anthemic, disturbingly catchy "Boom Clap" became Charli's first song to power into the top spot on a Billboard chart. And having been the voice of the hook for that other song of the summer, from London to To-k-yo, it’s not entirely unfair to expect her new album (named with a knowing wink: Sucker) to finally catapult her into that upper stratosphere of fame, the one that Charli’s been under the bleachers of, maybe a little too cool for, until now.
Yet: she doesn’t aspire to the trappings of traditional pop stardom (“I fucking hate divas,” she snarls. “That’s the last thing I’d ever want to be. I don’t want to be a fucking asshole.”).
And she’s worth her word. At every opportunity, be it to a cab driver, a waitress, or an entire photo studio full of assistants, she thanks everybody sincerely. When we go to a concert and have trouble at the door, she doesn’t bark her name—or anyone’s name—at the doorman.
After midnight—at a point when she’s been running on about three hours of sleep for two days, during which she’s performed on Late Night With Seth Meyers and wrapped her Complex cover shoot—she in no way resembles a pop star in any traditional sense, let alone a manufactured one. This is after a turnt-up rap show, her DJ set, and getting an entire bar to do the Macarena with her, but before she makes out with some guy in the rain outside a bar, and before she and another nightcrawler send me a drunken, screaming voicemail. There are no red velvet ropes, no clubs with bottle service, no VIP areas. This is the kind of fun most pop stars sing about, but haven’t actually had in years. This is just a straight-up drunkass night out on the town.
This is also a Wednesday night, and all her idea. So, no: Charli XCX is not your traditional pop star.
Hailing from Stevenage, in Hertfordshire, England, about an hour north of London, Charlotte Emma Aitchison—the daughter of “super supportive” parents, a Scottish father and an Indian mother from Uganda—has music in her lineage.
Her father used to book shows for a small local venue, which may be why he struck a deal with Charli when she was 14 to support her music career with studio time. In five days, she recorded 12 songs, which became 14, her “debut” album that was used for promotional purposes but never actually pressed.
“I’m aware that when I talk about this in interviews I could come across as some spoiled rich kid who had Daddy’s money,” she quickly interjects. “My family is average. I didn’t have a crazy life as a kid.”
Tell that to her mother, who used to take teenage Charli to DJ warehouse raves in East London, where she was discovered. Consider the effort: “My mum was, like, standing next to people taking fuckloads of ketamine,” Charli smiles, wistfully. “Someone vomited on her shoes one time because they were in such a massive k-hole. And my mom looked after them.” Most parents would not do that.
As exciting as making 14 was, it wasn’t a perfect experience. “My label at that time was like, ‘We signed a youngin! We’re gonna make her a pop star,’” she laughs, presiding over a vodka-cranberry at the Brooklyn bistro Diner an hour after the shoot ends. The label wanted to craft her into a commodity.
She remembers being 16, in a label meeting: “They said, ‘You need to brush [your hair] if you want to sell records.’ I was like, ‘Are you. Fucking. Kidding me? Am I having this conversation with five 30-year-old men who are bald? This is ridiculous!’”
In short, it was soulless. “I felt like, is this it? Is this what I’ve signed up for? It was mechanical.”
But it wasn’t entirely a waste, either. “I’m glad that happened, because that told me exactly what I didn’t want to do,” she says.
Charli finished high school and after a year dropped out of the Slade School of Fine Art to focus on recording full-time. She signed with Asylum Records in 2010, and in June 2012 released an EP, You’re the One, featuring two studio singles and their respective remixes. She also released a mixtape, Heartbreaks and Earthquakes.
Heartbreaks features Charli singing over everything from Jai Paul to Blood Orange, interlaced with samples from Kill Bill and Cruel Intentions, among others. It’s a weird pastiche of ’90s sentimentality and distinctly of-the-moment music. You’re the One’s two singles, co-written with Patrik Berger (who’s worked with Lana Del Rey and Robyn) and Ariel Rechtshaid (the Grammy-winning producer who’s worked with everyone from Haim to Justin Bieber), demonstrate an acute self-awareness on Charli’s part: She started to refine the kinds of pop she wanted to make, and bring in master craftsmen to help her make it. This was around the time she started recording material for what eventually made up her major label debut album, True Romance. “You’re the One” was part of a package of beats Berger sent Charli.
The other was a song called “I Love It,” which would eventually be credited to Swedish duo Icona Pop, featuring Charli XCX. And with that one, Charli did what she always does: “I yelled [lyrics] into the computer for half an hour and never thought about it again.”
Only she did, because that song—the one about being a ’90s bitch, crashing cars, not caring, and loving it, the one that’s been heard everywhere from HBO’s Girls to Snooki & Jwoww to Sesame Street—did well. Platinum and gold worldwide well. And while Charli wrote it (and even sings the entire song with them on the track), she still only had second billing on it. And every interviewer, without fail, always asks her why she gave it away. Her answer is always the same: It wasn’t right for her, then. But the question is a weird one, as though it’s inconceivable that she could be seen as a songwriting talent.
