Billboard Cover: Charli XCX on the Pop-Music ‘Machine,’ Girl Power and Her ‘Raw’ New Album
"Have you seen when they put the man in the box?"
Charli XCX, 22, is poolside at West Hollywood's Standard Hotel, taking a drag from a Marlboro Light. The fast-rising British pop star and seasoned songwriter is in town on this Friday, Aug. 22, ahead of Sunday's MTV's Video Music Awards, where she's nominated as an artist to watch. (Charli, who lives outside London, will perform "Fancy," the Iggy Azalea smash for which she provides the hook, during the broadcast and "Boom Clap," the massive first single from her coming second studio album, Sucker, at the preshow.) The box she's referring to sits near the reception desk at the hotel; the man is a scantily clad hard body -- or lingerie-bedecked woman -- who enters the transparent plastic container nights at 9 p.m. and reads from an iPhone or iPad, presumably as a provocative artistic statement. "They get paid to sit and do that," she says, laughing. "Isn't this the worst hotel?"
Not that Charli minds taking advantage of the place's simpler pleasures -- after all, she's sipping a Bellini by the pool on this classically cloudless Los Angeles afternoon. Or has any problem making bold statements of her own. Take today's outfit: Her short black satin slip, crocodile-embossed boots and enormous sunglasses are doubly conspicuous combined with her bee-stung red lips, jumble of dark curls and improbable boobs-to-waist ratio.
And then there's her eyebrow raisingly honest opinion of the pop industrial complex, a box she willingly entered as a songwriter for hire three years ago. After she wrote "I Love It" with Patrik Berger and Linus Eklow in 2012 and gave it to the Swedish duo Icona Pop, which made it an international hit, offers poured in. "We'd get an email that says, 'So-and-so's into writing with you,'" says Charli. "And then they'd go, 'Yeah, they want you to write "I Love It" meets [Azealia Banks' viral track] "212."' But [songwriters] don't just churn it out -- we're not machines. That song opened the doors to a side of the music industry that I'd never had access to before. You just see how the machine works."
It's a machine, though, that Charli and a pack of other pre-eminent females, often working together, have taken over this year. "Women are dominating the top 40, and collaborations have been the perfect steppingstone for when these artists release their own single," says Sharon Dastur, program director at WHTZ (Z100) New York. "Fancy" held No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks and became a triple-platinum seller. (On Sept. 14 at London's O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire, Azalea previewed a "Fancy" sequel featuring Charli, "Beg for It," to cheers.) "Boom Clap" spent three weeks at No. 1 in September and remains in the top five. Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande (who recruited Azalea for "Problem") and Jessie J (with Minaj and Grande on "Bang Bang") have all scored top five hits, too.
As Billboard has learned, Charli's looking to extend this extraordinary run of female collaborations by writing songs for Rihanna and Gwen Stefani, whose massive chart successes obviously predate this current wave. Stefani in particular has been an inspiration to Charli: "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," the 2001 Eve hit featuring Stefani, "is my favorite female collaboration that has been released over the past 20 years," says Charli. "I definitely wanted to create that girl-power kind of vibe with 'Fancy.'" Plus, Charli will open for Perry on the U.K. leg of her Prismatic World Tour, which kicks off in January.
Meanwhile, Charli -- born and raised just outside of London as Charlotte Aitchison -- has been coming into her own as a phenomenon with the remarkable run of "Boom Clap" and her latest single, "Break the Rules," rapidly gaining plays. So it was something of a mystery when Sucker was recently pushed from an Oct. 21 release to Dec. 16. To Charli, it's all about, well, pre-emptively breaking out of any box the first smash of her own might represent: "I just didn't realize that song would be around for so long," she writes in an email on Sept. 29. "I don't want people to get the album and just expect to hear a record full of 'Boom Clap,' because that's not what it is. It's raw. There's more to me than that."
Capitalizing on exposure in a way that allows her to -- in the words of Atlantic U.K. president Ben Cook -- "retain that Charliness" of hers has been Charli's challenge from the beginning. It doesn't help that "Charliness" is such an amorphous quality. Her 2013 debut, True Romance, was brooding, laden with synths and named after a 20-year-old film written by Quentin Tarantino. Like the movie, the album was well-received critically and not-so-well-received commercially. Sucker was conceived as a punk album and turned into a pop album. "Some people who liked True Romance won't like it and I'm very aware of that," says Charli. "True Romanceis a cool album. I always equated being cool to being a bit rude or moody." But: "It's not who I am as a person and I struggled with that. When I was 16, I felt so much pressure to write a cool album because I thought I was so uncool. On this record, I don't care if people think I'm dorky or too happy."
"Charli is the most comfortable pop star out there right now," says Sucker producer and her close friend Justin Raisen, 32, who co-wrote most of Sky Ferreira's 2013 album, Night Time, My Time. "There's this specific haze when I turn the radio on, a joy that's missing. But Charli has it. 'Boom Clap' is authentic. [She shows] you can take pop somewhere special."
There is a joy in Charli. She cracks a steady stream of jokes, including some in a fake American accent. In a fantasy list of things she wants to see featured on the Tumblr pop-up shop her record labels, Atlantic and Neon Gold, are organizing, she cites "candy, temporary tattoos and a dildo -- but I don't know what mums would think about that. I'd love to do tampons, though." In naming the various offenses of the Standard Hotel, she leans in to divulge that "I found a pube in my French toast yesterday."
