Charli XCX on her lockdown album: 'Why didn't I do this before?'

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

  • Published
Charli XCXImage source, Charli XCX
Image caption,
The singer-songwriter is writing the entire album with input from her fans

"Oh God, I feel so old. I'm so sorry," says Charli XCX, after two failed attempts to join our Zoom interview.

"I'm literally one of those old women going, 'Where's the camera? Is this thing on?'"

The star is speaking from her home in LA where, in reality, she's become something of a technological ninja.

In the space of just six weeks, she's planning to write and record a new album from scratch, with only the "tools I have at my fingertips to create all music, all artwork, all videos… everything".

The 27-year-old is already one of the most respected songwriters in pop, known for hits like Boys, 1999, Boom Clap and her Icona Pop collaboration I Love It.

But this time around, she's making the writing process completely transparent - posting lyric ideas to Twitter, playing demos on Instagram live and sharing early drafts on her Apple Music radio show.

Not only that, but she's screen-grabbing texts from her producers, crowd-sourcing ideas in mass-participation Zoom calls, and getting fans to create artwork, videos and remixes.

"Part of me is like, 'I don't know why I haven't made an album like this before'," she says. "It's so fun and nice to work like this."

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Announcing the project on 6 April, Charli told fans her "positivity goes hand-in-hand with being creative," but that doesn't mean she's immune to difficult days.

"Yesterday I cried," she admitted in a video this week. "I was feeling I was asking too much of everyone - pushing people to make stuff during quarantine when maybe some people just want to chill."

But so far, the results rank amongst the singer's best work. The first two singles, Forever and Claws, effortlessly combine her dual instincts for crisp pop melodies and adventurous, corrosive production.

She hopes to have the rest of the album, tentatively titled How I'm Feeling Now, available on streaming services in just three weeks' time.

When our Zoom connection finally stabilised, Charli flopped down on a beanbag to discuss how the record was shaping up.

Image source, Charli XCX
Image caption,
The star had already planned to make two albums this year before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Hey Charli! How are you?

Actually, I feel quite good right now. I definitely have days where I'm just like, "Oh My God, I feel so unproductive and lost," but generally, I'm quite surprised at how I'm handling this time.

The rest of us are getting a taste of life on tour: No-one knows what day of the week it is.

I definitely have that feeling too. I'll be like, "Oh my God, it's Friday!" and someone will go, "Er, no, it was Friday four days ago."

What would you have been doing now if you weren't making this record?

I'd be really, really struggling. Binge-watching TV and being actually quite sad.

How daunting has it been to share all your drafts lyrics and demo vocals?

It's quite exposing, definitely - but the second I started doing it, I didn't find it scary any more.

And that's not because all my ideas are great. Some of my ideas, even the ones I'm posting, are things that maybe won't come into full realisation. But I think, for my fans, it's really nice for them to see the process.

I mean, I'd be interested to hear demos from some of my favourite artists, to feel their ideas as they're forming. I find it exciting.

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On your Apple Music show, you played a demo where the lyrics were mostly nonsense words, as you felt your way around the melody. But you kept going back to one line: "I know you can't leave me alone". Do you think that phrase will stick?

It's different every time. That line you mentioned, I'm quite confidently singing it by the end and often, with a situation like that, I would definitely consider basing the song around that phrase.

It's not necessarily the actual words I'm saying, but sometimes the vowel sounds contribute to the hookiness of the melody. So I tend to try and stick to the shapes of those words.

But sometimes, the line I'm singing in the rough doesn't feel interesting lyrically. That's something I've been struggling with in that demo, actually, because I don't like those words but they're stuck in my head.

What's been the biggest technical challenge?

Recording my own vocals. I haven't done that since I was 15 and making demos in my parents' house. I'm so slow and it drives me crazy. I literally want to throw something at myself.

What's the problem?

I don't know my way around the software yet. And I'm not skilled enough to comp my vocals - which is where you sing the song five times and choose the best bits from each take.

So now, instead, I'm just singing the whole thing right through. I probably sing each part 30 times and by the 30th one, I'm like, "OK, this one is perfect. All the breaths are in the right place, all the nuances are right, this is the one". But it's a very long process.

Is it possible the end result is better?

I guess you could say there's a solid flow of emotion in the full takes, I suppose. But I do feel like my takes are really good when I can tell someone else how to comp them.

Image source, Getty Images
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Charli was nominated for best female at this year's Brit Awards

You've set yourself a deadline of 15 May. How important is that?

I wanted to do the album in an intense period of time, because I thought it would be more fun for people watching, and also because there's more likely to be some kind of screw-up or error in a short amount of time, which is probably more interesting.

I love that you're thinking of the social media narrative as well as the music.

Yeah, I mean, some good stuff's got to happen. I don't want it to be seamless!

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You typically work very fast, so how far into the project have you got?

Claws and Forever are finished, and then there are three other demos which are definitely going to go on the album. After that, there's one other song that's a maybe.

But I don't just want to record 10 songs and put them on the album. I want to record multiple songs and decide which are the main 10.

Will this change the way you work in the future?

Definitely. Part of me is like, "I don't know why I haven't made an album like this before".

I'm enjoying not travelling and being still and focusing on my music. That's something I never did before. It was always one million things going on at once, and taking a day here and there to record. So I think that will change because I love recording like this.

Image source, Charli XCX
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Fans (including Rebecca Black, top centre) are able to give Charli feedback in regular Zoom chats

You're lucky that technology means you can make music like this. It wouldn't have been possible 10 or 20 years ago.

100%. I would just be lost if I wasn't doing this.

And there are a lot of other creative people who can't work during this time - so, for me, doing this project is also a way to support some of those people, whether that be video editors, or the painters who are doing my artwork, or 3D designers, or video directors.

And I hope that not only will we be able to make some really great art together, but we'll be able to give back. My plan is to make three unique artworks for each song and I really want to be able to auction off the original artworks and donate the money to a charity.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The singer spent most of 2018 on the road with Taylor Swift and Camila Cabello for Swift's Reputation tour

Aside from music, what else is keeping you going?

I just started The Sopranos for the first time. I'm on episode nine. And I'm balancing Sopranos with Love Island, which I've never seen before. So I go back and forth between the two, and that is keeping me sane.

I've also been painting rocks. I collect them in the garden and I paint them; and I've been enjoying cooking. I was definitely not much of a cook before quarantine.

What's your specialty?

I'm really into soups right now because I'm really trying not to be wasteful. I'm throwing everything I can into them... even that weird can at the back of the fridge that's been there for years.

So if the music career fails, Masterchef beckons...

Actually, my manager sent me a message saying, "Oh my God, Bon Appétit [a mega-popular food blog] mentioned you!" And I was like, "What? That's huge!"

Then I read the article and it said, "Watching Charli XCX try and cook is like watching a child learn a dance routine for the first time".

Charli XCX's album, How I'm Feeling Now, is scheduled for release on 15 May.

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