RECOLORING THE POP PALETTE WITH THE TEENAGE ENGINEERING OP-1
THE DAY AFTER WE TALKED WITH CHARLI XCX, “FANCY,” HER COLLABORATION WITH IGGY AZALEA, RECEIVED MULTIPLE GRAMMY NOMINATIONS, INCLUDING ONE FOR THE COVETED RECORD OF THE YEAR AWARD. FOR A 22-YEAR-OLD SINGER AND SONGWRITER—ONE WITH MORE THAN A HINT OF PUNK ATTITUDE BALANCING HER POP SENSIBILITY—IT’S A CONSIDERABLE ACCOMPLISHMENT THAT ADDS CREDIBILITY TO HER STATED GOAL OF BRINGING A LITTLE TANG TO THE OVERLY SWEET WORLD OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC.
That goal might seem overly ambitious for so young a performer, but Charli has been onstage since since she started performing at local raves at the age of 14. By 16, she had released two singles and was asking her parents to help finance a debut album on her own label. Having co-written and performed on two Billboard Hot 100 tunes with other artists (Number 1 for “Fancy” and Number 7 for Icona Pop’s “I Love It” as well as a solo Number 8 slot for “Boom Clap,” the first single from her new release, Sucker), finds her in the enviable position to claim a pop crown once worn by a performer she claims as a strong influence, Britney Spears.
“I was really captivated by Britney Spears music videos,” Charli says, “and by Spice Girls music videos and by Britney Spears’ voice, which I kind of think sounds like the Barbie version of Marilyn Manson’s voice. They both growl a lot.” At the same time, the electronic sound of artists on Ed Banger, a French record label, was adding color to her personal musical palette. “I really became obsessed with the idea of making music. I was super into Justice and Uffie and all of the sounds they would make. I kind of wanted to try to replicate that. I tried and completely failed, but made something kind of cool, anyway. [It] didn’t sound anything like what I wanted it to. But I still liked it.”
Chasing the sounds that exist in their heads is a common experience for musicians, but one for which Charli is uniquely equipped. She has often spoken about experiencing sounds as colors, a trait called “synesthesia,” which she shares with classical composers Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov, among others. “For me, when I see music in colors, it really helps me lyrically,” she explains, “and it helps me with music videos. At the beginning of making Sucker, I was seeing a lot of red and pink. That was where I was at: red lipstick and Robert Palmer music videos was kind of how I was—what I was relating the music I was making to. It just kind of helps me form a piece of work as a whole thing, if that makes sense. It definitely makes me love certain songs way more than others, because of the colors I’ll see and what I’ll relate it to in my brain. Also, it will kind of help me decide whether I’m keeping a song for myself or whether I’m giving it away, because I can’t really … if it’s, like, a green song, I think it’s ugly and horrible. It sounds weird, but it’s true.”
Her previous recording, True Romance, named after the 1993 Quentin Tarantino film and assembled in bits and pieces across several years, was critically acclaimed for its mash-up of ’80s synth-pop, French ye-ye girl groups and modern electronic sounds, all adding up to an original voice with a sum greater than its parts. For the new recording, Charli was determined to refine that voice to a more consistent, and slightly tougher, more independent tone, while maintaining a high level of pop appeal. “Right now I have a very clear idea of the sound I want to create,” she says, “and I create it by working alone, and also by working with some really amazing producers and collaborators. Sucker is definitely the most pop thing I’ve ever done. The most guitar-led, for sure. It kind of feels raw and wild, but still pop. It kind of sounds like if the Ramones met Barbie and they dated.”
