Charli XCX on Her Best, Hardest, and Most Mainstream Music

Charli XCX in 2013. “People were trying to suss me out and check if I was the real deal, and if I was worth their time,” she recalls. “All of that judgmental stuff can get in the way of if a song is good or not.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Caitlin Mogridge/Redferns via Getty Images

Before dropping the first single off her album Crash, Charli XCX declared hyperpop to be dead. The performer had been one of the subgenre’s biggest champions, developing its sound in her work with A.G. Cook and the late SOPHIE and working with up-and-comers like 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady. But some fans had been skeptical of the high-concept rollout, worrying that one of pop’s weirder, more visionary figures had sold out by declaring her mainstream ambitions. “It’s like, the second I started saying ‘main pop girl’ online, everyone was coming for me,” Charli says. “I was like, ‘Do you know who you stan? Obviously I’m going to deliver you something iconic. Don’t doubt me.’”

The believers were rewarded when Charli released the polished, playful Crash on March 18. Yes, the album is hook-heavy and ’80s influenced, her most trend-focused since her brief flirtation with pop stardom around 2014’s Sucker. But Crash is more experimental than it lets on — “Lightning,” for instance, is the glitched-out Charli you’re used to hearing, just applied to a song that sounds like it could make it onto the radio.

As the final album in Charli’s deal with Atlantic Records (hence the go-for-broke attitude), Crash also features a collection of a career’s worth of collaborators. Along with creative director Cook and past duet partners including Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek, the record taps producers from Charli’s 2013 debut True Romance, Ariel Rechtshaid and Justin Raisen. Charli spoke to Vulture about the highs and lows of that career so far and the best songs that came along the way.

Hardest song on Crash to make

It was probably a song like “Beg For You” or “Yuck,” because those songs, not in their entirety, but a part of them were pitched to me. Like songwriters pitch the chorus ideas, that kind of thing. I wanted to explore that route, because the whole idea of me making this album was that I wanted to finally, after all my years signed to a major label, actually make a record in the way that major labels want you to make a record and really utilize the tools of a major label and just play the game a little. I wanted to do that to challenge myself. In a time where everybody is searching for this authenticity, I wanted to explore what it would be if I was the opposite of that. So a part of that, for me, was doing interpolation songs and also leaning in a couple of times to taking pitched songs. I love those songs, but obviously within me, there is still this person who is like, “I write all my own music.” That younger version of myself who would’ve been very anti this album campaign, probably. But I feel like that was the challenge, to overcome that.

Early song you wish got more attention

I’d probably say “Stay Away,” which was the first song that I released. I think it probably did have a chance to have a profile, but just because it was the first song, people were trying to suss me out and check if I was the real deal, and if I was worth their time. All of that judgmental stuff can get in the way of if the song is good or not. People wanted to know my background and if I was authentic and if I was cool. But I feel like over the years, that song has become an unsung hero of True Romance. Me and Ariel Rechtshaid, who produced that song, we’ve always talked about a rerelease as part of a new album. I actually think it would fit so well on Crash, to be honest. I think it’s still one of my best songs.

Most “main pop girl” song before Crash

Well, I think I’ve always had — and still do — a very ambitious opinion on what mainstream pop music could sound like. When we were making Pop 2, I remember myself and A.G. Cook feeling like “Unlock It” was really, really special. We felt like that was the perfect pop song. Maybe there were one too many features. Maybe it could have been three minutes instead of however long it is, if we were really thinking about it. But in terms of the melody and the hook, I feel like we always thought that song was pretty pop-tastic.

I think it got its justice when it did blow up on TikTok. We were like, “We knew this was an iconic bop.” I absolutely love TikTok because it really is so free. You can’t predict it or you can’t try and harness it. You really do just have to go with the flow on there, and I love that.

Hardest feature to get

I think generally if someone doesn’t want to do a collaboration, then I don’t want to force them because I know that they won’t want to. People can tell when it feels forced or awkward, or one person doesn’t really want to be there. I’ve had that situation a couple of times and people know, they can just feel it. So generally speaking, I don’t really try and push for people who are not into it because it doesn’t do the song justice.

