On Charli XCX's sophomore album, True Romance, the British singer takes a somewhat jaded view of love, comparing a relationship to being imprisoned, ingesting poison and suffering through a long, cold nuclear winter.
Even so, in a recent phone interview, Charli, born Charlotte Aitchison 21 years ago, described herself as an old-fashioned romantic at heart.
“The record is a real celebration of love, even if sometimes I don't paint a pretty picture,” she said. “You can’t really have a romance that is inviting and beautiful the whole time. I don’t think that’s a true romance. For a romance to be true you have to have that darkness. Those are the moments that make those amazing times that much better, you know?”
In some sense, Charli could have been speaking about her own career. The singer signed her first recording deal with Atlantic Records at the age of 14 after a party promoter discovered a handful of songs she posted on the social networking site MySpace, and she spent years in musical limbo, torn between the career arc her label envisioned (think a British Britney Spears) and her desire to chart her own artistic course.
Resolution arrived when she visited Los Angeles for the first time at the label's behest (“I remember being overwhelmed,” she said, “because it was so big [that] it made me feel small”), and met up with producer Ariel Rechtshaid. Together the pair crafted the song “Stay Away,” a Gothic pop number that set the tone for the remainder of the album sessions.
“That was a really important moment for me,” Charli said. “Even though I didn’t straight away find myself, it pointed me in the right direction.”
While Charli might occasionally chart a darker course with her music, she's not some grim Wednesday Adams clone masquerading as a pop idol. She recently celebrated her 21st birthday surrounded by stuffed tigers and monkeys at a “crazy taxidermy-bar thing” in London, and she still sounds like a giddy teen when discussing the most surreal moment of her last year (the time the Backstreet Boys messaged her on Twitter) and the stretch she served as the opening act for Coldplay.
“We were playing in stadiums, and that was something I never expected would happen to me,” she said. “It was very overwhelming and very, very cool.”