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Charli XCX: Up All Night With 2014’s Breakout Pop Star

Music’s most exciting punk rocker happens to be a pop singer

Charli XCXCharli XCX

"The 'I Love It' thing definitely made my record label sit back and listen," Charli XCX says.

Terry Richardson

It’s 2:45 a.m. in Allston, Massachusetts, and Charli XCX is holding court at the kind of house party where every red cup has been repeatedly reused and the only mixer is a sad, depleted bottle of St-Germain. The 22-year-old pop star has already had a full night. She played a sold-out concert, sipped Champagne while sneaking a cigarette in the venue’s bathroom, and got laid. (“Was the show all right?” she’d asked in the dressing room after the gig. “Because I had sex right before.”) Now the U.K.’s hottest pop export is high-stepping in a rhinestone tiara and four-inch white platform heels, nailing every line of Eminem’s “Without Me,” as undergrads from the Berklee College of Music try not to gawk too obviously. “This song is legendary!” she exclaims.

Charli was invited here by a local producer, and she’s relishing every moment. She goes on to recite every word of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” and takes pictures of her entourage – a mix of low-key childhood friends and a few glam music-biz types – pogo’ing around to the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside.” “You’ll never look this good again in your entire lives!” she says.

At one point, after going outside to bum a smoke, she creeps up to the back windows brandishing a rake, trying, and failing, to spook people inside. She and her makeup artist – an amusingly tart sidekick named Colby who’s carrying a Moschino bag shaped like a McDonald’s Happy Meal – rhapsodize about Britney Spears, and Charli sticks out her tongue for a Polaroid that’ll end up on her Instagram a day later (caption: “80s college party”).

As the evening winds down, Charli leans over to kiss a pal goodbye on the front stoop. A New York friend named Luce comes up behind her and shimmies Charli’s orange plaid skirt back down to a PG-13 level. “The other day my drummer was complaining about looking at my vagina all night,” she says with a sigh. Then an Uber arrives, and she disappears into the Boston night.

If today’s pop music has a sound, Charli XCX helped create it, between 2012’s “I Love It” – the pounding kiss-off she co-wrote for the group Icona Pop – and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” arguably 2014’s song of the summer. Those hits, along with Charli’s own single “Boom Clap,” have made her one of the most in-demand songwriters of the moment. Lorde grabbed her for the latest Hunger Games soundtrack, and Azalea put her to work on a “Fancy” follow-up called “Beg for It”; Rihanna and Gwen Stefani have also come calling. “She’s capable of so much,” says admirer Jack Antonoff of fun. and Bleachers. “It’s hard to find people that can speak to a large audience and are still interesting.” 

charli XCX

Her new album, Sucker (out in December), could make her a bona fide star: It’s a brash blast of punky pop that’s equal parts the Clash and Katy Perry. Charli says its message is “pussy power – in your face, don’t give a fuck, bright red and pink.” (She often says that she sees music in colors.) She acts unimpressed by the attention her chart smashes have brought: “As soon as I got successful, everyone was like, ‘Oh, my God, Dr. Luke loves your songs!’ ” she says with a fake squeal. “I was like, ‘What is that meant to mean? Is that the holy grail of compliments?’ ”

Under the blasé front is a singer-songwriter who has been working on her music-biz breakthrough since early adolescence. (Charli once lamented to her dad that her “career wasn’t going anywhere”; she was 14 at the time.) Born Charlotte Aitchison, she grew up in the well-to-do suburb of Bishop’s Stortford, a small town popular among workers commuting into London’s financial district. Her Scottish father ran a screen-printing business but had music-industry aspirations: He booked a club night in Stortford, once packing the venue by claiming that the Sex Pistols were going to play, then saying that they canceled at the last minute.

Charli says she adored Britney Spears and the Spice Girls, and movies such as School of Rock (“When I saw it, I was like, ‘I want to learn about that!‘ ”). But she got serious about music when she joined MySpace and discovered Europe’s mid-2000s electro-pop scene, particularly French label Ed Banger’s roster of acts like Justice and Uffie. Her father took an interest in his only child’s passion and offered to bankroll an album, her self-made LP, 14.

