Synth-Pop Singer-Songwriter Charli XCX Talks True Romance, Tasting Sweat, & Lena Dunham

Charli XCX is no newbie to the music scene, though her age might indicate otherwise to those not in the know. The 20-year-old Brit, born Charlotte Aitchison but recognized by her hotly debated stage name, has been making people move since she was an adolescent.

At 14, XCX was already on the radar, albeit far from mainstream, discovered on MySpace and invited to play raves at the weekend. An only child, her parents would drive her to and from performances—sometimes staying, watching on like ever-adoring chaperones—then take her to school come Monday. What might have remained a fond memory or a passing phase, however, evolved into a career, with a capital “c,” her warehouse party past giving rise to a girl who knew her pop hooks and dance beats.

The past half-decade has seen her morph from girl to woman, as well as release several solid songs, among them one of her best, “Nuclear Seasons.” At 16 she signed a record deal, catapulting the former club kid from promising act to legitimate artist with a single signature. For the past four years she’s worked towards today, which sees her major label release of True Romance. Her lyrical prowess and knack for catchiness continue to impress with this sweeping and anthemic debut, a 13-track album featuring favorites like “Lock You Up,” “What I Like” and “Cloud Aura.”

XCX, who also co-wrote Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” (which, if you’ll recall, was a huge hit following a particularly entertaining episode of HBO’s Girls) is currently touring Europe and the U.K. with Ellie Goulding, and will touch down in the States come May. New Yorkers can catch her supporting Marina and the Diamonds at Rumsey Playfield on May 29 and alongside Little Daylight on May 31 at Glasslands Gallery.

In the meantime, hear from the hard-hitting goth-pop princess herself. She’s got plenty to say, from her outlook on love (which she’s in, with Ryan Andrews) to her fantasies surrounding calling all the concert shots (think outlandish creative direction as it pertains to set design, à la Girls dreamboat douchebag Booth Jonathan).

You titled the album True Romance. Is this record the embodiment of “true romance,” to you? It’s such a bold statement to make. To say, like, Here it is. This is the definition.
This record is, for me, what true romance is. I’ve been writing the record for the past two to three years, but one song I wrote when I was 16. So, I feel like I’ve been writing this album as I’ve been growing up. Your views on love and life change over time. You experience different relationships, that kind of thing, and I think the record is kind of about that. It’s about love from different angles. Different periods of your life. There’s a bratty breakup song, when you went out with a bad boy. Then there’s a song about falling in epic, amazing, real, true love. And I feel like that’s what happened to me during the process of writing this album. I feel like I’ve fallen in love, massively. I feel like the record looks at how you can be on this love trip, in this dream state, but at the same time you can feel lonely and isolated. I think it’s interesting how schizophrenic love is. And that’s what the record is to me. It’s schizophrenic. It sounds that way. It sounds like love.

Did the title come at the end?
The title came last, actually. It was kind of, like, a reflection. I never wanted to make a concept album and come up with the title track and write songs around the title. I wanted to write the songs as naturally as possible and as naturally as they came to me. It just so happened they were about love. Once I started writing them, I supposed that was an appropriate title.

Makes sense. Can you tell me a bit about being so young coming up in the music scene?  
It was kind of crazy. At the beginning, I was very, very excited about everything. I was 15, signing a record deal. I was so elated by it. So, whenever there were highs and lows—which there definitely were, and still are—I took them really personally. It was a quite traumatic experience making this album, especially when I was younger. It can be emotional making an album, putting all your thoughts and feelings on a CD. I found the industry very difficult. There were so many expectations I thought I had to live up to. I was unsure who I was. I wrote the song “Stay Away” then. I began to find myself and what kind of music I wanted to make. I feel like I’ve changed a lot. I realized I don’t have any criteria I need to meet. I’m just doing my thing. I’m not feeling like I have to please anyone.

Even with the tumult, it had to have been a blast.
It was really fun. When I was younger, I’d go to raves, and that was crazy. Then, I’d go to school on Monday, and that was weird. But, it was cool. I kind of feel like I got sucked into that. I’m glad I left that scene and started making real music on my own.

