Charli XCX doesn’t have long for me in between radio appearances, lunch with her management team in the high-end Indian restaurant Dishoom and the general whirlwind of promoting her third proper album, titled simply Charli. But as she says herself, she’s a fast worker. That means getting straight to the big talk.
“I’m gonna be around for a really long time whether I have number ones or not. Maybe I won’t always be an artist. Maybe I’ll be a songwriter. But I will have changed the landscape of what pop music is,” she says. “I already have. I really believe that. I know it sounds really arrogant to look you in the eyes and say it, but I have.”
The bigging up of oneself does not generally come naturally to the English. The songwriter and singer born Charlotte Aitchison 27 years ago in Cambridge blames it on living in LA. However, this sense of supremacy can be shaken at times. A month ago, in a long statement on her Instagram page, she wrote: “Sometimes I just want to quit everything.” Then, three days later, on her Twitter feed, she posted simply: “I AM SO FUCKING GOOD LIVE.”
“I’m very volatile,” she explains. “When I’m high I’m very high. I can be very cocky. But I think I’m more like that on the internet than in real life. I’m always working, always making something. I don’t take holidays. I’m on, all the time. So when I take a moment to just reflect and pause, everything collapses. I probably hit a real low maybe three or four times a year.”
It’s no wonder her mood can feel confusing. She occupies an awkward position in pop – one part solid gold hitmaker, one (slightly bigger) part edgy experimentalist. Signed to a major record label at just 16, in the early part of her career she had a golden touch, hitting number one in the UK in 2012 with I Love It by the Swedish duo Icona Pop, which she wrote, then sitting at the top of America’s Billboard Hot 100 for seven straight weeks in 2014 as the singer and co-writer of Iggy Azalea’s Fancy.
Today she’s still within touching distance of all that, but over at the far side of the picture. She last entered the top 10 in 2015, singing Doing It with Rita Ora. She has had a number one single this year, but in the background, as one of eight writers of the Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello duet Señorita. Last year she supported Taylor Swift around the world’s stadiums on the Reputation Tour, but got in trouble with Swift’s fans for telling Pitchfork that “as an artist, it kind of felt like I was getting up on stage and waving to 5-year-olds.”
“If someone is saying, ‘You’re wrong, you’ve upset me, what you’ve done is bad,’ even if you feel like your words have been taken out of context, it feels huge,” she tells me. “But what’s life without a tiny bit of controversy? I would rather be polarising than average.”
As the Charli album arrives, the lovers will surely begin to outweigh the haters. It’s star-studded, but not with the obvious mainstream faces. Lizzo, Sky Ferreira, Clairo, Haim, Chris from Christine and the Queens and Troye Sivan (twice) are all on there. There are fizzing, pure pop glories such as the singles 1999 and Blame It On Your Love, but also alien robotic ballads such as Thoughts and Silver Cross, and even stranger fare such as Click, which almost collapses in on itself in a violent electronic overload. Then there’s Gone, a fiery duet with Chris which makes a powerful case for being the greatest pop song of the year.
The album was written and produced with AG Cook, ringleader of the PC Music collective, which is notorious for mixing the strange with the saccharine. Charli XCX has been in their gang since 2016, when her Vroom Vroom EP marked a change in direction for her. “Since 2016, I’ve stopped releasing songs I didn’t love,” she says, which could be read as a dig at the bratty pop rock of her second album, Sucker, from 2014.
“We just totally understand each other. We’re very similar,” she says of Cook. “He loves pop music so much but he’s also very anarchic. He likes to annoy people a little bit. I like working with people who don’t have these preconceived rules about how things are supposed to sound.”
Although Charli is her first official album in five years, there has been plenty of new music from her before now. After Vroom Vroom there were two mixtapes in 2017 – Number 1 Angel and Pop 2 – both containing 10 new songs, which would easily have made them count as albums. “The reason I used the term ‘mixtape’ was because it’s immediately less pressure for my record label,” she explains. “They just sort of leave me alone when I say the word ‘mixtape’, which is really fun. I don’t ever feel the pressure in that sense, because I’m not looking at my stats. I don’t make music for being on the radio or in the charts. If it happens naturally, great, but it’s not my goal.”
So she’s prolific, onto the next thing quickly. “Sitting on music is like my absolute nightmare,” she says. When we talk, there’s not much sign of the usual pretence between stars and interviewers – that we’re old pals getting together for a jolly old natter – I’m her next meeting.
Perhaps the big hits aren’t quite coming for her today because she chooses not to play by the rules of pop. I can’t quite fathom why Señorita spent six weeks at number one while Gone, to me a far more impressive pop song, was at number 58 for a week – but I’m probably not the audience she should be impressing. “I don’t want to think like that. It’s toxic,” she says. “On my bad days I can get into that zone, but it’s not why I do what I do. I don’t know how to make a song that’s gonna get to number one and stay there and feel like something so current and now. Maybe I used to know how to do it when I was younger, because I did do it. But I don’t have a formula.”
Instead, she’s devoting less time to party tunes, instead writing about herself with more honesty than before. “This is definitely the most personal album that I’ve made. Bet you’ve heard that a million times,” she tells me. “I felt it was best to call it by my name because it really is an album that encapsulates all sides of me as a person.”
It’s put her in a place where she can feel comfortable and fulfilled, even if it’s not where the masses are. “I just want to be able to make the music that I want to make without having to sacrifice any of my artistic decisions. If continuing down that path leads to me being the biggest artist in the world or to me staying exactly where I’m at, that’s cool. I don’t ever want to become something that I’m not because I’ve done that before. I didn’t even know myself properly as a person let alone as an artist. I think I’ve figured out who I am now.”
Charli is out now on Atlantic. Oct 31, O2 Academy Brixton, SW9. o2academybrixton.co.uk