To say Charli XCX took a six-year “break” between her sophomore breakthrough Sucker and her latest, Charli, is a little misleading. Over those six years, the “Blame It on Your Love” singer released two lauded mixtapes, an EP, and a few singles. She also stayed busy writing songs for other artists, including Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s Number One hit “Señorita” and spent most of 2018 opening for Taylor Swift on the star’s global Reputation trek. Ending her album dry spell meant that Charli XCX, now 27, had to get serious(-ish).
“I began to really analyze my emotional state,” she tells Rolling Stone. “It’s fun to write songs about cars, but also important for me to get this [album] out of my brain.”
Charli is an album that’s experimental and ambitious without losing XCX’s knack for an undeniable hook, and it could have only been made by her after this six-year break. Back when she released Sucker, the singer-songwriter’s career had just been jumpstarted by a trio of global pop hits: “Fancy” with Iggy Azalea, “I Love It” with Icona Pop and the solo single “Boom Clap.”
“But did it make me feel fulfilled artistically?” Charli asks, bluntly. “No.”
Since that period, she’s found a fruitful partnership with PC Music founder A.G. Cook as well as the rest of his PC Music team, including Sophie and Hannah Diamond. They helped better highlight the pop star’s future-forward pop vision, first working with her on the EP Vroom Vroom. That vision became more fully-realized on the pair of 2017 mixtapes XCX dropped: Number 1 Angel and Pop 2. Both saw her not only say “fuck it” to pop trends, but they also helped solidify her status as a brilliant curator. Rising artists like CupcakKe, Kim Petras, Dorian Electra, and Pablo Vittar received top billing as featured guests alongside more established pop stars like Tove Lo and Carly Rae Jepsen. When it came time to make Charli, she had learned from the critical acclaim and fan consensus that weirder means better for her sound.
“I’m not thinking, ‘Is this too weird?’” XCX explains. “I don’t care that it’s not going to get on the radio.”
Still, when she began working on Charli, she wasn’t even sure she would be releasing an album. Back in November, XCX and Cook believed that they would finish a mixtape trilogy and release a follow-up to Pop 2 this year instead. They were recording out of Australian producer Flume’s Los Angeles home studio — XCX bought him art in exchange for use of the space — and the singer realized that she was finally in the right brain space to release another full-length album.
“Prior to Pop 2 and Angel, I don’t think I felt confident enough to release another album,” she admits. “Even though I’m very proud of Sucker, I knew I was making the ultimate music I wanted to hear when I was partying. Through [the mixtapes], I found that.”
The self-doubt she experienced after Sucker informed many of the lyrics on her new LP. In the year prior to recording the LP proper, which occurred this spring, she had also faced major life upheavals. She changed management companies for the first time in a decade. Her romantic partner moved out of stated. Plus, XCX began to realize that she was viewing music as a competitive sport, going so far as to describe herself as a legitimate workaholic.
“Sometimes I think I’m better than every single one of you and other times I feel like I’m literally nothing,” she admits of her place in the industry. “There’s so much pressure in 2019 to be the funniest and know your brand and be the woks and not upset anyone but also be provocative.
She finally learned to cut herself some slack: “I don’t have to feel like that superhero all the time.”
To better unleash that vulnerability, XCX created a recording environment that felt “free” for everyone involved. For eight weeks this past spring, she lived in a Los Feliz studio house where she and Cook wrote all but one of the songs on the album.
“It was really intense and fun,” she says of the experience, noting that she and Cook are both quick writers. “We had all these people come in and out of the house. It was really good.”
Like Pop 2 and Angel, XCX did not shy away from collaborations. Troye Sivan, Haim, Sky Ferreira and Lizzo appear alongside Petras, Tommy Cash, Clairo, Brooke Candy and more. Each person has had some personal connection to XCX over the year and were more than just in-and-out features. Chris of Christine and the Queens talked about XCX’s music in an interview and co-wrote much of “Gone,” helping transform the song. Ferreira helped complete “Cross You Out,” a collaboration many years in the making.
“There’s always been a lot of paths crossing with us,” Charli explains. The pair had appeared on magazine covers together, played at the same shows and worked with some of the same producers on their debut albums. “When I wrote part of the idea for ‘Cross You Out,’ I thought ‘This is the one.’ I actually sent it to her immediately and she was into it.”
As for Sivan, with whom she had released the single “1999” last October, she knew she wanted to do something weirder with him. “I was like ‘Okay, I love you and I love this song. It’s so fun, but now we have to do something for the gays. Let’s go.’” They re-teamed for “2099,” which serves as the “1999” sequel.
Even with all the other voices shaping the album, XCX’s vision and personal journey is never drowned out. To become a better songwriter, she became better at talking about the personal issues plaguing her.
“Artists talk a lot about physical insecurities and body image, which I think is so great and so important, but I think there’s a lot of emotional insecurity as an artist that’s difficult to talk about because nobody wants to sound ungrateful,” she explains. “I don’t think artists talk about how volatile our state of mind is. I feel like this album is the time I stopped thinking about everything and started saying what is in my mind.”
Analyzing her emotional state and putting it into her music has helped alleviate much of her anxiety, but she knows that’s only half the struggle.
“I can’t get myself out of work brain,” she admits, “but I’m not afraid to talk about it anymore.”