This Is Me
Sep 12, 2013 Issue #46 - June/July 2013 - Charli XCX Photography by Kate Garner
It's about an hour before sunset on this May evening in Los Angeles when Charlotte Aitchison, the English pop singer known as Charli XCX, breezes through the front door of a rented Silver Lake house and announces to her tour bandmates, in an almost maternal way, that she's home. For the last two years, Los Angeles has been a home away from home for the London artist. It's here that she met Echo Park-based producer Ariel Rechtshaid, whose first collaboration with her, the single "Stay Away," kick-started the making of her critically admired major-label debut LP, True Romance.
Charli has been supporting Marina and the Diamonds on a tour that has brought her back to Southern California. Though it's a day off on the tour schedule after a show in Santa Ana the night before, there are still demands. A private live performance took place in the morning, and Charli has just returned from a photo shoot for a foreign magazine. She walks in dressed in a girls black T-shirt, a tartan skirt, and her trademark Buffalo platform sneakers. Her driver was slowed by traffic on the way back from the shoot, so she needs to use the bathroom—soon. "I'm just about to wee on the floor," she says matter-of-factly.
Over the course of the next hour, it becomes evident that the 20-year-old has trouble filtering herself. Or rather, she doesn't concern herself much with trying. For the most part, that trait has served her well. Just days earlier, Icona Pop's recording of "I Love It," a song for which Charli wrote the lyrics and vocals in 30 minutes, had reached the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Swedish producer Patrik Berger, who co-wrote and co-produced "Dancing on My Own" with Robyn, gave a rough instrumental of what would become "I Love It" to Charli while she was in Sweden in 2011. Charli claims that she wasn't even thinking when she wrote her contributions.
"I don't think when I write songs," she admits. "I hate songs that craft it out. The songs where I have to work the longest on them are always my worst. That song, it just came out. I don't think I even realized what it was about until I heard Icona Pop singing it. For me, it was just a bunch of cool words in my head, and I just threw them out. I don't know, it's weird. But now they just suddenly seem really relevant. It's kind of cool."
Clearly, Charli has little interest in how this might sound to music snobs. She doesn't make music for them, she'll tell you. Though she's gained much attention from hipster blogs over the last two years, thanks early on to her self-described "dark pop" singles "Stay Away" and "Nuclear Seasons," she's maintained all along that she's a pop artist. She was signed by Atlantic Records shortly before her 16th birthday, which effectively ended a colorful but brief period as a DIY artist. She started out at 14 by posting homemade recordings to her Myspace account. A promoter who'd heard them invited her to perform at East London raves and warehouse parties. He asked her what her stage name would be, and she chose her MSN Messenger screen name, Charli XCX, the XCX standing for kiss-Charli-kiss. With a loan from her parents, she recorded an album, 14, on her own label and distributed it among her friends. But major label suits began to attend the raves to see her perform, and before long she was signed by Atlantic.
These days, she speaks harshly about those early recordings and hates the fact that they can be heard on YouTube, but they reveal a brash, nascent artist who felt free to sing about whatever was on her mind. She insists that the songs were "just normal kid shit, like what was going on in my life, who I hated or who I got in an argument with," but how many 14-year-old girls write songs about dinosaur sex and wanting to be Darth Vader?
"My dad always encouraged me to be weird," Charli recalls. "I never really knew what that meant, but I think he meant, be yourself rather than follow a trend. He always said that following fashions and following trends was such a terrible trait—and following the crowd. So I feel like I was always trying to listen to him a bit."
