Photo by Bella Howard / courtesy of the artist
Charli XCX is screaming, pushing herself out of a moving taxi. “Come climb out of this window with me! It's so looooouuuuuuuudddddd!” We're careening alongside the limousines on Las Vegas Boulevard at 4:30 AM. Technically, it's a Monday morning, the day after the Billboard Music Awards 2015 where Charli won a gong for Best Rap Song for her feature on Iggy Azalea's hit "Fancy." “Come join me up here, it's so fresh.” Sitting in the back seat I gesture at popping my head outside the other window. “NO! Get in this window. Come fly with me!” As I climb out and feel the rush of night air battering my face, my foot is crippled by Charli's platform heel pushing against my ankle. “HOW DO YOU FEEL?” she screams in my ear. I ignore the pain, beat my chest and channel my best Titanic impression. “I'm Queen Of The Worrrrrlllllld.”
It's hard to not be infected by the aspirational qualities of 22-year-old Charlotte Emma Aitchison (named Charli XCX after her old MSN Messenger screen name). She has sold the dream of fame, fun, and fortune with songs like “Boom Clap,” “Doing It,” and “London Queen” (example lyric: “I never thought I'd be living in the USA, doing things the American way-ay-ay”) most recently on 2014 album Sucker. I first met her during the summer of 2013 after Icona Pop's “I Love It” exploded, a song she wrote for the Swedish duo on which she also performed vocals. Charli was on the set of a cover shoot for a British music magazine where she appeared alongside other breakthrough British indie stars at the time. Bands like Palma Violets, Drenge, and Peace were waiting in the wings. Charli came in wearing the sort of lace lingerie dress that would give Cher's dad in Clueless a hernia. She put some Korean pop on the studio stereo, picked up two fire extinguishers from the props table, and set them off, spraying milk-colored chemical cum everywhere. Members of Fat White Family looked on, their impressions of “punk” suddenly compromised.
Charli is a firebrand who plays nothing by the book. She channels the gothic demeanor of Siouxsie Sioux and the gobbiness of Saffron from Republica. Musically, she straddles the cross-pollinating universes of pop, rock, and electro—having started out writing tunes as a teenager growing up in Hertfordshire. She's gone about her career in a focused and less-than-conventional manner, putting out her first single herself, performing at raves in London, releasing a series of mixtapes then unveiling major label debut True Romance in 2013. That album was electronic heavy, from its Gold Panda samples to single “Stay Away,” which was a modern take on Berlin's theme to Top Gun.
“By the time True Romance came out all my songs were online more or less,” she says. “I'm very conflicted. I believe in albums as a concept but nowadays there are more interesting ways to release music other than putting 12 tracks in a box. I'm a bit down at the moment. I feel like everything's just being repeated. I'd always rather create than repeat.”
This past weekend Charli was in Sin City during a three-day series of events that have brought most pop chart-botherers on the planet here for an annual summit. Charli's role is to perform at the Rock In Rio festival on Friday afternoon, headlined by Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars. She'll also be attending the Billboard Awards on Sunday as a nominee. “I'm presenting too,” she says rolling out of her dressing room on Friday afternoon, a mass of eyeliner and black leather. “I presented at the Brit Awards once and it was petrifying because I can't read from a teleprompter. I've got really shit eyesight, I don't like the idea of putting things in my eye and my glasses don't suit me.”
Unlike Charli, my role is to write a story stalking her for 48 hours here in Vegas. But that's quickly shelved as the now obvious truth comes to light. Charli XCX barely got last Christmas Day off. She is never in the one place for longer than eight hours, let alone 48 hours. Her schedule for the weekend is to appear onstage here, immediately fly to Miami to close out a baseball match, go to Los Angeles to hang with her Vampire Weekend BFF Rostam Batmanglij (she says he’s “absolutely mad but great”), then come back to Vegas to get dressed for the Awards. She'll leave for New York the morning after to participate in a panel discussion with Nile Rodgers (she says Nile is also “absolutely mad but great”). Her schedule is so insane she's still not finished watching the whole of Bruce Jenner's speech following his public transition. “Wait, no, no, no,” she protests, wanting to cut the conversation. “Don't ruin it for me. I mean I know what happens, but still...”
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Charli lifts up her skirt as we sit down for the interview, indicating how peeing is something that definitely requires time in the schedule. “Right, I need to do this, pee, then get to the stage. I'm wearing this onesie. There's basically a hole here.”
