Charli XCX: Dancer in the Dark

Five years ago, a glittering 14-year-old Thumbelina-sized club kid, pigtailed and dolled up in Day-Glo, popped up on the music industry’s radar. She called herself Charli XCX and bopped about illegal warehouse raves rap-talking and yelping over pulsing electro beats about dinosaur sex, liking chocolate mousse, and telling lies, vocals and performance smothered in Veruca Salt brattiness—just short of proclaiming she wanted a golden goose. There was a burst of buzz, and then, doubt—was there longevity in this novelty act? Now, the 19-year-old synth-pop singer-songwriter is back—a golden arrow in her heart and love potion in her veins—toting her long-awaited EP You’re the One. And she’s certainly matured. The onetime “nursery rhyme star” has morphed into an amalgamation of a bewitching young woman exuding a dark sensuality and a London art-school kid pulsating with electric energy. The wild and reckless abandon has been harnessed into a more refined, slicker package: where she once demanded and provoked, she now yearns and earnestly confesses.

Often dubbed a “goth-pop princess” (though she prefers “dark” pop), XCX triumphantly returned last year with the much-reblogged love-gone-wrong tracks “Stay Away” and “Nuclear Seasons,” both drenched in signature XCX lush production: heavy ’80s synth, cavernous dance beats, pure powerhouse vocals housed by a haunting, industrial, and at times a somewhat mystical atmosphere; her pop sensibilities and penchant for sparkle prevent it from ever diving too deep into the depths of darkness. While “You’re the One,” the EP’s title track, shares a similar productionstyle, it goes the opposite direction in sentiment. It’s a pro-love anthem: a throbbing dance track with swelling, airy synths and occult-tinged love cries and a whispering rap break, produced by frequent XCX collaborator Ariel Rechtshaid (Usher, Cass McCombs) as well as Patrik Berger (Robyn, Lana del Rey). 

The track is the only new song on the EP—which also includes “Nuclear Seasons” and two remixes by Blood Orange and Balam Acab—unlike her freshly dropped Heartbreaks and Earthquakes mixtape of all new material, featuring Drake, Jai Paul, and, again, Blood Orange. After what promises to be a whirlwind year—she just wrapped up tour dates with Santigold and will be opening for Coldplay this summer after performing at a handful of European festivals—she hints at a debut full-length later this year or early next year.

We caught up with Charli XCX, who was spending her last hours in Las Vegas lamenting her bad luck. But lucky for us, she divulged her rapper fantasy, the colors “You’re the One” sounds like, and her burning desire to be a Disney kid (she loves Miley).

AIMEE O’NEILL: Where are you right now?

CHARLI XCX: I’m in Vegas. It was my keyboardist’s birthday last night, which was quite cool. I’ve never been here before.

O’NEILL: What has the Vegas experience been like?

XCX: It’s quite tacky. You kind of expect that. It’s quite expensive, as well. We gambled and we lost a lot of money, which kind of sucks. [laughs] You’ve got to have good luck, otherwise you get fucked. I don’t have very good luck, so I lost a ton of money. [laughs]

O’NEILL: That’s too bad! So, let’s talk about all the time that has passed since you first caught the music industry’s attention. You started out so young, got a lot of buzz, and now you’re putting out your long-awaited EP, You’re the One. How do you feel you’ve evolved since the “club kid” days?

XCX: When I first started, I wasn’t really aware of anything in the industry or aware of who I really was. I just put my music out there and tried to get as many people to hear it as possible. I hadn’t really thought about the kind of music I wanted to make. I was just making these raps and stuff. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I never wanted to be anything else apart from that. I was like, “No, this is who I want to be. I don’t want to be a pop star. I want to be a nursery-rhyme star!” [laughs] Everyone was like “Uh, okay, that’s really horrible.” I was really selfish, and I didn’t want to listen to anyone. Then I started working with some really amazing people, traveling more, and figuring out who I was as a person—looking at different things, listening to different music. When I first started I was just listening to Ed Banger stuff [French Electro Record Label]:  Uffie, Justice, Feadz. I wanted to white rap like Uffie. I still love Uffie. Then I started listening to other girls who rap like when Blondie raps in “Rapture.” I was like “Wow, this is pretty cool, too,” because they are basically pop songs, so I thought, “Cool, maybe I can do it a different way.”

O’NEILL: You do some rapping on “You’re the One”….

XCX: Oh yeah, totally. I like the whole laid-back rapping. I wish I could rap! I wish I could wrap like Azealia Banks or Lil Wayne or someone like that… Twista. He’s super fast.

O’NEILL: Because you’ve doing this awhile, do you ever feel older than your age?

