Charli XCX Has Gone Mad With Power
The hard-driving 22-year-old pop phenom Charli XCX is one of the brightest stars in the music business. And she’s just getting started.
The first three times, I didn’t mention it, but at this point it’s worth bringing up. “You know you’ve slapped me four times during this interview,” I tell Charli XCX. “No, I haven’t,” she protests, rolling her eyes. I start to recite the incidents back at her, counting on my fingers and then giving up after two. Both of us arrived here needing a drink, and now we’ve had more than I can count. The specifics have gotten blurry.
It’s 1 a.m. in Oslo’s city center, and we’re at Kulturhuset, a rowdy bar filled with Norwegian hipsters, their beards dangling perilously close to their pints of pale ale. “Oh, whatever, they were more like facepalms anyway,” she says, as the next round arrives. Sam, her buddy from home whom she’s made her assistant, refreshes us every 20 minutes or so.
Charli’s a British singer (and a British drinker) who became globally famous in the most American way imaginable: writing and singing the school-bully hook of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” The video, in which Charli had a supporting role, was a scene-for-scene re-creation of the Valley girl classic Clueless: an orgy of cheerleaders, house parties, and red cups. Since then her videos have touched on other archetypes of American-youth cinema: She’s a trashy mess in the video for “Doing It,” a prom-ruining alpha bitch in “Break the Rules,” and the world’s gnarliest cheerleader in her latest video, for “Famous.”
She grew up wanting to be “the bad kind of cheerleader, the one who smokes behind the bleachers” and is now obsessed with the forgotten pop misfits of her youth: Avril Lavigne, t.A.T.u., Hilary Duff (for whom Charli wrote the Billboard top 10 hit “Boom Clap,” recording it herself only because Duff’s people said it “wasn’t cool enough”). In person, she’s seemingly devoid of ego. She’s tactile and relentlessly honest, and she never breaks eye contact. If she wants to say something off the record, she doesn’t go, “Hey, this is off the record.” She goes, “Literally, you have to swear on your life. Swear on your life. If you put this in, I will literally hate you forever and ever and I will ruin your life. Do you swear? Promise?”
Not that she holds a lot back. An exchange about our respective hotel-room habits shifts easily to porn. “It’s not like I arrive in a new hotel room and immediately open up RedTube,” she says. “But I will if I need to.” Nearly all her stories involve big nights out and bodily functions. There’s the feces she found on the floor of her Mexico hotel room and spent an hour photographing. The night she got so drunk with a member of cutesy boy band 5 Seconds of Summer, she had to cancel her flight. The long, hungover appearance on live British TV, during which she kept a bucket under the table to barf in and napped on a sofa between segments. Just a few nights ago, she was out late and then got straight on the bus to travel to the next stop of the Katy Perry tour, for which she’s the opener. “I woke up in the night and I was in the middle of a 17-hour ride,” she recalls. “I was just like, I can’t be bothered to go downstairs, so I picked up my designer handbag and thought, Let’s just go for this. I threw up in it three times.” Which is not to say she’s entirely reckless. She wisely declines to name the luxury brand, explaining, “They’d just gifted it to me.”
This is her life, a series of extravagances and wince-inducing repercussions. But ask about her, the woman named Charlotte Emma Aitchison, and the exuberance quickly fades. Charli repeatedly insists that she’s a “pessimist,” a “cynic,” that she’s “always bored.” And she means it. “I’m just not very good at being happy all the time,” she says. “I feel like an outsider because I’m not always trying to put my game face on. I don’t even have a game face.”
You could have fooled me. From all appearances, we are having fun—joking, laughing, getting utterly plastered. But as the night goes on, I begin to get the sense that there’s nothing Charli XCX, a 22-year-old with the world at her feet, fears more than genuine contentment.
I’d never met Charli before, but I used to see her around. When I was a teenager in London, a group of eager promoters managed briefly to circumvent the authorities and stage a series of wild bacchanals in warehouses on the outskirts of the city. These so-called “all-age” parties (there was never anyone a day older than 18 there) were wild, out-of-control raves full of drugs and underage sex. Think Lord of the Flies but with girls and ketamine and nobody named Piggy.
In between DJ sets, live performers would come on, including a memorable 15-year-old girl who was usually wearing three clashing vintage outfits and hippie face paint, with wild black hair. Her songs were about club kids who thought they were all that (in other words, her audience). Sample lyric: “We’ve got our neons on and our glow sticks out, trying to fight it out to see who’s more individual.” That was Charli.
