Sound of lockdown: Charli XCX tells the story of her isolation album

Sound of lockdown: Charli XCX tells the story of her isolation album

Now nominated for the Mercury Prize, Charli XCX's lockdown album How I'm Feeling Now is turning into one of the music business stories of 2020. Back in May, the star told us all about how she made it at home in Los Angeles. Read our up close and personal cover interview in full here...

Charli XCX just couldn’t help herself. After a couple of weeks locked in isolation in Los Angeles, itching to make music, she came up with a plan unlike anything the music industry had ever seen before.

On Monday, April 6, she shared a Zoom code on Instagram and gathered 1,000 fans to drop the news: a brand new Charli XCX album titled How I’m Feeling Now was coming, and she planned to write, record and release it in just five weeks, complete with singles, videos and artwork. She had no idea how it would go.

“I don’t know how I feel,” begins the singer, answering Music Week’s call a week before release. We enter the chaos at lunchtime in LA, and Charli has just woken up, late, after staying up working until 6am.

“There are so many ideas coming out of me constantly. That feels really inspiring and I really hope I don’t lose that,” she says, immediately losing any residual sleepiness. “It’s so strange, I feel like I’m living in a structured world, but also an unstructured world. It’s like there are no rules, but obviously the rules are to stay at home and stay isolated and within that I’ve set these boundaries. But it feels very fluid and free.”

We’re barely a minute in and Charli (real name Charlotte Emma Aitchison) has already summed up the watery vagaries of lockdown brain. She talks quickly, in long sentences, and it soon becomes obvious that she’s thriving on the mania she’s created alongside her co-executive producers AG Cook and BJ Burton, who have carried out the A&R process for the 11-track record via group text. Cook is a long-standing collaborator, Burton is new into the fold and Charli laughs at the fact that the three have not yet met IRL. Judging by the stream she sends us, they’ve created a vibrant, riotous record, decorated with pop, rave and some extra emotional heft to go with Charli’s signature neon tones.

I hope that I don’t lose this creativity I’ve developed and succumb to feeling boxed in

Charli XCX

“If the world does go back to some sort of normality, which of course I hope it does, I hope that I don’t lose this creativity I’ve developed and succumb to feeling very boxed in or like I have to do things a certain way,” she says. “I guess I often don’t do things in a very specifically ‘normal’ pop way, but I’m enjoying writing songs all the time and not having to travel a lot or go to meetings. It feels selfish, but it feels amazing!”

At home busying herself watching Love Island, cooking soup and baking cookies, Charli’s surely not the only one in music basking in a lack of meetings, although she’s quick to add that “every email is becoming a Zoom or call”, suggesting that the business is still finding a way. With artists like her launching projects like this one, it has to. It’s no surprise that Charli is the first major pop star to take on such a task: over three LPs and two mixtapes with Asylum/Atlantic, plus two released before Atlantic co-president Ed Howard signed her as a teenage raver with an enviable wig collection, she’s always been keen to release as much and as often as she can. How I’m Feeling Now stands to define pop music in lockdown, and could change the way records are made for good.

Before the April 6 announcement, Charli had been working towards another album, sharing her quarantine diary and filming an Instagram Live series with some of her friends and collaborators (working out with Diplo, a girls’ night in with Rita Ora, art class with Clairo) but it wasn’t enough, Charli wanted, needed, to make a quarantine album. She first hinted as much when Music Week called to chat about her diary back in March, before lockdown even started.

The Zoom conference was a taster of what was to come from pop’s foremost futurist. The singer, who shares a house with her boyfriend and two of her managers Sam Pringle and Twiggy Rowley would involve her army of ‘angels’ at every step, exchanging art and lyric ideas, previewing tracks and delivering updates via Instagram and Zoom. A major label pop star and tech nut making a record from her living room in midst of a pandemic, some 5,500 miles away from her UK team, who are all working from home anyway. Whatever next?

Ed Howard allowes himself a laugh as he considers the idea. We find Atlantic’s co-president at home, with birdsong and the clatter of the lunchtime dishes in the background. All seems remarkably calm, considering he’s about to release an album he’s yet to hear in full.

“We’ve certainly never announced, made and released an album in this sort of timeline,” he begins. “And we’ve never opened this much of the process to the wider world and the fans, it’s a really multi-layered approach, the whole thing is open to scrutiny.”

