Published Sep 09, 2019"Does your back hurt from carrying all of pop music?"
It was a throwaway question offered during an impromptu AMA session that Charli XCX, born Charlotte Aitchison, held in her Instagram comments. "I get weekly massages, so it's okay," she wrote in a typically cheeky sorry-not-sorry response. But what on the surface appeared to be more rhetorical than sincere concern from a dedicated stan account was also a concise summation of the pop singer's last four years.
After scoring three Top 10 hits in the middle of this decade (two as a featured artist and one on her own — she co-wrote all three), Aitchison's sophomore album, Sucker, was met with relatively muted response. She's spent the past half-decade since dropping singles, EPs, mixtapes and features that abandoned the pursuit of chart dominance in favour of "an accelerated and personal version of our favourite music of the time," as producer SOPHIE described it in a 2016 Fader interview.
"I'm somebody who has straddled the mainstream, Top 40 commercial world and the weird super-underground world," Aitchison says. Even as the well of traditional hits dried up, praise from critics and a fervent online fan base runneth over.
As she readies Charli, her first official album since Sucker, Aitchison insists she has no interest in attempting to bridge pop's mainstream and its underground.
"It's just me doing what I love," she says. "I'm not against commercial success — if it happens naturally, that's cool. But I'm not going to change the music that I make and sacrifice my creative decisions for the sake of maybe having a successful song."
Here is an incomplete list of the artists and producers Charli XCX has collaborated with since Sucker: Sophie, A.G. Cook, Hannah Diamond, Lil Yachty, Rita Ora, Tove Lo, Mø, cupcakKe, Klas Åhlund, Carly Rae Jepsen, Kim Petras, Stargate, Mykki Blanco, Caroline Polachek, Christine and the Queens, HAIM, Clairo, Lizzo, Sky Ferreira, Yaeji, Troye Sivan and Camila Cabello.
It's a who's who of the left-of-centre pop underground that's been bubbling under for the past decade. That Aitchison has had a hand in each of their careers — and they in hers — speaks to the shared values they all espouse: stay true to your vision and always push boundaries.
Growing up in Essex, outside of London, in the mid-2000s, Aitchison fell in love with the loose collective of artists, like Uffie, Justice and Mr. Oizo, who were putting out records through French label Ed Banger Records. She was especially drawn to the spirit of collaboration pervasive across the label's roster. "I was sitting at home not living in a particularly exciting town," she recalls, "watching them and their crew, and I thought, 'Oh my God, I want a crew, like a gang of creative people who I can just make shit with whenever I want.' And I think I really searched for that for quite a long period of time."
She met SOPHIE in 2015 and the two immediately hit it off. SOPHIE produced 2016's Vroom Vroom EP, which paired her hyperkinetic production with Aitchison's knack for sticky vocal hooks. The collaboration proved to be a turning point for Aitchison. "The feeling that I get listening to Sophie's music was that same feeling I got when I was younger and I was listening to Ed Banger records," she says. "Sophie was making the kind of music that I was really trying to make when I was younger, but I just didn't have the skills."
Through SOPHIE, she was introduced to A.G. Cook and the collective of artists affiliated with his PC Music label; she'd finally found her community. "They had their world and they welcomed me into it," she says humbly. But it was still their world, and Aitchison wanted one of her own making.
With Cook acting as her "creative director," she began issuing material at a frenetic pace: "After the After Party," Number 1 Angel, "Boys," Pop 2. Each was met with increasing critical praise while adding collaborators to the ever-expanding creative universe Aitchison was building around her.
"The collaboration thing is just more fun," she says. "These are people who I really think are the best artists in the world. They're the people who inspire me."
Work on what would become Charli began late last year. With Cook by her side as co-executive producer, Aitchison continues to push at pop conventions, both in terms of the record's production and the fluidity of styles, aesthetics and identities of her collaborators. It also manages the impressive feat of featuring 14 different artists across nine of its 15 tracks, most of which were written and recorded between November and March.
"We like to work very quickly," she says. "My nightmare is to go back in and spend a lot of time finessing things. It sucks out the fun and creativity."
Though it retains the audacious edge that has been a hallmark of her work since the beginning, she calls Charli her most personal work yet: "I know that probably every artist you've ever spoken to in the history of your career says that about a new album," she says. "But this really is that for me."
On songs like "Gone," featuring Christine and the Queens, she chronicles her "turbulent" relationship with her own creativity.
"Sometimes I just compare myself to other people and that really makes me feel very depressed and sad. Then sometimes I feel like I'm better than everybody else, and that I deserve so much more credit for what I do, and I don't think that's a healthy thought process, either."
Aitchison has enjoyed a dedicated online fan base since her earliest mixtapes, but a passionate stan community began to coalesce around her following Pop 2. "As I became less afraid to open up, the community became so much stronger." The symbiotic relationship she shares with her "Angels," as she calls them, gave her the confidence to dive deeper on Charli and she regularly turns to them for recommendations for her Spotify playlist, "The motherfucking future." Artists she features there often end up in her creative orbit. "It's put me into this much more free state where I can really be confident to talk about whatever I want to. I feel very safe with my fans and I'm really lucky to have that."
As she embarks on a promotional tour for the record that takes her across North America and Europe, Aitchison is optimistic that she can temper her creative restlessness while on the road, though she admits it's not always easy. "I always try to create because I get bored," she says. "I want to make music that I want to hear in clubs. I want to get fucked up and party and cry too. So that's what I'm doing."