Charli XCX is that rare kind of artist who ticks all the boxes for being a glorified pop star — sexy, sweet, with songs so catchy it’s annoying — but who also does exactly what she wants. Whether that’s bringing all her friends on stage during her Pop 2 performances, writing bangers for other artists and pop legends like Selena Gomez, Blondie and Gwen Stefani, or partying with her fans, the Cambridge-born singer, whose real name is Charlotte Emma Aitchison, doesn’t play into the cookie-cutter rules of pop superstardom. And unlike her predecessors, she’s the one in charge.
It’s that radical honesty and no fucks energy that makes Charli (she picked up the XCX when creating her first screen name) so appealing — not just to us, but to her millions of fans, to whom she’s granted unparalleled access into her everyday life. Along with her music, the 26-year-old uses her social media profiles to “show people what’s going on inside my brain,” she says, creating a connection with her followers — one that looks more like a genuine friendship than the traditional relationship between a musician and her fans. For her, it’s all about using her platform to share her obsessions, whether or not they align with the ideal pop star mould. That’s because, aside from being her own authentic self both online and off (“I’m never going to let anyone have any say over how I should be,” she tells me), Charli is also a fangirl at heart. And she’s not afraid to celebrate it — as seen by the playful references she makes in tracks like ‘1999,’ and her unwavering support for friends and collaborators, like newly-formed girl band Nasty Cherry, who just released their debut single on Charli’s label, Vroom Vroom Recordings, and Kim Petras — who chatted with the singer in LA and let us tag along.
Kim Petras: What was your biggest obsession as a kid?
Charli XCX: My first biggest obsession was probably the Spice Girls. When I was younger, I was obsessed with Spice World, the movie, and all the songs, and I wanted to dress like them. I basically wanted to be the sixth member of the Spice Girls. I was really lucky to see them in concert when I was young, but it was like, the day after Geri left, so I literally cried throughout the entire concert, because she was my favourite. I think that was my first real, true obsession. I was also obsessed with Barbie and, later, Britney Spears as well.
KP: Totally. Who was your first crush as a kid? Was it an actor, a musician?
CX: I never really had crushes as a kid. I always think about that. There was always this pressure to have pictures of people on your walls — like all of my friends had pictures of boy bands on their walls — but I really didn’t have that. I didn’t have a guy crush, or really a girl crush, either. So, I was never really obsessed with Leonardo DiCaprio or the Backstreet Boys or anything like that. I was just super into the music and the look of the people I mentioned. I never really saw the sexual angle of pop music when I was younger. I remember putting pictures of some guys on my wall, and it just felt really wrong. But I think the first guy I thought was really, really cool, but still didn’t have a crush on, was Eminem. My crushes came later. Like, when I watched Freaky Friday, the remake with Lindsay Lohan and Chad Michael Murray — I thought Chad Michael Murray was a super hot dude. That was the first time I remember having a real crush.
KP: You were more about just stanning the girls when you were a kid. You’re really just a stan icon. What’s your favourite Eminem song?
I think the first song I got super into was ‘My Dad’s Gone Crazy,’ which was on The Eminem Show, and it’s one that features his kid and she’s singing a little. But I remember thinking that song was really cool. And I was really into the whole 8 Mile vibe, as well. Also, that song ‘Without Me’ — that’s my karaoke song and I get really into it when I do it.
KP: Did you get really into his songs and rapping?
I don’t know, I just have this thing that I still have now, where I just get obsessed with songs and just listen to them on repeat. Each year I’ll have like 15 songs that I’ll just constantly listen to — not even albums, just my favourite songs that I’ll play on repeat. Although, recently, I have gotten more into albums. But that definitely goes through phases. So, any song I know every word to, it’s because I’ve listened to it like ten thousand times.
Alexandra Weiss: I think people forget that just because you’re a successful musician yourself, doesn’t mean you’re not still a fan…
KP: That’s the coolest shit about Charli actually. She’s just very openly a fan and putting her new favs out there for her fans to discover. I think that’s a very cool thing about her, especially.
Thanks. Maybe it was just when I was younger, but I felt that there was this stigma of it not being cool to be a fan of people’s art separate from mine. Maybe that was just my own insecurity because I felt like I had to be cool and I didn’t really know who I was or what I thought was cool. I just think there’s something really joyous in supporting people that you love, and people’s art, especially when you have a connection to those people. All of my friends who make music, that’s the music I’m obsessed with and most happy to listen to and party to, because I have a connection with that person and I feel like I know what they’re going through when they’re making it. I’m just so happy for them that they’re making this crazy good stuff. Then as I got older, I realised that being cool — or what I thought being cool was, which was just being like nonchalant and quiet — is just so not who I am. I definitely have days where I feel shy and don’t really wanna talk or voice my opinion, but I also have days where I have certain songs or artists that make me feel so alive and so happy, and pull me out of some weird mood I’m in. I want to share that with people, so they can feel it too.
KP: What are the songs you’re listening to on repeat right now?
