Charli XCX is building a career the right way, from the ground up. She does so by ably combining her serious songwriting abilities (she co-wrote / performed on the Icona Pop hit, “I Love It”) with a penchant for lively performances that induce screams of ecstasy from her youthful fans (and a sprinkling of creepy old men). While she surely could have jumped up a notch in the venues she’s playing, piggybacking on their promotional budgets and built-in audiences, she’s instead chosen to build a hard core fan base that will take her music viral through word-of-mouth. This is, after all, an artist who already has 7 years of experience performing at the tender age of 21, and one with an intuitive understanding of how her generation discovers and consumes music.
And so, the Mila Kunis doppelgänger returned to Washington, D.C. to again play an energetic, sold-out show at U Street Music Hall that had kids queued up outside at 2pm (maybe earlier) hoping for a close encounter with their pop idol. While they stood outside in the cold, we ventured into a stairwell to interview Charli XCX about technology, misogyny, and the connection between creation and the subconscious.
(Transcript is lightly edited for clarity | All photos: Katherine Gaines)
Weeping Elvis: Technology has been a fundamental aspect of your approach from the beginning – my understanding is that you started organizing shows at 14 via social media. 7 years later, how has your use of technology evolved in your music as well as on the career side of things?
Charli XCX: I suppose I’ve always used it; I started as a blog artist or Internet artist, whatever you want to call it, and it’s always been an important thing for me to have direct contact with my fans. That’s the way it always has been; it’s been a very organically built up process. Things like Facebook and twitter are always important, but the nature of how I was making music before my first record came out, giving away mix tapes and stuff like that, that just goes very hand-in-hand for me. Technology is very relevant.
You’ve spent a good amount of time in the States; this time through you can drink legally. Your time here is clearly strategic, but is it at all isolating? You’re at an age where people tend to form strong groups of friends who go out all the time, causing trouble and having fun. Do shows and life on the road approximate that sense of community for you?
I’ve been traveling and doing shows and sessions since I was 16, so I have a lot of friends in different places. Which, means that I don’t feel alone when I go to America.
It’s almost like you’re studying abroad.
(Laughs) Yeah, like I’m an exchange student. Sometimes it is nice to be alone, though. I do really savor those moments where I’m lonely because that really doesn’t happen too much, and it really doesn’t bother me. Unless I’m partying, I’m not really the most talkative person…unless I’m wasted (chuckles). It kind of works for me quite well, this lifestyle.
In that same vein of “community,” thought was clearly given to the types of acts with which you have toured over here; there’s obviously an affinity for touring with other female-centric acts…
Yeah, well, right now I’m on tour with Liz and Kitten, both of which are female-led bands. I’ve played shows with Kitten before, and I’m a really big fan of that band and of Chloe’s in particular, who is a good friend of mine. This really is a Girl Power tour, it is. I just think that what we’re doing right now is really good so I want to take it on the road and be relevant, rather than some shit indie band, and that’s why it’s important … because Chloe kicks ass.
Recently, Lauren Mayberry (Chvrches) and Grimes have both written about the misogyny they’ve experienced as women in the public eye, in particular via the Internet. Have you had similar experiences with the modern version of an ages old problem? How do you deal with these and other emotionally abusive aspects of the business?
I feel like every person who has a twitter account generally gets abuse on the Internet, and I feel like girls and the female artists I know definitely get misogynist abuse on the Internet, which is shit and it sucks and unfair and rubbish, but I always just think that I’m probably in a way better position than the people that are saying that shit to me anyways. But, what really bums me out is when people in the industry, whether behind the scenes in an interview or at the forefront as other artists, are misogynistic, rude, and sexist. I’ve had countless kind of comments made because I co-write, and, apparently that doesn’t make me an authentic artist or whatever. But Vampire Weekend co-write and so many other male artists and credible bands co-write.
Arcade Fire, yeah…but because they’re male-led, there doesn’t seem to be as much of an authenticity issue. Which is shit, especially when I’ve written one of the biggest songs of the year, sometimes it still seems like, “Oh, but you probably didn’t really write that.” No, I did, I wrote everything. I wrote the lyrics, I wrote the melody, I wrote the topline, and yeah, I’m a fucking girl and I’ve got tits and a vagina. Deal with it. It’s shit, and it’s stupid that people think that they can still get away with stuff like that. Co-writing has been a part of this industry since….
…the beginning. Sinatra didn’t write most of his own stuff.
…And I DO write my own songs. I write songs alone, but I also don’t have a problem with collaborating and I don’t understand why if I do that I’m suddenly seen as a puppet.
Well, in the U.S. it’s sort of an advantage because the author gets paid by radio, and the performer doesn’t, so I guess you can say, “Hey, I got paid.”
About those lyrics you mentioned, if I can borrow a phrase, they’re “not that innocent.” They share a lot that in other eras may have been considered personal and, by definition, private. It strikes me that there might be a duality with the openness now required, A) to make real art, and, B) to connect with fans conditioned to share their intimate details on social media. Do you think that these aspects of the art and the business might confuse some who feel like they really do know you better than they do, and that they can treat you with undue familiarity and, sometimes, be outright rude?
I feel like the nature of the music industry these days – even if you’re not that active on Twitter or whatever – people feel like they really know you and the person you are, especially if you’ve been around for quite a long time, which I have.
Yeah, I’ve grown up doing this and having things written about me – obviously more extensively recently – but I think that gives people this sense of, “Oh, I know what she is, what she’s about, or the game she’s playing.” But, I’m actually lucky in that I have a really great group of friends that are actually really cool people. They really get me, and it’s cool, and I can tell that by the things they give me and the things they say; they put a lot of time and effort into everything they do. Which is so sweet, and also really weird for me because I am like, why, I’m just me…
They imitate the way you dress…
Yeah, and that’s cool. Not only am I surrounded by good people behind the scenes but also the fans that I have are always great as well.
Fairly fundamental to your version of pop music is a chaos that exists beneath mathematically sensible and danceable pop compositions, whether that chaos is lyrical or presented in samples or synths or whatever. How is that symbolic?
I don’t really think too deeply about the things that I say or the process; I don’t like to “think” when I record. I just like to record and then maybe think about it afterwards. The only thing that’s important to me is that everything that goes into my work is emotional. Whether that be anger, passion, romance, whatever, I just need to feel that emotional connection. I really don’t like thinking in that sense. I feel like all the best songs are made in half an hour — that’s definitely the case with me. So with this record that I’m currently writing, I’ve been working on it for like a month and it’s done…it’s basically done. I feel like if you think too much you don’t make good music, you have to be spontaneous.
You’re letting your subconscious out.
(Concert photos below)
Photos | Charli XCX: Katherine Gaines
U Street Music Hall, Washington, D.C.