But in the age of the Internet, which has fostered splintered tastes and accelerated nostalgia, one person's trend could be another person's rebellion. Without irony, Charli has emerged an unapologetic pop-culture fiend, a breakout artist who's not out to impress anyone with obscure music influences or her taste in art, literature, or fashion. She owns her affections regardless of what anyone thinks. The first film titles to roll off her tongue were not directed by David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick, common faves with musicians; instead, they're Clueless and The Craft. Her boyfriend, director Ryan Andrews, contends that the original Star Wars films were superior to the prequels, but she likes the prequels because she's a fan of Natalie Portman. Similarly, she's looking forward to the upcoming Carrie remake because she's a fan of Chloë Grace Moretz. Charli, aware of the clichés in musician circles, explains that she didn't grow up in a home where Beatles records were played. For True Romance, which takes its name from the 1993 Quentin Tarantino-penned film, she was partially inspired by '80s Top 40 acts Martika and T'Pau, but there's also a rawness that dates back to her admiration for the beats she heard on Dr. Dre and Eminem albums in her younger days.
"I am so nerdy and such a geek," she says. "For me, it's more about a cuteness and a darkness, which I feel is present in my record. It's there because that's, for me, what love is. There's definitely the passionate, amazing walking-on-clouds side of things, and then there's the darkness."
True Romance is a sonically restless album with a diverse array of beats and a persistent flow of sounds that dart about and mutate. Stylistically, Charli crosses over from dance pop to modern R&B and, at times, channels post-punk New Romanticism. Throughout the record, she swoons, purrs, and raps in a decidedly British sing-speak, embodying alternating roles, from dreamer to brazen party girl, from doomed romantic to trash-talking ex. During 2012, in the lead-up to the album's release, Charli increased her visibility. She appeared on the cover of the fashion-oriented V Magazine with Grimes and Sky Ferreira. She played shows in the States and signed on as a support act for a leg of Coldplay's North American tour. And two mixtapes were released, Heartbreaks and Earthquakes and Super Ultra. In the wake of a year's worth of hype, the consensus among critics was that True Romance nevertheless delivered. Charli was heartened by the response.
"I know that it shouldn't matter," she says. "But if I'm honest, to me, it did matter. It was really cool to read so much positive stuff on the record that I've spent basically five years working on. I probably would have cried a lot if I'd read loads of terrible reviews."
When Charli was first interviewed for this story by phone, she took the call shortly after a soundcheck for a London headlining performance. She sounded chipper but, understandably, a tad short-winded. Three weeks later, in Los Angeles, she seems far more relaxed but also more serious. She takes a seat in a back porch area that has a clear view of the downtown skyline. Though it rained two days earlier, it's a seasonable Los Angeles evening with temperatures in the 60s. Still, the Londoner fetches a knit pullover sweater to cover her arms. She speaks confidently and thoughtfully. She can joke without cracking a smile and sometimes waits to hear laughter before breaking into a chuckle of her own.
It's easy to forget that Charli is 20 until glaring reminders appear. To her, True Romance is a perfect record, and the 2008 recordings that she now dismisses seem to have been conceived ages ago—as they might for someone her age. Yet there's humility when she confesses her limitations as a recording artist, and the maturity of a wizened veteran when she owns up to past mistakes. As an artist, she might not yet be fully formed, but she's been her own person for some time now.
Charlotte Aitchison was born to a Scottish father and Ugandan Asian mother in Bishop's Stortford, a market town in the county of Hertfordshire, England. Her father was an entrepreneur of sorts, leaving home at 15 and going on to start his own business, a screen printing company.
From there, he moved on to other business ventures. At one point, he was a concert promoter and brought Siouxsie Sioux to perform in Hertfordshire. He also joined a performing arts group, Floppy Gravel. For their show, he and 10 of his friends would hold a tarp over their heads for 20 minutes and chant "Floppy Gravel!" Some patrons loved it, others complained that they'd been ripped off.
"He was very much the wild one," Charli says of her father. "Whereas my mom, she was born and raised in Kampala, Uganda, and she had much more of a strict upbringing. She moved over to the U.K. when Idi Amin kicked them out of the country for being Ugandan Asians. She had such a different upbringing and so much more of a connection to her family and her roots and her heritage. So, she worries about me going and taking drugs, whereas my dad advises me on what drugs to take and what ones not to take. So, they're very different. But they're both really stubborn, and I think that's where I get my stubbornness."
Her parents, who married officially only two years ago, met on New Year's Eve at the club her father owned in Hertfordshire. Charli doesn't know the exact year, but she guesses that it was in the mid-'70s.