When I was younger it was loads of Uffie, like ‘Pop The Glock’ and ‘Hot Chick,’ and all that Ed Banger stuff.
KP: Fuck yeah! Uffie was the shit. What was that song: “Don’t worry if I write rhymes…”
“I write checks.”
AW: Do you think the nature of being a fan is different than it was when we were kids? Like Charli, when you were obsessed with the Spice Girls — there wasn’t social media. So, the access your fans have to you is so much more than what we had with the artists we liked when we were growing up.
Yeah, but I really enjoy it. I think there’s definitely less of the divide between artist and fan, and I love that. But I’m interested in pushing it so far in the other direction that it becomes so close. Kim, I think you do that, too, and a lot of the people we collaborate with do that. When we get together and do a show or go to a party, there isn’t that level of separation. If I see you out at a rave in LA, we’re all dancing together in the crowd, because all of us are hardcore PC Music fans. We’re all in it together. We know some of [our fans] and there’s less of this weird barrier. So, when I do the Pop 2 shows, it feels very connected, and if there’s an after party, all the fans come. It’s exciting and it feels like a community, rather than this weird thing where we’re being watched in a glass box or something. I feel very free to be myself around my fans, and I don’t feel the need to be protected or caged in or put on this act, or anything like that, and I feel like — correct me if I’m wrong Kim — that it’s kind of the same with you. We both have this very strong connection with the people who listen to our music and I feel like that goes further than just commenting on Instagram posts or responding to things they send us. It goes to actual real life, like partying and hanging out with them, and understanding what they like. That’s how I find out about so much new music — I find out through them, when they show me cool shit on their phones when I’m with them, or when they DM me stuff.
KP: Yeah, I feel like if we were kids now, and we had even more opportunity to stan — if we could make a Twitter account and a Finsta dedicated to Emma Bunton from the Spice Girls, we would’ve done that, and we would’ve DMed the shit out of her.
One hundred per cent.
KP: It just seems so fun to be a hardcore stan, because there’s so much more shit you can do to interact with your favourite artist. I think it’s really cool that I have friendships with my fans, and I look at their Instagrams and Twitters as much as they look at mine. But what about movies? Are there any you’ve watched a million times?
Definitely, yeah. When I was younger, I didn’t have cable TV. In the UK, you have like, five channels. So, I didn’t really watch a lot of movies growing up, but I had ten VHS movies I watched on repeat. One of them was Spice World, like I said; another was Glitter, the Mariah Carey movie, which I fucking love. My grandma has a load of pirated DVDs — I don’t really know why — but she’s Indian and she’d get loads of pirated Indian DVDs, and sometimes she’d get these random American ones that she’d never watch and would always give to me. One of them was this film, Sugar and Spice, which is about five cheerleaders robbing a bank. I watched that movie so much. I think I’ve just always been very obsessed with American high school, female-led films, just these extremely glossy, poptastic movies that all look like music videos, like Clueless, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Sugar and Spice, The Craft. Those have always been movies that really speak to me. When I was younger, I used to watch movies a lot and write songs about them — my first album was called True Romance and I told people it wasn’t at all related to the movie, but I guess it kind of was. The boyfriend I had at the time thought he was Clarence from that movie — which is also kind of fucked up — but he was really obsessed with that movie and really obsessed with Christian Slater, so it was kind of about him, and based on that. What about you? What are some of your favourite movies of all time?
KP: I love girl power movies. So, any Goldie Hawn movie is my shit. Definitely First Wives Club and Death Becomes Her were my two staples as a kid that I would just watch all the time. And then the Cher workout tape was my shit. But I know you hate musicals…
I fucking hate musicals. I’m more into movies about cars, like The Fast and the Furious — that franchise, for me, is so inspiring. I know it sounds insane but in 2 Fast 2 Furious with Devon Aoki, when she’s in the pink car, and she’s getting it all souped up — that shit is one of my favourite things ever. Tokyo Drift, the third one, is great too. I just like looking at cars. I talk about them in every one of my songs.
KP: When did this obsession start?
I don’t actually know a lot about cars. I’m not the person who’s like, ‘Oh the new blah blah blah came out.’ No. I don’t care. I don’t know the new models. I’m not a petrol head. I just think cars are cool. You can drive fast, you can listen to music really loud. I listen to all of my demos when I’m making a record in a car. I know it sounds so pretentious but it’s such an important place for me. People always ask me, ‘Do you have a special place you go when you write songs?’ I don’t, but for me me, being in a car and listening to my demos, especially driving at night, past the city lights, that really helps me think about the music that I’ve made. It puts me in a really calm space. Like, ‘How am I moving so fast? How am I listening to shit so loud?’ I feel like I’m in a movie when I’m in a car.
AW: All these female pop stars you’re talking about loving when you were younger — the Spice Girls, Britney, Christina — all had a complex relationship with their sexuality throughout their careers. I know Christina in particular has been really open about the fact that she regrets how many years she spent conforming to the body type people wanted for her and being sexy not for herself but for her fans, or her record label. So, I’m curious, do you feel pressure to be sexy as pop stars? Is that still a thing in 2019?
