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‘Fifty Percent of the Time I’m a Troll’: Charli XCX on Her Evil Alter-Ego and Airtight New Album

Charli XCX has long been one of pop’s most galaxy-brained writers and performers, but she’s ready for what she calls her “main pop-girl moment.” With her upcoming album, Crash (due March 18), she presents a brilliant case: It’s an airtight pop project full of top-notch hooks that also functions as a quick tour through the past couple of decades of the genre. Like everything the artist does, Crash is, first and foremost, fun. “I think the people who know me and my work know that 50 percent of the time I’m entirely serious, and the other 50 percent of the time I’m a troll,” she says, calling from the English countryside. Crash follows 2020’s How I’m Feeling Now, an album she made under a tight deadline in Covid lockdown. She’s immortalized that process with a new documentary, Alone Together. Like the album whose creation it captured, the documentary is a deeply personal release, giving a glimpse into her private life and the emotional turmoil caused by the pandemic and a self-imposed deadline for the album. “Sometimes people don’t get it,” she says of her work. “Sometimes people don’t like it. But that’s what I like to do.”

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I just watched the documentary—
Oh, God. . . .

Why “Oh, God”?
It feels like a different time, a different lifetime. Honestly, it’s hard to watch myself be so upset. Also, unfortunately, me and my partner at that time are no longer together. The whole thing is really emotional for me. I probably won’t be watching it again.

That film is a snapshot of your 2020, so I’m curious how your 2021 went.
I had actually begun making Crash prior to How I’m Feeling Now, but I decided to pivot from making that record when the pandemic hit and it was evident what the global state was. It felt quite drastic to get back into that swing after having made something [How I’m Feeling Now] in the most low-fi way I’ve made music since I was 14 and making things in my bedroom, to go from shooting music videos on a rented green screen in my basement to going to Mexico City to shoot with Hannah Lux Davis. But I always wanted projects to feel drastically different from one another.

Crash has a whole concept and narrative: The “evil pop star” who has made a deal with the devil. Was that something you had in mind when you first started the album?
I’ve always been interested in the idea of what a “sellout” is in modern-day pop music and if it even exists. I’ve been signed to a major label since I was 16. I think I’ve had quite an untypical major-label-artist journey, so it’s interesting to operate within that framework. I suppose this record and the imagery is partially a comment on that. It’s also partially a comment on what authenticity is. I think artists feel they need to really prove that they wrote their own songs, that they direct their own music videos, that they are the brain behind everything. As I got older, I began to care less and less about that because I know I can write a great pop song and I know I can communicate my vision.

When did you grow out of the mindset of needing to prove yourself? Was there a particular project or moment that made you start to say “Fuck what people think about pop music, about me, about what I’m doing”?
I think that’s been my mission station since post-Sucker, really when I began working with Sophie and A.G. Cook. From that point on, until now and probably beyond, it’s stayed the same. It’s hard. It’s not super tangible. Also, I’m constantly changing my mind about what I think, so that’s not very helpful either. I felt like that was beginning to become kind of like an expected sound from me, or an expected way that I did things. The reason making Crash felt so right is because I don’t think people expected me to do that. I always feel most myself when I’m challenging people and maybe sometimes confusing people.

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You love a car theme, and both the title and cover of your new album play into that. Some fans were connecting it to David Cronenberg’s film Crash. How spot-on are their theories?
I like the onomatopoeic-ness of Crash. I feel like there’s been a lot of references to those kinds of titles throughout my music, from “Boom Clap” to “Vroom Vroom.”

One thing that’s kind of interesting is the fact that I’m not driving the car on the cover. That’s something I’d be really interested in reading theories about. The way that I am on the car, it’s like I’m very much alive but injured, but I’m also dominating. This is all very art school of me. I also just think I look hot in the picture.

You’re friends with Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek, who both appear on the single “New Shapes.” How have those relationships developed over the years?
We’ve been through a lot together, musically and personally. Caroline lived in my house for three months while she was getting her own place in Los Angeles. And her partner and I used to go to art school together. Christine has been so instrumental in helping me through tricky thoughts about my relationships and sex. In part, that’s what “New Shapes” is about.

Those two were going to join you when you were supposed to be the musical guest on SNL in December, before that episode got cut down due to a Covid surge. Are there plans for you to return to the show before the season is over?
I don’t know. I really hope so because it’s iconic, isn’t it? I haven’t done it since 2015. I was so sad. It was the Paul Rudd episode! He’s such a legend. I thought the performance was going to be sick. I was like, “This would have been my best TV performance ever.” When it couldn’t go ahead, it was crushing. I was going to have a main pop-girl moment. Hopefully something can happen in the future. Fingers crossed.

This is your last album with Atlantic. What are you going to do next?
I wish I could give you that kind of hot exclusive, but I am not going to. Just watch this space.

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