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The Day Room: Charli XCX and Pop as Art

on November 19, 2013, 12:00pm

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The Day Room is a column by Philip Cosores that features stories from the music industry that shine a light and brighten the corners.

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So, as you get older, you date more, your heart is broken repeatedly, you end up having to make a choice. You can stop trusting people and become this guarded, suspicious, and lonely bummer of a person. Or, you can just keep trusting, keep your vulnerability, let yourself get hurt over and over until hopefully one day you don’t.

Somehow, after 31 years on Earth, I have become the former about music. Pop music specifically, but the thing is, pop music never hurt me. I guess the Milli Vanilli thing happened when I was just becoming old enough to realize what it meant, but I didn’t listen to Milli Vanilli. I’ve never really warmed to mainstream, top-40 pop, and yet I distrust the sincerity of it completely. If I really think about it, indie rock has hurt me much more, and yet with indie rock I’m three dates in and packing a suitcase because we’re running away to Vegas to get hitched, and then I end up owning three Clap Your Hands Say Yeah shirts and none of them are even cool looking.

But, here we are, at the end of 2013, and I’m listening more to pop music than ever in my life, but suspiciously and often with unfair expectations. So little of these suspicions and expectations has to do with the actual sonics of the music, but more with the impressions that it leaves. Namely, do I believe the singer when they sing the song, because how can I get anything from lyrics or music if I can’t trust the song as having the interests of me, the listener, in mind.

The first song of Charlotte Aitchison, better known as Charli XCX, that I took to was a free single she gave away a couple years back on Valentine’s Day. The sentiment of the song is simple enough, with a tie-in to the holiday for extra relevance, but the song opens with a beat out of a Grimes song and then proceeds to allow Charli to wax emotionally on love. The lyrics weren’t profound (though perfectly relatable), but the emotion of Charli sold the song for me, a fact I didn’t really realize until years later.

 

Her voice goes from a breathy whisper, all intimate and confessional, to desperate and cracking, the raw and unfiltered squeaks making the song very human. And now having met Charli, the intimacy that she presents in her interactions, her unfiltered opinions, and her passion for her craft are all present in the song. It’s pop, yes, but pop that presents someone singing honestly and personally while turning a craft that often becomes cheapened and commoditized into art.

Charli XCX met up with me in L.A. before her El Rey gig, which saw a line of teens wrapped around the block before doors opened, and she was candid about pop as an art form, her experience in the music industry, and about the next album she’s working on. Needless to say, there’s much to consider in her insights, and no definitive conclusions. But, I think discussions are more interesting than conclusions anyway.

Charli XCX by Philip Cosores

All Photos by Philip Cosores

Talk about how you got into making music in the first place. You were really young, right?

Yeah, I started when I was 14, putting my own demos online and on Myspace. I was just making them at home in my bedroom with this 8-track recording system, a Boss BR-1600 is what it was called, and they were all really rough demos. Then this guy called Chaz… he was running a lot of illegal raves and stuff in London, and he contacted me and asked me to come and play shows. I lived outside of London at the time, and I had no concept of what an Illegal rave was or what a good party was. So, I went and I don’t even know what I was expecting. He told me I was going on at 10, and I showed up at 9 to make sure I was on time, and I didn’t end up playing until, like, 3 am. And that was how I really got into music. I played in that scene for 2 years, really, and then labels started coming down and getting interested.

At the time, I was really inspired by the Ed Banger artists; that whole 2007 Paris electro thing sort of blew my mind.

Like Justice?

Yeah, Justice was the first thing I ever heard that made me think I want to do music. I feel like I sort of missed the Daft Punk thing, and I’ve never heard that kind of music on the radio, and none of my friends listened to Uffie or anything like that. So, I got really inspired by that. That’s what I was going for with my first demos, but they sounded nothing like it.

That’s still really ambitious, and I guess it was the Myspace platform that allowed a lot of people to do that. I just know personally, I wasn’t a kid who would think in terms of doing something that huge, putting myself out there to the world. Did that just come naturally?

Yeah, it just sort of happened. I was just in awe of the whole scene. And I think with Myspace it was so easy to get sucked into worlds. So, I was just on there fuckin’ around, and I found the Ed Banger page and saw all their artists and top friends and thought it was so cool, and I just wanted to do that. I didn’t really think anything of it. I wasn’t thinking about a future, and I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing. I was just doing it every day and changing shit every day. It was a mess. There was no structure or thought process; it was just happening. And then when I got signed, I decided I wanted to finish school and take some time away from music, to learn about the industry.

I don’t want to be presumptuous, but were you living with your parents then?

Yeah.

And they were just cool with your music endeavors?