Howard, who runs Atlantic with Briony Turner, signed the singer after her habit of “getting in people’s faces with amazing music” at early gigs convinced him of her talent. Their enduring closeness means he’s certain that she’s the only artist who could pull this off. Charli XCX is capable of big pop moments: Boom Clap has 579,818 sales (OCC) and her chorus on Iggy Azalea’s Fancy has fired 944,994 sales to date. Last year’s No.14 Charli LP (19,323) housed platinum Troye Sivan collab 1999, while she co-wrote the million-selling Señorita for Camila Cabello & Shawn Mendes. Yet Charli refuses to chase hits and moves in her own way, a star for the underground.

“Charli has a history of turning projects around quickly and, with the backdrop of the virus, here’s somebody who can be a leader for the artistic community and the company,” Howard continues. “Everyone’s rallied behind that and gone, ‘Wow, what an example to the industry of what you can make out of a pretty rubbish situation.’ Charli’s showing us the way.”

We’ve certainly never announced, made and released an album in this sort of timeline

Ed Howard, Atlantic

All of which meant that Howard and his team (who have been sitting in on the Zoom calls) were excited, rather than scared, when Charli tabled the idea. And that’s been very helpful during a rollercoaster few weeks. “Lead time is obviously longer normally, so it’s not really gold standard from that perspective, but all our partners have bought into Charli and understood that it’s no offence meant, it’s the creative process that’s making delivery late,” he says. “We’re talking to everyone we would normally, and in new weird and wonderful ways, seeing where it leads, with creative restraints. With Charli they’re positive, because it makes it more interesting.”

As the days have flown by, Howard has been leaving the A&R process to Charli and her collaborators, as is their way these days, and placing absolute trust in his artist. “At this pace it’s about what’s ready, you don’t know from one week to the next what’s going to go from a great demo to a finished song, you’re moving so fast that it can’t really be thought through, it will always follow Charli’s energy. I trust in Charli that it’s going to come together and be incredibly compelling.”

Howard promises Charli XCX will deliver “pop culture moments as big as anything she’s achieved historically” and acknowledges that the pair have endured frustrations with traditional major label release cycles rubbing up against her relentless creativity. “What she’s doing is perfect for the times and perfect for her. It’s got to be on her terms, created and promoted in a certain way,” he says. “She’s going to be in the game a very long time.”

Back in LA, Charli makes a point of namechecking Howard and is clearly very grateful to her label. As we settle down to figure out exactly how she made How I’m Feeling Now and what it means for music’s future, she cracks a joke about the sheer scale of her ambitions. “Maybe my label have started a trend with me that they’re gonna regret...”

Five weeks is quite some album deadline...
“No one’s gonna kill me or tell me off if I don’t make it, I’m in charge, but I would like to make the deadline because it was something I set for myself and it would be nice for my fans. I won’t let myself not make the deadline; I’m kind of psychotic like that. I’m writing the songs at the same speed that I normally would, but I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve written so solidly for five weeks and everything written in that period is being used. The stakes are much higher, I don’t have time to make a mistake.”

How has recording at home been?
“It’s a new thing for me. I haven’t recorded myself at home since I was 14 or 15 living in my parents’ house, so it feels quite nostalgic.I used to have a studio in my house, but I got rid of it because I really enjoyed going to work at studios or at people’s houses, it felt more professional, I know that sounds dumb [laughs]. The set-up is in the middle of my living room. It’s really simple, I’m working out of Logic and I have a mic set up. I’m not really making beats, that’s not a skill that I possess, unfortunately. Producers will send me Logic files and I’ll track to that with my rig. It’s really simple.”

Have you kept a regimented timetable?
“No! Not at all. Some days I don’t write anything. If I was writing every day, I would have a lot more songs, but most of them would be bad. I can only write when I really feel in the mood, if I ever try and write when I’m not feeling creative or like something is going to bust out of me, it always falls quite flat and I get frustrated. I wake up whenever, some days I won’t write any music, some days I’ll write lots. There’s no structure. I’ve been playing my boyfriend a lot of the music, I really like his taste. I think it’s fun to play music to people who aren’t in the music industry, I don’t want professional opinions.”