Holding the dictaphone (“I feel like I'm in Twin Peaks now,” she jokes) she's done with talking about third album Sucker, released in the States at the tail end of last year and in the UK several months later. One of its singles, “Break the Rules” is about the pitfalls of the music industry (“I don't wanna go to school, I just wanna break the rules”) and is indicative of her feeling towards show business generally. “I never thought it would come out,” she tells me, foregoing an explanation for the differentiation in geographical release dates as a “load of fucking boring logistics.” It seems strange that the US audiences have been allowed to own her via her constant presence here, while over in the UK she's less of a household name. “I feel that way too,” she agrees. “Sorry! Not my fault.”
Charli has been on-the-road since February, first opening up for Katy Perry on the North American Prismatic tour, then doing her own headline shows, going to Asia, Australia—and now she's about to venture on a joint US bill with Jack Antonoff from Bleachers, which she wants to focus on more than anything.
“If I'm honest it was all really beginning to feel repetitive. I know you're not meant to complain about these things as a ‘popstar.’ You're supposed to be all, ‘Life is great!’ But... I've been struggling, feeling depressed about everything. I was in New Zealand and I performed the whole of “London Queen” face down on the floor. Literally like this,” Charli drops to the grass and lies on her stomach, passed out like a miniature Robert Smith. “Everyone was like, Is she ok? I was in Australia for a month and had an existential crisis.”
What's making Charli sad?
“I struggle to understand why you have to spend so long promoting one record. I say this with full conviction: I genuinely don't care about sales. I made Sucker for myself, and I wanna sell out shows. Then I wanna be in the studio. I'm finding it difficult to understand why I still have to talk about something that's on the internet.”
So Charli doesn’t want people to ask whether Sucker was inspired by the Ramones?
“No! Just fucking Google it! I know I'm not meant to say that but I'm so desperate to move onto the next thing. I believe in albums but they can be digested so quickly. There's no desperation from fans to get hold of a record ‘cause it's all there already and includes a free download of the bonus track.”
Her enthusiasm multiplies when talking about what's next. A few weeks ago she released a collaboration with disco legend Giorgio Moroder called “Diamonds” but the two never actually met in person. She's been working with SOPHIE, the face of PC Music, too. “I love PC Music. It's intelligent and I like how they're fucking with people.” In January Charli went to Sweden with Rostam, MNDR, and SOPHIE who she invited out there. “We clicked and did four or five songs. One of them is called “Vroom Vroom.” I don't know if we'll put it out soon or if it'll be on my next record but my next record is gonna be the most electronic thing I've ever done.” Charli is keen to work with new people, including Robyn's collaborator Klas Ahlund. “I wanna make the gigs for the next album like going to the Vue cinema. Every song will have a whole narrative through it.”
Photo by the author
It's Charli's rebellious streak to make pop on her own terms that renders her sense of wild escapism even more refreshing. Despite her comparative brazenness next to some of the other superstars around this weekend, Charli's getting away with not having a squeaky clean exterior. Sucker was awarded Rolling Stone’s Pop Album of 2014. “That was actually before it even came out in the US,” she says, again nodding to the nonsensical nature of the modern album campaign. It won over audiences here, particularly when lead single “Boom Clap” appeared on the soundtrack for teen drama movie The Fault In Our Stars. Charli's face was plastered on the front cover of US magazines and she's looked to be absolutely everywhere throughout the year so far.
Watching her sunset set from side of stage, Charli plays a simplified yet provocative show, with a live band of 90s-indebted rockers, who ape the punk aesthetic of an L7 or Luscious Jackson. During the rapturously received “I Love It,” she mocks getting down with her bassist, while on “Famous” she pouts in sunglasses and fishnets like the bastard lovechild of Liam Gallagher and Debbie Harry. On “Body Of My Own,” she looks at the older women in the crowd and screams, “This one's about pussy power, motherfuckers!” During “Need Ur Luv,” I enthuse to one of her camp about the time she performed that single atop Rostam's piano on the David Letterman Show. I'm told that her knees were black and blue afterwards from crawling all over his baby grand without kneepads in rehearsals. Everyone agrees it was Charli's best live TV performance ever. As she comes off-stage, she shrugs, not sure of whether or not that went well. “Right what's next?” she asks. “Photos? Whoo! Let's do photos.”