Charli linked up with a promoter online who invited her to play a rave at a venue called the Peanut Factory in East London, which turned into her first proper gig. It was a far cry from the peaceful town where she attended a posh private high school with a graduating class of around 20 students. “Everyone was just fucking high,” she remembers of the gig, noting that she was dressed like Lady Gaga in the “Paparazzi” video three years before the clip came out (“huge white sunglasses, blond wig, yellow-and-black leotard”). “I stood on a fucking crate and performed with an iPod,” she says with a laugh. “It was pretty raw, and there were loads of people dressed in these zebra cat suits.” Her mother, a nurse from Uganda, brought her to the show and waited patiently in the back. (Her parents come out to see Charli play whenever she’s in London and call to keep her updated on stats like how many views her videos have on YouTube. When I meet her father in London, he demands that I turn on my recorder to take down one key detail: Wikipedia keeps reporting the name of her hometown incorrectly, and it makes him nuts.)

“Why do people have to be likable to succeed? Say what you hate. I hate Pitbull, and that’s fine. He may hate my stuff.”

Charli regularly trekked into London to perform, and in 2008 – when she was 16 – an Atlantic A&R rep caught one of her late-night pub appearances and signed her. She recorded an EP and hit the road with two backing musicians, playing events like SXSW in her signature get-up: plaid skirt, midriff-baring top, endlessly flipping hair. She says the label didn’t mess with her music too much, but she endured irritating critiques about her appearance from middle-aged execs. “Like, ‘You don’t look right, you don’t look like a pop star,’ ” she says, mimicking their derisive tone with a full-body eye roll. “And I was like, ‘Well, that’s because I’m not and I don’t give a fuck about what you think a pop star should look like.’ ”

She says she tamped down some of her attitude on her first album, 2013’s dreamy True Romance, “because I was afraid of what people would say.” Over her label’s protests, she left “I Love It” off the LP because she thought it didn’t fit. “When I write my songs, I see the videos first,” she says. “If I don’t see a music video, I know it’s not a song I want for myself. ‘I Love It’ was something I couldn’t visualize, and that’s why I gave it away.” 

Charli XCX

She would watch as Icona Pop, made up of two Swedish-model types, rode the track into an international hit: The song went double platinum in the U.S., reached Number Three on the Hot 100 and accompanied a memorable coke binge on the HBO show Girls. Charli says that she and co-writer Patrik Berger “were made to feel like shit, and not given enough credit for what we did.” But “I Love It” earned her enough money to buy a new pad she’s decorating like “a porno palace,” and, more important, it gave her creative freedom. “The ‘I Love It’ thing definitely made my record label sit back and listen,” she says. “But I felt really pissed off about the music industry because I just kept on getting asked to rewrite it.”

By the time Charli and Berger sat down to work on Sucker, “we were just mad,” she says, noshing on fried chicken in London a few weeks before her U.S. tour. She took her frustration to Berger’s studio in Sweden and banged out a straight-up punk album. Then she tempered the mix via collaborations with Rivers Cuomo; Lily Allen’s secret weapon Greg Kurstin; Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij; and her longtime professional partner Justin Raisen. The result sounds like gooey girl pop, raucous punk and innovative electro – often all on the same track.

Today, Charli tours with an all-women band that she outfits in matching cheerleader uniforms with sucker emblazoned on the chest – a nod to Sixties girl groups, the snarling girl-gang mentality of her favorite movies (Charlie’s Angels, Jawbreaker) and high school, where feeling disenfranchised, awkward and angsty is the norm. Her latest video, for Sucker’s bratty “Break the Rules,” takes the vision one step further: She plays a teenage rebel who shows up to a prom in a skimpy slip dress and gets slimed, Carrie-style, by a nasty warden, played by Rose McGowan. Charli filmed the clip at an L.A. high school while class was in session, so they had to mute the lyrics “getting high and getting wrecked” during playbacks.

