the diy queen

Of Course Charli XCX Invented the Quarantine Album

If this is how we party now, pop’s reigning futurist is here for it.

Photo: Charli XCX and Collage by Stevie Remsberg
Photo: Charli XCX and Collage by Stevie Remsberg
Photo: Charli XCX and Collage by Stevie Remsberg

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Charli XCX is levitating a couple of feet over a DJ booth. “My fans like pop music and poppers. Guess they really know what’s uppppp!” she drawls like an automaton with vocal fry. Air horns pierce through the torchlit rave dungeon. As she reaches the chorus of a new demo she’s calling “Generation,” the crowd has fully turned into a mosh pit, including someone in a Scream mask. “CHARLI CHARLI CHARLI CHARLI CHARLI” reads the scrolling comments section, alongside “TRANS RIGHTS” and “LEGALIZE DUBSTEP.”

Right — this performance is taking place inside the universe of Minecraft, the most popular video game of the past decade, in which players build upon its pixelated terrain, congregate with friends and strangers, and explore weird jungles and caves. Tonight, Charli is one of the headliners of Square Garden, a virtual music festival organized by 100 gecs, the experimental-pop duo whose Monster Energy–fueled maximalism makes a compelling case for the joys of having your brain permanently mangled by the internet. Charli isn’t what you’d call a connoisseur of world-building games herself: “I don’t know what Minecraft is,” she deadpans in her stately British accent at the start of her set, before dropping a mash-up of her own “Vroom Vroom” with Soulja Boy’s “Crank That.” (It’s official, folks: Mash-ups are back with a vengeance for 2020.) But that’s neither here nor there. If this is how we party now, Charli XCX is here for it.

Having spent her career establishing herself as pop music’s reigning futurist, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter was primed for the virtual club well before our present demanded it; she’s been known to sing like an anthropomorphic AOL dial tone or a glitched-out “femme-bot” deep in the uncanny valley of Auto-Tune. And she’s a bit of a rave evangelist, mining inspiration from the global nightlife underworld in which she has become a cult figure — or at least that’s what she did in the Before World. Naturally, Charli’s scope is smaller these days: She has been holed up in her Beachwood Canyon home in Los Angeles with her boyfriend, Huck Kwong, and her two best friends (who are also her managers). It didn’t take long for the ennui to set in, especially for a self-professed workaholic; in a Notes-app diary entry posted March 15, she writes, “If I don’t have a million things going on, if my brain isn’t buzzing, this pit of doom starts opening up. I start thinking, ‘Why?’ ‘What’s the point?’ ‘I am so purposeless.’ ” By the week’s end, Charli had made a decision: In less than two months’ time, she would release her fourth official album, matter-of-factly titled How I’m Feeling Now, the material for which didn’t exist yet. She would write and record the entire project in quarantine, making videos with the tools on hand, sourcing beats and artwork from friends and fans, and documenting the process on social media — all before her self-imposed deadline of May 15.

Three weeks before How I’m Feeling Now’s scheduled release, Charli stress-cried about the album, but today’s she’s feeling good. Isolation suits her better than she’d expected. “Obviously, I wish this wasn’t the situation we’re all in,” she tells me. “But I’m quite enjoying what self-isolation is forcing me to do, which is to be really present in my space.” Earlier that morning, she hosted the second of her weekly Zoom conferences, where she fields questions from fans and conducts mini interviews with friends about staying sane in lockdown; today’s guests include Paris Hilton, decked out in giant heart-shaped sunglasses and a pink velour tracksuit. “What’s your specialty?” Charli asks when Paris tells her she’s been getting into cooking. “Sliving lasagna,” Paris replies in her signature sexbot drone. “Sliving is my new trademark. It’s the new ‘that’s hot.’ It means slaying and living.” (There’s a recipe.)

A few days later, the first song on the album materialized: a crowdsourced video for “Forever,” compiled from hundreds of clips sent in by fans (prompts included “your favorite party you want to remember forever” and “a funny thing your pet did”). She released the audio stems for the track, too, asking people to send in their own remixes and retweeting her favorites, as she did with fan-made single artwork. And she’s been sharing demos from what seems like every song she’s written for the album, even if she isn’t entirely sure about them yet. There’s an openness to the creative process that is unusual for an artist of Charli’s stature. “Going live on insta now, need ur help on some verse lyrics,” she tweeted one mid-April evening. Later she shared the results, noting that these would probably make the album: “Go online shopping / it’s so exhausting / I’m so uninspired / I just wanna breathe.”