"They didn't have any mutual friends, and it got to 10 [minutes] to 12, and the beer barrel ran out," she recounts. "My dad was walking across the dance floor with this barrel, going to take it down to the cellar, and then it got to midnight, and he walked into my mom, and they were like, 'It's almost midnight, should we just kiss?' And they kissed, and then from there on they've just kind of been together. My mom was like 18."
Charli's mom settled in Bishop's Stortford when she arrived from Uganda because of its proximity to London Stansted Airport. Her grandmother lives in Brighton. Growing up, Charli didn't take an interest in her mother's heritage, but that's now changed.
"I just don't think I really understood when I was younger," she says. "I never really questioned it. She was just my mom. And then, I think as I got older, I began to start asking her about where she lived. She lived at the bottom of a valley, and on either side were two shantytowns. I remember she told me that one day they came home from school, her and her younger sister, and they found a gardener dead in the garden with some shears stabbed through him. It's kind of intense. And I just remember her telling me stories, like their treat was to have McDonald's once every two months. My nana is still very much in love with Uganda and the culture, so whenever I see her, I hear the music and I hear about her Indian heritage and things like that. I'm actually at the moment really interested in Indian music and Gujarati folk music. I'm feeling like that's maybe where I might go with my next record, but I don't know yet."
As a child of Ugandan Asian descent, Charli didn't experience any racism directed toward her, but she witnessed it firsthand. She believes that those attitudes filtered through to the kids whose grandparents grew up in East London and Harlow.
"I grew up around people throwing the word Paki around," Charli remembers. "And they'd be like, 'Oh, we're going to the Paki shop,' like a corner shop or whatever. I personally think that's really racist. A lot of people I knew would throw that term around, and it would always upset me, not because I'm Pakistani, but just because I thought it was really wrong. And my mom actually once had an incident where she was getting out of her car in broad daylight, in the middle of our town, and these guys went past her on a bicycle and threw a milkshake at her and called her a Paki. She was so upset, as she would be. But that's nothing to some things that happen."
There was a period during Charli's childhood when she hated her hair. She wanted it to be blonde and straight, but in reality had a bit of an afro. Because of this, she always was forced by her friends to play Scary Spice when they dressed up as Spice Girls. She yearned to be Baby Spice. In time, Charli grew to love her hair, noticing how cool it looked when she flipped it.
"The bigger the better for me," she says now. "With this hair, you have to go big or go home."
When she was in school, Charli liked learning, particularly art, English literature, and history. She attended private school and kept a small group of friends from childhood through her teens. "I definitely wasn't the popular kid or anything like that," she says. "I was just quite happy and in my own dream world." She saw the townspeople of Bishop's Stortford as polite but the area unexciting, its music scene dominated by acoustic guitar-led acts. "In terms of fashion, if you were considered to be doing something wrong in Bishop's Stortford or in Hertfordshire, you were actually probably doing something right," she says.
Her parents let her listen to whatever she wanted, so she first gravitated to Britney Spears and Spice Girls. When her mom was younger, she played Bread all the time and was obsessed with The Monkees. "She was one of those screaming girls who would run after cars," Charli says. Charli recalls that the one record her dad encouraged her to listen to was ELO's Out of the Blue. She identifies the album by the spaceship on the cover, and a smile comes across her face as she begins to sing a soft rendition of "Mr. Blue Sky." As a teenager, Charli began to find music on her own through Myspace.
"I loved Myspace and I loved that whole social network," she says. "The first time I fell in love with music—apart from when I was younger and I was listening to Britney Spears and Spice Girls—was when I was 14, and I was browsing Myspace, and I found the Ed Banger Records Myspace. I just remember seeing all the artwork, and, you know, you had your top friends on Myspace, and I would go through each one of them, like Justice, Uffie, Breakbot, Sebastian, Feadz, Busy P, and I was so blown away by this completely different world of music that I'd never heard about before, and the fact that it was in France, and it was French electro. That was really cool to me. I remember hearing 'Pop the Glock' and thinking that it was the coolest song ever, and all Uffie's early stuff like 'Hot Chick' and 'Ready to Uff' and shit like that. I remember playing it to my friends, and they were like, 'This is so shit.' So I never got to listen to it in front of anyone. I just had to listen to it at home, 'cause they weren't into that. They were into Top 40 stuff. I guess that's how I began exploring other things that weren't in Hertfordshire."
