It's the first day of South by Southwest's music portion and Charli XCX is about to play her second of what will be 10 shows in a four-day span. It's a daunting itinerary that can fry many buzzworthy hopefuls' nerves (not to mention energy), but not the plucky 20-year-old, born Charlotte Aitchison in Hertfordshire, England. "I'm just going to party through it," she says at Austin's Belmont. "Last year I came and I did two shows, but I felt I haven't experienced South By properly."
Later that night, not only will Charli XCX perform a 30-minute set previewing songs from her Atlantic/Iamsound debut "True Romance" (April 16), including lead single "You (Ha Ha Ha)," she'll later join Atlantic labelmate Icona Pop onstage for its performance of current top 40 hit "I Love It," a song Charli XCX wrote. She performed the tune for the first time with the group during the Warner Sound's Tuesday night showcase.
The song's hyper-charged production and bratty lyrics kissing off an ex are matched by many of Charli XCX's own songs, which range from moody ballads like "Stay Away" and "You're the One," to electro rave-ups like "Take My Hand" and "Black Roses," to more romantic odes like "What I Like" and "Lock You Up."
Produced largely by Ariel Rechtshaid (Usher, Major Lazer, Plain White Ts), the album is a pseudo-compilation of songs previously released on EPs Charli XCX released through Iamsound in 2011 ("You're the One," "Nuclear Seasons") and her 2012 self-released mixtapes, "Heartbreaks and Earthquakes" ("How Can I," "So Far Away") and "Super Ultra" ("Cloud Aura"). "You're the One" has sold 1,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and reached No. 5 on Billboard's Dance Singles Sales chart and No. 10 on Hot Singles Sales.
That DIY strategy helped her build a cult-ish fan base on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, platforms that are more important to Atlantic marketing director Tony Corey than more traditional outlets in the lead-up to "True Romance"'s release. "Her fan base is heavily involved in the online world, so upfront we are not being super aggressive with radio," he says. "Charli's voice and writing currently appear on top 40 via 'I Love It,' which continues to grow and is a great setup for her future at radio."
Though the album dabbles in goth, dream pop and new wave elements, Charli XCX prefers to describe her music as "angel pop," a term that encompasses her blend of ethereal sounds and hipster samples of acts like Gold Panda, Blood Diamonds and Todd Rundgren with more traditional pop song structures. "I started writing songs with Ariel three years ago and we just clicked. I wanted to harness that sound and really keep this emotional feeling to it--basically create this big mashup of fuzzy, warm effects that speaks to the lyrics," she tells Billboard in a separate interview.
Charli XCX has been writing and recording since she was 14, and many of the tracks on "True Romance" range in tone from "teen angsty, I hate-my-boyfriend kind of songs" to "deeply tormented, crazy-obsessive love" to "songs where it's this rush and ecstasy and orgasmic love," as she puts it. "I'm always the one who's in charge of my relationships--I'm either taking control or fucking them up." That translates to the creative control she was able to wield on the album's songs, many of which are largely preserved from their previous mixtape formats.
"It's been amazing because I feel like there's always a stigma when you work with record labels, especially bigger labels and the money machine factory," she says, "but the fact that they let me take five years to make the album and have really given me space and time to grow has been amazing. I've been able to make the videos I want and they've let me be in charge, which is great because I'm really stubborn."