An only child, Charli was raised by her father, a Scottish concert promoter, and mother, a nurse who was raised in Kampala, Uganda (and, says Charli, "kicked out" of the country with her family "by Idi Amin"). She began writing Lily Allen-tinged pop-rap songs at 14. Atlantic U.K. A&R executive Ed Howard spotted her a year later, in 2008, during an impromptu performance in a pub at three in the morning. "She gets up on a chair in the middle of this crowded bar, wearing a crazy wig," he recalls. "Her look was incredible, but mental." She sang two original songs, "Valentine" and "Do It Well," the first of which she would release for free Valentine’s Day in 2012.
Charli released a bunch more music that year: An official EP called You're the One and two online mixtapes of eight songs each, Heartbreaks and Earthquakes and Super Ultra. She also gave away what could have been her breakthrough song. "I Love It" proved she could write a genuine hit. "Everyone was like, 'You have to take this song,'" she recalls. "I had the heart-to-heart with her about whether or not she'd release it," remembers her longtime manager David Bianchi. But she was adamant that it didn't fit on True Romance -- and wound up as featured artist on the track, anyway. "Somebody mistakenly left her voice on that song and released it, and it went top 10 in a bunch of different countries with her vocal on it," says Bianchi. (Those countries included Sweden, the United Kingdom and Australia. In the United States, it went to No. 1 on the dance/electronic chart.)
The industry adoration that swiftly followed left her leery. "People who never gave you the time of day are kissing your ass," she remembers. "It annoyed me because I've always thought my songs were good." She felt pigeonholed and taken advantage of. "It felt strange hearing my voice on the radio and not really getting credit for it."
Worse, Charli felt conflicted creatively. She decamped to Sweden with Berger and recorded covers of his noise-punk band Snuffed by the Yakuza. "I was in a state where I just had to go f--- shit up," says Charli. "I was getting out all this anger. I don't think I can write pop songs when I'm angry." (She hopes to eventually release some of the songs, previously available just digitally, on vinyl as an exclusive. "It's important for me to have people hear the process so they know how Sucker came to be.")
Once Charli got the vitriol out of her system, her uncomplicated, unironic love for pop music flooded back in. She brought in a team of songsmiths to begin working on the tracks now destined for Sucker. "We were doing a writing camp at Westlake Studios [in Hollywood]," says Charli, referring to the process by which producers and songwriters converge to work up ideas for a particular artist. They helped her create the ludicrously hummable "Break the Rules," although not without some angst on her part. "I got bad social anxiety because usually I only work with my close friends. I went outside and sang this thing into my phone -- wrote it in a car park in five minutes." (Steve Mac produced “Break The Rules” with Stargate and Cashmere Cat.) Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, who co-wrote "Need Your Love," says Charli "has this primal ability to write melodies and lyrics that are absolutely perfect, and to do it really fast."
These days, Charli seems unruffled by new attention.
And she keeps a low profile. She's single, having parted ways with her last boyfriend, Ryan Andrews, a 32-year-old filmmaker from Wales who directed five of Charli’s early music videos. When she and Batmanglij are both in Los Angeles, they drive around talking, stopping for a bite at Forage or Stella. Raisen -- who, during her interview, texted Charli an invitation to dinner with him and his dad -- remembers the VMAs as positively uneventful: "We went to a pre-party [the night before]. She rolled in, the paparazzi's calling her name, and she doesn't care. [The next night] she sang, [then] she's off the stage 25 minutes later and back at the hotel." Charli maintains an intimate social circle. The women in her touring band are all friends; she even manages the solo career of her bass player, who performs as Cuckoolander. In April, for Sucker, she organized a mini-writing camp of folks strictly from her "crew" -- Pontus Winnberg (aka Avant from Bloodshy & Avant), Andrew White, Miike Snow, Noonie Bao, MNDR -- at a hotel in Sweden that she says was haunted: "It was like The Shining." And while her pals tend to make urbane, ultrahip music, her listening tastes are broad. The "...Baby One More Time" video by Britney Spears "is what made me want to sing," says Charli, and she thinks "Shower" by Becky G is "genius." At her Billboard photo shoot, she put on a Ja Rule Spotify playlist. She's "a slow reader" but she loves film; she was partway through the novel The Fault in Our Stars when she saw the movie (which includes "Boom Clap" on its soundtrack) and decided to just start another book.
On the afternoon of the Friday before the VMAs, Charli has left the Standard to rehearse at Hollywood's SIR studios. Aside from a pair of "stripper shoes" that could mean a twisted ankle, she's most worried about what she'll ad-lib during her performance. "I can't do it," she whines. "What do I say? 'Come on, everybody! Put your hands in the air?'" She doubles over with laughter. "Ugh, that's so cheesy."
In the end, she goes with "How you doing, VMAs!" Charli doesn't win but she's not upset. She's already thinking ahead to the short break between her North American and European live dates, when she's carved out two uninterrupted hours to check in on her new home in Lower Sheering, a country town an hour north of London. "It's so un-rock'n'roll," she says of the house, which is part of a subdivided early-1900s mansion. Although she plans to transform the interior. "I'm trying to do it like Jayne Mansfield's Pink Palace," she says. "Jungle wallpaper with shag pile carpet on an accent wall. I want it to look like a '70s porno." It will be a sanctuary that also features a recording studio and, potentially, a stripper pole. Charli's got a knack for creating her own space, whether in the physical world or the pop-music landscape. "I moved in July and I've been there twice since," she says, describing the small window she has had to enact her decorating vision. "I've had to just make cutthroat decisions. I can't f--- around."