One reason for the change in tone is to align more with her live band and stage performance. “I feel like there was this kind of disconnect,” Charli says, “between the fact [True Romance was] this super brooding, bruised, quite beautiful album, but on stage I was a [freaking] mess—just running around and had a band. It didn’t match the music. It didn’t look like what you’d think it would look like on stage. I think that was kind of confusing to people. I felt held back performing live, sometimes. With this record, I wanted to make a record that would just bang live, and that was a record I didn’t think about, not trying to make cool songs. To literally stop thinking and trying to filter myself, and just say all of the things I’d been afraid to say in the past. That was really kind of the main thing and, like I said, it was inspired by this kind of girl-gang, ye-ye pop thing, and also by Weezer and The Hives—and it was really cool. I worked with Rivers [Cuomo] on one of the songs, eventually, which was super weird, but amazing. I just went to his house and was, like, ‘Hey.’ And we hung out and wrote two songs. That was kind of like a cool, weird thing that happened. Yeah. I just wanted to make it wild. I wanted to make it totally the opposite of what I’d done with True Romance, which was very shy and kind of mysterious. This one is so in your face and blunt, and that’s what I wanted.”
As anyone who’s caught her recent live performances can attest, that “in your face” attitude is well-reflected on stage. “I don’t think when I perform,” says Charli. “It’s very free for me. I definitely feel crazy when I perform, but that feels really good. It’s definitely like a whole freedom thing for me. I feel electric when I perform and I want my songs to make people in the audience feel like that, too.”
A valued collaborator in a circle which includes producers Patrik Berger (Robyn, Icona Pop, Chiddy Bang, Snuffed By The Yakuza) and Ariel Rechtshaid (Plain White T’s, Kylie Minogue, We Are Scientists, Usher), Charli’s approach to writing for others is to just be herself. “I always feel like if people are asking me to write a song for them, they like my style,” she says. “They like what I bring to the table, so to speak. So I’m not going to try to be them and think, ‘what would so-and-so do?’ ‘What would I do?’—that’s probably why they’ve asked me here. So, yeah, it kind of stays the same. I always just want to write a cool song, you know. That’s it.”
Charli writes those “cool songs” with an eye to more than churning out a quick hit. She has somewhat larger ambitions behind the catchy hooks. “I definitely want to be able to affect the way the Top 40 pop music moves, whether that’s through my own songs or from behind the scenes working on other people’s records,” she explains. “To be honest, I feel like it’s changed so much in the past year, anyway. I feel like songs are becoming a lot more timeless, which is really nice. I feel like there are some really incredible writers who are making songs [that] are going to stand up in 20 years’ time. I just hope to be a part of that, and hope to be able to make pop music more emotional again.”
In the studio, she is the first to admit that her role is not on the engineering side. “I’m no technical whiz, at all,” she confesses. “I don’t know how to work Logic and I can’t be bothered to learn, which is really a terrible thing to say, but I’m really impatient and stubborn. If I’m doing a demo at home, that will be just me on my keyboard making something that doesn’t sound anything like I want it to sound like eventually, at the end. Just writing the song and kind of getting the bones of it. I’m not the person who’s front-seat producing in the studio, but I am the person who [says], ‘I hate that. Make it sound more blue.’ Luckily, the people I work with know what I’m talking about, whereas other people would probably be, like, ‘You’re crazy.’ But they get it, so they know how I like to do things.”
One of her favorite song creation tools currently is the Teenage Engineering OP-1, a compact all-in-one tool that combines synth, sampler, four-track recorder and DAW controller. “I really like the OP-1,” Charli says, “because everyone I work with over there [Sweden], are right insane at using it. They know all these secrets about the OP-1 that I don’t even know. I also like it because the guy who made it also owns the clothing brand Acne. Shout out, Acne. Great. Well, done, Mr. Swedish man. You’re great. Yeah, I like that a lot. A lot of my demos that I made in Sweden began on OP-1. For me it’s a studio tool. I just [mess] around on it. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m doing with anything. Even writing a song, I’m just like [messing] around and maybe something cool comes out. But I think it makes incredible sounds.”
With a new recording just released and already having spawned several hot singles, an upcoming tour with Katy Perry and co-writing credit with Gwen Stefani on her upcoming solo album, Charli’s definitely taking off and making plans for the future while thinking about what producers she wants to work with. “I’m really into this UK producer called Sophie. I think I might work with him early next year on my new record, which would be amazing. I definitely am toying with the idea of Max Martin in my brain a lot. I mean, he’s a genius, and he’s incredible. I’m such a fan, because all of his early Britney stuff was so cool.” Whatever choice she makes, we
know we can expect more great music ahead. But no green songs.