I start my interview with Charli XCX with a story about a night out. It was early June—a Sunday, mind you—and I'd woken up from a nap to six missed calls from friends. Six. I thought someone died. "Wake up," one frantic text message read. "Charli XCX is doing a surprise concert tonight. We got you a ticket. We're going."
Ninety minutes later I was at a music venue in downtown Manhattan engulfed in a pulsating mass of skin, sweat, and glitter. I did a Jägerbomb. Two, actually. It felt right. It was madness but also euphoric. I learned from other fans at the show this is part of the Charli XCX live experience—it's not a concert so much as a house party with 200 strangers.
Charli isn't surprised by my story—good times and parties are staples in her universe. Just look at the way the 27-year-old promotes her music with photos of heiress turned in-demand DJ Paris Hilton, or how she tweets her 3.4 million followers with messages like, "u always party so hard for me! I can’t wait to come back & play 2 shows for u on tour."
The tour she's referencing kicks off later this month—on the heels of her third studio album, Charli, which drops today. Listen to 30 seconds of the new record, and you'll hear the party vibes: It's loud, shiny, dripping in synths and Auto-Tune, and cranked up to the highest-possible BPM. I think it's one of the best pop albums of the year.
Turns out, the music Charli makes these days is based on what she wants to hear at a party. Her past hits are certainly no strangers to the club, of course, but this new album pushes even further into the experimental without much concern for radio appeal. That wasn't always the case: Born Charlotte Emma Aitchison in the U.K., the singer first cracked the top 40 in 2012 with "I Love It," a bright, chanting collaboration with Icona Pop. She then hopped on Iggy Azalea's "Fancy," perhaps the most ubiquitous song of 2014, before releasing her own solo smash, "Boom Clap." By early 2015, Charli had amassed two critically acclaimed albums, several Grammy nominations, and commercial success—but she admits something still didn't feel right.
"I was very proud of [what I was releasing], but I realized it wasn't the music I wanted to put on and listen to in my free time," she says. "This wasn't the music that I wanted to go to a club and hear."
So she pivoted to a new sound and direction. In late 2015, Charli met Sophie, a Scottish DJ whose clamorous, industrial beats are the soundtrack to just about every queer basement rave in Brooklyn. Together they created Charli's beloved 2016 EP Vroom Vroom, a collection of hyper-electronic songs that made little impact on radio. Charli didn't care: The music finally felt like something she'd spin herself at a disco.
"I used to be quite obsessive about, like, 'Am I going to be commercially successful? Am I going to be on the charts?'" she says. "I used to care about it, and now I just don't. I think that's what allows me to be quite liberated when I make music."
Liberated, and also forward thinking. Charli's decision to defy radio conventions caused music bible Pitchfork to declare her the "pop star of the future," but she insists nothing she makes is in pursuit of that. "I'm not actively going out and being like, 'Hmmm, how can I be progressive?' It's not that contrived," she says. "I'm not really consciously striving for anything."
One thing she might be striving for is collaboration. After all, what's a party without friends, and Charli has plenty of them. Her last two projects, the 2017 mixtapes Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, contain more featured tracks than solo ones. Who she works with runs the gamut (the new album alone includes songs with Lizzo, Haim, and pop newcomer Kim Petras, among others). Her choice in collaborators is purely instinctual: She picks artists she likes. "I don't listen to a lot of other music aside from people that I work with or my own, which probably sounds really narcissistic and crazy. But I work with people because I think they're the best," she says. "I love being a curator. I just think it's fun because I know I'm smart enough to do it."
There is one commonality in her collaborators: Almost all of them either have devoted queer fans or identify as LGBTQ+. Since she's an artist who makes bombastic dance-pop, it's no surprise that Charli herself has a large gay following. But like everything else she does, her decision to team up with queer artists is organic. "Everyone has better taste in the queer community, anyway," Charli says, laughing. "It's not conscious. I'm not, like, 'Where are the queer artists? I want to work with them!' But I think I do naturally gravitate toward the queer community. The majority of my friends are in the community. I just feel that energy supporting me so much. I really wouldn't be where I am without that community. When we go out, it's often with the community at an LGBTQ+ club or night or something like that."
