The 27-year-old singer had been hinting at a new album for years. She tells EW how it finally came to be.
In just two hours Charli XCX will be prancing around the Pitchfork Festival stage clad in a Vivienne Westwood two-piece touting statements like “Blow me up.” But the Charli XCX in front of me hasn’t put on her performance alter ego just yet. Instead she’s a grown version of Eloise at the Plaza, wrapped in a gray towel with a makeup artist posturing her lashes and a hairstylist primping her pink dip-dyed bob. In between glam, Charli swirls her ankles and sips coffee. This version of the pop singer is sleep-deprived, having been re-routed into Chicago by car due to inclement weather. With the festival looming and the release of her upcoming studio album Charli, Charli needs all the energy she can get.
Just two days prior, the U.K. singer, born Charlotte Aitchison, had released one of her third LP’s lead singles, “Gone,” a pulsating anxiety spiral with French avant-pop artist Christine and the Queens. It is one of the many collaborations featured on the just-dropped 15-track record; others include songs with Sky Ferreira (“Cross You Out”), Haim (“Warm”), Troye Sivan (“1999” and “2099”), and more. “I choose my collaborators because I feel like they’re truly unique,” Charli says. “I’m only interested in collaborating with people who really are truly individual in what they have to say and the art they make.”
A departure from her previous work, Charli insists that her eponymous release is her “most personal album” yet. “It’s [a record] where I talk a lot more about my insecurities and my thoughts that go on in my head every day about the position I’m in as a person and as an artist,” she says, while getting her hair styled. Her original plan was to make it a third mixtape, but to her, Charli felt more like a full-length project. “With Pop 2, I felt the solidifying of my fan base and was more connected to my fans than ever before. I thought that they might want an album from me. So I didn’t want to deprive them of it. I just felt confident enough to put one out.” Despite being on a label, she had been able to keep the record to herself until it was done. “They just said they liked ‘Gone,’” she says with a laugh, adding, “they’re very kind, but we don’t really talk about that.”
If you’re wondering about the difference between a mixtape and an album, there really isn’t any; she says it’s purely “logistical.” “When you’re signed to a major label and you want to release an album, there’s a lot of pressure that’s attached with the word ‘album’ including sales, streams, expectations, and goals. I just wanted to put stuff out without this expectation attached to it,” she explains. It’s something Charli once placed stock in. “I used to think of [commercial success] all the time once I had the taste of what a big successful hit could feel like, but I feel like there’s a lot of creative freedom in not caring.” Musically, everything Charli has released on her previous mixtapes — and this album — is something she’s wanted to put out.
Charli comes less than a year after she finished her opening act duties alongside Camila Cabello on Taylor Swift’s reputation tour. Charli absorbed a lot on that sixth-month trek. “I learned that I’m a really good opening act because I have a lot of hits that I don’t really play a lot of the time at my shows that people know,” she says of the experience. “I can really get a crowd going.” But mostly Charli learned from watching Swift work the crowd. “Taylor’s someone who’s worked her way from playing tiny, tiny venues where no one came to bigger venues, and now she’s playing the biggest venues in the world. It was fun to perform ‘Shake It Off’ with her and Camila every night and learn how to move across the stage like an actual pop star.”
That, plus the release of “Señorita,” Shawn Mendes and Cabello’s song of the summer — in which Charli has a writing credit — once again proves her voice is a very necessary part of the mainstream pop conversation. Charli had been writing “White Mercedes,” one of the songs on her own album with Andrew Watt and Alexandra Tamposi, when the idea for “Señorita” came to them. She knew immediately that it wasn’t for her. When Mendes and Cabello heard it, it just clicked. “The first time I heard it, [“Señorita”] got played over the phone. Obviously I’m very famous for my leaks. I was like, ‘Don’t send me anything. Don’t send me two of the biggest artists’ new singles!’” she yells.
While some of the music Charli recalls from her early career was “fictional stuff,” Charli is her most vulnerable project, with her insecurities and anxieties laid bare. On “Thoughts,” she freestyles through a stream of consciousness following a stressful phone call where she just wanted to make music but was being pulled in too many different directions. Another artist may have posted their “thoughts” on Instagram, but she instead channeled it into her music.
“I feel like I’ve spoken a lot about not just being insecure, but the insecurities of your position as an artist, which I feel like artists don’t talk about that often because it’s a scary thing to do,” she admits. While Charli is rife with her familiar party songs, she hones in on the highs and lows of being a pop singer, which includes the fact that artists are competitive (“Even if we hate to admit it”), that they’re constantly comparing themselves and are “always having a f–king breakdown inside.”
“I think sometimes there’s a fear that people will be like, ‘Oh shut up what do you have to complain about? You’re so incredibly lucky to be in the position you’re in,’ which we are, we really are,” she says, “but I think the reason we are artists is because we have a drive and also because there’s enjoying the highs and there’s something really f–ed up [we get] out of the lows because it makes the highs feel so good.”
Before heading out for the festival, Charli wants to take a few of her signature, sultry boudoir photos for Instagram, but she’s supposed to appear on a podcast in 10 minutes and she hasn’t left the hotel. As she enters the car that will take her there, she reveals she just had a “mini cry” in her hotel room — a low for her. For moments like these, she relies on her tight inner circle. She’s known her managers since she was 11 years old. But she also attributes her ability to stay grounded thanks to “being British.”
Still, for Charli, there’s an overwhelming expectation that in any room she walks into that there’s pressure, which stirs up her own anxiety. For now, she has a remedy: parties. “I think why I like partying so much is because I can just forget about [the pressure], which isn’t that healthy I know, but I’m not ready to tackle that just yet,” she says, laughing.