Oh, yes. You’re talented, your debut’s a gem and, on top of that, you’ve traveled the world touring in support of Coldplay, Santigold, Ellie Goulding. Was it difficult to adjust to the limelight? MySpace and late-night raves are one thing, but stadiums are another thing all together. That’s rock star status.
For me, I can’t think about going on stage as the “limelight.” I think about it as playing my songs for people and losing my mind. When I’m on stage, I feel completely free. I feel completely inspired. I’m not thinking about anything else. I’m getting lost in the moment. It’s like one big trip.

Speaking of trip, do you have a favorite place to play?
I love America. I love L.A. and I love New York. And I haven’t been there yet, but I know I’m going to love Tokyo so much when I go. It sounds so magical.

It does. So, which one: New York or L.A.?
I don’t know. People compare them, but they’re so different. It’s so difficult to compare the two. I feel like L.A., maybe, for me, just because it’s so different from London. Whereas New York is so similar.

Aww, shucks. So, do you have any down time when you tour?
Never. It’s constant. But, that’s fine. It feels good to play shows and have people come listen to my music. That’s really nice. I mean, it’s weird doing promo every day. You have to talk about yourself all the time, and I don’t really like doing that. It’s just strange. I’m starting to get used to it. It’s all right.

You’re adjusting. How’s tour going so far with Ellie?
It’s fun. The crowds are big. She’s cool. I think I managed to convert her into a platform shoe-lover. She tried on my Buffalo platforms and was like, Oh my god, these are amazing!

How would you compare the experience of performing at big venues versus small?
Playing big venues is always less personal. Like, when I was doing the Coldplay tour, there were, like, seven screens. Only the front, like, five rows can see you up close. But, in a club it’s wild. You can taste everyone’s sweat, which I really like. I feel so much more alive. You can really get in touch with the crowd and make it, like, an apocalyptic, end of the world party. So, I really like that. Obviously, it’s a dream to play in front of as many people as possible, so big stages are good. But, when I have my own massive shows, I want the walls and ceilings and floors to be made of screens. So you’re in a screen box. And it’s, like, my favorite videos and mash-ups of my favorite movies playing. It’d be a mindfuck.

Do you watch Girls?
Yeah! Like that artist [Booth Jonathan]’s thing. Exactly like that, except on a massive scale.

That’s also, as you know, the episode featuring the song you wrote, performed by Icona Pop.
That was really cool. I’m a big Lena Dunham fan. I feel like she’s this sexy, hilarious, fierce super-girl. So, it was really cool seeing her singing that song. It was quite funny.

Is Hannah your favorite character on the show?
I don’t know. I also really like Adam. And I really like Shoshanna. And I love to hate Jessa, because I know so many people like that and they’re so frustrating.

Do you have a lot of super-fans?
I do, actually. They’re all sweet, but they’re crazy. It’s cute, though. They’re all young. They message me all the time. Like, everyday. It freaks me out that my music can mean that much to someone. I didn’t have that. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have had the power to tell them, because I didn’t have Twitter. Now, everyday, you can build up this false relationship in your mind. It’s scary. It’s mad.

I’d agree with that. After all this, the journey so far, what do your parents think?
They’re proud. Whenever I’m in London they’ll come to my show. They’re really supportive. They took me to the raves when I was younger, came with me and were really cool. I’m really thankful for that, actually.

That’s awesome. I imagine a lot of parents wouldn’t be as nurturing when it comes to their young daughter rocking the sometimes seedy rave scene. You also dress pretty provocatively. From where does your aesthetic sensibility derive?
I’m really inspired by movies. The Craft. Clueless. Empire Records. I just love that nineties aesthetic. I like basics, grungy stuff. I’m a big fan of the Spice Girls. Some of their music videos are my favorites. Like, “Say You’ll Be There.” I feel like I came through the third wave of the club kids in London. I was watching Party Monster, finding out who Michael Alig was. Part of me will always be interested in that world. DIY, but high fashion at the same time.

So, do you have a dream collaboration?
I’d love to work with Bjork. She’s incredible. I admire everything she does. Her voice is like butter. So angry but so sweet and beautiful at the same time. I think she’s wonderful.  

Whose music are you really into right now?
Jai Paul. I’ve always been a big fan of his. Kitty Pryde. I think she’s really cute. I love her lyrics. I always listen to the same stuff on repeat. Like, Uffie, Kate Bush, The Cure. Robert Smith is, like, my hero.

