Charli XCX’s dancefloor-ready songs of lost love and new crushes may seem world-weary coming from a 19-year-old, but the rising starlet is already a performance veteran. Since beginning her singing career at warehouse parties in London at the age of 14, the art-school dropout has spent the last five years carefully constructing her persona.
As her clever Twitter bio declares, Charli champions a new era of empowered female pop stars, counting Grimes, Skylar Grey and Little Boots among her contemporaries. Those three even appeared in the U.K.feminist magazine that Charli co-founded, Shut Your Pretty Mouth, which spotlights emerging creative females.
eMusic’s Marissa G. Muller spoke with Charli about presenting herself as a strong role model, crushing on Karl Lagerfeld, and changing the way people think about pop music.
On her first performance:
When I was four, I went on a very tacky family holiday on a cruise ship and entered the talent contest and sang “Barbie Girl” on the stage with no backing track. My parents thought I was going to break down and cry, but I was fine. I got up there and won the contest because all of these white grandparents were like, “Oh she’s so cute.” I remember thinking the microphone was so heavy, and that I was the coolest person because I got to sing “Barbie Girl.” It’s a really sexual song, but I didn’t know that. I just loved Barbie at the time and thought it was about dolls.
On the one time she tried to rebel:
One of the funniest memories that I have of both my dad and mom was when I got a gig in this crazy illegal warehouse in London and I was like, “Yeah I’m going, do you wanna come?” I was thinking they’d say no, but they were like, “Yeah, let’s go!” So we all went up to London in a family car and got to this warehouse at like 12 a.m. and stayed there till like 7 in the morning. There were all of these crazy people on Ecstasy, and my mom and my dad were standing in the back, totally oblivious. It was my attempt at rebellion, and it turned into a weird family outing.
On making an unforgettable impression in art school:
On the first day of class we had to make something that showed who we were as an artist. So I made a sweet shop with sugar mice, but instead of using sugar mice, I used real mice. So I bought a load of dead mice online and dyed them different colors and put them in jars and left them in my art school, and everyone thought I was this weird freak. I had just moved into an apartment with kids I had never met before and I was storing the mice at night in the freezer to make sure they didn’t rot and my flatmates thought it was really weird.
On her penchant for Uffie:
I was probably 13 or 14 when I discovered Ed Banger. I was listening to a lot of Uffie records and I thought she was really cool. She’s a really strong female and I kind of model myself after people like that. Also, she had this punk energy which I really liked, and the way she rapped was really cool. Something about her reminded me of “Rapture” by Blondie, like a total white girl who can’t really rap, but it sounded really dope. I like to make my music really talky and slow, like I’m a little sedated when I do my rap stuff, and she was the first to inspire me to experiment with that kind of stuff.
On rising to the challenge of the female pop star:
A lot of my music is about heartbreak, and telling a guy to fuck off, and being strong but “Stay Away” is about wanting someone so bad and being a helpless female involved in sexual domination and not really understanding what’s going on. I don’t want to put out a political message in any of my songs but it’s really important to me as a performer, and as someone who is really interested in fashion, to be a strong female role model. I don’t want to be walking around in a sexy shirt with my ass out. I’d rather be sexy in some crazy grunge Disney shirt.
On the inspiration for her style:
I look up to film characters like Wednesday Adams, Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club, or Kirsten Dunst in Drop Dead Gorgeous. My style is a mix of film characters and a club kid, but there isn’t specific pop star I look up to apart from the Spice Girls. I think they have the best sense of style.
On hoping to one day cross over into the fashion world:
I think Vivienne Westwood is so cool, and I love where she comes from. Her clothes are amazing, the tailoring is amazing, and she’s punk at heart. But it would always be amazing to do something with someone like Chanel. I find Karl Lagerfeld weirdly sexy. So maybe I could get a little hookup there and I could be his straight wife.
On her hasty writing style:
I like kind of banging out songs and then having them be done. I don’t have an attention span for revisiting stuff. I don’t really have a writing process. I kind of write whenever, wherever. Sometimes it will be a lyric, sometimes a melody, sometimes I’ll come up with a whole track. There’s no set way. I wrote “Stay Away” in two hours with Ariel before I had to get on a plane, which is fucking cool.
On her involvement with the zine Shut Your Pretty Mouth:
It was started by myself and a couple other people and we wanted it to be about upcoming female musicians and photographers and we had a DJ night where we got them all to come and play. It was female-inspired, led by females, and we wanted it to be a platform for new girls to do their thing. We did 30 issues and we interviewed people like Grimes, Little Boots, Skylar Grey.
On belonging to a new generation of female pop stars:
I don’t want to sound cocky but I think girls like Grimes and Skylar and Azealia Banks are pretty fucking rad, and I’m on their level. We’re all pretty powerful females and we’ve all got our own styles. Hopefully people like us will be able to shake pop music into something cool again.
Even though pop music is great, some people are still a bit embarrassed to say that they like it so it will be really great if we can change peoples’ perception of it. At the moment, music is getting better and better and I think something really interesting is about to happen in female pop music. We’re all about the same age, coming up at the same time.