As Charli XCX and I check into our Couple’s Rejuvenation Package at a neon-lit spa in Midtown Manhattan, it seems like the staff is quietly trying to make sense of our relationship, given the palpable sense that we are not actually a couple. Between sugar scrubs and a hot stone massage, the package promises to “recharge, refresh, and revive,” and Charli is in the market for all three.
“I need a day off,” the 27-year-old admits early in our conversation, wrapped in a spa-mandated robe. She has spent the past few days traveling between continents, toiling toward her forthcoming album, Charli. Two days ago she was in her native UK shooting a video with Christine and the Queens’ Héloïse Letissier for their synthy new tag-team track “Gone” that required both of them to be chained to a car for three hours. The visual was Charli’s idea, Letissier tells me a few days later, adding that it’s a metaphor for “being trapped in the male gaze.”
After breaking free, she flew across the ocean to play a high-octane show for the PBS series Live From the Artists Den, during which she dominated every inch of the stage while performing for a crowd of loyalists who’d waited hours in the sticky, midsummer heat to get in. (Her fans are called Angels, by the way, which will make sense after about 10 seconds of thinking.)
Then she went to a raucous party at a bar in the East Village with a handful of friends—something that might seem like leisure time to many but, when you’re Charli XCX, it’s impossible to attain blissful off-the-clock anonymity at a drag show in the middle of Pride Week. The gays know her face, even when it’s obscured by sunglasses. They, or shall I say we, are a big part of Charli’s fiery and devout fan base, and love to support an inventive pop underdog whose music rarely scales the charts but is ubiquitous in all their safe spaces.
Even as she sinks into a jacuzzi while holding a freshly poured flute of champagne, I remind myself that she’s at work, talking to a writer with a recorder about her dreams, ambitions, regrets. Still, she seems to be savoring this rare moment of calm. As we sip from our glasses and munch on a bizarre assortment of dried fruit and chocolate, Charli finally gets to put her feet up.
“My toenail is coming off,” she says with bored nonchalance, raising her foot out of the water. After taking a quick look at the asymmetrical shard dangling off her big toe—it’s not the whole nail, but it’s definitely enough—I cover my eyes and turn away. “I got it,” she says, presumably after peeling it off and placing it somewhere out of sight. “Are you gonna put that in the piece?” she asks, laughing.
Sitting cross-legged at a table in the spa’s Korean cafe, Charli reveals a part of herself that complicates her reputation as an enigmatic pop star whose life consists of only two things: partying and making music about partying. “I’m really a workaholic,” she tells me. “To a level that’s not cool.” She appears genuinely troubled by her compulsion towards the many jobs that comprise her career in the music industry—singer, songwriter, performer, producer, video director—and says that she has thought of joining a 12-step program like Workaholics Anonymous to help manage it.
That steadfast commitment to being a font of exuberant pop joyrides is as much a product of her own talent as it is a paradoxical act of self-care. When she’s working, she says, her mind isn’t spiraling. The sheer act of releasing and performing music prevents her from worrying about whether or not she’s doing it right. And by constantly moving ahead for nearly a decade, Charli has fine-tuned her sensibilities and settled into what has become an instantly recognizable sound: a sentient circuit board’s interpretation of dance-pop.
As we wait for the coaster-shaped buzzer resting in the center of the table to announce our lunch is ready, she tells me that her two best, oldest friends, who also make up her management team, hate when she goes on vacation—but not because they don’t think she deserves one. “If I go on holiday for three days I have a breakdown,” she says. “That’s when everything around me is still, and I have time to question everything I’ve done. I’m like, ‘Are my friends real friends? Am I making art that’s right for me? Why am I still signed to a major label? Do I still care about charts? Should I still care about charts?’ I mean, I could be wrong, but I feel like I am one of the few artists who has a foothold on both mainstream Top 40 world and the more left-of-center underground world.”
She keeps talking about her peculiar place in pop purgatory as her bulgogi, just served and still sizzling, cools down. “People think, ‘That’s cool that you can balance that!’ But I feel like the reason I’m there is that I can’t decide sometimes.”
Based on her output thus far, Charli’s uncertainty makes sense. Since signing her first record contract in 2010, at the age of 18—which was preceded by years of making music and releasing it on her MySpace account—she has been a near-constant figure in the pop world, whether looming in the wings or standing proudly center-stage. While her first album, 2013’s goth-tinged True Romance, was well received by critics, the album’s singles were nowhere near as culturally ubiquitous as a song she wrote for another act around the same time: Icona Pop’s car-crashing, bridge-burning ode to reckless abandon, “I Love It.” It remains the biggest hit of the Swedish duo’s career, but when Charli performs it live, it’s easy to forget they were ever involved. Just revisit any line. “You want me down on Earth, but I am up in space.” Or the instantly iconic, “You’re from the ’70s, but I’m a ’90s bitch.” Charli is that song.