What bothers her more is what transpired during and after the success of “I Love It,” for which she provided guest vocals. She witnessed “how people can change” after a hit song, “how it can suddenly turn from being super fun and cool and everyone’s happy to it just…”—she sighs—“becoming a wall.”
She’s clear that the problem wasn’t with Icona Pop but between herself and ominous “management.” “I got shut out of the process and pushed away from that song,” she says, sinking further into the corner booth. “I didn’t get the credit I deserved.”
Charli started to hate the music industry again. At recording sessions, she heard the same thing over and over again—execs wanted another hit. She impersonates the faceless suits: “We want ‘I Love It’ meets ‘212.’ Replicate this!”
She suddenly leans back into the table: “I can’t do that! I can’t replicate it because I genuinely have no idea how I wrote that song.”
Charli’s songwriting process is astoundingly spontaneous and reactive: Listening to a beat for the first time, she sings and records whatever comes out. Sometimes there are additional takes, but not always.
There’s a distinctly electric, kinetic quality to “I Love It,” the hook to “Fancy,” and “Boom Clap”—they’re built for parties and mixtapes, totally singable anthems. Incredibly, when lacking anything remotely resembling self-consciousness, Charli XCX produces hits that resonate around the world. But what about her more deliberate, self-conscious efforts?
True Romance, released in April 2013, didn’t have any hits, per se. The album had catchy songs about relationships destroyed and young, dumb love—common pop wheelhouse stuff. It was the packaging that set her album apart to its vocal admirers, many of whom were music critics. Lush, dreamy soundscapes and bedroom-ceiling musings with the coolest girl in school, finely produced to a tee, with each note exuding Charli’s naturally charismatic, smart edges. Maybe too smart. The album was a critical success, but despite building Charli’s devoted following, it struggled commercially, never cracking the Billboard 200. She loves True Romance but admits to making music in a way she’s not entirely proud of: “I just wanted to make sure people thought I was cool,” she says. “That’s what I was worried about.”
It shows. In a late 2012 dustup, a few months before True Romance dropped, the lead singer of indie pop group Elite Gymnastics penned a Tumblr post, writing off Charli XCX as a product of an industrial pop music complex. It finished by calling her a “mangled, grotesque approximation” of fellow female act Grimes, alongside whom she’d posed on the cover of a magazine a few months prior. The critique clearly hit hard. Charli penned a sincere, earnest response, explaining that she’d been working her ass off, and pledging to never respond to that kind of thing again.
At Diner, when asked about encountering this critique of her identity as a female performer who writes her own music, she goes off:
“There’s always a catch. Like: ‘Does she really do that? I heard her mum wrote that song.’ I read that about Lorde. I’m like: As if! Just because she’s young and successful, why is someone trying to take that away from her? It’s because she’s highly intelligent and a female who’s killing it. She’s doing something different, and people are afraid of that.” And then there are the inevitable comparisons, not to other pop songwriters—not to Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo or Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, both of whom Charli’s worked with on her new album—but to other female pop stars. “Just ’cause we all have vaginas doesn’t mean that we all play against each other. We’re all doing our own thing.”
And that thing is clearly working. It also involves more than fixating on these ideas. After all, Charli’s Tumblr response is still there. The one that provoked it, however, has since been deleted.
After the release of True Romance, something curious happened: “I just stopped giving a fuck.”
Charli went to Sweden. She recorded those punk songs. She stopped caring about pleasing critics or becoming famous. After turning down so many people in the industry for writing work, she decided to work with whomever she felt like, appearances notwithstanding. She wrote for Britney Spears and with Dr. Luke. Iggy Azalea’s people sent her a beat. Charli was a fan of Iggy’s song “Work.” She wrote several hooks to the beat. “I had that rap in my head, the ‘Who dat, who dat? I-G-G-Y,’” she says. “I was like, that’s fucking cool. Then I just did my thing.”
Her “thing” resulted in yet another No. 1 single. And her not giving a fuck resulted in new sessions, with Batmanglij, Cuomo, and über-producer Stargate, that birthed material for a new album, Sucker, to be released this fall. She acknowledges that some people—maybe even some of her core fans, Charli’s Angels, as they call themselves—might not like it, that it might be too pop for them. “Some people will look at that like, ‘She’s working with Stargate, she’s sold out.’ That’s the kind of person I used to be—and now I think that kind of person is fucking retarded.”
Of course, mixed in with all of the work, there’s semblance of a life. She still has a handful of close friends who “literally do not give a fuck about Charli XCX” and a few real friends she’s made in the music industry. It’s a close circle. Charli considers herself an awkward person, or at least has felt like one lately. She’s had panic attacks in the studio, during which she’ll start to crawl on or under the equipment. She’s shut down before, emotionally. She’ll quickly cop to feeling self-conscious at existential moments of recognizing her weird, sometimes isolating existence.
When I ask her to elaborate on all of this, she’s already ahead of me. It all just spills out:
“There are days where I can go into a room full of people, talk to every single person, and feel completely at ease, and feel like making every single person laugh, and feel like everyone’s having a great time. There are other times where I go into a room of people and I literally want to run and hide. I want to lock myself in the bathroom and cry, which I’ve done. It’s not because anyone’s saying anything horrible to me. It’s just...people are asking me questions—not even asking me questions about Charli XCX.”