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Sunday morning arrives and The 40 Year Old Virgin is playing on Charli's hotel room TV. A tired yet smiley not-even-nearly-ready awards presenter tucks into a bowl of fries while being primped and preened by a quartet of hair, nail, and wardrobe specialists. When asked how Miami was, Charli seems to have almost forgotten that happened. LA was cool, however, and Rostam is still “mad” and still “great.” The group chat flits between Iggy and Britney's performance later, the grand unveiling of Taylor Swift's “Bad Blood” music video, the HBO documentary Going Clear, and the pool party everyone's going to after-hours, DJ'd by EDM wunderkind Zedd. Charli's looking forward to potentially bumping into Nick Jonas. “You know how I celebrated the release of Sucker?” she asks. “I went ice skating in Boston with him and Meghan Trainor. He hired a rink and we drank hot cocoa. It was the most innocent thing I've ever done.”
Charli practices her presenter's speech over and over, because, as aforementioned, she can't read it off a teleprompter. She reels off the nominees for Best Duo or Group, who include One Direction and Five Seconds of Summer. “What if One Direction lose to Five Sos?” she asks, promising to announce the winners as “Five Sos” if “Five Sos” win.
As usual, the clock is racing. Tick-tock.
“OK, what am I saying on the red carpet? What am I wearing? This jewelry is Vivienne Westwood, right? Can someone order some Vodka Redbulls?” She slips into a 1930s vintage black gown. “You need a Vodka Redbull, too.” In the background her team count down the minutes till the car arrives—each member racing to beat the other at their respective jobs. They include her NYC-based makeup artist whose dog has just got his own talent agent. “How does that work?” asks Charli. “Do get to keep all your dog's commission?”
Moments later we're all on the red carpet shoo-ing Charli around various media outlets. “Charli! If you had a Vegas residency what would it look like?” shouts one interviewer. He's beaten by two individuals who approach the glamorous XCX with a cardboard cut-out of a poo Emoji and ask her to say something to camera. “Wait, do I have to talk about poo?” she says, perturbed then placing the cut-out on top of her head. “Ha! Shithead!” says her stylist. Everyone laughs. Charli moves into the main Awards room, where she smashes her presenter's speech and adds a new prize of her own to a steadily building collection. After, she returns to her hotel to have a pre-party disco nap. Regroup is apparently happening at 11 PM.
Photo by the author
As 12:30 AM strikes, I get my PJs on and watch the final episode of Mad Men, praying that Charli might finally have just decided to get some well-earned shut-eye. But pop never sleeps. At 1 AM a text message arrives. Everyone is jumping into a cab and going to a club called XS. There's an open pool and revelers in bikinis, bopping to EDM bangers while riding inflatable dolphins. Behind the DJ booth is Charli now changed into her third costume for the evening—a leotard, which also provides its challenges. “This makes my pee go in five different directions,” she says, now promising to research a potential collaboration with Juicy Couture, so she no longer has to waste time strategizing her toilet breaks.
Zedd invites Charli to enter the booth and awkwardly cheerlead her own song “I Love It.” She looks surprisingly unsure of what to do, later being very open about how introverted she can be. “I don't really like socializing at big celebrity parties,” she shouts over a heinous remix of “Rude” by Magic. “I just like being out here having fun with my friends. This is fun.” Despite her protestations that she likes to maintain herself on the outskirts of the A-list scene, Charli does eventually wind up hours later at Ed Sheeran's post-Awards party in an exclusive rooftop bar in the Nobu Hotel. “Ed's great,” she says. Just great.
The ban on journalists at this Nobu Hotel party requires that I abandon the pursuit of Charli XCX again. Job done. But another text from her crew summons the story's continuation. On entering the quiet gathering, Charli laughs, “How the hell did you get in here? Quick take a picture of me with Mariah Carey's face in the background.” She lies down on the side of the roof, unsubtly ordering me to take her photo before Caesars Palace and the Vegas skyline “for the piece.” “Wait, can you be in it too? Lie down next to me.” Then she straddles me and puts my face in her bejeweled crotch. “I really can't begin to imagine what this story of yours is going to be about,” she says. To borrow a line used by Charli onstage earlier, this story is about about “pussy power, motherfuckers.”
Eve Barlow asks that you do not contact her for at least a week. She is now recovering in a retreat somewhere near the Hollywood sign. Follow her on Twitter.