“When I was 7, I really wanted to be a Spice Girl, ” says Charlotte Aitchison, a/k/a 19-year-old rising UK singer Charli XCX. “I always wanted to be Baby, but whenever I was with my friends, I had to be Scary Spice because of my hair.” Indeed, Charli’s wild mane adds to her unmistakable look, which she dubs “Disney Grunge.” Interestingly, her untamed appearance and stage presence bear little resemblance to her music, as heard in the impeccably produced, spiky synth-pop anthems “Stay Away” and “Nuclear Seasons,” both of which gained major traction last year. In between her New York debut at Santos Party House and buzzworthy slots at SXSW (playing alongside Grimes and Fiona Apple), she spoke to Rolling Stone about her roots as a precocious raver, her brazen visual style and why, no matter how polluted pop radio gets, girl power never dies.
Your live act is quite electrifying, more so than most people might expect, especially when the trend seems to be towards a more passive performance. Have you always felt so comfortable onstage?
I started performing when I was really young, like when I was 14. And I sort of got thrown into these illegal rave parties in warehouses in London. I was putting up my music on Myspace at the time, and one of the guys that throws a lot of those parties contacted me about playing them. So, I think it was at those shows that I picked up my performance style. Everyone at those shows was out of their mind on ketamine and tossing glitter around, so being only 14, I felt like I really had to prove myself. (laughs)
Did your parents mind you entering the rave circuit at such a young age?
You know what? Surprisingly, they actually wanted to come with me. And they did go to quite a few raves with me, which was really funny. There were some weird, age-clashing moments, like when my dad got offered to buy some MDMA, but he thought that they had said, “MDF,” which is a type of wood flooring. So, my dad was like, “Well I don’t have any room in my car at the moment, but give me your number and..” The guy was obviously thinking, “Wow, this guy must want to buy A LOT of MDMA.” As for my mom, she would also always get mistaken for a massive stoner and get offered weed. (laughs)
Your early track “!Franchesckaar!” feels quintessentially nü-rave; was it a direct byproduct of those crazy nights?
Totally, yeah. I was only 14. I think I wanted to make music that sounded exactly like what I was listening to. I was too young to have my own vision at that point. All I knew was that I really wanted to make music that the rave kids could dance to. But that whole scene really inspires me. The fashion, the music, etc. Even with its stereotypes and limited scope, it really helped me become who I am as a performer today.
What does the “XCX“ stand for in your name?
Well, people have speculated that it means “Kiss Kiss,” but I really just chose the name because I thought it looked cool and sounded catchy. Of course, when I was signed to my record label, I suddenly felt like it needed to stand for something. So I told my label that it could mean, “X-Rated Content” or something like that, and everyone there just kind of looked at me as if I was crazy. They were all probably thinking, “Oh, no, what did we get ourselves into?!” But really, at the moment, it just stands for everything I’ve done so far.
At what point did you feel that your vision has transcended its roots and gelled into something distinct and original?
I started doing a lot more songwriting and also started working with other people when I was signed. I met Ariel Rechtshaid in L.A., and we ended up writing “Stay Away” together. I think it was around that time that I realized that things were starting to come together. My image and my attitude matched my sound, and everything just clicked. Things have been snowballing ever since then, which is really great.
Salem’s remix of that track got a lot of buzz. What do you make of that scene?
I loved it. I’m a really big fan of Salem, even though people frown on them sometimes for being so hipster. The remix they did is actually really beautiful and the video that went along with it was amazing, too. Acts like Salem are a big influence on me. I think people that don’t get where it’s coming from will sometimes laugh at it. But personally, I think it’s cool, and a lot of bands in London are really playing with the occult imagery right now, and that inspires me as well.
Who specifically intrigues you?
Well, there’s this band with a” Crystal Castles meets witchhouse” kind of sound called Crimes, who are really cool. They actually helped edit my video for “Nuclear Seasons.” In general though, I don’t really think it matters where people come from now. I really love Grimes, Niki & the Dove, stuff like that.
Watch Charli XCX’s “Nuclear Seasons”
What is the story behind “Nuclear Seasons,” symbolically or otherwise?
I think it sort of reflects a state of cultural decay. In youth culture in particular, I don’t feel like there’s anything for people to really grab onto these days. There’s no movement to speak of. I do think things are improving; a lot of the shit like Flo Rida that we’ve had to settle for in pop is subsiding and better music is slowly moving in. For a long time now, a lot of people have been ashamed or embarrassed to say that they listen to pop music. I don’t think that will be the case for much longer – pop is going to become cool again, definitely. And back to my song, I think it has a lot to do with that void in music and culture in general that we’ve all been feeling.