Before I can ask her whom these people are asking her about: “I’ve felt like a schizophrenic person since the beginning of 2014. Sometimes I just shut down and want to stay in bed and cry. Other times I want to get fucked up in the most fun way possible.”
It doesn’t seem to be my place to tell her that this is a surefire indicator of a human being in her 20s. But there are also hints of something a little more existential. And then:
“I haven’t figured out what triggers the sudden thing. I’m exhausted today. So tired. I woke up at 4 a.m. yesterday and stayed awake until 6 a.m. because I was having loads of sex”—here, she laughs to herself—“and then I woke up at 9 a.m. this morning because I had to go, so I’ve had three hours of sleep in the last two days. But I’m not moody. So, it’s not because I’m tired, because otherwise I would’ve shut down now.”
Regarding the all-nighter, I have to ask: How hard is she partying these days? “Maybe you’ll get to see,” she laughs, flicking a french fry across her plate.
After dinner, we drive to Webster Hall, where Swedish rapper Yung Lean is about to make his stateside debut.
Charli’s been talking about the show all day; she met him and his crew, the Sad Boys (Yung Sherman and Yung Gud—pronounced Yung G-YOOD, which means “Yung God” in Swedish, Charli explains), over a year ago on a trip to Sweden, and has been singing their praises ever since. After Charli weaves through the crowd and squeezes through the door to a packed, weed-scented greenroom, the tense group of Swedish teenagers receives her well, immediately perking up in her presence, hugging and high-fiving her. At one point, Yung Gud starts screaming at Charli, in warbled, off-kilter English:
“I’M SO-A FAN-CEE!” Charli frowns at him, and then playfully pushes his bucket hat down on his face. This seems to be a pattern of sorts. The first time she met Rostam Batmanglij, she explained, he approached her outside a South by Southwest show and started screaming at her: “I! DON’T! CARE! I LOVE IT!”
As the show starts, Charli stands at the back of the venue and starts bouncing up and down to the music, dancing and rapping along. It’s a surreal scene: chart-topping Charli XCX, at the Yung Lean show, among the crowd, leaning against a mirrored column. Taped above her is a flyer that reads, in large, red letters: “CHARLI XCX. TICKETS ON SALE SOON.” I’m not sure she notices it.
At Baby’s All Right, Charli takes the mic to loud applause and announces to the room: “Hi, I’m Charli XCX, the world’s worst DJ.” The crowd is too loud to hear what comes next, but the gist is that she dedicates Aqua’s 1997 so-bad-it’s-good dance hit “Barbie Girl” to “the reporter I’ve spent all day with,” as if making a final pronouncement on what her messaging that day amounts to. But then comes the Macarena, and yes, an entire club full of people, in 2014, unironically does the Macarena with her. Her set rages on: Amerie’s “1 Thing,” J-Lo’s “Jenny From the Block” and “I Luh Ya Papi,” Missy’s “Gossip Folks,” then will.i.am’s “Feelin’ Myself,” and Steve Aoki’s “Beat Down.” She even breaks one of the sacrosanct laws of DJing (Never Play Your Own Shit), and drops a remix of “Fancy.”
By Charli’s own admission, she’s mostly just playing songs off a laptop. And yet, on the low, it’s an expertly DJ’d set, and leaves the entire crowd sweaty and exhausted. One nightlife reporter rages so hard that he ends up on his ass, on the sweat-and-booze-slicked dance floor. Her set demonstrates something I’ve seen hints of all day: This is someone who loves music, who has an incredible ear for it, who knows what people love about it, loves what it does to people, and would genuinely like to continue in that pattern.
Outside, when it’s clear that the party is dispersing, Charli and I shake hands, exchange pleasantries, and part ways. One of us has work in a few hours, and the other has a plane to catch to play a festival in Scotland.
Around 1:30 a.m., my phone rings and I let it go to voicemail. The next morning, I see the message. It’s from the nightlife reporter I’d seen raging on the dance floor at Charli’s DJ set earlier. Apparently, Charli’s night had not ended at the club.
“AY, FOSTAH, IT’S ME! CHARLI XCX! NO, NO, ACTUALLY I’M NATE, AND CHARLI XCX HAS A MESSAGE FOR YOU”—then, the nightlife reporter’s voice—”Heya, Foster. It’s Charli XCX, I just wanted to let you know that you’re a fuckin’ asshole, and um”—Charli’s now shouting in the background—”NO! NO! I’M NATE AND I SAY YOU’RE NOT AN ASSHOLE! NATE SAYS YOU’RE FUCKING AWESOME!” And then the call fades out into the din of what I can only picture as some other raging bar, somewhere else in the night.
At Diner, earlier that night, I’d asked Charli what her endgame is. “I just want to leave my mark,” she says. “I just want people to write about Charli XCX.” Maybe she’s being hyperbolic. Maybe not. I take the bait: What does she want them to write? At this, Charli looks down at the table, then back up at me, and says, as seriously as she would say anything all day, “Just...that I was an important songwriter who changed the landscape of pop music.”
And then, with a smirk: “That’d be pretty cool.”