Charli XCX

Exclaim! - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Stephen Carlick

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.”

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