Yeah, my parents were always cool. They used to sometimes come to the raves. But, yeah, they were supportive.

That’s cool. I could imagine from a parent’s perspective it might be kind of scary to have your child living an adult life.

My mom was scared. I remember when she came to one of the raves for the first time, we had to help a guy out of a k-hole together. So, that was kind of weird. I don’t think many people have done that with their mom.

But, I wanted to get good grades in school, too. I never thought being stupid was cool. I was sort of living a double life.

So, that gap between this initial demoing period and when you started really pursuing music, what did you do between then?

I got signed when I was 15, and after that time I was going around, well, first of all I was finishing school, and then I decided that I would start learning about the music industry and doing shit behind the scenes. I did my first writing trip to L.A., which was horrible. Met with every producer and wrote shit songs. And I did that until I found Ariel Rechtshaid, which was probably when I was 17.

He’s doing really great right now.

Yeah, the first time we met, we wrote the song “Stay Away”, which is on my record. We weren’t even meeting to write music. We were just meeting to meet.

His background in the music industry is bands. Is he just an amazing songwriter? Because he’s touching all these albums right now that are really good.

He’s just really about the artist. From my experience with him and the people I know, he wants the work to be a very personal experience. It’s not like going into a factory. It’s more about what the artist wants to do. And especially when I was 16 or 17, that was really important to me. I was still learning how to say no. And with Ariel I could say no really easily, which is why my record turned out the way that it did.

I’m skeptical of a lot of things in the music industry, but I see him and he’s a guy that has bands I know, he’s working with some of the more interesting and cool artists in the more mainstream world, he’s making good music with them, and the songs are generally good. All that makes my guard come down. Is he different than most other producers?

Yeah. He wants to take the time to get to know you before he sits and writes a song with you. I think it’s very important; it’s not just money. That’s the first thing I got from Ariel, even when I was really young and I couldn’t read people at all, but I got from him that it meant something to him to work with people, rather than just another day in the studio.

I can also imagine that when you’ve been in bands your whole life, and they’ve worked out but kinda haven’t, and you are still getting a chance to work and do what you love, it does probably mean a lot and make you more appreciative.

Charli XCX 2 by Philip Cosores

Was there a period where you were developing what you wanted to sound like, or did it just come out naturally?

I feel like it just happened. I didn’t really sit down and think about anything. I just grew up and that’s how the music developed. I grew up and realized that I was into The Cure. I realized that I thought Martika was cool. And it just came along slowly. I feel like the whole nature of my first record is very magazine culture, very teen-dream-bedroom-postered-wall thing. It’s very cut and paste, very DIY, though I hate using that word. It’s like luxury lo-fi. The sounds and the production is very rich and lavish, but it’s still very fuzzy and lo-fi. But the lyrical content is more luxurious. I see all the songs on that record as being the color purple. It’s both a bruised color and a rich and lavish color. I feel like it just came along. One of those songs I wrote on that record I wrote when I was 15. True Romance is very much a coming-of-age record for me. And I think it turned out really well.

The song “Valentine”, can you tell me about it?

It’s so old.

Well, just because you were talking about the “DIY”-ness of the sound, that one sounded like it could be one person in their bedroom creating a song.

It was.

The melody, though, despite the seasonal aspect of releasing it as a single on Valentine’s Day, was striking. I think it’s a great song and very different than what made your album.

I wrote that when I was 15. It’s weird. I feel like I’m getting worse with age. It’s so weird that you mentioned that song because no one ever brings that song up.

Yeah, I felt dumb for doing it. I don’t want to be the guy that mentions the song that you think sucks.

No, no, I like that song! I like that song. It’s about that first time… that first time I ever really fell in love. Oh, deep thoughts.

It kind of reminds me of what Grimes does in a way, but not the same or intentionally. Sort of ahead of its time from when you wrote it.

I feel that the best songs are written when there isn’t a brief or intention. It’s just what comes out of your mouth. That’s what “I Love It” was. That just came out of me shouting at the computer for a half-hour, and then it was done. There was no thought to write a girl-power anthem.

 

 The unfiltered aspect of that, people take to it. You say “fuck” plenty of times on the album. Pop artists will shy away from that kind of stuff often, since you can’t say it on the radio.

I don’t care about that shit, though. I don’t make an album to top the charts. Obviously. I don’t think about that. My label, obviously they are always thinking about that.

It’s their job.

