Interview: Charli XCX Talks Debut Album, Internet Haters, and Writing Icona Pop's "I Love It"

Meet the UK's newest synth-pop princess before True Romance drops next month.

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Complex Original

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Charli XCX is gearing up to drop her debut solo album, True Romance, on April 16, and she really just wants people to hear it already. The now 20 year-old Charlotte Aitchison started writing music in her early teens. After being discovered on MySpace, the England native began performing at raves and, at 16, signed her first record deal with This Is Music and IAMSOUND Records. 

She found international fame with her hit "Nuclear Seasons" in 2011 and went on to co-write and perform on Icona Pop's "I Love It." Now she's getting recognition for her new tracks, “You (Ha Ha Ha)" and "You're The One." Before she releases her debut and goes on tour with Ellie Goulding, Complex sat down with Charli XCX to talk about her creative process, Britney Spears, opening up for Coldplay, and that dark, goth-pop sound she's known for.

Interview by Lauren Nostro (@LAURENcynthia

You were writing music at 14. How did that start?
I began the musical journey, I suppose, when I was 14. I’ve always written songs, well, fucked around with the idea of writing songs. Like most people at the time, I started putting up my songs on MySpace. A guy who was running these parties in East London [saw my MySpace] and hit me up saying, “I love your songs, you should come and play.”

They were raves, essentially?
Yes, they were raves.

Was that a weird experience?
It was really weird because I [grew up] in the countryside and had no concept of that at all. The first rave I went to he said, “You will be on at 9 p.m.” So I thought, “I’m going to get there at 8, really early, so I can be prepared and no one showed up until 12.” In my head, that was so alien.

It must have influenced your music, too.
I start playing these raves and my style of music changed as I got introduced to all these amazing artists, and this new music, I became obsessed with this Ed Banger Records . I was obsessed with Justice, Uffie, and SebAstian. Uffie was my first love.

What was your music like before you were influenced by raves?
I was just writing songs that were replicating the music I was listening to at the time, which was Kate Nash and Lily Allen. Very singer, songwriter vibe, because I was never a pro on logic or anything like that, it was me on piano or me on the guitar.

A lot of people say your music sounds very '90s, or like '80s synth-pop, but you were born in 1992.
Like I said, Ed Banger was a really big influence on my music. At the time as well, I had just begun getting inspired by visuals rather than sounds. I’ve never been a person who has trolled through new music to find new shit. I’m not that person. I’m actually really bad when it comes to that. I’ll listen to 3 artists on repeat for more than a month. I’m still listening to Uffie now.

I’ve always wanted to write pop music. I never wanted to be cool.

At the time, I began realizing how much I was inspired by visual artists like David LaChapelle, the photographer. He was my go-to guy, I loved his photos and his videos. At that time, I was really inspired by fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood—just the way they created this weird world. That’s what I wanted to do with my music and create this Charli XCX bubble.

What’s the meaning behind your name? I heard it's something X-rated, but others say it’s Kiss Charli Kiss.
That’s what it always was, I made it up when I was 15 years old. It was the first time I had to play a rave, and the guy asked me what I wanted to put on the flyer. I can’t just put my normal name, because that’s pretty crap. When I signed I said, “Shit, in every interview, everyone is going to ask me what XCX stands for.” I need to make up something really cool, I’m going to say X-rated Cunt X-rated and I said that to my record label and they said “What?! No.” [Laughs.]

Speaking of labels, you signed when you were 16?
Yes. It was funny. Basically, I had been doing the rave thing for a while. I was a regular on that scene then labels started coming down to the rave at 3 a.m. and they would just be so awkward. [Laughs]. That’s how I got signed, and Atlantic was the best for me. They were really excited about everything I was doing.

Once you signed, were you still writing your own music?
Yes. I collaborate with people sometimes. I can write on my own and I do like to do that, but "Stay Away", and "Nuclear Seasons" were both written with Ariel Rechtshaid. He’s just the coolest guy. We basically wrote “Stay Away” in two hours which was pretty cool. I had to fly back to New York from L.A. and we only had two hours before my flight. I had just done a terrible trip where I was writing with these producers that weren’t right for me. I met Ariel, we had two hours and we just wrote this song. That was the beginning of my career, I suppose.

What vibe were you looking for that you didn’t get at first, and that you eventually found with Ariel?
To be honest, I actually don’t know. I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for. I think I was just a 16-year-old girl saying, ‘I’ve got a record deal and I’m going to be Britney Spears.’ I didn’t really have a direction, I wasn’t sure who I was and then I met Ariel. Before then, I was just kind of lost, wandering around.

What is your direction with music now?
I’ve always wanted to write pop music. I never wanted to be cool, or make a hipster record. I’ve wanted to write good pop music, beautiful pop music—not just throwaways. I’ve always wanted to make it sound luscious, and beautiful and cinematic. I feel like I’ve done that with this record. The way that I describe it is purple pop music, it’s moody, emotional and rich.

That’s something we definitely hear on “You’re The One.”
“You’re The One” is a song that I wrote in Sweden and Patrik Berger, the producer, sent me two beats. He sent me “I Love It” which I wrote for Icona Pop and he sent me “You’re The One.” I wrote both of them in an hour, or hour-and-a-half. I feel like I write my best songs when I just say, "I’m done." I was happy that day.

What is the songwriting process like for you?
There is no process. I just think if I connect to a song or a beat, I just go on it. I’m stubborn and I’m lazy. I hate having to re-word shit. Why bother wasting a day when you can do [a song in] an hour, and then do another song in a hour? It just excites me, I suppose. That was a good day when I wrote “You’re The One” and "I Love It." “You’re The One” is just a song about super amazing orgasmic love.

Was that amazing orgasmic love something that you were experiencing at the time?
Yeah, it was just based off the fact that I had really fallen in love at that point and it was the real deal thing. The whole record is about love, it’s called True Romance. The whole thing is all different aspects of relationships, love, and my experiences.

You’re also able to translate that into visuals, like what you did with the video for “You’re The One.”
I do most of my videos actually, apart from the “You’re The One” video, with this guy Ryan Andrews. He’s a film director. I did a song for the soundtrack of his movie Elfie Hopkins, and that’s how we met. He did the film and then wanted to just do music videos. The first thing we did was “Nuclear Seasons,” we went to Wale and we shot on this fucking mountain, in the freezing cold and I was in the ocean and I got really sick. Imagine going outside and being naked, basically, and then being in water. It’s amazing, it was my first video. I felt like a superstar. Then I thought, "Britney [Spears] would have a tent, and a massive crew of people holding hair dryers."

You really love Britney Spears.
Yes. She’s the best pop star, she’s so fucked up, and the music is great. She has this amazing story. She’s brilliant. Anyway, the visual thing, I do most of my visuals with Ryan. Basically, we live together, so we’re making videos every day for the live show, and just ideas for content all the time. We’re completely inside each other’s brains. The visual side for me is so important. I would rather make a video than write a song.

That’s where you took so much inspiration from, originally.
I know when I’ve written a good song when I can imagine the video. If I can’t imagine the video straight away, I’m not gonna put it on my album.

You spoke on creating videos for live shows, and you were on tour opening for Coldplay recently. What was that like?
It was the weirdest experience, but most amazing experience ever. Most nights I was playing for a minimum of 10,000 people which is crazy considering the level that I’m at. It was an honor. The guys were just so nice. They’re just so pro and just so fucking nice. They were hanging out with us in their dressing room five minutes before they go on, completely relaxed.

What was your first show like on tour?
The first show I did was terrible just because I had never played in a stadium before and in my brain, I didn’t contemplate the fact that playing a stadium show was so much different that playing a club show. So, I went and did a club show. I forgot that there are cameras, screens, people who don’t know who you are. In the UK, I feel like Coldplay fans are fucking annoying.

I know when I’ve written a good song when I can imagine the video. If I can’t imagine the video straight away, I’m not gonna put it on my album.

In what sense?
Not even that. I’m a Coldplay fan. I think that UK audiences, in general, are very closed off. Very judgmental.

They don’t accept new acts right away.
Right. In Europe, I feel like that is completely not the case. I hate playing in the UK sometimes.

You have to work harder to get their acceptance.
Yes. It’s just a very difficult crowd sometimes. I found the first Coldplay show to be very difficult. I wore a dress, which was a fucking stupid idea. I was jumping crazy, and I was flashing my pants, and then I had people on Twitter saying, "She’s a whore." I was just like, "Really?"

Was that the first time you read negative things about yourself online?

You made the mistake of searching for yourself online!
Yes. I’m a freak for that shit. I always Google myself. It’s horrible. "I hope her mother knows she’s a slut." Well, she does now! It’s on the Internet! [Laughs.] Then, you just realize some people are idiots.

Well, you’re going on tour again soon, so prove them wrong.
I’m going on tour with Ellie Goulding in April. I did a tour with Santigold and Sleigh Bells last year. Actually, both of those were amazing because they are both amazing performers, such strong females and it’s good to be around that. They’re doing their own thing. The Sleigh Bells show was one of my favorite shows, it’s just insane.

Did touring with girls make you feel more comfortable, or did they give you any advice?
They never gave me advice or anything but I’ve been really lucky that so far in this journey I’ve just always worked with good people, and been around good people. I know a lot of friends in the music industry who haven’t had that. I just feel really lucky. I’ve never said, "Wow, fucking asshole," it’s, "Wow. Everyone is so nice." But it was cool to go on tour with them, especially girls because it’s that whole thing where girls can be weird, and it wasn’t like that.

How did you link up with Icona Pop for “I Love It?”
I wrote the song in Sweden, but it wasn’t right for me. I knew it was cool. Patrik, the producer, knew Icona Pop and they came to the studio and really liked it. I liked what they did with it. They kept my voice on the record so it’s a girl power trip thing. It was really cool. They put a twist on it that I don’t think I could have if it was my record. I actually can’t wait to see them play it live.

What' your goal with True Romance and what impact would you like it to make on pop music?
To be honest, I’ve always been a pretty big fan of pop. With my record I wanted to do my own twist on pop music. I just wanted to make it real, raw, and emotional. My goal with the record—I don’t know. To be honest, It’s been so long in the making, I just want people to hear it. Obviously if everyone were to love it, that would be amazing but I’m not expecting everyone to love it. I’m just excited for people to hear it. I know that’s such a shit answer because everyone says that.

It makes sense, especially if you’ve been working on it for so long.
I don’t care if my record doesn’t sell or anything like that, I just care that it’s a good album. I know that I’ve made the best album that I could possibly make. I’ve taken so long. I’m 100 percent confident that it’s really a good album. In the long term, I would love for it to be looked upon as an album that had a big influence on pop music, one that changed the landscape of pop music to make it more real.

Who are you writing for now, or hoping to write with?
I’d love to work with Icona Pop again, I would really like to do some super pop stuff. I’d love to work with Cher Lloyd, that would be my dream person to work with. I just continue writing songs.

Odd Future group The Internet did a remix of “You’re The One.” In terms of collaborating with other hip-hop artists, do you have anything planned?
I fucking love hip-hop. When I was younger, I was a massive Eminem fan. I was an Eminem freak. The Odd Future thing was really cool because I’m a big fan of them. I’m a huge fan of Syd, I think she’s cool as fuck. When they did the remix, that was amazing. We did this video, and I was asking if they wanted to send a picture of themselves for the video and they were saying they don’t do videos. I said, "Please, it would be so cool" and they did it—it was so cool. I’ve worked with Brooke Candy. I think she’s amazing. She’s my favorite rapper at the moment. I did a show with her in London and it was crazy. She’s just great. I’m so proud of her. I worked with her on a song called “Cloud Aura” and that was really cool.

Besides recording right now, what else is going on with you?
Yes. I’m just getting ready for tour. I’m going to SXSW and then I’m going to Europe with Ellie Goulding, and then I’ll be back in the states with Marina & the Diamonds. She was on the Coldplay tour with me as well. Then I’m doing my own headline tour in the U.S.

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