But dominating a track from the featured parenthetical is a tale as old as Charli. “Fancy,” which she co-wrote with Iggy Azalea, helped catapult the Australian rapper to a brief period of international superstardom five years ago, thanks to Charli’s booming cheer-chant of a chorus. While both artists have found it hard to replicate that song’s popularity, “Fancy” felt like the beginning of something for Charli, whereas with Azalea, it has come to represent a sort of ending. Following the Top 10 hit “Boom Clap,” and its punkish subsequent 2014 album, Sucker, Charli’s music took a sharp left turn from radio-friendly hits to alien electro-pop that found a home in the vibrant, trend-defying margins of popular culture.
Though she hasn’t released an LP in the last five years, Charli never stopped putting out music. Her disregard for traditional release structures, often consisting of years-long droughts between huge projects, means becoming an Angel yields a plentiful return on investment. She’s got non-album singles like the endearingly playful “Boys,” EPs filled with bionic tracks that have become her trademarks, like “No Angel” and “Vroom Vroom” (which found new life this summer in the form of a TikTok meme), and mixtapes on which she’s dropped some of her best and most outré material, like “Lucky” and “Track 10.” Only a few of those songs have made much of an impact on the charts, but all of them are unmistakably Charli: gleefully hedonistic songs produced by and for people with an android-like aversion to sleep. And to the Angels who see her as the savior of pop music and goddess of dope shit, that’s all that matters.
Increasingly, Charli has come to realize that those same diehards might be all that matter to her. This became especially clear when she played more than 50 stadiums around the world with Taylor Swift last year. Those truncated opening sets starting at 6 p.m. were a far cry from the late-night shows in cramped, crowded venues where the Angels have grown accustomed to seeing her. “I’m really grateful that [Taylor] asked me on that tour,” Charli says. “But as an artist, it kind of felt like I was getting up on stage and waving to 5-year-olds.”
The performances served a purpose, though: It made Charli decide to never open for anyone again. “I’ve done so much of it, and it really cemented my status as this underdog character, which I like now,” she says. “But I need to just own my own fucking shit finally.”
Halfway into our lunch, the soothing spa music pumped into the cafe begins to work its magic, and Charli waxes poetic about a hypothetical version of her life where she writes music at home all day without changing clothes for a week instead of, well, what she’s doing right now. In that alternate reality, her music is given to performers who are “better at smiling on cue,” and she just sits back and enjoys the view.
Or maybe she doesn’t! This binary is a constant source of existential frustration for Charli, and one she regularly addresses on her Twitter feed, which offers whiplash-inducing glimpses into her state of mind at any given moment. “Guys I hate social media so much,” she tweeted one evening in May. “I’m done tryna be cute I hate it and it’s not real.” Half an hour later, she added, “What’s the point?” But by the following afternoon, her mood had brightened, and she tweeted the sort of hyper-confident declaration that followers have come to expect from her: “omg my new music is so good. I can’t even.”
This back-and-forth internal monologue plays out all the way through Charli. The album contains plenty of thrillingly weird music that only she and her friends could create, like the outlandish posse cut “Shake It,” a strip-club anthem beamed in from the 24th century whose guests include the brilliantly bawdy rapper CupcakKe and the New Orleans bounce pioneer Big Freedia, and the riotous “Click,” which ends with a beat that sounds like monster trucks having sex.
But then there are tracks like “White Mercedes,” a desperately romantic power ballad anchored by the final line of its chorus: “All I know is I don’t deserve you.” The “you” is Charli’s boyfriend, a one-time music manager named Huck. Since meeting seven years ago, their relationship has been, in her words, “on and off.” Currently, it’s “on” to the point of inspiring love songs. When I ask her what he thinks about being the subject of such a heartrending track, Charli tells me that it was first played for him at a house party during one of their “off” periods. “He kind of freaked out,” she says of the moment. “Also, no one wants to hear a ballad at a party.”
Talking about the album’s surprisingly candid nature, Charli adds, “It is actually the first time where I’ve been thinking about things that have been happening in my life—like relationships, or leaving people who I used to work with for 10 years—in a creative way.” She addresses many of those feelings in a synth-heavy lament about driving alone through Los Angeles called “Thoughts.” One of the few tracks on Charli without a featured vocalist, she tells me it’s “the absolute crux” of how she feels, and the most personal song she’s ever written. “Did I fuck it up?” she sings. “Are my friends really friends now? Are they all far gone?”
Adding to the intimacy of the record is the way it was made: Charli and her frequent collaborator, PC Music’s A.G. Cook, rented a house in Los Angeles and worked for three months—the longest she’s ever spent on an album. For comparison, her last full-length project, 2017’s Pop 2, was recorded between parties over just two weeks in New York City.