Charli lives by the motto “first thought, best thought.” She writes fast and doesn’t belabor a lyric or a hook too long – there are no Max Martin-style rewrites at her sessions. “Charli doesn’t give a shit about anything but what she’s feeling, and that’s the coolest you can get,” says Antonoff. She whipped up “Break the Rules” in the parking lot of Quincy Jones’ studio in L.A., on a breather from sessions. “I went outside for a cigarette and then had this idea and sang it into my phone,” she says. “I took it back in and I was like, ‘Hey, guys, what do you think of this? It’s kind of so lame that it’s the best thing you’ve ever heard?’ ”

She’s actually “over” Sucker already, since the songs have been in her life for a year, and she’s far along on her next album: “It’s super-hyper-real, like Care Bears, J-pop-inspired, but also more urban than anything I’ve done before.”

The inspiration for the “Break the Rules” video came from Charli’s favorite source: the Nineties, the decade when she was born. “There’s this photograph that David LaChapelle took of Marilyn Manson where he’s the school warden and he’s holding a stop sign,” Charli says, adding that when McGowan agreed to star in the clip, “I literally nearly wet myself.” 

Marilyn Manson

Charli can lecture at length about any aspect of Nineties culture; she is an expert on the decade’s movies (The Craft), runway shows (Versace) and Brit-pop wars (“Who did you choose? Oasis? No! Blur!”). “I love the Nineties because more than any other period of time, there was such an eclectic mix of styles going on,” she says. “More so than in the Sixties and Seventies, when there was an overriding look and sound. The Nineties to me is Spice Girls and Britney. To you, it’s Nirvana and grunge. To other people, it’s MC Hammer. All of those things were so popular, and all of the looks were so different and so prominent.”

In a car creeping painfully slow through Saturday-night traffic in Camden, she launches into a screed about the dullification of pop culture. “In the past 10 years, why do people feel like musicians have to be boring to succeed, and why do people have to be likable? It’s just lame!” she says. Her voice climbs to a new octave and she sits forward in her seat. “It’s so boring. You can’t like everything! You hate some stuff! Say what you hate! Like, I hate Pitbull, and I don’t care! He’s shit! And that’s fine! He may hate my stuff, and I’m cool with that!” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Charli’s label sent her to media training; afterward, her instructor told execs that, in all of her years, she had never encountered a worse pupil. “I was like, ‘What the fuck did I do wrong?’ ” says Charli.

For all her radical self-assurance, Charli for the past year has been plagued by panic attacks that seem to strike at the worst times. “I had a real bad one when I was in the studio with Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat,” she says. “I basically ran out through the window on the first floor and dragged out half the blinds with me.” Why the unconventional exit? “It was either that or walking past them and having to endure a really long conversation about why I was freaking out, so I was like, ‘Window it is!’ ”

Charli says she doesn’t get anxious when fans recognize her, which has started happening with increasing frequency since her turn in Azalea’s “Fancy” video (a takeoff on Clueless that casts Charli as the Brittany Murphy character). “The thing that triggered it, if I’m really honest, was I went to Brazil to do a festival and I just took so many drugs,” she says. For 10 days she partied like a rock star, and returned to the U.K. to find “Fancy” taking off into a new stratosphere. Reality hit her hard. “I was going crazy,” she says. “ ’I Love It’ came on at my house, and I picked up the radio and threw it at the wall. I felt like the Hulk.”

But she says that the awkward girl in the first album is still in there. She keeps a tight inner circle – one childhood friend works as her assistant and another minds the merch table on tour. “I’m not supereasy to talk to a lot of the time,” she says. “I’m just kind of weird. Unless I’m fucking drunk, and then I’m great.”

Sucker has helped set her free. “I used to worry about being cool,” Charli says. She puts down a vodka-and-soda and looks me in the eyes, inadvertently paraphrasing her most famous lyric. “Now I realize that I genuinely don’t care.”

In This Article: Charli XCX


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