Again, it comes back to the club. It's clear talking to Charli that these spaces are more than just escapes for her. They're where she does her research. "Clubs are really fruitful, creative spaces for me," she says. "I get inspired lyrically, visually, the whole thing. The light and lasers in clubs or at raves, the space itself. It's very inspiring to me."
In a way she's a party anthropologist, excavating sounds and images from nights out and fueling them into her work. "It's definitely more than just a party," she says. "So much stuff happens at parties. You meet people who you fall in love with. You're with some of your best friends. You break up with someone. It's this huge social concoction of all of these people that you know and don't know. Partying is a place where I feel very free."
Her fans feel free too. That's evident from the scene I witnessed at her show in June. When I tell Charli that my group of friends, all massive fans, see dancing at clubs as an almost spiritual exercise, she gets it. "Oh, definitely," she says. "I'm not religious at all, but I feel like, yeah, if you want to take it there: The club or a party can be a church for somebody. It's like a community of people who are just letting go and being free. It's like gay church."
If a random club is gay church, then a Charli XCX show is the gay Vatican. Her fans, aptly nicknamed Angels, are some of the most devout in stan culture. Charli tells me they're a huge reason why she's so fearless in her work. "After Pop 2, I felt the most connected I've ever felt to my fanbase. That was really me just doing me 100 percent. No filter," she says. "[My fans] really care about me, and I really care about them. We're speaking the same language, and maybe nobody else gets that language, but we totally understand. I just feel my music is now a safe space for me to be really honest. I don't feel afraid."
Charli was, however, afraid a few years ago when a fan crashed her party early. In 2017 she was readying the release of what was supposed to be her third album, but a hacker broke into her Google Drive and leaked several demos. And her phone number. People happily gobbled up the new material and even gave it a fake name, XCX World. Charli felt like she'd lost control.
"People call it XCX World, but I hadn't even titled it," she says. "There was no title. There was no track list yet. From fans' perspective, if people want music, they feel like they're helping you by hacking and releasing it. But it was an extreme invasion of my personal privacy and my life. People had my phone number. I didn't feel safe at all. It made me feel like all this hard work, all this money I'd put into recording, all the producers I'd paid, all the time, and all the flights I'd taken, were just thrown back in my face."
So she scrapped the project and started from square one, which she admits took some time. "It made me scared to literally do anything because I was like, 'Is my whole life just going to get put on the Internet against my will?' I definitely lost my confidence, for sure. I felt scared to make anything because I was worried it was just going to get released."
Time, ultimately, is what helped Charli move past this. "I'm in a better place with it now, and I can deal with it," she says. Everything that's on the horizon for her probably has something to do with that. Charli is already receiving rave reviews from critics. Her tickets are selling like hotcakes. And every new visual she previews—be it a music video or cover art—sparks stan pandemonium. "I feel good," she tells me. "I feel like people really want an album from me now. I still have no [commercial] expectations, but I feel that my fans are so excited for it."
She's excited for the album too, but she's not looking beyond it just yet. "I don't plan ahead," she says. "That's my main rule."
If that's her main rule, I can guess her second: Have fun. It's obvious she wants fans to do just that as they listen to the album. Charli, at the end of the day, is a club record, even if it's her most personal to date. "I'm still talking about partying and cars and all my bullshit," she says. "But I [also] feel like I'm really delving into my emotions." Those two ideas can and do exist simultaneously in the world of Charli XCX, where the party is not just personal, but paramount.
Christopher Rosa is the staff entertainment writer at Glamour. Follow him on Twitter @chrisrosa92.
Originally Appeared on Glamour