Without an outlet to share her enthusiasm for these discoveries, Charli began to craft her own music. She had been taking piano lessons but never reached the point where she could read music.
"I felt like I was trying to replicate the sounds of Justice and all of that 2006-7 kind of shit that was going on, but I couldn't really do it," Charli says with a laugh. "I just had an old crap Yamaha keyboard that my parents bought for me when I was like 10, and I would play beats into it and record that and make my demos that ended up sounding nothing like what I had hoped them to sound like. But I guess they grabbed the attention of some promoters, and that's how things began."
Out of the blue, 14-year-old Charli was contacted online by a promoter named Chaz, who'd heard her Myspace recordings and invited her to perform at warehouse parties that he was organizing in Hackney Wick, East London. She estimates that about 300 people were there for her first performance, which took place at an old peanut factory where the wood floors seemed as though they were about to break. She was told that she would go on at 9 p.m. Her parents drove her, and she arrived at 8 p.m. to be sure that she didn't miss anything. She didn't perform until 3 a.m. She and her parents hung out until 6 a.m. and then got breakfast before heading home.
"It was like four or five songs max," Charli recalls of her first performances. "It was me standing on a crate or a speaker or just the floor with my iPod and everyone would be so fucked up and vomiting over each other, and there were so many drugs and that kind of thing, just a total hipster mess basically.... My mom was really, really worried. My dad loved it. I think it made him feel like a kid again, and he was trying to make friends with the promoters and giving them advice on how to run their parties and just being really embarrassing. But they were supportive. I think they knew that it was something that I wanted to do. They never pushed me, but they never told me to stop."
Although those performances led to Charli being signed by Atlantic, she didn't know, being 16, how to process that. She'd been given a large amount of money, but creatively things were stagnant. Within a year, she had stopped attending the warehouse parties and mostly kept the news of her record deal from her peers.
"I was kind of embarrassed," she says, referring to the money. "I didn't know what to do with it or how to even run my bank. So I didn't want to talk about it with anyone."
Feeling frustrated with her music career, Charli enrolled in art school. That allowed her to move out of her parents' house and in with friends in London. She was pursuing a degree in fine arts but gravitated initially to performance elements. She would dress up as Britney Spears and sing "...Baby One More Time" with a toy dog. She'd cover herself in stickers and posters of Justin Bieber and dance to Spears songs.
"I didn't really know why I was doing it, and I couldn't be bothered to find out why I was doing it, which is kind of what art school is about," Chari says. "I was just like, 'I'm doing it because I like Britney and I like Justin, and that's that.' And I think that's why it frustrated me, because that wasn't a valid enough reason. Which I get, that's what art school's about, but I couldn't be bothered to explain and do my research, and that's probably really stupid of me."
Though she had enjoyed her time at art school early on, she began to hate it. She took up painting, but felt her compositions of unicorns sitting on dynamite were bad. She dropped out after a year and a half.
"I was just in my own little brain, and I didn't want to find out about anything else," she says. "So I kind of closed myself off to the idea. Like I said, I'm very stubborn."
As she contemplated dropping out of art school, things began to get busier with her music career, but those experiences were no less exasperating. She was being flown out to Los Angeles and meeting with various producers for writing sessions that she found horrible. "It was very Hollywood, and it wasn't really working for me," she recalls. Everything changed, however, when she met Rechtshaid, a former member of the L.A. bands The Hippos and Foreign Born. These days, Rechtshaid is one of the hottest producers around, having worked with Vampire Weekend, HAIM, Sky Ferreira, and other acts as disparate as Cass McCombs and Usher. But when he met Charli, his most notable credit was Plain White T's ubiquitous "Hey There Delilah."