The DIY bent of How I’m Feeling Now has Charli jumping through new hoops daily, including the installation of a green screen in her basement. But she’s relishing the autonomy of making music outside the bubble of label machinations. To be fair, her people at Asylum Records came around to accept her reluctance for corporate feedback years ago, presumably around the time of 2016’s Vroom Vroom. The EP marked Charli’s entry into the hypergloss universe of London’s PC Music collective; she was drawn to its extremist electro-pop and winking Web 1.0 aesthetics. Her artistic shift threw more than a few critics into Old Fart mode, sputtering at the Top 40 hit-maker’s pivot to clanging synths and Auto-Tune cranked to 11. These days, the label mostly lets her do her own thing, and given the triumph of her last two releases — 2017’s paradigm-shifting Pop 2 and last year’s ultra-ambitious Charli — it’d be crazy not to. “I’m lucky I am very self-sufficient, and a lot of my collaborators are the same,” she says. “We need to be left alone to feel the most creative. I don’t enjoy taking professional people’s opinions,” she adds, letting out a mischievous giggle. “The fact that I’m not getting them right now is just great.

I’m hard-pressed to name a pop star as uniquely suited to the challenge that Charli has constructed for herself. As a precocious teenage songwriter who’d record demos in her bedroom and regularly drag her parents to London warehouse raves, where she’d perform in sunglasses and wigs, the artist formerly known as Charlotte Aitchison immersed herself in the mid-aughts Myspace scene — the primordial soup that spawned music discovery and networking as we know it. The years that followed marked what you might call a renaissance for bedroom musicians worldwide, if you replace the humanist paintings and marble sculptures with cracked Ableton software and absurdly named microgenres. Recording herself at home for the first time since she was 15, Charli has found herself struck by nostalgia for her bedroom days. “I was so easily influenced at that time. The whole essence of that era has really affected who I am: the way Myspace was so DIY in its nature and the way you could reach out to strangers and build little communities,” she reminisces.

It took a fair amount of existential questioning around where she fit into the pop landscape, but over the past few years, Charli has steadily assembled her crew, many of whom were present at Square Garden. Among them are the PC Music production roster; 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady and Laura Les, whose 2019 1000 gecs album is the unofficial soundtrack of the internet’s gaping maw; and a global assortment of sui generis oddballs, from the baroque android stylings of Caroline Polachek (who contributed artwork for the “Forever” single) to the freaky party raps of Chicago’s CupcakKe, whom Charli discovered via a fan’s DM. For Charli, these bonds haven’t just resulted in the best music of her career — they’ve been life-affirming, cementing a creative ethos that’s grounded in the fellowship of people who actually get her.

“Subconsciously, for so long, I was searching for this group of like-minded people to be consistently creative with — and I’ve found that with all of these people,” Charli says. With PC and with gecs, there’s a shared interest in pop music but also an obsession with the extreme. “We’re all a little bit troll-y with how we like to communicate,” she explains. “We laugh at what we create, but we’re very serious about it at the same time. It creates this special bubble where no one’s afraid we’ll get laughed at or be considered uncool — because we don’t really care.” Brady of gecs was introduced to Charli by a friend, the PC Music affiliate Umru, and co-produced the bubblegum-prog beat of “Click” on last year’s Charli. And he seems to be all over How I’m Feeling Now, having contributed to “Claws,” the album’s chirpy second single, and the “Generation” demo, which Charli opens with the proclamation “I’m so bored!”

With just over two weeks until How I’m Feeling Now’s release date, Charli posted into the void: “My album is supposed to come out May 15. I am feeling the pressure today. Fuck.” The stress loomed on her Zoom conference the next morning. “I’m definitely beginning to crack a little bit,” she admits, before launching into conversations with RuPaul’s Drag Race champ Aquaria and porn star turned meme queen Sophie Anderson, who recommends that Charli combat the quarantine blues by drawing a face on a potato and befriending it. “I stayed up late last night working, so today I’m wrecked,” she says when I ask her about it the day after. “I looked at the calendar and was like, Oh my God, there’s two weeks left and I’ve only mixed two songs! So I spiraled a bit, but I can’t waste more time spiraling. I’ve just got to make stuff now.”