“My parents would actually drop me off at those raves,” she says. “I remember one time my mum came to pick me up at, like, 5 a.m., and some guy threw up all over her shoes. But I loved it. I was like, ‘Mum, when I grow up I want to live in a warehouse.’ ”
That era created the city’s youngest celebrities. There were 14-year-olds on the covers of London fashion magazines, mostly just because they were such hard-core partyers. Charli was a part of the first generation of teenagers to start developing their personal brands while still in homeroom. When she was 18, she attended one of the world’s most exclusive art schools, the Slade, but she hated having to explain her weird ideas and love of Britney Spears. She was a doer, not an analyzer. So she focused on writing music, for herself and for others. Charli spent half an hour in her hotel room writing “I Love It,” but as soon as it was finished, she knew she didn’t want it. She gave it to Icona Pop, and when the song blew up, Charli, then 20, heard her vocal was still on the record. What followed was a series of internal industry wranglings that led to the soon-to-be global hit being rereleased as “Icona Pop featuring Charli XCX.” More hits followed.
Now she is here—at this bar, at seemingly every bar—promoting her album Sucker and apparently enjoying the spoils. But she insists otherwise. “I’m not going to lie and say everything’s amazing, because sometimes it’s really fucking tough,” she says. “I’m not good at being a picture-perfect pop star, happy all the time. If I’m having a bad day, I can’t pretend. I’m always a bit unhappy, but that’s just me. I like dwelling in my sadness.”
Minutes later, though, she’s telling me about buying a house in the English countryside that she’s decked out like a “Miami ’70s porn pad,” with shag-carpet walls and low, backless sofas, “so it’s like having beds everywhere.” Even her room on the tour bus has a ceiling mirror. I just don’t know what to do with the contradiction—this star who seizes opportunities, who seems to indulge in success, but keeps wanting to tell me that none of it makes her happy. I ask her to square the two. “Just because I might be bored doesn’t mean I have to look boring,” she responds. “I’d rather look fabulous, like I’m having a great time. There’s nothing that says boss more than a belly chain and snakeskin trousers. My dad always used to encourage me to dress weird.”
Charli pulls out her phone and shows me some pictures of her father, dressed in nine different patterns of tartan. I see the connection. Drinks keep coming; the interview has disintegrated. At one point she asks me what I think of the rock band Royal Blood, and lets me babble on about how they’re the death of music. A few minutes later she introduces me to her friend Mike Kerr, Royal Blood’s singer-bassist, then revels in the awkwardness. I take this as my cue to leave. “What’s your number?” Charli says before I go. “Let’s see how hungover we are tomorrow. If it’s bad, you can come to my room and I’ll show you how to order room service properly.”
Room service, as she’s told me a few times already, is her greatest joy on the road.
The next evening, Charli is lighting up an arena of 20,000 Katy Perry fans. Onstage, there’s a giant red lollipop protruding into the rafters. Charli’s doing oi-punk fist pumps. At one point she just collapses on the floor and keeps singing. She is a ball of raw energy, and a jolt to the tween girls here with KP painted on their foreheads. By the end, they squeal for a Charli encore.
I go backstage. Charli is slumped on an IKEA couch, but she’s joking around, nothing but sunshine. She fared better than I did this morning; she just “boshed two paracetamol,” she says, and was up at 7 a.m. to see a solar eclipse (but got stuck in the hotel elevator and missed it). Now that I’ve known her for a full 24 hours, I feel it’s time to press her a bit. “Charli,” I say, “maybe it’s time to admit that you’re actually enjoying this and relax a little.” “But that’s just who I am,” she protests. “I have a business mind, I have a real drive—I want to have an empire. I want to have more of a legacy, and I think just because I wear what I wear, and am a pop star, doesn’t mean I can’t have that.”
I yank a memory out of last night’s haze: She had described herself as a control freak. “Power gets me off,” she said. “I always want more than I have.” And now Charli begins to make more sense. She doesn’t dislike being a pop star; she’s just afraid of what it represents. Being a pop star is like being the world’s biggest marshmallow: You’re soft and delicious and absolutely meaningless. A pop star is an unserious thing. That’s why she’s so keen to play up her downbeat side. It’s her way of making clear that this role—no matter how well she inhabits it, or how much joy it secretly brings—does not define her. Charli is starting a publishing company and has begun managing other singers. She is also still a pop star opening up for Katy Perry.
But before I can propose my psychoanalysis, she starts telling me about the Grammys. She wants me to know how boring it was, how she couldn’t get out of her seat because her scarf kept shedding, how she and Iggy didn’t win. “It was so dry,” she drawls.
Then she reconsiders: “Although I did get to drive around all day in a white Rolls-Royce with my friend’s puppy, dressed in Moschino. Oh, and we did go to Sam Smith’s after-party, and I spent 15 minutes with my tongue on his ice sculpture because I’d always wanted to get my tongue stuck on an ice sculpture. Then we rented a room at the Chateau Marmont…”
The story keeps going. I think what Charli is trying to say is: This is fun, for now.
Photos by Tetsu Kubota