Last but not least, what would you be doing if not this?
I’d be crying probably. 

Lessons Learned From CMJ Music Marathon

Ah, the CMJ Music Marathon. Ahead of the circus of buzzbands, open bars, and impractical swag that took over NYC last week, I made a list of goals for myself that included things like “no puking,” “no crying,” and “no professions of love or hate.” (I like planning on having dramatic public meltdowns so that I Murphy’s Law my way out of them actually happening.) I’m proud to announce that I did not do any of these things, despite the stress induced by three different good bands playing at the same time in far-flung locations and having only consumed caffeinated beverages all day (#musicbloggerproblems). In between hating Pianos and mourning the closure of Brooklyn DIY venue Delinquency, I saw everything from Philadelphia rockers Free Energy to British YouTube comedians the Midnight Beast.

Five days spent away from being hunched over my laptop and interacting with the music industry in real life meant putting a microscope on what it is, exactly, that I do. I finally met a band that I’ve written about after seeing them for the fifth time in three months, and one of them said that he was aware of me “as an internet presence.” Several days later, I still have absolutely no idea of what this means, but if I’m memorable on the internet, that theoretically means I have some distinct viability as a blogger, right? For both of our sakes, let’s hope so.

In meeting so many new people, there’s also the pressure to qualify what you like and why you like it. I’ve taken to boiling my taste down to “French dance music and internet rappers,” though obviously I listen to music that goes beyond that. I’m trying to pin down why I’m so excited about Team Spirit when I thought my garage rock phase ended years ago; they have a higher production value and stronger pop sensibilities than some of their peers, and nothing can replace genuine good energy. That being said, it was also a pleasure to catch Gallic electro-poppers like Yan Wagner, Owlle, and Housse de Racket.

Other highlights included Citizens!, Avan Lava, We Were Evergreen, Conveyor, and the amount of grievously unhealthy food that I justified consuming. Gold Fields must be a very special band, because I stayed conscious for their 2:30 a.m. set on the last night of the festival. As much fun as CMJ is, it’s also pretty exhausting, so I’m going to keep working on recovering.

Anyways, here’s to the pursuit of vibes. Maybe you’ll catch me vomiting on Ludlow Street next year.

Miscellaneous other notes:

– Why did so many people ask me if I saw Skaters? (I wasn’t able to, though they were one of my picks for the week.)
– I also did not see Foxygen, one of the more hotly tipped acts of the festival. Based on their name, I’m going to keep assuming that they’re sort of glam rock and wear a lot of neon.
– Seeing Le1f at The Westway while it was packed with drunk bros was the second most uncomfortable I have ever been at a rap show.
– If someone figures out how I can join Icona Pop if I’m not Swedish and can’t sing, please let me know.
– Spotted so many dudes with great eyebrows. Keep up the good work, boys!

 

Follow Katie Chow on Twitter and Tumblr.

Gotye’s Confusing, Challenging, Scary World

We all know the story by now: Australian singer-songwriter Gotye, aka Wally de Backer, works for years at home. His international presence is pretty quiet. Suddenly, his song “Somebody That I Used To Know” explodes, giving oddball pop a place on the charts again. Now, he’s performing at Radio City Music Hall, riding comfortably on the back of his 2011 LP Making Mirrors. He’s the guy with the unlikely hit on club-obsessed radio playlists, and he’s holding his own.

I caught up with de Backer on the phone to talk touring, writing, and itching to get back in the studio.

Where are you right now?
I’m in Las Vegas right now, at the House of Blues.

Is this your first time in Vegas?
Second time, first time playing a show there.

It’s kind of overwhelming, isn’t it?
Yeah, when I was first here a few years ago, I didn’t really enjoy it much. But we’re playing a show, and it looks good, we’re playing upstairs. Got a bunch of friends in the band and crew, so maybe we’ll head out and see something later. I wish I could see a Cirque du Soleil show while I was here, but no such luck.

At least you can fit in some gambling at the airport.
It’s amazing what kind of poker machines they have there.

You recently took Chairlift on tour. How was that?
It was great, I love that band. They were really fantastic to play with.

How did that come about? Did you invite them?
Yeah, all the guys in the band were really big fans of their second record. We played in Hamburg in Germany on our last tour and they were really lovely and played a great show. So I just asked, and they said yes.