But you’ve been getting lots done...
“One thing I’ve learned during quarantine is that I have an extreme guilt complex that I really need to fix. I’m so brutal on myself, if I take even a second to breathe or do something non-work related on a weekday, I really beat myself up about it. So I would say I’ve been pretty disciplined. I feel true anxiety when I’m not working and I think it comes from feeling fearful or feeling like I’m purposeless, or not good enough. I started therapy around the time quarantine started, so I’m really in that at the moment. It’s been quite interesting that it’s coincided with this album process because it has highlighted my workaholic tendencies. A lot of people have them, but for me it’s so crippling to the point where I can be so nasty to myself if I’m not feeling productive. Even if I have been, I will tell myself at the end of most days that I haven’t done enough.”

One thing I’ve learned during quarantine is that I have an extreme guilt complex

Charli XCX

Why did you want to get the fans involved?
“I wanted to do something for me and for them. I feel positive and mentally happy and stable when I’m being creative. The reason I made the album is partly that, but also for people, especially my listeners and fans, who want something to be a part of during this time, to feel like they can be creative alongside me and be stimulated. I thought it would be something that would make some people feel good, happy and feel challenged. The fans know who I am better than almost anyone I work with. They see my music and my journey and are listening from a really pure place, so to get feedback from them is the most interesting thing to me. They care so much for all the right reasons about the creative decisions that I make. They don’t have any agenda; they just want the music to be as good and feel as euphoric and emotional as possible. So to involve them made a lot of sense.”

How much of a lockdown record is this, lyrically?
“I’m really not somebody who loves music where I feel like I’m being preached to, it makes me recoil a little bit. I know people are throwing around the term ‘quarantine album’ when talking about this project, which is essentially what it is, but I didn’t want to be writing songs only about being isolated. I didn’t want it to feel like this thing that would become immediately dated and locked within this period of time. While I do think it’s important that it represents what my fans and I are going through, there are more creative ways of doing that, rather than just singing about social distancing, which feels too much like cashing in.”

You had lots of features on your last album, why are there none on this one?

“I deliberately didn’t want to do features. It felt wrong, it’s so lyrically about my situation. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to connect with other artists, and I don’t know whether other artists are in the zone to be super-communicative and creative. It’s a funny time for creative people, everybody handles the situation differently in how they want to interact with people.”

How has your label handled the process?
“I’m pretty singular about A&R. My last record where it was the traditional artist/A&R structure was Sucker [in 2014], then my music making world became about me making all of the decisions. They were very up for this project and that was quite surprising. I say that with love. I understand that for them, the speed at which I move is sometimes quite stressful. Obviously, I apply a lot of pressure on them to make sure everything goes smoothly. Knowing this, I was expecting they would be a bit hesitant, but they’ve been the most supportive ever. They’ve really gone in hard with this and have suggested ideas – like doing different artworks for each DSP – that make their life hell. I was like, ‘Great!’ Maybe they didn’t think I would go for it, but I did. That was their idea. They’ve moved really quickly and it’s been really impressive. The one thing I worry about for them is that now I’ll expect I can hand in music and mixes hours before the deadline and have a million different artworks all the time!”

It excites me to move at speed, for my music to reflect my life real-time

Charli XCX

Can this change the way records are made for good?
“Yeah, I hope so. With most pop major label artists, there’s a level of extreme planning, a lot of pre-thought, pre-consideration and set-up. That helps in so many ways for the pitch of the album, the longevity of the album and the relationship with the people you’re pitching the album to and I understand why it happens. But that doesn’t excite me that much. I’m really into the sporadicness of what I’m doing right now. One thing I will struggle with is, I was making a different album before quarantine and I do love a lot of those songs, but they’re going to feel so old to me if they do eventually come out. It just doesn’t inspire me to talk about songs I made a year-and-a-half ago. That’s why my process has sped up and changed so much, maybe it’s not technically what’s best for my streaming career or whatever, but I don’t really care. It excites me to move at speed, to be reflective of what’s going on in my life real-time. There’s a stigma that albums have to take a long time, and obviously with this album, I’m showing that they don’t. We’re in a world now where it is quite interesting to play with the dynamic of an album campaign.”

What would constitute success for this record?
“Sales or streams or chart positions just aren’t my priority. It’s not the reason I make music, I don’t think thinking about that makes for good music making. Success for this project would be to be able to look back on it as something representative of this situation we’re all in and something that felt like an audiovisual documentation of where I’m at as an artist, but also where my fanbase, my LGBTQ fanbase, my fellow producers and collaborators in our left-pop scene are at this point, what we were feeling and creating. I want it to feel like a time stamp, but also to still sound relevant when this is all over. The album came out of nowhere, I haven’t had time to think about it. What I do know is that I’m really ready to career off in a completely different direction.” 

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