"I just got dropped off at his house by my A&R guy," Charli remembers. "And I thought, 'Oh no, this is going to be another one of these terrible sessions,' but it wasn't. It was amazing. And we only had two hours before I had to fly to New York, and in that time we wrote 'Stay Away.' I listened to it on the plane journey, and I was like, 'Wow, this is it. This is me.'"
Rechtshaid would go on to produce eight of the tracks on True Romance and co-write seven. Charli insists that she should have had a producer's credit on "Set Me Free," which was a full demo that she made when she was 15, but confesses that she's unlearned in the computer elements of production and bad with technical terms. "I'll say, 'Make it sound more purple, make it sound more like ice,'" she explains. There are movie directors who are lauded by their actors for giving direction in an eccentric yet relatable manner like this, but such methods might not be perceived as generously when coming from an up-and-coming pop singer. Charli is proud of her album and her collaborative work, and she understands that every artist has haters that can't be pleased. "I hate some things," she says, pragmatically. "That's just the way life is. It's fine." But criticism can rankle her, depending on who it's from. She was particularly offended by a Tumblr post from James Brooks of Elite Gymnastics that called out Sky Ferreira for working with outside songwriters and producers, and saying that Charli was the result of the major-label Top 40 pop machinery being influenced by Grimes.
"Basically, I was being called a fraud and being told that all I did was write melodies," Charli explains. "And that was really offensive, especially when I've written probably the biggest hit this year. Actually, I think I'm doing OK, thanks very much. And I have nothing but respect for Grimes and Sky. I think they're incredible artists, and I think they're both so different."
Charli doesn't mind that her name circulates with Grimes and Ferreira's, nor does she regret the decision to appear with them on a magazine cover. For her, it was an honor. She just gets tired of speaking about her artistic merit and trying to defend it.
"Yes, I collaborate with people," she says. "I'm not ashamed that I co-write. Adele co-writes. Vampire Weekend co-write. Practically every artist in the world co-writes.... I hate talking about this so much. I really wish I hadn't started talking about it. I hate talking about that conversation because it's so frustrating. I don't feel this happens to guys very much."
Not that such criticism has influenced her to do so, but Charli vows to have a producer's credit on her next album. And the success of "I Love It" has emboldened her, prompting her to reconsider where her career is headed. She sees herself as very much a songwriter and wants to compose more tracks for other artists. Singing competition shows horrify her, but she sees potential in the contestants.
"It just seems like this sugar-coated dream that's actually fucking disgusting underneath," Charli says of shows like American Idol and The X Factor. "I would love to write for some of those artists who win those competitions, just because I really feel I can inject some punk shit and some fucked-up shit into it. That's why I love Disney, because I think Disney kids are the most interesting people ever, because they have to go through all this shit for like five years of their life, people telling them what to do and what to wear. And then when they break out, I guess like Miley Cyrus is doing now working with Pharrell, it's really interesting, 'cause they always want to work with the weirdest people and the most far away from Disney as possible. I'd love it if I could be one of those people that they wanted to work with."
Charli has already started working on her next album. Her dream is to record it in India, or Paris, or both, but she doesn't feel any pressure to decide on what direction to take. "I kind of feel like the world is my oyster," she says. She has three songs done and contends that she's able to write while touring, which will keep her busy through the year. She enjoys performing and the feeling of having an audience in the palm of her hand. A few days after this interview, Chloë Grace Moretz tweeted a Vine of herself rocking out to Charli's opening set for Marina and the Diamonds in Los Angeles. As with Charli's songwriting, her approach to performing is to keep things spontaneous.
"Everything is lost," she says of when she's onstage. "It's just me and the microphone and the music and me going crazy and losing myself. I don't think. I don't plan. I just do. What happens happens. And that's often why I do a lot of embarrassing things, like terrible dancing and flashing my pants. I don't care. I'm not thinking about it. I don't give a fuck about that shit or what people say."
[This article first appeared as the cover story in Under the Radar's June/July 2013 print issue.]
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