ON STAGE AT THE ROGERS CENTRE IN TORONTO, CHARLI XCX IS ABSOLUTELY CAPTIVATING the 50,000-plus crowd — but it isn’t hers. It’ll be another hour-and-a-half before headliner Taylor Swift takes the stage on this stop of her Reputation tour, but Charli’s opening set has the place lit up already. The crowd is loudly singing along to massive, world-beating pop hits like Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” — songs that Charli XCX, born Charlotte Aitchison, wrote — alongside the other five tracks she deploys in her half-hour set.
“I’m kind of cocky when I perform,” Aitchison admits over the phone a few days later. “I know that I’m really good, and I know I can get a crowd going. I also know that even if they don’t know who I am or what I look like, I might have written one of their favourite songs from 2014. People know those songs, so it’s easy to get people hyped to hear them.”
Aitchison doesn’t care that the crowd isn’t necessarily hers — she’s got her own things on the go. Between dates with Swift this year, she’s released a handful of fascinating, boundary-pushing singles — the tightly coiled, love-struck “Focus,” the bouncy “No Angel” and the dark, late-night party comedown anthem “5 in the Morning” among them — and made time for legendary headlining shows in London, Paris and a handful of American cities, performing songs from her Pop 2 mixtape, released last December.
Now that Aitchison has refined her ability to balance the expectations of a mass consumption pop market and a smaller, more intimate mode of expression that better matches her artistic aims, she’s hitting her creative stride and making the kind of experimental pop music she’s always wanted to.
It wasn’t easy to get here. After making a name for herself via a series of singles and mixtapes in 2011 and 2012, and releasing a debut LP in 2013, Charli XCX spent the next few years trying to figure out a formula that harnessed her talents without exploiting them.
Buzz and critical acclaim seemed to follow her every move, but commercial and mainstream success came in spurts. When “I Love It” — a co-write she gave to Swedish pop duo Icona Pop — was featured in a 2013 episode of Girls, it charted on the Billboard Hot 100 and rocketed to number one on the UK Singles Chart, but the name Charli XCX wasn’t on it. When Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” soared to number one in the U.S. in spring 2014, she felt intense pressure to capitalize on its success.
“‘Fancy’ was number one on Billboard for like seven weeks, and there’s definitely a level of expectation that comes with that: from your label, your management and yourself. I didn’t really know what to do, how to handle that or grow it. It was frustrating because that’s the story everybody tells: you build a profile, you do a couple of features, you have a number one, and then you’re a big artist. But there was this vagueness.”
Singles from her second LP, Sucker, released in December 2014, found some success, but Aitchison was becoming disillusioned. The next year brought tour cancellations and industry collaborations that didn’t suit her. Looking back now, it was clear she needed a change, and she found it in collaborators that engaged her artistic impulses first.
In late 2015, Aitchison met SOPHIE and a number of other producers from PC Music, an experimental musical collective that turned heads by taking the kind of bubbly, plastic-sounding pop that dominated Euro-pop charts in the late ’90s, then warping and fracturing it for mid-2010s taste-making poptimists. It was the perfect fit for a sonically adventurous artist like Charli XCX.
“Working with [SOPHIE] was really eye-opening; I felt like, finally, I was making the music I wanted to make for so long. Then, through SOPHIE, I met A.G. Cook, who’s a really frequent collaborator of mine now, and I dunno — I guess we just started making music that I was so excited about and making so much of it that I wanted to find a way of releasing a lot, quickly.”
After releasing an EP with SOPHIE in 2016, Aitchison returned to the format she used to establish herself in 2012; she released mixtape Number 1 Angel in March of 2017, and followed it up with Pop 2 in December. Collaborative affairs through and through, they almost exclusively feature production from A.G. Cook, SOPHIE and other members of the PC Music collective, and are heavy on guests: singers and rappers abound, ranging from Carly Rae Jepsen, MØ and Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek to Mykki Blanco, cupcakKe, Tommy Cash and Kim Petras.
In stark juxtaposition to the charging, Top 40-aimed sound of her sophomore album, Sucker, the songs on her mixtapes bend and stretch, clang, rumble and blare.
“I realized that I was so much less bothered about commercial success than I had ever been before,” Aitchison says now. “I only really want to release the music I want to release, and I don’t want to play the game of having to become more watered down or appealing, or appear more friendly or smile more, or any of that shit. I’m so bad at that and it makes me miserable. Now, it’s cool and I get it, and I’m fine with it.”
It doesn’t bother Aitchison that her more out-there songs might not register in Swift’s stadiums, where she plays her hits “and then I put in songs from my mixtapes that I love, which is a very different thing.” With Number 1 Angel, Pop 2 and her singles this year, Aitchison has connected with a niche but passionate fan base with whom the music truly resonates; her fans, called “Angels,” hold her up as an icon in her own right.
“Success for me is like, when I do those [headlining] Pop 2 shows: filling, not the biggest room in the world, but filling it with kids who are so excited to be there. It feels like a family, like a safe place for kids who maybe don’t fit in, or get called weird, or want to be freaks and be wild and crazy. Or people who don’t conform to gender norms, or are forward-thinking and artistic and creative. Filling a room with those people, who are having a crazy time — that’s what success is to me.”