XCX: I don’t feel like I’m young in this field. A lot of my friends do creative things and are doing really well at what they do—some writers, some artists. I’m in a driven circle. I’ve had a lot of opportunities that other people wouldn’t necessarily have and seen some cool places, but I’m still 19. I don’t want to be acting 25 or whatever. I’m just a 19-year-old girl—I still want to party, get drunk, and fuck about for a while before I start making my serious [rock] opera record or whatever. [laughs]

O’NEILL: It seems you have really good musical chemistry with producer Ariel Rechtshaid. You guys worked on “Stay Away,” “Nuclear Seasons,” and “You’re the One” together, which are all killer pop tracks. Where was your head at while you were working together?

XCX: I don’t really know where our heads were at while we writing, kind of all over the place. Ariel is a Napoleon Dynamite kind of figure. I’m kind of all over the place like, “We have to make it this! We have to make it that!,” getting all freaky weird excited. We’re quite chill in the studio. We go on road trips and get really distracted, basically all the time. Last time I was there we were listening to “Call Me Maybe” on repeat, being like “Wow, this is amazing! It gets better every time you listen!” And we play Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA.”

O’NEILL: No! Do you love Miley?

XCX: Yeah, definitely! She’s by far the best Disney kid. “Party in the USA” is so great! I listen to it every time I’m landing in the USA. I get hyped up! “And a Jay-Z song was on!” [sings] I can’t wait for Harmony Korine’s film with Selena Gomez. It’s going to be amazing. It’s insane! I think if I weren’t who I am, I’d probably be a Disney kid. I just find them so interesting! I want to know what goes on behind closed doors—what happens? I love that shit. I really want to be a Disney kid. That would be badass.

O’NEILL: Adjectives often used to describe your music are: dark, goth, moody. Have you ever considered yourself a morbid person? Or, perhaps it’s more of a Romantic’s vibe you’re putting out?

XCX: I have a dark side. I think everyone does, especially in this industry. At the moment, the music I’m making is like an explosion of love. It moves away from super dark, its more romanticized and floral, but still quite black. I feel like [right now] it’s more Romantic… very passionate, very expressive.

O’NEILL: Do you think you write better when you’re writing about love or in love?

XCX: Yeah, I think so. At the moment I am super in love with somebody, so it’s easier for me to write. I just want to write about love and what I’m experiencing. I think I’m at my strongest when I’m writing about super, crazy love or depressed and how I got fucked over by love.

O’NEILL: What do you think drives you more and/or translates better: “I got fucked over” or “crazy in love”?

XCX: I think crazy in love because I feel like you have to be happy to create. I know some people are like “I’m depressed and I’m a struggling artist” and that really works for some people, but that doesn’t work for me. I have to be really happy, even when I’m writing my depressing songs; I have to come through that stage before I can write. I have to be in a good place. I’m a positive person.

O’NEILL: I watched an interview where you described a synesthetic point of view on your music: you said you saw “You’re the One” as “a mix between pink, black and gold” and using terms such as “more golden, more sparkly…” Do you think having such a detailed vision and multi-sensory experience yourself helps you create a world and a full experience for the listener?

XCX: That’s exactly what it is. I want to create an experience with my music. I always see colors when I listen to music. It’s difficult to explain, but when I hear the music I think about gold, blood rushing… I like to keep it really warm and glittery.  I’ve been thinking about where I want to take my live show. I want everything in it to be pink, gold, and black. I don’t want people to feel any other colors, like brown or yellow. I just want them to feel those colors and maybe a bit of red. I feel like music that is green, brown, and yellow is really boring music and doesn’t sound very nice. I just want to keep it those colors. [laughs]

O’NEILL: You recorded in LA?

XCX: Some in LA, some in Sweden. I wrote, “You’re the One” in Sweden. I went to LA to give it to Ariel [Rechtshaid] to put some finishing touches on it; Ariel, Patrick Berger, and myself worked on that track. It was kind of a cross-continental EP, I guess.

O’NEILL: Every city has its own personality, and how a person creates within each one differs, so I’m sure that definitely affected the tone.

XCX: Totally. I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo the other day and I was thinking about how weird it is that [the film’s aesthetic] is kind of how the verses sound in my track, super-stark and Scandinavian, but on the other side there is the Swedish sheen and shininess. The first version I did was quite like that, but then I went to LA to finish it off and make it fuzzier, to get some of that Sweden out of it and put some LA into it.

O’NEILL: What is the perfect scenario to listen to this EP?

XCX: I reckon it probably would be under the ocean with glittering mermaids and Venus popping out of a shell, but the ocean is in the middle of a jungle, and the sky is pink and has stars and unicorns jumping around in the background, things like that. It would be in a weird heavenly tropical jungle under the sea.

O’NEILL: What are you most looking forward to this summer?

XCX: I’m really looking forward to putting out my video for “You’re the One.” I worked so hard on that with the director Dawn Shadforth. It’s the perfect representation of who I am as an artist, so I’m really excited to put that out. I’m working on a mixtape, which is going to be out this month. I’m finally putting out the single in the UK, which is so weird. I feel like I’ve been doing it for ages. It feels like it never happened. It’s like being in a constant state of limbo and I’m kind of going to be snapped out of it. I don’t know really what to expect about that.