It’s their job and it’s a major record label. But, they know not to bring that stuff up with me, because I don’t talk about shit like that. I don’t care. I don’t want to have that conversation. It’s a boring conversation. I hate… You know what I hate? When a record label will say, “We need more hits.” Like, fuck off. I wouldn’t make this album if I didn’t think that every song on it was a hit. And I hate when people even call a song “a hit,” like, what’s a fuckin’ hit? A hit is a fluke. You can’t determine what a hit is nowadays. There are so many different factors involved, like Spotify playlists and all this shit. It doesn’t matter. Like, with True Romance and the records I’m working on now, I’m very selfish and feel that every artist is, but I just want to make music that I like. And people also like that, and that’s cool.

Well, you hope that if people are listening to you, then they probably like the same things that you would.

[Laughs.] Yeah.

Part of the pop skepticism I keep talking about is this idea that labels tinker with the music, that you are not hearing someone’s legitimate voice, that it’s some corporation or something running the show. Then the indie labels exist on this idea that the artist has autonomy there.

That’s the biggest bunch of bullshit ever.

Both ideas are bullshit in some sense.

That’s such bullshit. Nothing pisses me off more than when people are like, “Oh, you signed to a major record label. That must mean you have no control. I’m signed to an indie label. I have all the control in the world.” It’s like, yeah, but your record label doesn’t have any fucking money. Fuck that shit. And I’m in control of everything that I do. If I wasn’t in control of it, I wouldn’t do it.

Also, I understand what you mean, about the whole skepticism thing, because I’m also in that world. I’m now considered a professional songwriter. Some people have called me a “game changer” in the songwriting world, which is cool, but I’d never put that title on myself. Some people have just said that because of that song I wrote. So, now, I know all of the secrets, like who is singing on the records and who isn’t, who has people mimicking their voice and who only goes into the studio for a half-hour.

Is it pointless to think about it?

I don’t care. I don’t care about it. That’s what pop music is, and that’s why it is great. I find it interesting that I know the secrets now. It’s weird. It’s a weird position to be in, because I’m a pop singer, and I wonder if people think that about me. But, that isn’t the case because I do everything myself. But, I don’t care, also. I don’t fucking care if people think I don’t write my songs. I do write my own songs but whatever… I don’t know. It’s a weird situation. Part of me loves the fantasy and drama and weirdness of the pop music world. But, sometimes, part of me gets annoyed by it when it gets sexist and shit. Like, “You’re a girl. You don’t write your songs.”

It’s true, though. A lot of criticism seems to come from a place of unspoken sexism. Like, the idea that pop stars can’t be writing songs themselves because they are women. It’s not said, but it seems to be behind what is said often.

And it’s shit.

I think you can extend that to race, too, like with Kanye West and the shit he gets. No one says it is because he is black, obviously, but it is hard to imagine if he was white, people not considering him a genius for what he has accomplished. I dunno, it’s upsetting. But, I was asking about this more as a music listener, if you care if an artist is writing their own songs or actually singing on the record?

It’s weird. I feel like I used to care. I used to really care. I used to think if you didn’t write your own songs… wait, that’s not really true, because I’ve always love Brittany Spears. Like, always. But, I used to have this weird thing that if you write your own songs, it makes it more authentic. Which, obviously it does, because you have the emotional connection. Like, I have an emotional connection to all my songs, that it takes me to a moment in my mind. But, I also think there is a real art in not giving a fuck. I can never take someone else’s song and just sing it. But, people don’t give those singers enough credit. They still have to film a video for that song, and they have to act, and they have to make people believe that the song is about something that is happening to them in their life. And, I think that is probably quite difficult to do.

Charli XCX 3

It’s performance art.

It is. I don’t care now. I make money now from that, so I want people to not sing their own songs, so they can sing mine.

You mentioned authenticity, which is probably some of your appeal. Should that be a concern when people are listening to music?

I don’t care. I don’t care. I think people sometimes take pop music too seriously. I think it’s awesome, and I think it’s emotional, and I think it’s cool. It’s not something I think I should be embarrassed about. I think it is an art. But I feel like part of the art is mystery. I don’t feel like everything needs to be super analyzed all the time. Fuck that, sometimes I think it’s cool to just have secrets.

Do you consider mystery regularly, like in keeping a distance from fans or something? Because that’s a big part of pop, keeping the artist removed. You can’t be too available if you are a pop star.

I’m not so good at that. I’m just very chill. I hate divas; that’s not my vibe. I don’t think that is cool. I think that’s really awkward and embarrassing. So, I’d rather be overly friendly than try to be cool and have it be awkward. There is nothing more uncool than someone that is just an asshole.

As a songwriter, and growing up as a songwriter, do you find that your concerns are changing? Do you find yourself wanting to say more with your songs?