Looking at the feature-stuffed Charli tracklist, you might wonder how personal she actually gets, but the singer has always used collaborations to expand her own creativity and reveal more of herself. That precedent did not, however, prevent her from receiving significant pushback from her label when announcing her plan to work with so many other artists on the album—comments she ultimately brushed off. “All of the collaborators that I work with are opening me up to so many different sounds and styles,” she says with a hint of defensiveness, implying a difference between her thoughtful, highly curated pairings and the mix-and-match, label-mandated features flooding the airwaves at any given moment. “A concoction of all that makes a more unique sound.”
The album’s first three singles have all featured gilt-edged guests. She made “1999,” a cheekily nostalgic love letter to the end of her birth decade, with her friend Troye Sivan, one of the few openly gay, major label pop stars working today. Sivan tells me that he “freaked out” when he was asked to contribute a bridge. “I just want to be around her and be a part of anything she makes,” he says, adding that she taught him the importance of “trusting your gut and fuck everything else.”
“Blame It on Your Love,” the only song that pre-dates Charli’s three-month recording session, followed in May. A version of the song was originally included on Pop 2 as a lush five-and-a-half-minute declaration of weary love called “Track 10.” Charli says her label was “obsessed” with that early incarnation, but she adds that “it didn’t feel right” until this year, after she practically demanded that breakout singer-rapper-flautist Lizzo work with her on it. The result is a bop about love as an addictive substance that has already racked up more than 23 million plays on Spotify; in comparison, “Track 10” has 3.5 million streams on the service.
And then there’s “Gone,” Charli’s peak and an encapsulation of its themes of relentless insecurity and the seemingly futile search for honest, meaningful connection. The song features Christine and the Queens’ Letissier, and Charli seems almost embarrassed when recounting their first encounter: “Have you ever met someone and immediately thought, I’m going to be friends with this person forever?” According to Letissier, those feelings were reciprocated. “This is going to sound like romance, but I immediately clicked with her,” she tells me over the phone. “I was like, ‘Wow, I wish I could be friends with her.’”
Listening to their dueling stories makes me feel like a low-stakes private investigator solving the mystery of a friendship by conducting interrogations on both sides. In Charli’s version, she sent an unfinished “Gone” to Letissier during a frustrating moment in the writing process, when the chorus felt impossible, and received a response in 20 minutes. “I love people who work fast,” Charli says.
When I ask Letissier about the same moment, she laughs and admits that her speedy delivery was a result of nerves. “I didn’t want her to forget me, and was a bit scared,” she says. “I respect her so much. I was waiting to be validated by Charli XCX,” she adds, delivering her new friend’s name with the purposeful cadence of a boxing announcer.
Letissier goes on to reveal that the source of her admiration is Charli’s willingness to share her insecurities with her fans—to be a flawed, vulnerable public person. “I bonded with her because we are both navigating the pop realm with some anguish,” she says. “She is inside the machine and knows how it works and wants to disrupt it.”
But for now, Charli’s in a jacuzzi with a near stranger. And when the overhead lights come on, we both realize our spa day has come to an end. We set down our empty flutes, step into our robes, and walk through the hall, where two staffers escort us to the cashier. Everyone asks how we liked the experience, and Charli tells each one that it was great. “I finally feel OK,” she says as we climb the stairs to the locker rooms. She seems to have more energy, and there’s a brightness to her voice that wasn’t there before. For a moment I believe that the Couples Rejuvenation Package worked—but then I remember that she’s a workaholic and consider the fact that being convincing is part of a pop star’s job description.
Walking out of the spa, scores of pedestrians pass us, but not one of them gives Charli a second look. How is no one rushing up to her requesting a selfie? Why isn’t some 19-year-old stretching out of the passenger seat of a car singing “Vroom Vroom” at her? Well, we’re still in Midtown Manhattan, a neighborhood whose identity is defined by overpriced salads and men whose biggest problems involve locating shirts designed to be worn untucked.
As we stand in this cultural wasteland, sharing a moment of awkward silence before deciding to part ways, I’m reminded of something Charli admitted during lunch. “Sometimes I don’t understand why I’m not bigger than I am,” she said, breaking eye contact and looking at the empty space to my right. But like most of Charli’s downs, it was quickly followed by an up. “I feel very comfortable in my section of pop,” she continued. “I’m beginning to feel like the people who know, know. And the people who don’t? They wouldn’t get it anyway.”
Stylist: Yohanna Lebasi; DP: Benjamin Whatley; video editor: Pierce Adler; video color: Nick Sanders; hair by Sami Knight using Redken; makeup by Lilly Keys using Laura Mercier; manicure by Kimmie Kyees; prop styling by Bryan Porter; produced by Connect The Dots. Charli XCX in Nili Lotan slip dress, Martine Ali chains, Bagatiba rings; Camilla and Marc slip dress, Bagatiba cuffs; Vintage Vivienne Westwood cardigan, stylist’s own bike shorts, Dalmata rings.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork