11 Minutes with... Charli XCX
"The whole record is inspired by my romantic history. All the songs on it are about love... Except for one, which is about taking ecstasy... But everything else is about love."
People who dismiss Charli XCX as a pop star aren't paying attention—not to the intricately layered songs, not to the shadowy textures and darkly simmering lyrics. The UK electro-pop artist has an impressively versatile voice and a knack for writing catchy but not cloying songs that are effervescent enough to remind you why the genre is called "pop" in the first place. Think more Ladytron and less Lady Gaga. Plus, it turns out she's an incredible songwriter, too. The tune she wrote for Icona Pop, "I Love It," has catapulted both artists to new levels of fame after the song was featured on Girls.
We caught up with a tired Charli, who had just finished her sixth show at SXSW. She was wearing pajama pants, awesome platform shoes that she swore "felt like trainers," and a leather dog collar, which all together gave her the look of a punk sorority girl or, more aptly, a dark pop princess on the brink. We talked about writing songs, working your ass off, and why everyone should leave Taylor Swift the fuck alone.
How are you?
Very good. A bit tired, but ready for the night.
How many shows have you done?
I've done six of ten.
Wow, ten shows! So you're working hard to make sure everyone is going to love Charli XCX by the end of SXSW.
Well, I don't know if that's going to actually happen, but I'm working my ass off here. I think, why not? Last year, I came and I only did two shows, so I didn't really get the full SXSW experience. Everyone else was all, "I'm so stressed!" and I was like, "Really? I'm not stressed. I've got two shows. Hah!" Last year, I did the Pitchfork show and then I did one Neon Gold show and that was it. One live, one acoustic. That was nice. It was just like, fuck it, I just want to party and play.
After the single you did with Icona Pop, "I Love It," was featured in Girls, your life must have gotten kind of crazy
Yeah, which was amazing. I love Lena Dunham so much, so that was really cool. But, yeah, shit's got kind of wild. Finally earning money, which is really nice, you know. To be honest, a lot of doors have been opened for me as a songwriter because of that song. I've always wanted to write for other artists on the side as well as doing my own projects and making my own records. That's really great, because I like writing Top 40-friendly songs, but they're never right for me. That songs been great. I've met so many interesting people since that. One of my friends actually texted me—he's the engineer for Greg Kurstin—and he said, "We're playing 'I Love It' in this session with Katy Perry and she loves it!" and I thought, "Oh my god, wow, Katy Perry is listening to my song." That's really cool.
When you write a song, how do you know it's not right for you?
I just know straight away. For me, whenever I write a song, I immediately know what a music video is going to be like the minute I've written it. If I don't know what the music video is going to be like, if I can't picture it, I know it's not right for me. It's not going to go on my album. And I couldn't with "I Love It." I just knew that song wasn't right for me anyway. I always have a strong thought process in my mind about the record. I've already planned out the second album, which I'm really excited about.
So when you know a song isn't right for you, what's your next step? Do you think "Scrap heap!" or try and sell it?
I always go into a session trying to write the best song I can write. If I can't picture the music video in the end, I'm not immediately like, "Let's sell it!" It's more like I'll play this for some people and see what they think. It's not going to go away.
So you don't just crumple it up and say, "This is terrible!" That's a good show of self-esteem!
Well, I do have that sometimes. I think everyone has that.
You started writing songs when you were eight years old or something, right?
Okay, here's the thing. It's kind of gotten twisted up along the way.
It's in Wikipedia, so let's set the record straight.
Yes! Let's correct Wikipedia. Let's do it. I'm not going to lie, I've read my Wikipedia page. I'm just not going to lie. It says something like "formed a band when she was seven." That's not true. Me and my friends used to sing into our hairbrushes and pretend to be the Spice Girls and pretend to be Britney and shit like that when we were young. I was not forming this amazing band or shit like that. It was actually when I was 14, when I started writing music properly. One song I wrote when I was 15 is actually still on the record, which is pretty cool. It's called "Set Me Free."
Does a song that you wrote when you were 15 still ring true?
Yeah, it does, which is why it's a good song, I think.
The UK is having an explosion of great bands. What other Brit bands are you listening to right now?
I have a lot of time for Aluna George, they're brilliant and creating really clever pop music. I love Jessie Ware for the same reason. That record, Devotion, is just gorgeous—like honey dripping from tropical waterfalls. This band Peace is really good. The UK has some pretty good shit going on.
When is your full-length album coming out?
My full-length is done. It's called True Romance and it will be out in the States on April 16, which is soon. The whole record is inspired by my romantic history. All the songs on it are about love, except for one, which is about taking ecstasy, but everything else is about love. It's inspired by romantic heroes and all the different kinds of love I've experienced and how my views have changed on love and life.
Love is such a unifying thing, but people give Taylor Swift so much shit for writing about her ex-boyfriends. It seems so natural!
Right! It's fine. People need to fuck off. She can do whatever she wants. She's the queen. Taylor Swift is amazing. I have a lot of time for Taylor Swift. "Trouble" is a great song. She can write about her boyfriends, and she's had some pretty cool ones; why not write about them? She's had some pretty high profile boys, so she should write the shit out of them. Why not?
How long are you in the States for?
I'm just here for SXSW and then I go on tour with Ellie Goulding, which will be really fun. Then I am touring in the States with Marina and the Diamonds in May, and then my own headlining tour in June. Miami, Orlando, and then Bonnaroo.
Oh! I'll see you at Bonnaroo.
I've only heard amazing things about Bonnaroo.
Really? I've only heard terrible things about it.
Really? Where is it?
Oh, I've never been there!
You'll be fine. I just hate camping. And heat. Some people seem to think that you're an "overnight sensation," but you've been working for your success for a long time.
I've paid my dues. Anyone who thinks I'm an overnight sensation needs to do their research.
I think it's because when "I Love It" hit, people were taken by surprise, wondering, "Who's this band?" and "Who wrote this song?" Somehow that got translated into "overnight sensation."
Me and Icona Pop played a show together like two years ago and there was no one there—maybe 50 people—and we were both terrible. They opened for me, which would not happen right now. We were shit. But at the time, we were like, "Yes! This is a moment! We were brilliant!" This was way before "I Love It" or anything. We've worked hard. They've worked hard. I've worked hard. We've earned it.