I actually really wanted this album to be about me, mostly. I couldn’t resist and I did end up working with Rina and Caroline and Chris, which I absolutely love. [But] I never really saw this as a big collaboration project, like I did with Pop 2 or Charli. The people who are on it, they feel so real and tangible to me, because I know them at this point so well, particularly Chris and Caroline. I know this sounds cheesy, but it really does feel like collaborating with close friends instead of other musicians who I love.

Song you most regret

So easy to answer: “Break the Rules.” I know I shouldn’t talk bad about my work, especially if other people love it, but I never loved that song. People got in my head about it. They were like, “This is going to be a hit.” I listened to them and I put it out and it wasn’t really a hit. I was like, Shit, this is why you should always trust your gut.

I will say, when I play it, it does go off. I would never play it at my own show. It’s like a little party trick that I bring out. When I was opening for Taylor, a lot of people who were at the show and were completely confused by a song like “Vroom Vroom” would actually get the same kind of experience from “Break the Rules” in that they would be able to identify me as “a girl with attitude.” And also, even if they didn’t know that I sang it, it’s been on so many adverts or TV shows. The song was familiar. So, that’s why it’s still in my back pocket, just in case.

Best music video

I think it probably would be one from this album. I really love the “Good Ones” video. I really love the “Baby” video because that’s the first time I’m really doing choreo. I guess I was doing it in “Good Ones,” but “Baby” was the first choreo I learned. So there’s a sense of pride for me there. But then I also really love the “Vroom Vroom” video. It’s so sick. Then also I love the “Boys” video because I directed that one and it was such a mad, manic hustle to get all of those guys in the video, but it was cool. I really enjoyed that process.

Gayest song

I think it’s “Vroom Vroom.” That is, I think, the gay anthem. It absolutely goes off at shows, it’s demonic. It got critically panned. It’s essentially my Pet Sounds, which is a funny sentence I thought I’d never say. The reviews were bad, and that came out right after Sucker. Mostly people were confused, but there were quite a few fans who really got it and stuck by me. That’s when you could really separate the hardcores who were going to be with me forever from the less hardcores.

But that song — not to sound arrogant, but it’s a fucking masterpiece. Of course, in part that’s totally down to SOPHIE. Our combination together is just, on that song, unstoppable, because we are so much bouncing off each other’s frenetic energy. We were in Sweden, in the countryside. We were both so constantly inspired by each other and going back and forth, SOPHIE with different production and amazing sounds and me on different flows and ideas of melody. It was just such a crazy, wild studio session. I think that song’s grown and grown in terms of how much people love it and relate to it. It was seen as quite complex when it came out. But now, because I feel like the underground has really caught up with the mainstream and because of hyperpop and whatever, it’s definitely more palatable now than it ever was before for people who don’t normally listen to that kind of music.

Song you’re proudest of

It’s really hard to pick one song. I think I’d either say “Vroom Vroom,” “Track 10,” or this new song on Crash called “Constant Repeat,” which I feel like is really the perfect marriage between my more experimental instincts and very classic pop. I think the chorus on “Vroom Vroom” is so like nursery-rhyme pop, versus the very erratic production and my verse flow. It does have that tension between pop and insanity which I love. Same with “Track 10” — the production of “Track 10” is so euphoric and symphonic in the way that it builds, but the melody on top of it, it’s a very classic pop melody.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

“Beg for You” samples “Cry for You,” the 2006 dance song by September. “Yuck” features contributions from the Canadian singer-songwriter bülow and her cowriters Mike Wise, Lowell, and Nathan Ferraro. Sawayama, featured on “Beg for You.” Charli opened for Swift on the reputation tour in 2018. “I’m getting older, I’m getting hotter, my tits are stunning, I’m in great shape, I’m dancing, I’m progressing and I’m living my best life – and that the tea,” Charli tweeted in response to a fan who criticized her dancing in the “Baby” video. The landmark album by the Beach Boys, consistently regarded as one of the best of all time, received largely negative reviews upon its release in 1966.
Charli XCX on Her Best, Hardest, and Most Mainstream Music