What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you on this tour?
I’m not really sure, not very much. Nothing really comes to mind. Been pretty even-keeled. I met Akon last night, that was interesting.

Oh, at the VMAs?
Yeah, I was at the VMAs. It’s pretty likely that you’ll bump into somebody at one of the parties. He was very enthusiastic about my music, which was cool and unexpected.

You know by now that you’re ubiquitous. Being from Australia, was being successful in America a goal for you when you were starting out?
I don’t know if it was a goal. I guess my goal with this record, as far as America was concerned, was just to get the record released. I tried to find an American label for my last album, Like Drawing Blood, and didn’t succeed after trying. I didn’t have a manager or an agent or any connection to give me a platform, so I ended up putting it out myself on iTunes and a few other services. My hope was for it to be coming out and be available on vinyl and CD and just broadly release something. The fact that it’s gone so well has been great.

Growing up and making music over the last ten to twelve years, I’ve never really dreamed about the scale of doing big tours or being onstage in front of thousands of people, as exciting as that can be. I don’t know; I like disappearing into the world of music itself and staying home and experiencing the connections that happen between people when you’re making music, recording records, or playing with my band. I like the audience as well, but I guess I just haven’t dreamed about it, like it’s some kind of goal or that it will satisfy me to get to that point to be able to do that. It’s been incredibly fun, and I’m enjoying it more and more, especially touring America over the past year. It’s almost like I’ve discovered it rather than it having been a thing I’d dreamed of for ages and now it’s coming true.

Would you say that in Australia, the music scene is more insular?
Well, because Australia is so far away from so many places, it’s very expensive for a band to get out. Not even out of Australia, just out of their city.

What’s coming up for you next?
Lots of shows, really. That’s what we’ve done for four months so far, here in the States. I’m going to Europe and playing some places I haven’t been to before, going to Poland and Portugal for the first time. Then we finish with shows back in Australia, which is going to fun. I’ve got some friends who’ve played in the live line-up for the band who are going to be back in the band, I’ve got horns and more backing vocals. I’m just taking it a day at a time on the tour, trying to enjoy different aspects. We spent a few days in LA and I’m really getting to like LA because there are so many interesting people and I’ve met a lot of people I’d like to work with in the future. I’m excited to travel next year and start writing new stuff and see some different places around the world.

Do you write on the road?
I’ve tried in the past, but it’s never been very successful.

Are you one of those people who needs to have a cabin in the woods, a total seclusion kind of thing?
I think it does help. I think it’s also because when you’re on tour and you’re meeting so many people and playing shows, there’s so much input. Especially when you’re enjoying it, it’s great. It’s not even necessarily that it’s overwhelming, just that you need a certain amount of withdrawal or a little bit of boredom, just that space to push myself to create and process a bunch of stuff. There’s just not much space or physical time to do that on the road.

Do you still try to take note of smaller ideas to expand on when you get to settle down?
Here and there. I try to recollect things we might jam with in sound check. I’ll make notes on potential song titles or sketches of lyrics, but it’s pretty infrequent. They’re only little placeholders at best.

What would you say that your writing process is like?
It is, for me, confusing, challenging, scary, and self-defeating. But good, usually, in the end. Going through that process and ending up with anything I find half-decent has always been kind of cathartic.

You can’t be too self-defeating, or you wouldn’t be here.
Yeah. I get asked a lot about being a perfectionist and stuff like that. It doesn’t matter if it hasn’t been tinkered or labored with too studiously. Usually I go in with one idea about what a song is about or what I want the production of a certain recording to evoke sonically for me. If I have that in my mind, [I make it happen], whether it happens quickly or whether it takes months of tinkering with samples and remixing or redoing vocals so that I can realize that feeling that I want from it. That’s kind of my process.

Which also makes it so compelling that you have become popular in America, because we’ve become used to everything being optimized for low-quality mp3s, and then you show up with something much more rich and subtle.
Thank you. Other aspects of my record, they’re still quite lo-fi, that’s because of the sources, the sampling, and I’m really not a great engineer. Francois Tetaz, who mixes my records, sometimes has to do it. I think sometimes the challenge with my stuff is trying to hold true to the vibe of what I record in my own way, which can be quite idiosyncratic and very lo-fi in certain ways. The challenge can be to make that translate when it’s put alongside something like what you described, very highly synthesized, heavily compressed pop music that has a lot of transience and tries to jump out of your speakers and smash you in the face. A lot of contemporary music is produced that way. It’s not like you want to be competitive with that stuff, but sometimes the challenge is making something sound like it’s not completely from a different world and still staying true to the aura of what I produced originally.