What is your take on the U.S. pop scene vs. the international pop scene?
I feel like the U.K. is a better breeding ground for pop, partially because the radio play is more broad and open to new ideas and sounds. Whereas, in the United States, if you’re listening to the radio, its going to the be the same five songs on repeat, for months at a time. The lack of variety makes radio less relevant, I think.
Do you have a moniker that you like to label your own music with? Or do you have a vision that you can sum it up with?
Yeah, well everyone seems to be calling it “dark pop,” which I’m quite happy with. But visually, its best summed up as black, pink and gold, all put together.
I like how you describe the music in terms of color. What is the basis for the Charli XCX visual universe?
Well, in the same way that musicians inspire me, artists and photographers like David LaChapelle influence me with their visuals. A photographer like LaChapelle creates an entirely new and unique visual for their work, and that’s what I’d like to do with the Charli XCX world, as well. I want it to be about the music, obviously, but also I want the listener to be able to envision where I’m coming from and share that space with them.
Many labels can no longer budget extravagant videos; do you see this as an obstacle if ambitious visuals are important to the artist?
Well, I think if you want to do it badly enough, then you’ll always find a way. And even though now isn’t the best time to be making videos, I think online – through Tumblr and blog culture in general – you have new means of creating your own world. So, I “tumble” a lot and also look to it for inspiration, as well.
How would you describe the look you’ve developed?
I’d say it’s “Disney Grunge.” And I think my hair is a big part of that: the last time I washed it was like two and a half weeks ago, which is really gross, I know. I never brush it either. (laughs)
Do you work with a stylist or alone?
I work with this great girl, Alexis Knox. She’s like this crazy Powerpuff princess; she styles for a magazine and I met her through the rave scene. In that crowd, dressing in cartoon clothes is pretty common; I find it inspiring. She wears PVC Barbie dresses!
Let’s discuss today’s look.
I just went to Patricia Field’s, so this whole outfit is from there. I loved it! This cuff I am wearing is from Bitching and Junk Food, my favorite online store at the moment; they customize all their own vintage. They have this earring made of real human hair, dip-dyed green. I’ve been wearing that, along with a similar headpiece. I feel a bit weird wearing it, though, like I’ve just been in a massive bitch fight and took out some one’s hair!
What fashion do you enjoy right now?
I love Buffalo shoes at the moment and I find the Nineties revival inspiring. I usually just borrow my flatmate’s clothes and never return them (evil laugh). But I love London designers like Ashish and Fred Butler, of course. Charlie Le Mindu is amazing – and he’s also crazy. I went to Kokon to Zai’s show and it was incredible – massive punk tartan looks, so over-the-top. I’d love to wear McQueen for a shoot. I collect Vivienne Westwood and Pam Hogg is amazing. I wore an amazing suit of hers for a shoot when I was 14, but like an idiot, I left on my underwear, which left a huge knicker line!
Is the dramatic makeup integral to your look as well?
Yeah, definitely. When you’re on stage, doing this job, you can’t be half assed about it. I want to come across as a powerful, kick ass girl at all times, you know?
I feel like women in particular have to make a special effort to make sure that their message is getting across clearly because people are so quick to judge what women are doing with their appearance. Have you noticed that as well?
Yeah, definitely, and it sucks. That’s why I respect artists like Peaches, who do what they want and are like, “Fuck you, this is who I am.” I think we need a new round of girl power, and I think its coming.
Do you find yourself worried about being misinterpreted?
I think that’s a natural thing for girls to worry about, but its definitely something I want to get over because I just don’t have the time for stuff like that. I hate how girls obsess over dieting and all that shit; I want them to be able to see that they’re fine as they are and just have the confidence to go out and rock it.
Then, of course, you also see the counter-impulse come into play: the notion you should cover up entirely if you want to be taken seriously, which also seems reductive.
It’s so difficult to reach the right balance in pop. I really think the perfect example of someone who got it right was Kate Bush; she was sexy and stylish and never boring, but no one ever said, “Oh my God, that girl’s a slut.” She is amazing; everything from her actual music to how she conducts herself on and offstage is inspiring to me. She’d be a dream collaborator.
Who else would be a dream mentor?
Definitely Kate. But also the Spice Girls and Bjork.