Yeah, I feel like this second record, which I’m working on now, I think is more thought out with what I want to say. All the songs I’ve written so far I see as being the color red. The record is really about sex and femininity and being a sexy woman and that being okay and that not being a problem and that not being about selling sex. It’s about not being in control and still being in control. It’s about embracing your own body and passion and anger, it’s very punk, and it’s inspired a lot by ’60s Yé-Yé pop like France Gall, Bridget Bardot, Johnny Hallyday but also by Bow Wow Wow, The Flying Lizards, the Waitresses, and the Ramones.

 

Do you consider yourself an artist?

Yeah.

What kind of standard do you think that holds you to. Like, what is the difference, if there is one, between music that is art versus music that is just entertainment?

I feel like if your heart and soul is put into something you do, that makes it art. Like, when I write a song, I visualize the music video. Then I go and make the music video with my boyfriend. We make all my music videos together, all my art. I’m very much in control and doing everything. Everything that you see from me is from me, not some dude in a suit that my record label hired. That’s what I think art is. I also studied fine art, which I hated and gave up because I think it is shit that you always have to explain yourself, and now I do this and I have to explain myself all the time.

I hope this isn’t feeling like you having to explain yourself.

No, this is actually really, really nice. But, yeah, I feel like if your soul is in it, it is art. It’s all about believing in it. That’s so cheesy. That sounds like something Justin Bieber would say, who is also an artist, I’d say. And there is just shit that I think is art because I really like it, and there’s shit that I hate and I think is shit and will never think it is art. Like Pitbull. Or Flo Rida.

I went to a Pitbull show a couple months ago to take pictures and review.

Was it good?

It was good to take pictures of.

Actually, we were in Vegas a week ago, and we were going to some casino, and we all needed to get taxis. So, I realized it was better for us to get a limo, which is kind of embarrassing but kind of great. And there was Pitbull playing in the limo, and I actually had a great time for those five minutes. Is there a song that I think he samples the Toots and the Maytalls? Anyway, it was good for those five minutes. He looks like someone’s creepy uncle.

When you hear pop stars like that, do you think of them as peers?

I don’t think of them as peers. But, I think that me and my peers influence them a lot. And that’s the way it has always been.

Charli XCX 4 by Philip Cosores

Do you ever feel outside pressures that threaten your sense of self within your music, or try to take it away.

No. I’m very lucky in that my record label listens to me. They don’t fuck around. I remember when I first signed my record deal and I was having a meeting about some photo shoot and I was looking at pictures with, like, five guys in their thirties and they said that I shouldn’t wear my hair that way, that it looked bad or something stupid like that. And I remember thinking at that moment that I’m never having another meeting like this again. It’s the most ridiculous, stupid fucking thing ever. Like, for one, you don’t know anything about hair. You don’t even have any. It was so pointless. So, from that point on I was like what I say goes; don’t question anything else. And they’ve been very cool. They are completely supportive of my vision and do everything they can to help me. If I want to reach out to someone, they’ll do it.

You mentioned that you are already working on the next album, which is awesome, and something you don’t see often, people so invested in the hard work. And with the femininity themes running through it, is that something you have to fight with as a pop singer? Fighting objectification? It’s such a problem now.

It really is.

Well, not just now, throughout history, but just getting called out more now.

The pop industry is such a highly sexualized place, specifically in the lyrics. Then the second something highly sexualized happens visually, everyone suddenly turns into a nun. Like, “Oh my god! How is this happening!?” With boobs being shown. It’s just so hypocritical. I don’t think it’s right how the idea exists that if a girl has short hair, she’s a lesbian, or if a girl takes her clothes of, she’s a slut and is selling sex. I feel there are so many different facts in that that people ignore. Like fashion. And people that control their own fashion and aren’t being told to wear something. Yes, I’ve experience more the side of things where people think I don’t write my own songs because I’m a girl. You co-write, and that’s a problem because you are a girl. Tons of credible, Pitchfork-friendly bands co-write and don’t get shit, but because I’m a woman.

Or people assume that because you are a girl, the co-writer does more than on a boy’s record.

Yeah. I just wrote one of the biggest songs in the world. So, fuck you.

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Philip Cosores is Director of Aux.Out. and a  freelance writer and photographer working in Orange County and L.A. He contributes to The Orange County RegisterPaste MagazineVice/NoiseyMySpaceStereogumPigeons & Planes and many others. Follow him on Twitter.

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Charlie XCX is a professional singer and songwriter from England. She released an album called True Romance this year via IAMSOUND, and recently offered a new single called “Superlove.” She also wrote the #1 single “I Love It,” and is featured on the Icona Pop recording of the song. She is on Twitter

Previously on The Day Room: I Went to Moby’s House, and He Saved Me From a Rattlesnake

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