There’s also so much diversity to Making Mirrors. Do you try to mix things up live and present different versions of songs?
There are a few arrangements we’ve done on this tour that are new, songs we haven’t played before and really tried to come up with arrangements that suited the live environment. We take the album version as a starting point. I should do more of it with other songs in the future with the live show.

Is there anything specific that you hope people take away from your show?
I guess I hope that they feel like it was an immersive experience, between the visuals and sound, and one that has some twists and turns and surprises and is a moving thing, one that makes you feel like you’ve gone to a lot of different places, maybe somewhere you didn’t expect to go to. Maybe it’s a lot to ask, but I guess that’s what I hope.

Who are some new artists you’re excited about right now?
I really love tUnE-yArDs. I recently downloaded the Divine Fits record, and I really like a few tracks off of that. It’s great, I’m a big fan of Spoon and it’s interesting to hear a different take. Nick Launay, who produced the record, tipped me off to that album, so that’s a good one.

Would you say that you try to keep up with new artists, or stick with older stuff?
I’m always looking out for new stuff. I discover older music [as well]; my drummer Michael’s always good because he’s got a very encyclopedic music collection. You go record shopping with him and he’ll be like, "Yeah dude, have you heard of this record? You’ve got to check it out. 1974, these guys were doing this stuff, that guy was playing in this band and produced this thing and it all connects." He’s very good at contextualizing and giving tips for records I might otherwise pass by. My friends give me a bunch of new music and I’m always looking for new things that I find interesting. There’s a really incredible amount of new music that’s being recorded and released that’s very inspiring.

You mentioned you’re going to Poland and Portugal soon. Where’s the most unusual place you’ve ever played?
We played at this pool party for the KROQ radio station at Coachella Festival earlier this year. It was about 110 degrees and some of the computers from the house desk had a meltdown during the set, and there were girls in bikinis at this pool party and I’m trying to sing these peculiar songs about my home organs, and that felt quite incongruous.

Is there anywhere you haven’t played yet that you would like to go to?
We haven’t been able to go to Scandinavia yet. I have friends in Norway, and I would love to go and play in Oslo. I hope we get to Scandinavia, and I would love to play more broadly in Asia and see more of those countries. Maybe next year, we might go to Singapore and visit China, so that’s really exciting.

It’s interesting that you mention Scandinavia, because some of what you do also has that clean, well-measured quality to it that a lot of music from there has.
Is there any Scandinavian stuff you’re really into?

I just saw this group called Icona Pop, but that’s more straight dance-pop, following in the whole Robyn or Annie kind of thing. Would you say that a lot of Scandinavian artists inspire you?
I’ve liked a bunch of stuff that Robyn and Annie have put out. Others from Scandinavia, I’m trying to think. I really like the Jónsi record, but that’s not technically Scandinavian. Kings of Convenience, from Norway, are one of my favorite bands. Really beautiful band, one of the best live shows I’ve ever been to.

Where do you think you can go from here?
I don’t know, Siberia? Maybe I’ll just go home for a while, that’ll be welcome.

Anything else you’re into right now that you want to shout out, bands or anything else you think is cool?
Jumping into my mind…you mentioned Chairlift before, the other guy supporting us on this tour is a young guy called Jonti, who put out a couple records on Stones Throw, and he is really fantastic, I think. Beautiful producer and sonic experimentalist. I think people might really enjoy listening to his records and what he does with sound and the melting pot of things he brings together. He’s doing some really clever things with his live show, and his records are sterling, so check them out.

BlackBook Tracks #12: Acts To See at Fashion’s Night Out NYC

It’s Fashion’s Night Out, which for some people, might be the best day of the year (just call it Treat Yo Self 2012). Special deals, limited edition gear, and complimentary drinks and snacks abound. If you’re in NYC, here are some options for music to see around town.

Theophilus London – “Last Name London”

Check out the ever-stylish rapper/Cole Haan collaborator at the Gramercy Park Hotel.