It would appear she has indeed been making stuff. A few hours after our call, Charli tweets a tentative ten-song track list. (She’s aiming for a total of 15 songs she can whittle down to ten for the final product.) The next day, she premieres the homemade video for “Claws,” which her fans helped her title after hearing an early snippet. Vamping goofily in front of her basement green screen, Charli descends into a slideshow of cyberkitsch fantasies and vaguely menacing cyborg babes. The video ends with an uncanny 3-D-rendered makeout session that transforms into the faces of Charli and her boyfriend, Kwong, lips locked in their spandex green-screen suits; it’s all rather Jeff Koons “Made in Heaven.” “I like, I like, I like, I like, I like everything about you,” Charli singsongs on the hook, over a beat from Brady that sounds like an android nursery rhyme.

Which brings us to the heart of How I’m Feeling Now: Where previous albums offered odes to after-hours raves and fast cars, this time Charli’s drawing almost exclusively from her relationship, chronicling the ways in which it has intensified while the couple has been alone together. “Oh God, what year would it have been …” Charli muses when I ask how she and Huck first met. “2013? No, 2012,” says a man’s muffled voice in the background. “We don’t really know,” Charli says, laughing; regardless, she was on the last leg of tour with a band called St. Lucia, which Kwong happened to be managing at the time. After the final NYC show, everyone hung out at a bar next to the Bowery Ballroom. “That’s when we met, but what was funny was he was on a first date with somebody else that night, and I had a boyfriend at the time,” she remembers. “So we spent the next few years being really into each other from afar but having really bad timing.”

Between Charli’s normally hectic schedule, and the fact that the two live on opposite coasts, the past two months have been the longest time the couple have spent together, ever. Kwong has embraced his role as her collaborator, as is generally wont to happen to those in Charli’s orbit, taking photos for magazine spreads and helping her shoot videos. She has grown acclimated to recording verses about Kwong knowing he’s sitting in the next room. “It makes me feel self-conscious sometimes,” she says, “but I’m okay with the fact that he can probably hear me yelling into a microphone, sounding crazy.” “My therapist said I hate myself really bad / You tell me it’s fine,” go the tentative lyrics to a demo, posted from Charli’s Notes app.

That demo turns out to be “i finally understand,” which drops a week before the release date. It’s the album’s coolest song yet, somewhere between U.K. 2-step and late-’90s Eurodance. “This feeling that I’ve found might kill me,” goes the hook. Its highs and lows feel like a solid representation of Charli’s process. “I’ve really felt the impact of doing literally everything myself this week, the recording, the photos, the press, the videos, handwriting all of the album notes …” she sighs. “And I’ve been constantly beating myself up whenever I take a break. It’s been quite heavy.” She’s finished recording, at least, and remains wearily confident when I ask how she’s feeling about the deadline: “It’s going to be by the skin of my teeth — I will make it, just.” (Her immediate post-album plans include a release party on Club Quaratine, the Toronto-based queer dance party that’s been doing nightly live Zooms since the beginning of lockdown, and maybe, a drive-in concert.)

How I’m Feeling Now is as much about how it came together as it is the songs themselves, a collaborative snapshot of what’s sure to be a bizarre memory. For years, Charli’s records have made the case that the future is now, if you want it. But it’s a weird time to be a futurist. If the future is now, it isn’t exactly as exhilarating as her earlier songs, full of 4 a.m. joyrides and heavenly synth choirs, made it seem; these days, time is lost in the void of one’s phone, a woefully inadequate substitute for real human connection. “But I think being a human being, and part of why we’ve survived, is our ability to adapt,” Charli counters when I ask if this is our increasingly virtual future and if we can bear it. “If you had told me last year that in 2020, we’d all be separated from each other, isolated in our homes, only speaking by FaceTime, and there’s this thing called Zoom and everyone’s throwing parties on it, I’d be like, Whoa, that sounds futuristic. But it just feels like normality.”

A seminal 2019 essay by the artist and technological philosopher Mat Dryhurst argued that as platform capitalism razes the landscape of independent music, we might embrace the idea of interdependent music culture instead, forgoing opportunistic individualism in favor of community-based structures. For all the space-age bangers and cyber-club-kid aesthetics, it now seems as though the most futuristic quality of Charli’s music has been her devotion to community, from her network of collaborators to the fans who once packed her pop-up raves and now scramble to get into her Zoom chats before they hit their 1,000-person capacity. Besides, you haven’t really partied till you’ve partied through an apocalypse.

*A version of this article appears in the May 11, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Of Course Charli XCX Invented the Quarantine Album