I mean, sex still sells. One hundred per cent. But I don’t really care about that. I do my version of sexy, whatever that is, and I won’t ever listen to anybody else tell me what they think my version of sexy should be. So, I just make up that kind of role for myself. I’m never going to be forced into clothes or forced to pose a certain way — I’m never going to let anyone have any say over how I should be. I make that decision. But I like feeling sexy, and a lot of my lyrics are about that. I want my fans, and people who listen to my music, to be able to embrace what makes them feel good. I don’t think there should be any need to conform to what somebody else is telling you is sexy — you can make up your own kind of sexiness. Sometimes, for me, that means being fully glamorous and in a bikini; other times, that means wearing no make-up and dressing head to toe in baggy clothes, not showing my body. The point is, I do what makes me feel good. And right now, I think there are a lot of people that challenge the traditional male gaze-imposed view of what sexy is, and I think that’s a really good thing.
KP: I also think it’s just about defining whatever sexy is for you, especially as an artist, and I think people really appreciate different points of view, and a personality. There’s no norm to stick to anymore — I think anything can be sexy.
Kim said a really key word, which is ‘personality.’ To me, the sexiest people are the people with personality, people with a sense of humour, people that are not afraid to be different, or look different — that’s the sexiest shit to me. I have no interest in being a blowup doll pop star, prancing around on stage in a cute outfit if I don’t have a personality to go along with it. You can dress up however you want, but if you don’t have something to say, I don’t give a fuck about you.
AW: We’ve spent so much time talking about your obsessions, and in the world we live in now, I think so much of that plays out on social media. So, I’m just curious how you think — aside from connecting with your fans — it’s encouraged you as an artist?
Some days I hate social media, honestly. I think if I wasn’t an artist, I probably wouldn’t have it. But the reason I like it, aside from connecting with my fans, is that I can find references so easily, and I can show people what’s going on inside my brain. Sorry to say this, but lots of people don’t read interviews anymore. They look at Instagram. It’s all about that one photo. So, for me, social media is that instant, ‘This is what I’m thinking, this is what I’m into, this is the artist I like, this is the colour I like, this is the outfit I want to wear,’ and either you fuck with it or you don’t. It’s just building out the world that’s in my head.
AW: Right. But do you find yourself curating which of your interests you can share online? Like, ‘Oh I can’t post that song or that outfit because it’s not cool or won’t look good on Instagram’?
Not really. That shit is really depressing. I can’t do that, because I get really anxious and depressed. So, for me, it’s really not like Instagram me versus IRL me — it’s all me. I really try to live authentically. We’re all going to die soon, anyway. So, I try not to stress too much about what clothes are going to look good on Instagram, or how people are going to react to my captions. I’d rather just go out and actually live.
KP: I feel like there’s a blur happening right now just between being an influencer and being an artist, and I think there’s a huge difference between the two. But I think because right now social media is such an important thing in so many people’s worlds, a lot of people are having a really hard time separating themselves from what’s popular on the internet. But as artists, I don’t think we should think like that ever. It’s about inspiring people to try different shit, or feel a different way than what everyone’s doing on Instagram, because Instagram is, in a lot of ways, the voice only of the mainstream. Everybody is on it, sure, but the people who are most popular are mainstream. I love the people who are just making it fun and making it different and don’t give into pressure like that.
Yeah, I don’t want to see the same shit again and again and again and again. With influencers, it’s such a boom now that it’s hard to get away from it. I even feel sometimes like, ‘Fuck! I should look like that,’ but then I realise, ‘Wait a minute, no I shouldn’t. I’m not an influencer, I’m an artist.’ And Kim’s an artist. We don’t need to do that. But if we’re thinking that, it must be pretty fucking hard for kids who are still discovering who they are and what they like. They’re being pulled in all these different directions and that shit is hard enough with a ton of people to have to compare yourself to all day. That’s why some of my favourite people are people like Tommy Cash, or Lizzo, or Kim — people who are representing something different and using their platform to play with that, rather than just promoting some product that makes you look like another version of everybody else.
AW: Is that what drives you to create the work that you do? To make something people haven’t seen or heard before?
I just want to do me. I don’t try to be different — I just try to do what’s true to who I am and if that ends up being unique, then that’s amazing. But that’s in terms of who I am, what I say and what I look like. When it comes to music, I only want to make shit that I can make. And I just want to make the music I want to hear in a club. It’s a very selfish process. I just want to make music that I can dance to.
interview Kim Petras, words Alexandra Weiss, photography Byron Spencer, fashion Sarah Starkey @ The Artist Group, hair Pete Lennon, make-up Nicole Thomson @ Union Management, fashion assistant Anna Hubble. Shot at Macvad Studio, Sydney.
Special thanks to Sarah Thomas @ Warner Music Australia.