 

Azealia Banks – “1991”

If you weren’t lucky enough to catch her at Spin’s Fashion Week party last night, Yung Rapunxel will be appearing at the MAC store in Soho, presumably to support their new lipstick collaboration.

 

Icona Pop – “Sun Goes Down”

Rising Swedish duo Icona Pop will be bringing their non-stop energy to no less than four appearances tonight. They’ll be DJing at Helmut Lang in Soho, AllSaints in the Meatpacking District, and Mister H at the Mondrian Soho, as well as fitting in a live performance for Urban Outfitters.

 

Poolside – “Only Everything”

Dreams take flight in the new video for Poolside’s single “Only Everything,” their latest slice of chilled-out disco. Catch up on BlackBook’s Q&A with the LA-based duo and check them out tonight at 8 at Moods of Norway in Soho.

 

St. Vincent – “Champagne Year”

Sweet-voiced songwriter St. Vincent always has great style, so it’s no surprise that Rag & Bone are bringing her to their party. Here’s her song “Champagne Year” for a champagne night.

 

Frankie Rose – “Know Me”

The veteran member of Vivian Girls/Dum Dum Girls will take her darker solo project to Theory in the Meatpacking District.

 

Chairlift – “I Belong In Your Arms” (Japanese Version)

Synth-pop darlings Chairlift will be performing at Prada’s party in Soho. This is also sure to be a popular one.

 

Haim – “Forever”

LA rockers Haim have been working their way up for years, and they’re now undeniably buzzworthy. They’ll be playing at Topshop tonight.

 

Wild Belle – “Keep You”

Sibling duo Wild Belle will be bringing their dark pop sound to Mulberry in Soho. If you don’t get to see them tonight, you can always try to see their session at Le Baron next week.

 

POP ETC – “Live It Up”

The reinvented Morning Benders will be lending their weirdo R&B vibes to Morgane Le Fay’s event in Soho.

BlackBook Tracks #2: Songs From @Sweden

After Jens Lekman and Niki & the Dove came to New York this past weekend, we were inspired to round up some songs from our favorite Swedish artists. Settle down with a plate of internet uterus and some informational reading about Judaism and check out this week’s picks.

Jens Lekman – “Waiting For Kirsten”
No one tells a story like Jens Lekman, who’s equally adept at bringing laughter and tears. This song leans more toward the former, telling the now-notorious story of how the singer-songwriter once tried to meet Kirsten Dunst. Anticipation levels for his forthcoming heartbreak-centric album, I Know What Love Isn’t, are already running high.

 

Peter, Bjorn and John – “(Don’t Let Them) Cool Off”
It’s already too hot to come up with a remotely funny joke about the weather. All whistling aside, Peter, Bjorn and John’s 2011 album Gimme Some was highly underrated.

 

Noonie Bao – “Do You Still Care”
If you can look past the “white person experiencing exotic India” video, “Do You Still Care?” sees up-and-comer Noonie Bao delivering an extraordinary performance. Depending on what kind of emotional upheaval you’ve recently gone through, this song represents the stage either before or after “Somebody I Used To Know.”

 

We Are Serenades – “Birds”
Featuring members of Shout Out Louds and Laasko, We Are Serenades find strength in harmonies. Also, strings!

 

Miike Snow – “God Help This Divorce”
Cool down with this crisp track from Miike Snow’s latest, Happy To You.

 

Niki & The Dove – “DJ, Ease My Mind”
The electro-pop group sold out their Northside Festival show last Thursday, and the buzz is only going to continue to skyrocket by the time they return to the US this fall to tour with Twin Shadow. Dance with tears in your eyes!

 

 

Karin Park – “Restless”
Dark like the Knife, but easier to sing along with.

 

Icona Pop – “Nights Like This”
Icona Pop were already featured on last week’s playlist, but we can’t help it if the dance-pop duo makes infectious tunes. They’re also playing their first New York headlining show this Friday at Brooklyn’s Glasslands Gallery. If you didn’t get tickets in time, you can always see a different Swedish band that night.

 

The Hives – “Wait A Minute”
The Hives can always be relied on for a good time, and they’ll be tearing down Terminal 5 on Friday. After going five years since their previous album, they’re back with a vengeance on Lex Hives.

 

Robyn – “Dancing On My Own”
You didn’t think we were going to forget this, did you?