At the beginning of "Dance 4 U," a highlight from Charli XCX's 2012 mixtape, Super Ultra, the British pop star uses a distant sample of a Justin Bieber interview, conducted when he was still a pre-teen performer. In it, he's asked by a clearly older woman how he seduces girls. "I don't know. I've never tried to seduce anybody," he replies, his voice rippling through the echo of an off-tune synthesizer. Innuendo, the dark side of fame, the perverse -- these are Charli XCX's fascinations, and they permeate her music.
When we meet on a rainy morning in London's Soho, the 22-year-old singer (real name: Charlotte Aitchison) is effusive, forthcoming, and a bit all over the place. It seems the last thing she wants to discuss is her upcoming sophomore album, Sucker. One minute, she's declaring her love for another Charlotte -- Gainsbourg, the Anglo-French actress and chanteuse who recorded the controversial track "Lemon Incest" with her father, Serge Gainsbourg, when she was just 13 years old. "It's one of my favorite songs, actually," Aitchison says. Soon after, she's lamenting the fact that she still hasn't seen Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. "I watched his film Trash Humpers when I was in art school," she says, referring to one of the freakier works in Korine's catalog, a story following the exploits of a group of depraved, sociopathic old-timers in Nashville. "Oh my God, it's so weird. You feel dirty afterwards."
A middle-class girl who grew up in the suburbs of Hertfordshire (northeast of London), Aitchison was reared on the sex-laced lyrics of U.S. electro rapper Uffie and quickly decided that when it came to songwriting, she favored the grunge over the gloss. What she's become now is hardly your typical pop singer. Her candid, expletive-filled anecdotes are a far cry from the careful, media-trained, empowerment-filled scripts you might expect from a rising star groomed for global success. Then again, until very recently global success didn't even seem like it was in the cards for Aitchison.
Before she struck gold this summer with two hits -- "Boom Clap" and "Fancy," her collaboration and number 1 smash with Iggy Azalea -- as well as a handful of MTV Video Music Award nominations, her best-known track was one she wrote but ended up giving away: the top 10 anthem "I Love It," recorded by the Swedish electro duo Icona Pop. (The song sprang up in just about every trailer and commercial last year -- even Cookie Monster covered it.) Meanwhile, her first full-length, last year's True Romance, hinted that she was most interested in perfecting a left-field, punk-lite brand of pop, one that called to mind late-'80s singer Martika, only liquored up and pissed off on a spaceship bound for Planet Heartbreak.
But if she exhibits the traits of an artist who fits in both everywhere and nowhere, Aitchison doesn't seem bothered. She's been marching to the beat of her own warped drum since she can remember. She had a foray into performance art and painting at London's prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, but it was short-lived -- she ditched it before leaving to pursue music full-time. "I felt very intimidated," she says. "The art scene is so wanky sometimes. And I didn't like having to explain myself." She goes on to describe her class projects in grisly detail. "I made this teenage bedroom wall covered in posters of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez," she says. "I spray-painted over it BRITNEY LIVES ON and performed '...Baby One More Time' in front of it with a toy dog. People were like, 'Riiiiiiiight.' Then I made a Barbie 'house of horrors' where I decapitated all the Barbies and put animal heads on them, and they were fucking each other and stuff. It was kind of weird."
Still, as she races through a North American tour to promote Sucker, Aitchison is finding a way to make "weird" work for her. Asked how she ultimately arrived at the new record's sound, which she describes as "luxury lo-fi," she answers simply, "I make the music I want to make -- always have and always will." Where this sort of brazen, cavalier approach to songwriting will take Charli XCX is anyone's guess. But given that she's the direct product of the Internet age, with the attention span to match, we can rest assured it won't be someplace predictable. "I feel like everyone's third album might be terrible," she says. "I want to make a really bad third album -- like, one that no one gets."
Styling by Karen Levitt. Hair and Makeup: Tinna Empera Martinez. Previous page and this page: Dress by Kaimin. Earring by Bliss Lau.